November 04, 2007

Cultural Amnesia

Clive James is a figure unlike most others in our world- James has made a career of being an omnivore. From the chatshow couch to the comic circuit to the learned essay, James has succeeded everywhere he has gone. Writing and broadcasting, he has turned his natural wit to good account and provided a series of sparkling memoirs to furnish the bookshelves of the learned with. Cultural Amnesia, his latest book, is a fine effort to capture the unique folds of James's own mental landscape- he provides a short essay on over 100 cultural characters mainly from the last century. All the essays come out of a single quote- and often James doesn't even pause to ponder the life, instead pondering the importance of that quote.

The quoted range from Duke Ellington to Hegel, Federico Fellini to Margerate Thatcher, from Tacitus and Edward Gibbon to Coco Chanel and Adolf Hitler. The range is astonishing- though the absense of any scientists is equally astonishing. James mentions an Albert Einstein but its the musician not his more famous namesake and relative the physicist. Indeed science is one of the leading absenses from the collection which is biassed very much towards the arts. Analytical philosophy is also underepresented- we have an essay on Wittgenstein but characteristically in it philosophy students are dismissed for giving him the 'credit for everything that would have struck them if they had ever been left along with the merest metaphysical lyric from the early seventeenth century.' The Wittgenstein that matters to philosophers is the one that 'they can prove only to each other' and what James is interested in is the Wittgenstein that matters to the writer- to the humanist.

For that is what this book really is, a monument to what we might call humanism. A humanism that sees the limits of the human as surely as it does the extent of his range. James is limited- but to stress that is to undermine really his acheivement here- which is to gather and express particles of knowledge and understanding across many fields and many languages. He gets some judgements wrong- he dismisses Edward Gibbon as a poor stylist. James tells us that 'what he [Gibbon] wrote rarely lets you forget that it has been written'- possibly that's true but its also Gibbon's virtue and not to see that is to miss what Gibbon was trying to do and therefore to criticise him by a standerd he wasn't attempting to reach. James doesn't get Gibbon's historical breadth or depth either- doesn't see that the styllistic tics are made up for by the fact that Gibbon was another such as James who spanned centuries in a massive project that will probably never be attempted let alone completed again.
Quotation has this feature that it inspires you to seek out the epigram- the fragment that illuminates rather than the rolling cadence of prose. Martial the great Latin poet is perhaps the most eminently quotable of Latin poets in that what he wrote was bitchy and short, James in these essays has the same quality. Like the greatest essayists he can skewer wonderfully. He can also at his best capture real nuance- his description of Edward Said in this sentence is perfect, 'As a critic and man of letters he has an enviable scope but it is continually invaded by his political strictness'. It captures the many sidedness of Said- the political lack of nuance which led him to some cartoonish descriptions of orientalists and of the orient but also the greatness- for Said who always recognised Israel and wanted Palestinians to recognise the sorrows of the Jews was a great man. James is able to capture that and through a quotation of Said's about the Battle of Algiers, bring to life the double sidedness of Said.

But this book is not all nuance. James is more often than not on the good side and vows war against those who cravenly boosted tyranny. He writes eloquently about the Manns- Heinrich, Thomas and Golo- all of whom resisted Hitler from outside the boundaries of exile. Of all the praise though it is that devoted to Sophie Scholl which most resonated with me. Scholl, James tells us, 'was probably a saint' and died in complete silence. What James wants to do with praise is make us think- he points to the fact that in his judgement despite the fact that there is a perfect actress for the role alive today (Natalie Portman) Scholl should never be portrayed by Hollywood. The finality of her end is her tragedy- far better for it to be a more obscure German film starring the unknown Julia Jenstch to portray her for the public so that they too understand the finality of the fall of the ax upon her neck shut out one of the true heroines of the twentieth century and sent her to darkness.

If Scholl volunteered to die, despite the fact she did not have to, to make a point against an odious regime, then James rightly eviscerates those who have supported those odious regimes. Though Sartre is his betenoir- he hates Sartre's evading of responsibility, hates the fact that 'Sartre was called profound because it sounded if he was either that or nothing' but ultimately his essay on Sartre is not the most interesting. Rather I think it is the essay on a much slighter figure- Peirre Drieu La Rochelle- a leading intellectual of Vichy that really made me think. For what he captures in that essay is the moment of victory in 1945, when the Germans were driven out and La Rochelle committed suicide. The key fact for James though is to evaluate the hysteria- a hysteria he informs us drily that Sartre backed and that Camus (who actually had a resistance record) disdained (though Camus thought there ought to be a reckoning). He leaves us in no doubt of the guilt of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle- but also paints a picture of France in those years which is terrifyingly accurate.

Totalitarianism is one of the foci of this book- James argues long and hard against it. Whether it is Communist or Fascist, he suggests it is deeply repugnant and you get the sense that he thinks that clear writing, thinking and reading are its enemies. As he said recently to Stephen Colbert, intellectuals get things wrong all the time- but they get them wrong less than those who don't open themselves to intellectual pursuits. In reality this book is a book about heroes- but it is not a book about heroism. The essay structure enables there to be a convincing absense of structure- in the sense that James is not interested in archetypes but in individuals- his essays are at their most effective when they describe either of two things- the impact of writing upon him as an individual or the way that this individual's career worked. An essay on
Nadezhda Mandelstam is incredibly effective at making you realise the pain that she must have felt as the Stalinist machinery of death whirled past her windows. It drives you to the reality of the statistics.

Though James is reassuringly committed to the dry substance of the real world, he is most acute when he focuses on individual experiences, exploring them and rendering them to his reader. His selection is driven, as he argues in his essay on Chris Marker, by the solidity of the facts that he sees and understands but his talent is for explaining experience. This is a book which is unashamedly focused on reality- James gives postmodernism and its creeds of unreality very short shrift indeed. He is openly contemptuous of philosophical relativism and disdain for truth- openly praises the empirical and solidly researched. He bases his love for art upon a respect for reality.

James's range of understanding in this book is incredible. James is a great evoker of what other authors do and write and film and play. He can convey the meaning of others' statements in such a way as to make you want to read and listen to and watch their books, music and films. He makes you want to stroll down the streets of Vienna in particular and pop into the cafes to hear the arguments and consume the culture. He makes you want to open the books, to understand what Contini means when he says that you need to learn poetry. He creates a desire in you to leap from cultural tree to tree- as James himself in these essays does- referring for instance in an essay on Marc Bloch to the seductions and disappointments of Pound's poetry. He made me want to learn languages- to read these authors in their original tongues and capture the calligraphy of sound that they all employed.

Ultimately there isn't a greater compliment for a book like this than to say that- to say that this book is like the trunk of a great tree, along whose branches if you pursue them are fruit much more gaudy than anything found in the original bark. This is a book that leads to other books. Its a book that can be read at one sitting or dipped into- yes there are mistakes and there are manifold errors. But to forgive someone for misunderstanding that Gibbon is amongst the greatest English historians requires a great acheivement and this book is a great and interesting acheivement.