Cultural Amnesia

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Clive James is one of the United Kingdom’s most prominent, as well as most controversial, cultural critics, never afraid to report that the emperor is in fact unclothed and the latest media fad is bereft of either meaning or value. After several decades of waging this good fight in a variety of journalistic venues, James has in Cultural Amnesia chosen to put together a catalog of those “necessary memories from history and the arts” that are in danger of being forgotten in a society obsessed with the latest rather than the greatest.

Unlike such previous gatherings of essays and reviews as Snakecharmers in Texas (1988) and The Metropolitan Critic (1994), which were composed of occasional journalistic pieces that had nothing in common except their author, Cultural Amnesia stakes out a major claim for the significance of its content. It is always risky for critics to become creators, not least because in the course of their careers they will have made enemies who eagerly await the opportunity to revenge themselves with a scathing review of their own. In undertaking a project as ambitious as Cultural Amnesia, then, which intends to redress the collective failure of memory by reaffirming the worth of unjustly neglected or even forgotten figures from the recent (and in some cases not all that recent) past, James is also venturing into territory zealously defended by some of the most powerful social shibboleths: “Those who can’t do, teach,” as one piece of conventional wisdom has it, from which it is but a small step to the corollary that those who cannot create, criticize.

How does Cultural Amnesia stand up to the more rigorous criteria of meaning and coherence that it has taken upon itself? An opening browse through the 106 names in its table of contents is both intriguing and disconcerting. Alongside those eminences who would likely receive consideration in any roundup of intellectual contributions worth preservingSigmund Freud, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Ludwig Wittgensteinthere are groupings of European, and particularly Viennese, figures for whom the basis for inclusion is not immediately self-evident. This catholicity of reference is, to a significant degree, a notable strength of Cultural Amnesia, which reflects both James’s impressively wide learning and his willingness to go against the grain in focusing on individuals who will be unfamiliar to many of his readers. In this case, he makes a convincing argument for the need to remember and respect the legacy of those such as Peter Altenberg, Egon Friedell, Karl Kraus, Alfred Polgar, and Stefan Zweig, who made pre-World War II Vienna one of Western civilization’s most generative and stimulating atmospheres, and he is also good on the merits of French (Raymond Aron, Albert Camus, Jean Cocteau, Paul Valéry), Italian (Gianfranco Contini, Benedetto Croce, Eugenio Montale), Russian (Anna Akhmatova, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Aleksandr Zinoviev), and many other representatives of European national traditions whose work is always in danger of being forgotten by English-language readers.

On the other hand, many of James’s selections seem not just problematic, but actually perverse. The names of Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, for example, have gone into history’s memory book only because of their prominence on the list of those French intellectuals who willingly collaborated with their country’s German occupiers during World War II, and nothing James says regarding their respective careers indicates why they deserve memorialization. On the other side of this particular coin, the inclusion of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels among Cultural Amnesia’s subjects also strikes a discordant note in a book that claims to have a “new humanism” as its ultimate goal, and in different contexts the attention paid to Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalinthe latter not given a separate essay, but more frequently cited in the index than either Goebbels or Maois similarly indicative of an antitotalitarian agenda that does not always blend well with James’s redemptive treatment of figures of primarily cultural significance.

If the disparity between humanistic artists and...

(The entire section is 1750 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Atlantic Monthly 299, no. 3 (April, 2007): 113-115.

Booklist 103, no. 13 (March 1, 2007): 56.

Commonweal 134, no. 20 (November 23, 2007): 32-33.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 24 (December 15, 2006): 1257.

Library Journal 132, no. 2 (February 1, 2007): 72.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (April 8, 2007): 14-15.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 4 (January 22, 2007): 179.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 29, 2007, p. M1.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 14, 2007, pp. 3-5.