Thursday, March 20, 2008

Clive James: Cultural Amnesia

I have been reading Clive James' essay collection Cultural Amnesia on and off over the last week. At over 900 pages, it is a pretty hefty volume and the scope and the breadth of his subjects make it look very impressive and daunting indeed. Only when you start reading the essays that his writing and opinions start getting on your nerves. Now I have no problem with either dilettantism or being opinionated, even when someone is both at the same time, as James certainly is but rather the way he behaves as a petulant elementary school teacher giving off marks to these twentieth century luminaries on good behavior, or at least what he thinks constitues good behaviour, which to him is saying appropriate things about the totalitarian powers of twentieth century Europe - Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. He condemns those who he thinks gave aid and comfort to totalitarian powers and his list includes Sartre, Brecht ("creepiest major talent of modern times"), Neruda and many others. Even poor Wittgenstein gets a few marks cut off because he didn't say anything about what was happening in the Germanic part of Europe in his time. He concedes that it was his prerogative but still finds it a "strange omission." In the end James comes out as yet another in the same line of contemporary intellectuals like Hitchens, Martin Amis and others who pass off their essential conservatism under the guise of anti-totalitarianism and rational humanism. James actually has an adulatory piece on Margaret Thatcher in the book. Hitchens and Amis at least were critical of her or probably it was only when they were young.

It is not that he is oblivious to the essential unfairness of judgment from hindsight. In his essay on Golo Mann, who according to him was the finest German historian of last century, he calls hindsight, "a disposition of personality that likes to impose itself on the past and turn it into a self-serving cartoon." But that's exactly what he has done in the rest of the book. Sartre and Brecht have their reputations skewered elsewhere too, though James does heap on some new abuses (a most thoroughgoing conman, that's Brecht for him), but his essays on other more admirable figures like Walter Benjamin that baffle. He barely stops short of blaming him for his own death because he refused to see what was coming. He then criticises him for his belief in Marxism while in reality his Marxism was nothing like the institutional leftism. In one of his other essays he accuses Paul Celan of being deliberately hermetic and then impugns a political motive - that of a calculated disengagement from reality. I really don't understand why is he wasting his time reading poetry when his notion of reality is so shallow. There is an essay on Rilke too which I thought would contain similar gems but he goes into the same Nazi/Soviet crap allover again there too. This is yet another problem with his book. I generally like digressive writing because it feels much closer to how our minds really work but in this case it is as if his record were stuck in the same place. It is Nazis, communists, nazis, communists and on and on. Even when it is not so, his digressive imagination doesn't lead to interesting places. In his essay on Sophie Scholl for example, he is more interested in who is best suited to play the role in a hollywood adaptation. He thinks it should be Nathalie Portman. I mostly yawned through it, looking for some more information about Sophie Scholl which never came. (The recent German film about her life is excellent by the way with an amazing young actress (Julia Jentsch) playing the title role. Here is a trailer.) The book is also dedicated to her memory...

As I said in the beginning the breadth and the scope of his learning make it look very impressive and the book can serve as a useful starting and reference point since many of the names featured here are not well known. I hadn't (or barely) heard of more than one-third of his subjects and I look forward to reading and finding more about them. If not for anything else, the book does inspire with its project. In the context of Viennese intellectuals of the turn of century period he says that for them education was not something that was required to start off on a career. Education itself was a life-long career. That's a very valuable lesson, even when you realize how difficult it is to live by this principle under all the material and financial exigencies of modern life. Still it is an inspiration to keep reading, learning and thinking and making it a life-long project.

For more, The Millions blog has a very nice and critical review of the book. Really worth reading. Complete Review gathers some other reviews and offers its own too.

6 comments:

puccino said...

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He condemns those who he thinks gave aid and comfort to totalitarian powers and his list includes Sartre, Brecht ("creepiest major talent of modern times"), Neruda and many others.
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If Brecht is the creepiest major talent of modern times where does that leave Samuel Beckett, who's more scary. In any case neither Sartre, Brecht or Neruda have comfort to totalitarian governments.

Yes they were communists(or in the case of J-P, a lifelong Fellow traveller) but that doesn't make them totalitarian. That they were interested in uplifiting the working classes, equality of rights and a classless society does not make them totalitarian, quite the opposite.

Brecht after the War came to East Germany because West Germany(which you should know as a Fassbinder fan) voted actual Nazis in government positions and Brecht figured that East Germany was better. That it had problems because of the USSR's administration can't have been his fault.Brecht was quite disturbed with the way things were running in East Germany and couldn't speak out against it because of the censors but did all he could to urge his audience to still believe in Marxist ideals.

In any case Brecht never pretended to be a perfect man, just someone who followed what he believed in. He was an artist with contradictions dedicated to exploring contradictions in society and he was driven and passionate and so he made a lot of enemies...so why this Clive James fellow should whine all of a sudden is beyond me? It's the sound of jealousy, I think!

Hitchens is just the same, a big blowhard who picks easy targets(The Catholic Church, religion, Henry Kissinger) so as to bolster himself and prove how smart and witty he is. I mean you can't take a self-claimed anti-religious fanatic seriously when he supports the Presidency of a guy who speaks to God and invades Iraq for no reason.

I don't know if Clive James is of the same mould but then it wouldn't surprise me seeing how uncreative the majority of Anglo-American so-called "intellectuals" are.

By the way Alok welcome back...and which movie have you seen lately.

Alok said...

Agree with what you are saying.. it also shows a complete lack of any historical sense. Reading his essays I was wondering what is the use of reading so much if all it does is to reinforce your existing prejudices and biases...

I have to catch up with movies, and blogging about them too.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I mostly remember James from various lightweight television programmes, so I can't say I have any ambition to read this. However, I think you're being a little hard on him. It's certainly true that criticism predicated on lambasting an author for certain ideological vagaries is often rather irksome, but to be frank that applies also to vast swathes of feminist or Marxist criticism that does exactly the same thing (one could after all argue that criticising Hitchcock's sexual politics is a 'judgment from hindsight'). Not being a Marxist or a Thatherite I have very little interest in either case.

- K

Alok said...

I agree with you to some extent. This objection can be levelled against any form of historical judgment but probably I was just looking for some kind of generosity in his appraisals and also more intellectual weight rather than just name calling. In his writings on Brecht or Sartre he rarely even gets to their writings... He says he doesn't even like Sartre's face!

vivek said...

James is simply senile- but like Sophocles gets to keep squandering his kids' inheritance coz his prose style hasn't changed.
What were his editors thinking- letting the old man do this to himself in public? Take a look at his section on Gibbon. He quotes sentences which- to me- seem perfectly plain but then insists that he himself has to read them twice to figure out their meaning. And that's not the Russian translation of Gibbon or the medieval Japanese kanji script version he's talking about. Which makes one wonder about all the mitteleuropean tossers he's so enamoured of. Chances are they were as shite as their modern incarnations. Indeed, the problem with people like James who think there's still some point, in the age of Wikipedia, to carry on pretending what's really profound is just a couple of stacks further down from where you- the mug that buys books- happen to be browsing, is that we see through the cheat too quickly. It s not the case that all books are crap- some books at some times may actually serve their readers well- they just aint the elixir that's all.
Still, you feel sorry for the fat man- and maybe that's the point. One shudders to think what Sacha Baron Cohen will be writing when he gets to be 67.

RuralJuror said...

its obvious this is a rant, not a reflection, on Clive James' book. to prevent this turning into a flame war, try reading James' book as a riff on his idea that cross-disciplinary literary criticism and projects are essential to civilisation. The same point is made by far less 'lightweight' writers: Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin. As for the slur about "essential conservatism" (what is an essential conservative? whats so essential about political orientation? or is this a weak attempt to tar a straw man, the easier to tear him down?) consider again that he writes for the protection of the individual against totalitarianism, and attacks those who couldn't see this elementary fact about political life. He especially attacks Neruda (read his "To be men! That is the Stalinist law!") et al because they chose to live in ivory towers, neglecting those who depended on their defense. Read his article on Jean Prevost. Read his stuff on Primo Levi. Read his stuff on Orwell, Zweig, Berlin, and Nirad Chaudhuri, and then talk about his lightweight stature. Perhaps the reason he seems "petulant" (perhaps you were looking for 'pedantic'?) is that, as an old man, he has no time to spend arguing with the opposition.