James's Gang

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts BY Clive James. W. W. Norton. Hardcover, 768 pages. $35.

The cover of Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

Clive James contains multitudes, and his new book of 876 pages on 107 figures in history and the arts—his thirty-first in thirty-three years—is here to prove it. Born in Sydney in 1939 and now living "in London, Cambridge, and various airports," he tells us in an author's note and on his website ("the first personal multimedia extravaganza of its type anywhere in the world") that he is "one of the most influential metropolitan critics of his generation" and "a prominent television performer" in Britain. "But despite the temptations and distractions of media celebrity," we read, "he always maintained his literary activity as a critic, author, poet and lyricist." James's books include four novels, eight volumes of verse, one of travel writing, four of autobiography, and thirteen of literary criticism, journalism, and television reviews. In his essays, he often resorts to the Mailerian trick of cunning self-deprecation: He calls himself a "dunderhead" with "thick wits," but this allows him to let us know he's one of the figures of the "much-publicized Australian Expatriate Movement [of the 1960s] . . . the so-called Famous Four, comprising [Robert] Hughes, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, and finally, shambling along far in the rear like Sancho Panza, myself."

But all this actually does James a disservice. It's not just that he shares what he correctly and generously calls Hughes's "coruscating enthusiasm," "casual boldness," and the virtues of "essentially Australian writing—the product of an innocent abroad who has consciously enjoyed every stage of his growing sophistication without allowing his original barbaric gusto to be diminished." In fact, James's As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968–2002 was a lot more than a 619-page advertisement for himself—it went a long way toward achieving his early ambition to be Son of Edmund Wilson: "the arch example of the Metropolitan Critic, the critic who operates in the vital space between the hack reviewers of the periodicals and the dust contractors of the universities."

If that still sounds too snappy, try this more oblique statement of James's critical ideal: Philip Larkin's "criticism appeals so directly to the ear that he puts himself in danger of being thought trivial, especially by the mock-academic. . . . Larkin's readability seems so effortless that it tends to be thought of as something separate from his intelligence. But readability is intelligence. The vividness of Larkin's critical style is not just a token of his seriousness but the embodiment of it." Or this: James Agee "was one of my heroes as a critic. [His] colloquial verve gave me support for writing about serious art in a conversational manner, and about unserious art as if it counted."

As of This Writing contains forty-eight essays on poetry, fiction, culture and criticism, film, photography—on Primo Levi, Casanova, Mailer on Marilyn and her "snuggle-pie sexuality," romance writer Judith Krantz ("A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses"), Bertrand Russell, and Fellini. The mix of high and low, of triumphant achievement and stunning weakness, is one of the things James at his best discerns and celebrates as a vital sign, a necessary element in the flow of a living culture. Though he's a master of the opening sentence—"To be a really lousy writer takes energy." "Who wrote this?" "She was a fruitcake." "Kenneth Tynan had it to burn, so he burned it."—James uses one-liners not to stop the critical conversation but to start it. One of the finest moments in As of This Writing occurs in an essay on Raymond Chandler, where James does the very thing (respond to a quote) that will become the dynamo that generates the form and content of his massive new book. In the Chandler piece, James starts a paragraph with a quote and then takes off: "Flaubert liked tinsel better than silver because tinsel possessed all silver's attributes plus one in addition—pathos. For whatever reason, Chandler was fascinated by the cheapness of LA. When he said that it had as much personality as a paper cup, he was saying what he liked about it. When he said that he could leave it without a pang, he was saying why he felt at home there. In a city where the rich were as vulgar as the poor, all the streets were mean. In a democracy of trash, Marlowe was the only aristocrat."

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts is, I repeat, 876 pages long. It took James thirty-seven years to read for it and three years to write it, he says, and he finally realized that "if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience," it would "have no pattern." Each of its 107 chapters springs from a quote (or a few quotes) that James copied down or underlined in books by figures whom he admires or loathes. There "could be no scheme. There could only be a linear cluster of nodal points, working the way the mind—or at any rate my mind, such as it is—works as it moves through time," he writes. "Far from a single argument, there would be scores of arguments. I wanted to write about philosophy, history, politics and the arts all at once." But this apparent weakness is a strength, he declares: After all, totalitarian states were driven by ideologies, and "what else was an ideology except a premature synthesis? . . . So this is a book about how not to reach one. . . . Themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligible. But it will undoubtedly be a turbulent read. . . . If this book were not difficult, it would not be true."

James is celebrating what he calls "humanism," by which he appears to mean historical memory unsullied by "ideology" and dependent on "liberal democracy." He fears we are forgetting our past—the cultural amnesia of his title is not the subject of the book but the condition he wants the book to correct. He worries especially that "humanism is hard to find" because the "language of science . . . clumsily imitated by the proponents of Cultural Studies"—"an international cargo cult," he writes, "whose witch doctors have nothing in mind beyond their own advancement"—"has helped to make real culture unapproachable." If "the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates" with a memory of its achievements.

Not that any creative cultural activity is "a sure antidote in itself to the poison of irrationality." In our "age of extermination, [our] epoch of the abattoir," some artists (he cites Brecht, Neruda, Céline) supported butchers and some butchers (Heydrich, Mengele) loved works of art. So "if there was no field of creativity that was incorruptibly pure, where did that leave humanism?" And here comes the bolt of enlightenment: "Humanism wasn't in the separate activities: humanism was the connection between them. Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products [sic] 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's model humanist throughout the book is the Viennese polymath Egon Friedell, a cabaret artist and cultural historian who wrote The Cultural History of the Modern Age (1927), 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." Like Edmund Wilson in James's earlier work, or like Gore Vidal (whom James has elsewhere called "my mentor"), Friedell is for James an ego ideal—Friedell even "combined his career in show business with a monkish dedication to his library" (as James has, we twig).

James wraps up his introductory matter with a road map: "Because a thematic classification would be impossible, the essays are arranged in alphabetical order by author of the heading quotation. . . . Its plan . . . is to follow the paths that lead on from the citations, and try to go on following them when they cross." The quotes are seldom from fiction or poetry, because James wants the authors' "opinions in a detachable form"; and he feels free to mix in an "autobiographical element . . . when the concrete information seems pertinent to one of the general themes." Finally, he acknowledges there are few women in the book (yes, only 11 of 107), but this is due, he says, not to "unreconstructed chauvinism" but because "this is a book about a world men made, and it taught plenty of us to wish that women had made it instead." And with this bizarre chivalric twirl of the cape, he turns to his list of acknowledgments and then to an "overture" on the Jewish café wits of pre-Nazi Vienna, on the "post-Nazi liberal humanist impulse," and on today's "American cultural imperialism—the only version of American imperialism that really is irresistible, because it works by consent" (what can this possibly mean?).

James's book is a monument—a veritable ziggurat—to its failure to pull it all or at least some of it together. Or to convey the experience of trying and failing. James never digs into his terms "humanism," "culture," "ideology," "liberal democracy," and too often he slips into jeering anti-intellectualism (not just guying the nudniks of postmodern jargon). He writes as if all the cultural critics from the Frankfurt Schoolmen to the New Historicists and beyond have been no more than a bunch of con men and cowardly custards. But James's looseness and self-indulgence are part and parcel of his verve, good will, and generous curiosity. It's important to notice—and to honor—how carefully James has avoided writing a prescriptive encyclopedia of history, culture, and the arts or establishing some mighty canon or list of Top 10 (or 107) Greatest Hits. He certainly lets himself run on in a grand vague way about civilization, but he's not pushing much more than inclusive memory and whatever he may mean by liberal democracy. He can certainly let fly at some tyrant or cultural collaborator, but more often he's enthusing. And his erudition, perspicacity, range, and eccentricity can be genuinely exhilarating.

Of the 107 figures in the book, 17 are German, 12 Austrian, 21 French, 13 American, 9 English, 8 Russian, 7 Spanish, Portuguese, or Latin American, 5 Italian, 3 Polish, 3 Czech, and 2 Yugoslavian, and there are 1 each from Romania, Australia, India, Japan, China, Palestine, and ancient Rome. So only 4 are extra-European and extra-American/Latin American. And there are only 11 women, as I've said. Also, the book is so very much about the twentieth century that there's very little on those figures from the past whom the twentieth century looked to. Tacitus is the one Roman; there's a seventeenth-century English essayist and historian (Sir Thomas Browne), four figures from the eighteenth century (Montesquieu, Gibbon, Lichtenberg, Chamfort), and a weird hodgepodge from the nineteenth century: Hazlitt, Keats, Hegel, Heine, Flaubert, Saint-Beuve, Quinet. There's no Marx, no Darwin, no Dickens, no Tolstoy, no Nietzsche.

What James goes for most are literary figures—forty-four of them, most of whom wrote in German or French. The only twentieth-century British writers he includes are Chesterton, Beatrix Potter, and Evelyn Waugh, and the only American ones are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mailer. There are a good number of what can be described as historians, cultural critics, and public intellectuals (twenty-two) and four philosophers: Hegel, Wittgenstein ("glamour boy"), Croce, and Sartre (James's bête noire). There are fifteen political figures, ranging from Hitler, Goebbels, Trotsky (no Stalin), de Gaulle (no Mussolini), Margaret Thatcher, and Admiral Yamamoto to some Vichy collaborators, French and German Resistance martyrs, a Russian feminist, John McCloy (the postwar American foreign policy "Wise Man"), and what appears from James's account to be the wholly admirable Virginio Rognoni, who preserved Italian democracy in a time of terrorism, "the years of lead" (1978–83).

James is odd and picky in the nonliterary arts. No painting, no sculpture, no photography, no theater, no dance (Diaghilev is featured as a producer), hardly any music—just Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis (whose music James dislikes), and Erik Satie (whom he loves and writes about well). There's one music critic, Alfred Einstein, and one opera singer, Zinka Milanov. What gets most of James's attention in the nonliterary arts are movie stars and directors: Chaplin, Tony Curtis, W. C. Fields, Fellini, Terry Gilliam, Michael Mann, and the New Wave documentarian Chris Marker. Two of his best essays concern a fashion designer—Coco Chanel—and a television talk-show host, Dick Cavett.

The longest essays are devoted to the eighteenth-century German aphorist Lichtenberg, who gets twenty-six pages (but they're also about Hollywood, bad writing, pornography, Love's Labour's Lost, allusions, Toulouse-Lautrec, The Great Gatsby, Anthony Powell, et alia); the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler, who gets twenty-one pages that do pay some welcome attention to him, as well as to Richard Burton's haircut (which James mistakenly calls a "pageboy") in Where Eagles Dare; and, finally, James's hero Friedell, who gets nineteen pages that take in all manner of witticisms (though not that much about Friedell) and includes the autobiographical tidbit, "When filming in Rome, I had a jacket made by the celebrated tailor Littrico, and found out that I had the same measurements as Gorbachev: they were on file in Littrico's office."

So much for the quick tour. But when we slow down, James's refusal to shape a sustained argument or even a colloquy of arguments or to provide reasonable life-and-works summaries of his iconic figures really becomes vexing. In earlier collections of critical essays, James was often unsurpassable as a clear expositor, close reader, higher-journalistic man of letters and pop culture. But here, with all of Western Humanistic Civilization at stake, he tends to drop a few facts, provide his touchstone quote, and then go wandering off into the bowers of free association. The result is that he upstages Western Civilization, no mean feat.

And yet, and yet. Although most of the quotes he's keying off are surprisingly flat, there are several that could have inspired the kind of short cultural-biographical essay James has elsewhere perfected. Some of these quotes are well known, such as Hegel's "The owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk" (or as James translates it, "The owl of Minerva begins its flight only in the gathering darkness"). Some are witty: Satie's "Ravel refuses the Legion d'Honneur but all his music accepts it"; Wittgenstein's "We acted as though we had tried to find the real artichoke by stripping it of its leaves." And many are dark and true: Golo Mann's "To attribute foreseeable necessity to the catastrophe of Germany and the European Jews would be to give it a meaning that it didn't have. There is an unseemly optimism in such an assumption. In the history of mankind there is more that is spontaneous, willful, unreasonable and senseless than our conceit allows." Or Jean-François Revel's "Ideology functions as a machine to destroy information, even at the price of making assertions in clear contradiction of the evidence"—which has a chilling new relevance in the Age of Bush. But for the most part, the quotes are not arresting in themselves, and James is too distracted to develop much out of them.

James certainly has his heroes—like Friedell, Revel, the Viennese wit Alfred Polgar, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, and the anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl. And he has mighty villains, including the usual totalitarian suspects (Hitler, Goebbels, Mao, Trotsky). But the one figure whom he hates above all others is Jean-Paul Sartre, who "looms in the corner of the book like a genius with the evil eye [Sartre was wall-eyed, don't forget]. . . . Sartre is a devil's advocate to be despised more than the devil, because the advocate was smarter. No doubt this is a disproportionate reaction. Sartre, after all, never actually killed anybody. But he excused many who did . . ." He "pretended that he had been brave" in the Resistance. He "lied in his teeth." "His philosophy is nonsense." He's "the most conspicuous single example in the twentieth century of a fully qualified intellectual aiding and abetting the opponents of civilization." Though Sartre's plays and novels demonstrate he could be "a stylist who could make the language speak," in his philosophical "style of argument, German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas." His "bombastic philosophical style" was "a mechanism devised not only to ape meaning while avoiding it, but by avoiding it to conceal it."

And Sartre is also the vile progenitor of the "pseudo-scientific casuistry" and "exalted balderdash" of "Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Jean Baudrillard and the other artistes in the flouncing kick-line of the post-modern intellectual cabaret." Again and again throughout the book, James denounces what he thinks of as willful obscurantism—in dozens of writers including Paul Celan and Walter Benjamin, whose "eloquent opacity" is "an intellectual multivitamin pill, the more guaranteed in its efficacy by being so hard to swallow." For James, colloquial prose is the open sesame to truth and justice and wisdom. The German Jewish journalists created "a new language for civilization, a language that drew strength from the demotic in order to cherish the eternal." Any undemotic style is suspect or the object of anti-intellectual mockery.

But there is one moment when James does acknowledge a more complicated possibility, and it even comes in the Sartre screed. James grants "there is such a thing as an obscure language that contains meaning, and there is also such a thing as a meaning too subtle to be clearly expressed." He cites Karl Popper's observation that "ordinary language is conservative . . . although ‘common sense' is often right, ‘things get really interesting just when it is wrong.' So James concedes, "An expository language pushing deep into originality might not necessarily sound readily intelligible; with the niggling corollary that a language which does not sound readily intelligible might conceivably be exploratory." Yes, yes, keep going, we want to say, you've written about plenty of difficult books and read hundreds with great energy and attention (you salute the philologist Ernst Robert Curtius and admire Hegel). But James quickly lets this mighty counterargument drop and scurries back to mocking Sartre's "ponderous folderol" and Heidegger's "high-flown philosophical flapdoodle."

So while James excoriates writers who escape into academic jargon or political casuistry, his self-advertising pride in the virtues of a sparkling colloquial style produces a much less culpable but real escape of its own. James is too much the anti-Adorno (who comes up once in passing) and too little the latter-day Orwell (who is mentioned but doesn't make the 107, although an earlier essay on him by James was excellent). And I should adduce the positive example of two other very different writers—not on the list—who share James's cultural anxiety and, like him, produced a species of encyclopedic vade mecum: Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium and Harold Bloom in The Western Canon, both of whom combine erudition, enthusiasm, independence of mind, and extreme clarity.

In the end, James's refusal to pay more precise attention to the lives and works of his 107 iconic figures—most of whom, be they world-historical geniuses or scholars or tyrants or the nearly unknown, do indeed abundantly provoke our interest— amounts to a dereliction of intellectual duty. For all its admirable, generous curiosity, its comedy, its defense of uncompromised and unfettered cultural variety, and its essentially celebratory energy, Cultural Amnesia conveys the sense not of delight but of frenzy, not Swift's saeva indignatio but slick wit, not learning but polymathy. How sad it is to notice that James even includes a wonderful quote by the French historian and Resistance martyr Marc Bloch that warns against polymathy: "The nature of our intelligence is such that it is stimulated far less by the will to know than by the will to understand, and, from this, it results that the only sciences which it admits to be authentic are those which succeed in establishing explanatory relationships between phenomena. The rest is, as Malebranche puts it, mere ‘polymathy.'

As Keats wrote, "An eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth." As Jane Austen wrote, "Wisdom is better than Wit, & in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side." Clive James can be one of the finest critical essayists of our age, but this book is likely to be remembered best as the tome that slipped Michael Mann between Heinrich and Thomas and happily skipped from Tony Curtis to Ernst Robert Curtius. Nobody's perfect.

Richard Locke is professor of writing and director of nonfiction at the Columbia University School of the Arts and the author of some 170 essays and reviews. He is currently working on a book on the literary use of children from Dickens to the present.