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Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time Hardcover – May 18, 2007
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For non-fiction, there was one stupedous starburst of wild brilliance: Clive James's Cultural Amnesia. It crackles with epigrammatic mischief and reminded me of Charles Dantzig's great Dictionnair egoiste de la litterature francaise, a book that features a devastating skewering of Sartre and a spirited defence of the adjective, plus essays on ignorance, cliches, therapy (against it) digressions (for) and lettres. Will someone please get this fabulous box of tricks translated? -- Simon Schama
About the Author
Clive James is the author of more than twenty books. As well as essays, he has published collections of literary and television criticism, travel writing, verse and novels, plus three volumes of autobiography. In 1992 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia and in 2003 he was awarded the Philip Hodgins memorial medal for literature.
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THE IDEOLOGISTS THOUGHT they understood history. They thought history had a shape, a predictable outcome, a direction that could be joined. They were wrong. Some of them were intellectuals who shamed themselves and their calling by bringing superior mental powers to the defence of misbegotten political systems that were already known to be dispensing agony to the helpless. Young readers will find some of that story here, and try to convince themselves that they would have behaved differently. But the way to avoid the same error now is not through understanding less. It can only be through understanding more. And the beginning of understanding more is to realize that there is more than can be understood. As an aid to that end, this book is not a testament to my capabilities, but to the lack of them. [...]
Totalitarianism, however, is not over. It survives as residues, some of them all the more virulent because they are no longer hemmed in by borders; and some of them are within our own borders. Liberal democracy deserved, and still deserves, to prevail—one of the aims of this book is to help stave off any insidious doubts on that point—but in both components of liberal democracy’s name there are opportunities for the ideologist: in the first component lies inspiration for the blind devotee of economic determinism, and in the second for the dogmatic egalitarian. From within as well as without, the Procrustean enemies of our provokingly multifarious free society are bound to come, sometimes merely to preach obscurantist doctrine in our universities, at other times to fly our own airliners into towers of commerce. What they hate is the bewildering complexity of civilized life, which we will find hard to defend if we share the same aversion. We shouldn’t. There is too much to appreciate. If it can’t be sorted into satisfactory categories, that should make us take heart: it wouldn’t be the work of human beings if it could.
I was not yet through this book when I began it again with an online book group. We did two articles per day and got through the whole thing in a little under two months. The Australian e-book (Picador), now out of print, contains a few extra essays not in the U.S. (W. W. Norton) edition.
Although I might dispute some of James's remarks, and find myself unable to share some of his enthusiasms (for the tango, for instance), I did like his book enough to read through twice, and that is a testament to his style and his range. At its most random, perhaps, there is a secret design. Certainly the piece on Michael Mann's "Heat," coming in the midst of essays on Golo Mann, Heinrich Mann, and Thomas Mann, seemed like the scherzo to a grand symphony. James may be polyglot, but he is no highbrow. It was the second time through that I upped my rating from four stars to five.
You can't help asking yourself: is there an element of self-aggrandisement here? Are we supposed to be impressed by the width and depth of James' reading? To some degree, I think so, but not enough to merit the epithet "showboating".
Some of his judgments are quirky to say the very least. Jean-Francois Revel is an outstanding political thinker, but to claim that his book on Proust is the best critical study of Au Recherche du Temps perdu is blatant hyperbole. And the vituperative attack on Sartre for condoning the Gulags that amounts to condemning all he ever wrote is absurd. NAUSEA is a landmark in 20th century fiction, just as VOYAGE AU BOUT DE LA NUIT is a masterpiece in spite of BAGATELLES.
On the other hand, James' assertion that the death of Prevost fighting for the Maquis is the equivalent in French letters of what would have happened in British lit if Orwell had been killed in Spain is perspicacious to the nth degree. Prevost did write the best--or at least one of the best--critical books ever on Stendhal.
James is a hard man to please when it comes to style, for example, his critique of Anthony Powell ignores the genuine originality of Powell's prose (though he could make a case that A DANCE is really too long!). It's a case, alas, of physician heal thyself, because you sometimes get the feeling that James is trying to duplicate the speed and pith of his favorite stylists with results that are fast and furious and not what he intends.
Still, for a wealth of information about figures you know and don't as yet know, this book is a winner. It's also a pretty good picture of James the artist as ageing savant.
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