Customer Reviews


59 Reviews
5 star:
 (34)
4 star:
 (9)
3 star:
 (4)
2 star:
 (5)
1 star:
 (7)
 
 
 
 
 
Average Customer Review
Share your thoughts with other customers
Create your own review
 
 

The most helpful favorable review
The most helpful critical review


112 of 121 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like having a conversation with a learned friend
Intrigued by the excerpts running on Slate.com, I snapped this one up when it came out. It consists of capsule essays on a wide range of scholars, artists, writers, philosophers, political figures, and so on. The common thread running through the essays is a defense of the humanist impulse in the face of totalitarianism, and how this issue is perpetually relevant. The...
Published on March 11, 2007 by James

versus
43 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Close, but no cigar.
This book is filled with people well worth knowing about. Most are literary folks and some are `personalities' in the best sense of the word. The majority are urbane and literate. The author, Clive James, is very erudite and sophisticated. Yet in the end this book is disappointing. Why should this be the case?

Perhaps it is because James is a bit too taken with...
Published on June 1, 2007 by Retired Reader


‹ Previous | 1 26 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

112 of 121 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like having a conversation with a learned friend, March 11, 2007
By 
James (Lambertville) - See all my reviews
Intrigued by the excerpts running on Slate.com, I snapped this one up when it came out. It consists of capsule essays on a wide range of scholars, artists, writers, philosophers, political figures, and so on. The common thread running through the essays is a defense of the humanist impulse in the face of totalitarianism, and how this issue is perpetually relevant. The tone is a mournful one at times, as if the author feels this battle of ideas has been forgotten by succeeding generations. The figures represented run the gamut from Louis Armstrong to Wittgenstein, from Borges to Satie. There are also numerous lesser known figures like philologist Ernst Robert Curtius or polymath Egon Friedell, as well as villains (Hitler and Mao, among others). James's dismantling of Sartre is almost worth the price of admission itself, but perhaps the single best essay is on Sophie Scholl, a young member of the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany, who chose to die in solidarity with her friends, as a symbolic gesture of defiance. This essay is the only piece of writing (other than old love letters) that has ever made me tear up. James often goes on his own idiosyncratic tangents in the middle of a chapter, but this is one of the book's charms, like having a conversation with a learned and, at times, frustrating friend.

I was tempted to dock a star in my rating because of the unusually high level of typos. In all seriousness, I have never encountered a book with so many - It may border on an average of one typo per page. Norton, someone was asleep at the switch here. Despite this distraction, a wonderful read.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


60 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating reflections, April 13, 2007
By 
Steven A. Peterson (Hershey, PA (Born in Kewanee, IL)) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This is a fascinating volume, in fact, almost a nonvolume. James notes at the outset that (page xv): "In the forty years it took me to write this book, I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern." He goes on to note of the many brief biographical sketches that he presents in the book (with reflections on related thinkers and on context): "As the time for assembling my reflections approaches, I resolved that a premature synthesis was the thing to be avoided" (page xvi). As such, "If I have done my job properly, themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligible" (Page xvi). Thus, the reader is the workforce to make sense of the various reflections and vignettes.

James puts emphasis, in an "Overture," on Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th century. From there, he provides brief character sketches from "A" (e.g., Anna Akhmatova, Louis Armstrong, Raymond Aron) to "Z" (e.g., Aleksandr Zinoviev, Stefan Zweig), with stops at other letters in between. Thus, the ordering is simply alphabetical, again to make the reader pull things together him or herself. While the thoughts that he injects into these sketches can sometimes be rather close minded (his rather haughty dismissal of thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault), that is easily forgiven for the erudition and provocative comments that recur throughout this book.

Let's take a look at a handful of the biographical treatments to illustrate his approach. Louis Armstrong, while a victim of racism from birth to death (in 1971), rose above that. The intriguing tie between him and Bix Beiderbecke (a white jazz musician, in an era when many said that whites could not play the genre) is one example. Just so, a brief sidebar on Benny Goodman (white) and his skills in jazz, all justaposed with Armstrong's appreciation of Beiderbecke. An interesting essay tying several themes together.

Then there is William Claude Duckenfield (W. C. Fields). The essay focuses on how increasingly strong censorship in movies began to strangle Fields' career--maybe more than alcohol or age. One aspect of this essay is the observation that (page 208) Fields was ". . .one of those people who are born exiles even if they never leave home."

He discusses, in the book, some people whom he defines as evil. One of those is Mao Zedong. However, he portrays things in a bit more nuanced fashion. For instance, he says that Mao began very differently than other terrors such as Hitler and Stalin. While, in the end, he was responsible for a massive number of deaths, Mao "started off as a benevolent intellectual: a fact which should concern us if we pretend to be one of those ourselves" (page 457). In the end, James suggests, ". . .to concentrate on Mao's late-flowering monstrosity is surely a misleading emphasis. His early-flowering humanitarianism is a much more useful field of study" (page 459). What makes this essay compelling is that it recognizes the evil unleashed by Mao--but also a different potentiality when he was younger.

A final example: Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese Admiral who orchestrated Pearl Harbor and the failed Midway offensive. James plays with some of the well known themes--Yamamoto's years at Harvard University, his artistic sensibilities (as Patton, he composed poetry), his pessimism that Japan could defeat the United States if the war lasted very long.

Even looking at this volume as a series of intriguing character sketches makes this an interesting volume. Questions raised by James about some of the people studied lead to the reader reflecting on exactly what is at stake with the individual being discussed. There are also the larger questions hinted at in earlier pages of the volume. A fascinating potpourri by an intellectual who seats each character in a deep historical context, even by a few well chosen comments.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


55 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What was the 20th century for?, August 4, 2007
The main claims of the author are that Western liberalism (the classic definition) nearly perished in the 20th century, due almost entirely to a persistent and recurring urge to totalitarianism; that these movements were paralleled by waves of fawning essays from liberal intelligentsia who apologized for butchers; that the cross-connections between history, music, and the arts are what humanism is (or should be) all about; and that we forget the history of the 20th century at our peril.

So it's dismaying that few reviews even touch on these points.

Personally, I was very intrigued on first reading of the book-- enough to buy and read 3 European and World histories. What I found was corroboration of his facts (Norman Davies' estimate of deaths due to Stalin is at least 54 millions. Mao would make him look like an amateur. Pol Pot-- he had fewer to work with, so he went for the record percentage killed.) And in a fresh way, I can trace modernism and its associated destructive forces from the French Revolution onward.

I then re-read Cultural Amnesia and more fully appreciated Clive James' genius.

A superb accomplishment.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


43 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Close, but no cigar., June 1, 2007
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This book is filled with people well worth knowing about. Most are literary folks and some are `personalities' in the best sense of the word. The majority are urbane and literate. The author, Clive James, is very erudite and sophisticated. Yet in the end this book is disappointing. Why should this be the case?

Perhaps it is because James is a bit too taken with his own erudition. This comes through in many of the essays in this book and is sometimes quite annoying. Then there is the simple fact that most of the essays are far too short to really develop their admittedly fascinating subjects. Of those subjects whose writings this reviewer is familiar with such as Albert Camus and Marcel Proust, both were treated in a rather superficial and not terribly original way. In the essay on Edward Gibbon, James treats one of the most monumental historical works in the English language as a literary exercise and fails to note how much fun Gibbon obviously had in writing it. In his essay about the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, he fails to note that Sartre the novelist provided a far more authentic (so to speak) rationale for existentialism than Sartre the philosopher. James may have gone astray by trying to tackle complex individuals too succinctly to do either them or James justice.

Yet James also produced a very sensitive and well crafted essay on F. Scott Fitzgerald which surely adds new dimension to that subject's character. His work on Thomas Mann was also well crafted and original. Interestingly, both are substantially longer than most of the essays in this book. In the end when he is good James is very good, but when he is bad he is indeed horrid much like the cliché which he must abhor.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vignettes of Artists, Writers, and Tyrants, May 10, 2007
By 
Izaak VanGaalen (San Francisco, CA USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Clive James has written in an earlier work that he wanted to be "the arch example of the Metropolitan Critic, the critic who operates in the vital space between hack reviewers of periodicals and the dust contractors of the universities." The 107 beautifully written mini-portraits in this very thick volume (876 pages) were written over the course of a lifetime and they go a long way in securing his desired place between hack and academe. There is no single argument running through these essays. Their selection seems to be entirely random, other than being in alphabetical order. Any kind of order or grand narrative would be an indicator of James' arch nemesis: totalitarian ideology. His deities are liberal democracy and free-market capitalism, which are the preconditions for the humanism that he espouses.

Of the writers, artists, intellectuals, and demagogues that populated the 20th century, James has a special loathing for Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre may not have been directly responsible for the mass murders of the last century, as were Hitler and Mao; but the fact that he was smarter, and more clever at explaining away the atrocities of totalitarian societies made him an accomplice to those crimes. According to James, "Sartre was the most conspicuous single example of a fully qualified intellectual aiding and abetting the opponents of civilization." James, in contrast, is much more attracted to Sartre's more moderate and centrist contemporary: Raymond Aron.

James is also very harsh on the more recent crop of intellectuals hailing from France - such as Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Jean Baudrillard, to name a few. These ubiquitous blowhards are largely responsible for the obscurantist nonsense that one finds in today's university humanities departments. The current professoriat seems always to be in pursuit of a meaning that is too obscure to be expressed in ordinary language. But this nonsense is not as dangerous as many critics claim; it is nonsense that is of no consequence outside the university.

In contrast to the sterility of postmodern French thinking, James has a special place in his heart for the coffee-house culture of turn-of-the-century Vienna. It was the Vienna of not only Freud, Kraus, Schnitzler, and Wittgenstein, but also of lesser-known figures such as Egon Friedell and Alfred Polgar. What attracts the author to this cultural milieu is the clarity of language and meaning as expressed, for example, in the works of Kraus and Wittgenstein. It was a place that was conducive to new ideas and the life of the mind. Unfortunately it was short-lived, destroyed by the totalitarian movements that followed. If there is a single unifying theme in Cultural Amnesia, it can be said that it is a consistent and continuous warning against the dangers of totalitarian thinking and those who are seduced by it.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


33 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Triumph of Liberal Humanism, July 9, 2007
Clive James' eminently readable collection of essays on intellectuals, artists, and other remarkable people seems to channel Hannah Arendt via Hegel in sounding a clarion on the seductive dangers of totalitarianism and a variety of individuals who aided, or sabotaged, the struggle toward a liberal democracy. But do not let that weighty message deter you from this important work.

As other reviewers have pointed out, James toggles between high and low culture with bone-jarring alacrity and, upon occasion, digresses into pet irritations and infatuations (Richard Burton's haircut; Natalie Portman), but he fully succeeds in weaving disparate essays on 20th century personages into a coherent meditation on moral responsibility in the face of fascism. James does exhibit an almost Sontagian propensity for carpet-bombing his text with the names of obscure intellectuals. Again, don't be put off by virtuoso displays of erudition. I, for one, am envious.

I read this book on the heels of the marvelous Joan Acocella's equally enjoyable Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints (compare their respective takes on Stefan Zweig). Overall, I found James' to be rather more acerbic than Acocella's in tone, but both writers convey meaning with astringent clarity and rich insight.

And finally, I agree with the reviewer who reserved his highest rating for James' poignent essay on the unutterably brave Sophie Scholl. This is the book's true coda. By keeping alive the memory of Scholl and The White Rose, James lets fly an arrow of inspirational courage and hope straight into the heart of repressive regimes past, present, and future. That single essay is reason enough to buy this book.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


26 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable, April 10, 2007
Clive James (1939 -)

"Because he was not solemn, the humourless were slow to take him seriously".

I'm quoting from memory, and am well aware of the dangers of doing so. James was writing about Gore Vidal (if I remember correctly) but he might just as well have been talking about himself.

James has alays been difficult to pin down. Is he a jolly, erudite (and jolly erudite) TV pundit, laughing at the Japs and their mad game shows? Is he a poet, a song-writer, an essayist, a memoirist, a novelist? Is he The Metropolitan Critic? Is he all these things, and more besides?

Critics of the great man have not exactly wanted for ammunition. He supplies the stuff, in great quantities. Think of the passages in "May week was in June" for example, in which he goes on (and on) about his exams. Yes, Clive, you were a clever little chap, weren't you? But then think of that line in one of his verse letters (was there ever a more potentially irritating idea?) that goes like this:

"Of our last day this is the day's last light

When darkest daylight shades to lightest night"

I hope I got that right. I have to ask myself: why does so much of his stuff stick in my mind? It's not just the way he says it, and it's not just what he says. It's both. It is, to paraphrase him, words times words.

"Cultural Amnesia" is obviously the book CJ has been working towards all his life. Style and content fuse together to provide the reader with a deeply rewarding experience. And deeply frustrating. The essence of Clive James is here: learned, witty, breath-takingly well-read. His topics range from Richard Burton in "Where eagles dare" to Viennese cafe society before WWII, to Japanese military tactics to Tony Curtis' voice.

James cares about this stuff. He goes over the top, of course. There are times when you will want to fling this book across the room. But then there are times when you will want nothing more than to immerse yourself in it for hours on end. You will encounter names you never heard of, and you will dash to the library or the bookshop or the web to find out more.

Finally, I am reminded of a passage in one of Clive's early works, in which he describes a tutor opening a book and intoning, "This... is a great book". Clive has given us entertaining, thought-provoking, trivial, profound and brilliant books in the past. He has now, at last, given us a great one. Fans will not be disappointed. Newcomers will, I hope, be thrilled.

NB. The first US edition is packed with typos ; one entire paragraph is printed twice. Hopefully these errors will be dealt with in subsequent editions.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Obituary (Or Prophecy) Of Liberal Humanism, May 30, 2008
By 
I don't know how I missed Clive James' work before this, but after finishing "Cultural Amnesia" I am currently trying to lay hands upon everything else he has written. This is one of those books that opens up your mind and heart, and brings you back to why you love literature, history, and the humanities in the first place. It's ostensibly a series of essays about historical figures: writers, politicians, artists, musicians, who shouldn't be forgotten in the onrush of time and forgetfulness. As you read, however, a theme emerges: we see the rise of totalitarian systems of thought in the 20th century from both the Right and the Left. And we see how some of the most renowned figures of the time failed the test of upholding decency and humanity, and how some succeeded despite harrowing odds. James has justifiably harsh words for Sartre, Trotsky, Hitler and Mao (of course), Walter Benjamin, Jose Saramago, the forgotten French fascist Robert Brasillach. An essay on Montesquieu turns into an enthralling account of Stalinist and Nazi cruelty, and an essay on Stalin's henchman Ordzhonokidze considers just how the bloodbaths were finally stopped by Khrushchev and his successor Gorbachev. Some of James' heroes, those who kept the flame of humanism alive during dark times: Louis Armstrong, Czeslaw Milosz, John McCloy (!). There are amusingly rendered mixed verdicts for Norman Mailer and Freud (who was finally unable to sufficiently imagine evil on a scale large enough). There are chapters which James appears to have written for the fun of it, like those on Tony Curtis, Miles Davis, Dick Cavett, and Michael Mann. And there are the indispensable landmarks of western culture: Tacitus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Marcel Proust, Borges, Thomas Mann. My favorite chapter, in a macabre way, is the one on Goebbels which turns into a masterpiece of black comedy. James' messages are increasingly drowned out in our harsh, ideological world: the past is important, more important that theory. Imagination is more important than dogmatism. Good temper is more important than a sense of righteousness. James would like to restore to the center of western culture the common decency of George Orwell. One wishes him well, and hopes it isn't too late.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Please don't miss the point, April 2, 2007
By 
It seems that many who have commented favorably here about this extraordinary work are under the impression that the author set out merely to write a series of insightful biographies.

One comment, typical in this regard, reads, "The section on Chris Marker is a deliberate insult: the chapter is titled Chris Marker, but then the author goes on to discuss an entirely other subject. There is no discussion of Chris Marker."

The writer of this commentary may not be among the most erudite of reviewers. I note, however, that the same general theme plays through most of the commentaries and comments thereupon, most of whose writers seem scholarly. It features also in the professional reviews, whose writers should know better. This alone makes James' depressing fundamental idea that much more credible to me.

I'm certain James selected each of the cultural icons identified at the beginning of each chapter to serve not so much as an intellectual destination as a point of philosophical departure. He did it brilliantly. Readers who get this point will receive more experience in exchange for their effort.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new friend, August 11, 2007
By 
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
When I closed this book, I felt like I was saying goodbye to an old friend. Then I realized that I could just start all over. This is a liberal education in a volume that challenges not only the reader's erudition but also the senses of tolerance, open-mindedness and imagination. It is a perfect companion to Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence and a perfect gift for your unusually bright friends.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


‹ Previous | 1 26 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

Details

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts
Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts by Clive James (Paperback - September 17, 2008)
$17.95 $13.56
In Stock
Add to cart Add to wishlist
Search these reviews only
Rate and Discover Movies
Send us feedback How can we make Amazon Customer Reviews better for you? Let us know here.