Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time
Picador; $49.95; 900pp
In an article written for the Times Literary Supplement and collected in The Metropolitan Critic (1974), Clive James quotes from a letter printed in George Otto Trevelyan’s Life of Macaulay. In it Macaulay gives an account of his reading over the course of a year – a breathtaking inventory that reads like the syllabus of a particularly rigorous classics degree. Finally, and having established that the books were not only read but read with care (Trevelyan notes the ‘pencil marks, single, double, and treble, which meander down the margin of such passages as excited the admiration of the student’), James steps out from behind the throne wearing his customary cap ’n bells:
It is at moments like this that I begin to regret (well, to go on regretting) those youthful years squandered on memorising the contents of Flight magazine – every copy disfigured by pencil marks, single, double, and treble, meandering down the margin of such passages as excited my admiration.
Well, James has read a lot since then and has made a lot of notes in the margin. Indeed, the reader who didn’t know better would be forced to conclude that he’d done little else in the thirty-five years since this article appeared. Subtitled ‘Notes in the Margin of My Time’, Cultural Amnesia is not only huge (it would be unputdownable if it weren’t unpickupable), it is also a remarkable intellectual achievement. It’s the book James will be remembered for, if you can be remembered for a book about amnesia.
Not that the book is ‘about’ amnesia in any systematic way. Rather, the title describes the phenomenon the book exists to counteract: the tendency, in a liberal democracy, to forget that liberal democracy is fragile, the freedom to take our freedoms for granted. Its original title was Alone in the Café, which as well as being more picturesque is also truer to the atmosphere of the book, alluding as it does to the ‘informal campus’ of café society in pre-war Vienna and the fate of its considerable Jewish contingent after the Anschluss of 1938. For James, that fate is paradigmatic: ‘There could be no clearer proof that the mind is hard to kill. Nor could there be a more frightening demonstration of the virulent power of the forces which can combine to kill it.’
The book is arranged alphabetically by subject – from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, via Jorge Luis Borges, Bertholt Brecht, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Czeslaw Miłosz and many other intellectuals and artists, not all of them resident in the twentieth century but each having some kind of influence on it. Each section begins with a biography of, and quotation from, the figure in question, the latter serving as a point of departure for an essay – usually just a few pages long – on some aspect of twentieth-century culture. The range of reference is staggering, partly owing to James’s decision, taken many years ago, to try to get his head around literature while getting his tongue around modern languages – to tackle Marcel Proust, for example, armed only with a French-English dictionary. But although the book ranges far and wide, it keeps coming back to a central point – the point at which culture and politics meet: what Lionel Trilling called ‘the bloody crossroads’.
Of course, and as James is at pains to point out, the political pathologies of the twentieth century destroyed a lot more than intellectuals and artists: ‘the destruction was not just of the creative and the prominent but of the ordinary and the unknown – millions of them’. And yet culture in the Arnoldian sense of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ (as opposed to culture as a whole way of life) does present a special case. Culture is plural, whereas ideology ‘can’t be coherent without being intolerant’. Consequently, culture is always in the crosshairs of those who come to power on a promise to build the Just City and perfect its inhabitants. The great German poet, Heinrich Heine, was right to see the burning of literature as a prelude to the burning of people, though I doubt even he foresaw the nightmare in which his own books would end up on the fire.
Ideology is opposed to culture, but culture is not opposed to ideology, and one of the central themes of this book is the way the left intelligentsia, in resisting one form of totalitarianism, allowed itself to be seduced by another: specifically, Soviet Communism. Paris under the Occupation makes for a particularly grim laboratory in which to examine this regrettable phenomenon and, indeed, the opposite one: the writers who saw that Fascism and Communism were variations on a single theme. Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, the beauty and the beast of post-war Paris, provide an especially revealing contrast: Camus, the opponent of totalitarianism and courageous, if marginal, Resistance figure; Sartre, the apologist for totalitarianism who embellished his own Resistance record while undermining the real heroes. As James suggests, Sartre’s ‘underground activities had never amounted to anything except a secret meeting on Wednesday to decide whether there should be another meeting the following Tuesday’.
One is grateful for such flashes of humour. A one-man circus, James is adept at the intellectual acrobatics, but sometimes you long for the whiteface clown who contrives to take a spectacular tumble while emptying a bucket of glitter over the audience. Not that the roles are mutually exclusive. Humour, for James, is a form of compression, a way of nailing an argument down. (Remember that the clown is an acrobat too.) When James refers to the ‘flouncing kick-line of the post-modern intellectual cabaret’ he is not just giving us a brilliant image, he is telling us that Theory (which is to literature what ideology is to politics) is something fundamentally frivolous.
The tears of a clown are a poignant sight and there are more tears than laughs in Cultural Amnesia, haunted as it is by a powerful sense of the depths to which human beings can sink. And yet it is also a demonstration of the heights to which the mind can rise when the best that has been thought and said has taken root and begun to flower. It’s a book I’ll come back to time and again, no doubt further to deface its pages, already disfigured by pencil marks, single, double, and treble, meandering down the margin of such passages as excited my admiration.