Clive James died on November 24, 2019, nearly a decade after being diagnosed with leukemia.
Born in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, in 1939, he moved to England in the early 1960s and stayed. He began his writing career as television critic for The Observer, and over the following decades wrote as a literary and film critic, poet, memoirist, travel writer, novelist, and cultural critic. “Wide-ranging” is too weak to capture the career of a man who produced a documentary on Shakespeare and interviewed Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy on one of his many British television programs.
James was wickedly funny. At dinner with Jay Leno, James tried to keep up with the flurry of jokes and failed: “it wasn’t a conversation: more like mouth-to-mouth assassination.” Grace Kelly “could not manage three notes in a row unless two of them were the same and the third not very different.” Of Susan Sontag’s disastrous 1969 appearance with Jonathan Miller on the BBC program Monitor, James wrote: “the medium was the massacre.” Later James retracted some of his criticisms, but still said Sontag “wrote the way Salome danced, but the head she wanted was yours.”
He compared Wittgenstein to “a poet [who] hopes to write poetry in which there is nothing that can be criticized for its looseness: every line a Maginot line.” Walter Benjamin transcended literary criticism “into the realm of theory, where critics rank as philosophers if they are hard enough to read.” He thought Andy Warhol underestimated the availability of fame. In the twenty-first century, no one will be limited to fifteen minutes of celebrity; everyone “will be famous all the time.” Fame has become the one thing everyone wants and everyone can get: “If you want to be famous, urinate on the shoe of someone who is already famous. You will be given your own television series.”
It’s a rare writer who can put withering wit in service to wisdom. James wasn’t a Johnson or Chesterton, but he was more than a craftsman of quips. In “Walter Benjamin,” he refutes Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” with a simple argument that, Benjamin to the contrary, reproductions (of books, photographs) do give off an aura. Characteristically, in “Walter Benjamin” James probes style to get a handle on substance. Benjamin, he admits, has a “nose for the lurking detail,” but as soon as he theorizes, his prose turns into “velvet cloth.” James concludes that Benjamin’s “mushy” theorizing was “cushioning” to protect him from the traumas of a tragic life. James ends with what he admits is an unpleasant judgment: “The wretched of the earth get no help from witch doctors, and when academic language gets beyond shouting distance of ordinary speech, voodoo is all it is.”
The substance beyond the wit came partly from his seriousness about language and, more recently, his long illness. He never lost his humor. He worried he was losing credibility for repeating “I’ll be gone soon” for a decade. His “childish urge to understand everything” never abated. After all, “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
Yet his late poetry was poignant and elegiac, with “Japanese Maple” his signature “farewell poem.” Death is not pain so much as an “uncomfortable” sense of draining energy. Thought and sight remain, and are even enhanced: “when did you ever see / So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls / On that small tree / and saturates your brick back garden walls”? So he waits for autumn, when the Japanese maple in his garden, a gift from his daughter, “will turn to flame.” The tree becomes an emblem of the world that “shone / So brightly at the last, and then was gone.”
James’s brash clear-sightedness owed a great deal to his peculiar form of cultural Christianity. He was raised on the Prayer Book and as a boy put in his time at Kogarah Presbyterian Church’s Sunday School, but he abandoned Christianity in adulthood. Nevertheless, throughout his life, he admired the moral and political power of Christian faith.
In an essay on Czesław Miłosz in Cultural Amnesia, he expressed his perplexity at the decline of Bible translations, from the “prose masterpiece” of the King James Bible to the “compendium of banalities” that is the New English Bible. To unbelievers who recognize the Bible’s central role in Western civilization, this collapse “was bound to look like blasphemy, and the perpetrators like vandals.” For James, “the scriptures provided a standard of authenticity against the pervasive falsehoods of advertising, social engineering, moral uplift, demagogic politics – all the verbal corruptions of democracy, the language of illusion.”
“I don’t want the teachings of Jesus taken from me,” he wrote (this was the closest he ever came to a confession of faith). “He might no longer be my redeemer, but he is still my master.” Jesus, for James, was a model critic and communicator. Of course, “Jesus never spoke the language of the King James Version of the New Testament,” yet, James said, “the language of the King James Version is of a poetic intensity congruent with the impact Jesus must once have made on simple souls, of whom I am still one.”
In a 2008 Advent essay, he pondered what was left of Christianity after dogma had been hollowed out. Much, he thought. Even without sin, hell, and atonement, Christians still have Jesus: “I doubt if he can redeem me. I wish he could. But I do have faith that he lives on, as an ideal. All the Christian religions are lucky to have him, and those of us who have ceased to be Christians in the old way are lucky to have him too.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
Today is Giving Tuesday. Please support First Things by making a gift here.