“It is so immense, I have no words for it” was T.S. Eliot’s reaction to Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God. Old Tom was possibly just relieved that he had escaped being skewered on Lewis’s satirical blade, unlike virtually everyone else in the precious hothouse world of the London literary scene in the twenties. I had a similarly awed response when reading Clive James’s magnum opus (which it is, in every sense) Cultural Amnesia. The avid reader (there must be one) of this blog will know of my admiration for Clive, founded initially on his lyrics to Pete Atkin’s music. He has been, away from the TV screen, one of the most important cultural critics of our times, and his post -TV career seems dedicated to cementing that position. Recent books of essays, such as Even As We Speak, seem to me to represent all that is best in the critic’s art. The autobiographical work is just hugely enjoyable, and the poetry at its best is playfully serious, formally adventurous, thought-provoking and beautifully observed. It’s not surprising that the jacket of Cultural Amnesia repeats the oft-quoted New Yorker assessment “Clive James is a brilliant bunch of guys” to point out the breadth of his achievements, but really that isn’t adequate to characterise this latest volume.
I know from the estimable Pete Atkin website run by Steve Birkill that the original title for the book was “Alone in the Cafe” and that gives a clue to the process of composition. The author says that the book is based on his reading during time off (often in cafes) from all the other activities for which he’s known over the last forty years; his marginal notes form the germ of these pieces. The eventual title refers to the necessity to resist the “cultural amnesia” which, in the era of increasing homogenisation, forgets that complex and vibrant mental world of twentieth century creative life.
The book is organised as a series of essays, alphabetically arranged according to the author of the quotation around which each essay is constructed. The focus is on those who shaped our culture in the twentieth century, so some names are the ones you might expect: Wittgenstein, Proust, Freud. And because James is concerned with those who had a negative effect, it’s not really surprising to see Hitler, Goebbels and Mao there too. But would you have expected Beatrix Potter, Terry Gilliam and W.C. Fields? Probably not. There’s a noticeably European (and non-English flavour) to the figures chosen, too. Starting with the cafe culture of old Vienna, James is not shy of advancing the claims of some figures many of us might not have heard of. Would you recognise Peter Altenberg, Karl Tschuppik or Miguel de Unamuno? No, thought not. Yet James makes a very convincing case for the importance of these figures. He isn’t shy of using non-twentieth century characters either- so Tacitus, Sir Thomas Browne and John Keats are all in there.
The essays are not, though, biographical, and are not, quite often, about the person whose name appears at the top of the page. Rather, the essays are about the issues raised by a particular quotation of that writer. Thus, the Thomas Browne chapter is largely about using quotations as titles; the Arthur Schnitzler chapter is, hilariously, mostly about Richard Burton’s hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare; and the Terry Gilliam chapter is about state-sponsored torture.
At the heart of the book, and infusing every line, is the passionate desire to assert the value of humanism, as it has been developed by the thinkers and artists of Western civilisation. The alphabetical arrangement makes for a serendipitous juxtapositioning of disparate figures- Michael Mann is sandwiched between Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and Tony Curtis rubs shoulders with Benedetto Croce. The emphasis on the Jewish writers of mittel-Europa is entirely justified by James’s advocacy of these (to me, at any rate) little-known figures. I now have a growing “to-read” list starting with Egon Friedell, and then Ernst Curtius, Alfred Polgar, Stefan Zweig and … and…
Clive James is nothing if not opinionated, and I was pleased to see some of the darlings of Theory brushed aside: Lacan, Kristeva and Baudrillard are described as “artistes in the flouncing kick-line of the post-modern intellectual cabaret.”
A couple of quibbles: for a book that acknowledges the work of two editors, and a copy-editor, there are too many typos. Clive James is a stickler for accuracy, so the reader winces at incorrect spellings of German words, “English” rendered with a lower-case e, and other infelicities. There’s also some repetition, understandable considering the piecemeal creative process, but avoidable if the editors were doing their job. A good joke about the special bullets used in films, which miraculously avoid hitting the hero, is not improved by being repeated. And there is some contentiousness about the often rather brutal moral judgements. ‘Er indoors (sorry: Doctor ‘Er Indoors) thought the assessment of Ernst Jünger was harsh, for instance. But these are minor blemishes on a very important work.
The old Everyman editions used to quote Edmund Gosse: “A cosmic convulsion might utterly destroy all printed works in the world, and still if a complete set of Everyman’s Library floated upon the waters enough would be preserved to carry on the unbroken tradition of literature.” I think that if Cultural Amnesia, and all the books mentioned therein, were to survive, we could make a similar claim. Spend that Christmas book token on this.
Cultural Amnesia by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.