Musings of a cultural omnivore
CULTURAL AMNESIA: Notes in the Margin of My Time
by Clive James
(New York: Picador)
Paperback: 852 pages
Rec. price: AUD$32.95
Cultural Amnesia is dedicated to four female opponents of repressive regimes.
They are: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese military dictatorship; Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Islamism; Ingrid Betancourt and Colombian communism; and Sophie Scholl and Nazism.
The motif of individuals versus anti-liberal systems, autocracies whose raison d’être is the elimination of human dignity, runs beneath everything that follows, frequently emerging explicitly to the surface. George Orwell is not treated separately, but he is quoted, and his spirit suffuses James’s thought.
Not that James is preoccupied with politics. The 106 individuals (arranged alphabetically from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig) include musicians, actors, soldiers, writers, artists and scientists as well as politicians. Most lived during the 20th century. Some (such as Browne, Montesquieu, Hazlitt and Hegel) inhabited the preceding two or three centuries, and one (Tacitus) speaks to us across nearly two millennia.
These are not mini-biographies. Each piece, averaging about six pages, deals with a particular train of thought which the subject has generated in James’s mind. The jumping-off point in almost every case is a verbal or written quote.
This is certainly not “stream of consciousness” writing, but it can sometimes take strange directions. For example, the article on anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl meanders into an analysis of Natalie Portman’s acting.
Most of the names will be familiar to a reasonably well-read person, but it is unlikely that anyone will have heard of all of them, let alone be conversant with their oeuvres. Know all about Witold Gombrowicz, for example? Or Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Leszek Kolakowski, Heda Margolius Kovaly, Eugenio Montale, Paul Muratov, Manes Sperber and Dubravka Ugresic? No, neither did I. And how do you remember which Mann (Golo, Heinrich, Michael or Thomas; James deals with all of them) is which?
It would be nice to be able to say that James introduces us to these more obscure authors (because that’s what most of them are, writers), infects us with something of his interest in them, and leaves us itching to explore them for ourselves. Unfortunately, he sometimes elicits the same puzzlement we feel toward a friend with an inexplicable passion for an odd food, hobby or relationship.
The duds, the expositions which fail to enthrall us, are the exceptions however. For the most part we are carried along by the intrinsic interest of the individuals, James’s idiosyncratic take on them, and his sheer exhilaration by words and ideas.
“Ideas” is the operative word. James does not appear to have a practical bone in his body, and would presumably have starved years ago had he been dependent on his business acumen or physical aptitudes.
This is, in effect, an unabashed celebration of Socrates’ dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living. Many of James’s heroes lived a hand-to-mouth existence, devoting themselves to a life of the mind that consisted almost entirely of reading, writing and conversation. In a society full of James’s type of person, the numerous cafés would buzz, but transport systems would break down, power stations blow up, sewage treatment plants overflow, and you would wait years to get a phone installed.
James is an atheist and a liberal humanist, but is not anti-Christian. He appears well aware of humanism’s desperate dependence on Judaeo-Christian ethics.
There is a contradiction at the heart of the Enlightenment project. Its twin assertions of logical positivism flowing from scientific reductionism, and the metaphysical existence of “natural” human rights based on the “self-evident” dignity of the individual human being, are incompatible. If a person is merely a chance concatenation of atoms, and not made in the image of God, then why does he or she possess any more inherent value than a cockroach (yes, James includes Franz Kafka) – or a blade of grass?
James is not only a humble liberal humanist, but a consistent one as well. He is just as savagely opposed to communism as he is to fascism, and as passionate against the practice of torture by Marxist gangster fiefdoms as by Latin American dictatorships.
The villains whose names recur throughout the book are not just the obvious monsters (Mao, Hitler, Stalin), or monsters manqués such as Leon Trotsky, or even well-known collaborators such as Martin Heidegger and Herbert von Karajan, but also equivocators and political spivs such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertolt Brecht, Régis Debray, Graham Greene, Tariq Ali, Michael Moore and Pablo Picasso.
Like Orwell, James is ruthless in exposing the abuse of language. His contempt for the oleaginous and irresponsible nihilism of literary theory is unembarrassedly overt.
In the only extended treatment of an Australian theme in the book, James dissects Richard Flanagan’s exploitation of the Tampa incident as an example of “the power of stories” (Flanagan’s expression) in manipulating political attitudes. Flanagan’s silences, posture-striking and selective use of facts produced a self-serving scenario of a racist Australian population and political establishment (the federal Coalition Government and Labor Opposition) confronted by a tiny, heroic band of morally spotless left-wing intelligentsia.
James has his weaknesses and absurdities – his tango-dancing, for example, and his notorious, over-the-top poem lamenting the death of Princess Diana. Nonetheless, this lucid and epigrammatic defence of culture and conservative liberalism is both a vigorous and invigorating read. It is a triumph of reason and decency.