the mind at serious play

Clive James – Cultural Amnesia

Even a glancing, sidewise acquaintance with Clive James's earlier collections – from The Meaning of Recognition to Even as We Speak, and further back still, In the Land of Shadows and The Metropolitan Critic – won't quite prepare you for this.

The aficianado will already have sensed that James was a closet aspirant to high seriousness: the critic-at-large as snapper-up of unconsidered trifles on the one hand – or perhaps dasher-off of populist bagatelles (James, until his retirement from mainstream broadcasting a few years ago, introduced us to 'Endurance' and Margarita Pracatan) – and, on the other, the admirer of Montale and Pushkin, Grub Street's most egregious, unembarrassed polymath manning the watchtower even as the tabloidisation of British culture proceeded apace. Inevitably – yet not without a certain defensive stiffening - James insists that these distinct writerly selves do indeed finally embrace on some deeper level. “..I was often criticized in my turn for talking about the construction of a poem and of a Grand Prix racing car, or of treating gymnasts and high divers ... as if they were practising the art of sculpture. It was a sore point, and often the sore point reveals where the real point is.”

Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it.

James has always been intellectually peregrine. The excursions into TV-land - the realm of (financial) necessity – have always been offset by cautiously rationed furloughs into the kingdom of freedom – the Arts, creativity, Studia humanitatis. But he has consistently sought to allow dignity to both. In Cultural Amnesia James offers thoughtful, penetrating observations on Paul Celan and Dick Cavett, Thomas Mann and the director Michael Mann – all are accorded respect, and the overdone binarism of high versus low culture made to seem beside the point. James has written elsewhere of his admiration for The West Wing and The Sopranos, arguing that excellence needn't be dependent on the exaltedness of the medium. (Orwell, it will be remembered, was a fan of Donald McGill.) 'High-quality products of the creative impulse' sounds almost like the coinage of an advertising copywriter; but James means that we take it literally, and that even the humblest of created things contributes, in a very real sense, to moral enlargement, human flourishing and, finally, hope.

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An abecedarium of forbidding scope, Cultural Amnesia is formatted straightforwardly: from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, we have short essays arranged alphabetically by subject, each prefaced by a capsule biography. James doesn't limit himself to discussing the lives and works of these figures. In many instances they serve as a speculative wicket-gate into musings on other matters: the piece on Lichtenberg becomes an occasion for James's meditations on pornography; Sir Thomas Browne gifts him with a pretext to discuss book titles. Cultural Amnesia – with its air of summary, of being a retrospective on the growth of a critic's mind – might suggest to us an implicit relation to Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, but James nominates its principal model as Egon Friedell's Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit: “A fabulous effort of style and concentration, a prestidigitator's trick box packed with epigrammatic summaries of all the creativity in every field of art and science since the Renaissance, a prose epic raised to the level of poetry.” Hypertrophied commonplace-book or the product of a lifetime's earnest application?

Your opinion possibly depends on whether you take James at his own estimation. He reaches for the modesty topos often enough to prompt a suspicion that only the most considerable of egotists could even have conceived of this book. It could so easily have been 'Western Civ for Dummies', a Cook's tour for the professional too hard pressed to do the cerebral grunt work: the essential dinner party bluffer's guide. It's to James's credit, then – no mean thing – that in each of these hundred-plus essays he doesn't stint on the hard thinking, assuming on his reader's part at least the barest stirrings of intellectual curiosity.

In his poem 'Egon Friedell's Heroic Death' James reflects, as so often he does in Cultural Amnesia, on the murderous collision between political tyranny and those 'enchanted spirits' who set the tone of an intellectual era:

The civilized are most so as they die.
He called a warning even as he fell
In case his body hit a passer-by
As innocent as was Egon Friedell.

The Audenesque quatrains, with their clipped jog-trot, conceal an almost unbearable anguish, and an ethical crux. “Would you have had the nerve to do the same?” James asks of Friedell's suicide; and this question appears to have bitten James to the marrow. He worries at it more in the essay on Friedell here collected. “[A] triumph for the human mind,' he reckons, perhaps glibly, in the poem. A 'wisely chosen suicide', he describes it in Cultural Amnesia; and in three words we have, like an impacted tooth, ultimacies of heartbreak and (for James) regret, and prescience (Friedell knew what the Anschluss would bring): if suicide for this gentle, dignified, scholarly man were the best available option, he must have had a shrewd, terrifying idea of what the alternative was to be. European cafe society entre deux guerres clearly emblematizes for James a world of the mind set free. (“In a city stiff with polymaths,' James admiringly notes, “he [Friedell] was the polymath's polymath.”) The Nazis set about turning it all to ash, and James would have us remember that so many of the alumni of the public sphere that Habermas chronicled were exterminated as much for their intellectual Freiheit as for their ethnicity. Impatient as James is with ideologies of whichever hue, he thus feels compelled to set up as a potent counter-instance the vibrant talk of the coffee-house habitues, in all its fleet-footed nimbleness, its gaiety and severity. In contrast to the sanguinary flensing of language performed by the demagogues, these men made it dance.

Friedell 'looms large in this book' – little known and little read, he shared a similar fate with another figure from the cultural life of twentieth-century Europe, one feted today yet perhaps more often read than understood.

Unexpectedly James gives short shrift to Walter Benjamin, type of the tragic Luftmensch and displaced intellectual. It takes a moment to grasp, when we finish the essay, just how extraordinary James's dismissal of Benjamin actually is. Academic theorists have been almost wholly uncritical of Benjamin's work. Its canonicity has gone unchallenged. Commentators have trembled in reverential awe before its 'multiplex cultural scope'; and if we were to single out a sacred text in our postmodern era, Illuminations would be it. Benjamin's Kabbalo-Marxism excites us with its world-historical sweep and the audacity of its formulations. Here is the real thing, the critic-as-sage, a visionary among the clerks. Of Benjamin's end James – with a hint of impatient snarkery – observes: “ He had devoted his career to pieces of paper with writing on them, but he didn't have the right one.” - the visa with which he might have escaped from Nazi territory. James takes issue with Benjamin's obscurantism: the 'velvet fog' of his prose. Reading between the lines it seems evident that James's problem with Benjamin is only tangentially related to the philosophy.

Benjamin enjoys a posthumous fame denied to others who, in James's view, were significantly more deserving. Egon Friedell, for one. James clearly agonizes over why he can impart the bays to Friedell, yet deny them to Benjamin. Both men were caught in the gearwork of homicidal history; both committed suicide when the only other course available to them was unimaginable. Both were steeped in the habitus (in Pierre Bourdieu's phrase) of a cosmopolitan, free-thinking Mitteleuropa that was the confirmed antitype of the totalitarian project: humanism as a precondition of survival.

One clue lies in James's stated contempt for the system-builders; and Benjamin was a systematizer, with too great a fondness for the programmatic. His work, as James has it, is a 'synopticon', simplifying, falsifying whatever is the case in the service of a theory. James responds to the whiff of fraudulence that hangs around Benjamin by arguing that there isn't 'a progressivist, humanitarian license for talking through a high hat.' Benjamin's perceptions may or may not have borne the stamp of authentic genius, but his prolixity and his instinct for over-elaboration succeeded only in robbing them of their point and specific density. In this regard James prefers the direct address of those, like Alfred Polgar, who wrote for a broader readership. Critics have been too readily beguiled by Benjamin's story. “As a critic devoted to the real, however,” James says, “Benjamin deserves the courtesy of not being treated as a hero in a melodrama.”

Fakery and charlatanism stand in this book as the incubi against which James directs his scorn. They squat over the Benjamin piece, and over, too, the brief essay on Jean-Paul Sartre: there, James's uncharacteristic contempt for Sartre's dissimulations and posturing takes fire. Sartre continued to vaunt the Soviet regime, even in the face of evidence that it annihilated dissenters by the million. Once more James chides one of his subjects for the 'blethery bathos' (as Gerard Manley Hopkins described the poetry of Swinburne) of his public pronouncements, the meaningless rhetorical blazon, gesture politics of the crassest kind. Sartre, in order to have fully realized his gifts, needed a reality check. Instead he brought the mandragora of popular celebrity to his lips and deadened his capacity to think ethically, to think honestly. Nor does James spare Robert Brasillach – a minor journalistic talent who prostituted himself to Nazi power, a craven anti-Semitic hack who, with Celine, connived in mass murder with his pen. All such figures, James insists, ought to have been beset – at least dimly, naggingly – by a bad conscience: none of them, on the face of it, did. Their reputations have been condignly marred.

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In The Meaning of Recognition James was anxious to stress the distinction between unearned celebrity and genuine accomplishment. Or – if not stress it, to hammer it emphatically home, to make it plain. The “..mass-psychotic passion for celebrity .. is one of the luxurious diseases that Western liberal democracy will have to find a cure for in the long run...” James favours the obscure, and the obscurely heroic: and in a significant regard Cultural Amnesia is an act of retrieval, in which the vanished reputations of certain paladins of civilization – Gianfranco Contini, Marcel Reich-Ranicki – are granted a deserved reprieve from the dark backward and abysm of Time. Others – Nadezhda Mandelstam, Sophie Scholl – bore courageous witness to totalitarian nightmares. Might it be fair to suspect that James rather envies these people? Envies the scholarly brilliance and virtuosity of some, of course; but envies also the destinies of those exterminated by the regimes? Perhaps not. But their suffering lends a kind of legitimacy to their work, James implies, setting the seal on whatever moral authority they might lay claim to.

The book's sheer heft encourages slow reading. But its format makes for dippability. Nothing of its import would be lost were you to read it in haphazard order: if you were feeling a tad unresponsive to exquisitely refined aperçus on Proust, you'd still have the book in your hands in any case – glance over the essay on W.C. Fields instead. Themes shimmy centripetally; alarming yet plausible connections leap across time and context. For, in the final analysis, James is proposing no less than a cultural Unified Field Theory; and it must be common humanity and the 'rule of decency' that sustain us in our advance through our benighted times.

Fear not, though: the homme d'esprit of old still flits through these pages – James has the nous, when the mood calls for it, to forego the rise, the roll, the carol, the creation in favour of the snap, crackle and pop of the coolest wit in town. (He nails the longeurs of Gibbon's prose style thus: “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a Grand National with a fence every ten yards, each to be jumped backwards as well as forwards; and you have to carry your horse.” A balm in the Gilead of any failed attempt to yomp through Gibbon's epic.) James occupies a niche somewhere between Jacques Barzun and Peter Ustinov (Or maybe Jakob Burckhardt and Charles Lamb?). The high and low stylistic registers delightfully tangle: T.S. Eliot, after all, wrote a fan letter to Groucho Marks.

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