This is one strange book. Strange and frequently wonderful. Weighing in at 852 pages, nobody is going to read Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts at one sitting. James is an Australian-born British literary critic and television personality now edging up to age seventy, and Cultural Amnesia is a summing up of what he has learned, or at least what he has been prompted to think, from a lifetime of prodigious reading and critical attention to the arts, both high and low.
He goes about his summing up in a distinctive, if not unique, manner. He groups his subjects¯mainly writers, but with a smattering of entertainers, politicians, and others¯according to the alphabet, from A to Z. There are a little over a hundred subjects, beginning with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and ending with the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. Those two are fairly well known. I expect most readers will be unfamiliar with others, such as Robert Brasillach, Ricarda Huch, Golo Mann, Alfred Polgar, Virginio Rognoni, and Aleksandr Zinoviev.
But there are also many about whom most readers will already have a definite view: Raymond Aron, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charles de Gaulle, Thomas Mann, Adolf Hitler, and William Hazlitt, to name but a few. Each figure is an occasion for a mini-essay, which may or may not have much to do with the person in question. The book is more than a little like a literary Rorschach test: Name a name and Clive James will tell you what comes to his mind. It is a game you might play with anyone, but it is a great deal more rewarding and more fun if you play it with someone who has a mind as well-stocked as that of Clive James.
Mr. James has, at least most of the time, a rather dour view of our cultural circumstance. Ours are, he says at one point, "the worst of times." That is not at all believably offset by his "coda" in which, I am sorry to say, he panders to the young. "I was their age then, but they are my age now: old heads on young shoulders." That’s a pleasant thought, but one that finds slight support in the 850 pages that went before.
James describes himself as a "displaced person" in the world as it is and uses the same phrase in praise of some of his subjects. He agrees with the observation of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, "I find that any self-respecting artist must be, and in more than one sense of the term, an émigré." He writes that the example of the poet Paul Celan is daunting to other poets. "For one thing, it included suicide, which critics understandably tend to regard as a mark of seriousness." It would seem to be particularly understandable to Mr. James.
His subjects are disproportionately, some might say inordinately, drawn from the displaced, imperiled, and mainly Jewish writers of the Viennese coffee house prior to World War II. They lived as James, despite the false notes of his optimistic coda, seems to live, in an awareness of impending catastrophe. His cause, what keeps him going, is humanism.
He describes his cause in the past tense. "Humanism was a particularized but unconfirmed concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it."
James’ world is emphatically post-Christian. He quotes the statement of Viennese polymath Egon Friedell: "Mankind in the Christian era possesses one huge advantage over the ancients: a bad conscience." James continues: "By the time of his wisely chosen suicide, the evidence had already been coming in from Germany for the previous five years that Christianity was in for a comprehensive rewrite, the main thing being to jettison its moral encumbrances, of which bad conscience was the most burdensome." The Nazis, in this very dubious view, were rewriting Christianity.
In any event, Christianity will not be missed; the Christian conscience has been succeeded by the liberal conscience. "The liberal conscience, the conscience we really value, would never have arrived in the world unless the Christian conscience had preceded it; so Christianity can be conceded the primacy." The chronological primacy, that is.
Contra Nietzsche, James seems to believe that Christian morality, in the form of the liberal conscience, can survive the death of Christianity. Or he seems at times to be able to sustain that belief. But then there is, again in connection with Paul Celan and his poem Todesfuge : "[Celan] wrote the poem by which most of us define him: the man who came out of the flames with a love song that redeems mankind in the only way possible, by admitting that there is no redemption." And then Celan committed suicide.
And then there is this: "Stefan Zweig [who was persecuted by the Nazis] was the incarnation of humanism, so when he finally took his own life it was a persuasive indication that the thing we value so highly can stay alive only in a liberal context."
Cultural Amnesia is a cosmopolitan and informative commentary on the cultural circumstance that emerged from the bloodiest century in human history. The tone is typically wry and the judgments frequently wise. But it is finally a dark book, the product of a decent man desperately trying to unfurl the banner of a cause that he knows is lost. Nietzsche was right, and my hunch is that Clive James knows it.