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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating reflections, April 13, 2007
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This review is from: Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 18, 2007 2:47:49 PM PDT
Buce says:
That's /Bix/ Beiderbeck, not Tex. Maybe you were thinking of Tex Beneke.

Or, as he is called by a character in a Peter deVries novel, "Big Spiderbeak."

In reply to an earlier post on May 19, 2007 1:07:36 PM PDT
Two finger typing and a wandering mind led to the error. Thanks for pointing it out.
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Steven A. Peterson

Location: Hershey, PA (Born in Kewanee, IL)

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