Clive James is the quintessential critic at large, what someone who delves into many subjects used to be called. James has written memoirs, novels, books of poetry, and much nonfiction. He is familiar to the British public as the host of television shows—pop-music shows, talk shows, travelogues. Chat’s his game, and when his pen hits paper, call him Deep Chat.
James, like the barely remembered bon vivant and raconteur Peter Ustinov, is a conventionally but ingratiatingly pompous stereotype of the provincial arriviste set loose in the glittering capital, someone who knows at least a little about most things and a lot about many. The topographical range of his erudition is often more formidable than its depth, but his prose, like his TV work, is lively, nimble, and stylish.
I fully agree with some introductory statements in James’s latest book, Cultural Amnesia: “It has always been part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance,” for example. James intends his book as a step toward producing a fresh crop of humanists. I’ll leave aside the question of whether this is, without qualification, a desirable goal. James uses the least appealing method of pedagogy, in any case, to reach it: the worship of proper names, which function as stop signs to independent thought. James’s book even presents his very significant names in alphabetical sequence. Their owners are not all currently famous, but reviving the obscure isn’t going to put any glacial shelf back together on your North Pole. James’s rescue effort on behalf of a civilization that has already collapsed is, to paraphrase the artist Jenny Holzer, beautiful but stupid.
James’s potted lives are sincere attempts to convey ideas that shaped this civilization, but perhaps the snap, crackle, and pop approach instilled by a career in television accounts for his habit of miniaturizing figures he disagrees with and hyperinflating his personal heroes. James can expound his subjects’ accomplishments without oversimplification; what he can’t do, apparently, is interrogate his own broad assumptions and prejudices.
When he wishes to denigrate a writer, artist, philosopher, or what have you, he refuses them any quarter; he writes more positive things about Hitler than he does about Celine. That someone can be a shit in private and one of the world’s most formidable writers, concert pianists, philosophers, or anything else in public is one of the many contradictions we have to live with, hold the humanism on that BLT.
One of James’s most firmly held and shakiest convictions is reflected in his mantra-like invocation of “liberal democracy” as the ideal arrangement of life on earth, which he conjoins—correctly, in fact—with free-market capitalism. As Marcuse pointed out, there is such a thing as totalitarian democracy, and to quote an old detergent commercial, “You’re soaking in it.”
Clive James is perfectly entitled to his personal bêtes noires, foremostly Jean-Paul Sartre, and could make a persuasive argument against many of Sartre’s less inspired efforts on and off the printed page without foaming at the mouth, if his mental teeth weren’t determined to tear out Sartre’s jugular vein. But they are. Sartre wins pride of place as James’s Satan incarnate. His loathing of one of 20th-century France’s indispensable minds spills out all over the place, like a trail of candlewax dripped across essays that have nothing to do with Sartre. The swipes and insults thicken into such obsessive preposterousness that when and if the reader gets as far as the “S’s” and the formal grand jury indictment of Sartre, James’s bilious “reflections” sound like a drunken sailor pounding the bar with his fist for attention.
All right, he hates Sartre. Be my guest. But if part of James’s project is to “destroy” people he considers malignant or less wonderful than other people think, as the jacket of this book asseverates, he should, at least, hire a fact-checker. It really is inexcusable to reproach the writer Karl Kraus for failing to raise his voice against Hitler’s onrushing Anschluss with Austria, if only because this event occurred in 1938. Kraus died in 1936.
I suppose if you take on the burden of saving civilization, you’re inevitably going to get some things wrong. Probably the first and largest mistake is to suppose yourself capable of saving a civilization after it has already regressed to barbarism. One can exhume parts of a dead civilization, and hope that the essential knowledge it produced isn’t lost forever. That the necessary tools for constructing a civilization can be permanently forgotten was one of Hannah Arendt’s most chilling insights. The value of retrieving what can vanish forever, though, doesn’t consist of knowing the name of its original discoverer—it’s a nice thing if that happens, I suppose, but it isn’t the important thing. Slobbering over images and the names attached to them is one of the things that’s taken us to where we are today.
Despite its highbrow-for-middlebrows exposition of other people’s work and personalities, abrupt flights of shabby moralizing over trivia, and conspicuous impertinences, Cultural Amnesia is, for much of its 800-some pages, “a good read,” and it may actually gain something from its author having his head in the clouds and his feet in the toilet. Hard to say, however, which is really worse: cultural amnesia or cultural dyslexia.