Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia

Clive James, Australia’s foremost cultural critic, is living on borrowed time. In 2011, he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and in 2011 doctors pronounced his condition fatal – and yet he lives on, conscious every day of his good fortune. We should likewise celebrate, for a mind such as his is rare indeed, and Cultural Amnesia, a compendium of essays covering over 100 famous – and some infamous – men and women amply testifies to the depth and breadth of his learning, and to his special appreciation for the role that art has played in shaping our culture.

James was born in 1939, too young to truly remember the Second World War, but it was nonetheless the definitive experience of his lifetime, and its destructive force figures prominently in this book, as it figured prominently in his own life: his father, after surviving internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, was killed when the plane that was to return him home to his wife and son crashed in the waters of Manila Bay. But however steep a price the war exacted in blood, James understands its truly annihilative force was wrought on the culture of Europe, which has yet to truly recover from the devastation. The example James returns to, again and again, is the city of Vienna, which was, prior to the Anschluß – the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany – the rival of Paris for intellectual vibrancy and artistic fecundity. The city of Vienna survived the Nazi occupation, but its cultural climate – so much the product of Jewish intellectuals denied entry into the universities – was devastated. The most famous graduates of the Viennese coffee houses are still known today – Karl Kraus and Stefan Zweig, for writing; Theodor Herzl and Leon Trostky, for politics – but who today remembers Alfred Polgar or Egon Friedell? Clive James does, and he’s eager to preserve their memory, to undo the damage done by the Nazi barbarians, to the extent that this is possible. Friedell, in particular, is worth mentioning in detail, because his project while he lived so resembles Cultural Amnesia: he wrote a three-volume summa of European culture, A Cultural History of the Modern Age, that was banned by the Nazis in his lifetime, and has been frequently out of print since. Ultimately, the Nazis were not content to ban Friedell: two SA officers were sent to his home to arrest him, but he chose to take his fate into his own hands, and jumped to his death from the highest story of his apartment building. James wants us to remember Friedell, not only for what he stood for in his life, but for his death as well, and all it represented.

Among the 100-plus figures included in this volume are several villains. Hitler, Goebbels and Mao all have their own essays, potent reminders of the fatal influence determined fanatics can have, but the more interesting essays – and, if possible, the more caustic – cover figures like Jean-Paul Sartre and José Saramago, gifted writers who were blinded by their political sympathies, even to the point of outright hypocrisy. It is in these instances that James’ love of the aphorism – another inheritance from his appreciation of the Viennese writers – comes in handy: “Saramago is a writer whose fluent readiness to explain the world is unimpeded by the embarrassing fact that he has somehow managed never to hear the real news.” Sartre, deserving of even more scorn for his obscurantist prose style, could “sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing.” These criticisms are of a piece with a larger critique he makes of 20th century intellectuals:

The regrettable tendency of intellectuals to worship power is exemplified by their readiness to attribute dignity to men who could prove their seriousness about politics only by slaughtering anyone who might disagree with them, as if ruthless nihilism were a testimonial to dedication, an utter lack of mercy a mark of strength: if you can’t stand the blood, get out of the abattoir.

But however much he enjoys deflating the pompous and pretentious, his genius is essentially appreciative; he is a lover, not a fighter. In fact, if we were to extract the aphorisms, a separate and no-less-entertaining book could be constructed, one that would testify to his powers as a prose writer. Here, in evidence, are a handful of my favourite examples:

  • On Thomas Mann: “Mann, with some justification, thought he was Goethe, so making him feel belittled was easy: all you had to do was suggest that he was only Schiller” and “The worst you can say about Thomas Mann is that his ego was so big that he took even history personally.”
  • On Alfred Polgar: “A measure of how dreadful his era was is that it took everything he had to express it. A measure of what he had is that he could.”
  • On Norman Mailer: “He couldn’t be trivial if he tried, and sometimes he tried hard.”
  • On Karl Kraus: “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart: Byron meant that as an emphasis. Kraus meant it as an axiom.”

It should be said that there is very little cohesion to many of these essays; though they each ostensibly take their theme from the life or work of the titular figure, they range very far from their subjects, so much so that we are often at the mercy of James’ every whim and fancy – a disorienting experience, at times, but a rewarding one nonetheless, and we forgive him his digressions because he is the star of his own show, and erudite enough to keep us rapt.