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Book review: <i>Cultural Amnesia</i> by Clive James

the cover of the book

If this was one of its crisp, aphoristic sentences, it would be: "The lessons of history do not suit our wishes. If they did, they wouldn't be lessons, and history would be a fairy story."


A re-working...alright, a straight steal of an old Art Deco design. It's hard to bemoan the lack of originality because a) it's a great piece of design, and b) it suits the book, both in terms of the illustration itself (a lightbulb shining out into the darkness) and the style, which was in vogue at the time of the historical point to which James continually returns.


Ostensibly, James works his way through an alphabetical list of what he considers to be some of history's great minds. Most are European thinkers of the last two centuries, and the most frequently recurring point is their predictions toward, behaviour during, and/or reactions to the two great humanist nightmares of the last hundred years: fascism and communism. Also included are a couple of ancients, and a handful of people still alive today (Terry Gilliam, Michael Mann). Every writer/artist/musician/politician/philosopher is introduced with a mini-bio, and a quotation, before James moves into a more thorough re-examination to their contribution to the idea at the heart of the book, to wit, liberal humanism.

Often, though, the subject of the chapter serves simply as a doorway, leading us into some new salon of analysis. Sometimes this new room has little in common with the original, but we always return to the first eventually. Also threaded through the chapters are the names and thoughts of a hundred others; Shakespeare has no chapter of his own, but in a dozen others he reminds us of his genius (particularly to those, like me, who were introduced to his work in an uninspiring high school environment).

Look, it sounds a bit scattershot, I realise, which is why James aims for an "it's the vibe" introduction. If I were to do the same, I would describe this as an attempt by a very intelligent man to pin to paper the lessons learned from a lifetime's reading. It's an intricate, fascinating, and entertaining web of learning and critical analysis.

The good

I probably gave it away in the intro, but this is fantastic. I accidentally deleted my last bunch of reviews, but I shall attempt to re-write this one, though it was the longest, because I think the book truly warrants it.

Probably the best thing I can say about Cultural Amnesia is that it covers a thousand topics, many of formidable intellectual density, and yet, at a prose level it is never less than intensely, immediately readable. The author demonstrates on every page that the latter is the result of the former. James is extremely intelligent and formidably self educated - he can read in six languages, for a start - and his measured wisdom is apparent on every page. However, as a child of, and internal participant in, the television age, he is also wholly aware of that the medium is the message. Here, the medium is a great big thick book full of interesting ideas from and concerning intriguing people, written in a style which allows ingress to almost any reader, and presupposes nothing more than a common desire for enlightenment. And it's really good fun.

The writing is just great. I will always consider James a critic first and a novelist second, and his style is the best evidence for this case. At one point he defines grammar as "saying one thing at a time," and I can think of no better way to illustrate the primarily readable nature of his thoughts. Decades of writing for casual readers has taught him how to convey complex concepts with the simplest, most legible language. You'll find yourself re-reading only to unpack ideas, never to reassemble syntax. It takes a brave writer to distill his most powerful thoughts into the most accessible language, more so in a book where he both castigates other writers for failing to do so and instructs the audience in his own methods.

This is not the only brave aspect of Cultural Amnesia. Some of James' explorations alone are courageous, but doubly so for his stated intention never to obfuscate his conclusions, and triply so for his commitment to retaining a sane, objective perspective, regardless of politics or ideology. He has the guts, for instance, to ask if we are being naive expecting Muslim society to rapidly achieve a state which took the West hundreds of years to arrive at, yet also to ask if, historically, terrorism has been an effective tool, or, at least, like revolution, an inevitable part of history's cycle, horrific though it is.

Ultimately, Cultural Amnesia's approachability is what makes it the kind of book the English language is privileged to host. James is wise enough to know that there are readers young and old who will relish and benefit from a book devoted to (among many other things) discussing the ripest fruit of a hundred great writers they'll never read but would either like to (one day), can't (because they wrote in Russian or died in obscurity or both), or who's best years were spent dissecting the work of others who had come before. It is a necessary reminder that, when the internet was still a twinkle in Al Gore's eye, the totality of human wisdom was still there to be had on dusty bookshelves for anyone willing to seek it. In Cultural Amnesia, James calmly, wittily proves the value of the wisdom itself and the life spent seeking it.

Great critical writing features heavily here, also, and James, again, proves with the medium and message the value of those who enlighten us to the great aspects of others' great works. He makes a solid case as to the value of discernment - I'm not quite sure I follow the logic of his argument that liking crap on the sly is actively detrimental to the appreciation of quality, but I was more impressed by his summation of the essential qualities of good and bad art as vitality and sterility, respectively. (I would have been interested to hear his response to the old axiom that the critic is one who cannot do what he judges - Stephen Fry makes it clear that this is a separate category to that of artists who ALSO criticise, of which every critic featured within, James included, is a member, at least in literary terms.) To put it in simple terms, James insists that we can and should seek pleasure from the highest arts just as we seek it from the lower ones, and also that there is much great writing which wants nothing more than to explain to chumps like me the intricacies of other great works which I might otherwise miss. I would be the last person to ban entry to the common cultural conversation (or, as critics don't put it, "enjoy crap"), and I agree with Chuck Klosterman that the idea of "guilty pleasures" is an irritatingly self-delusory concept. But it's undeniable that the more good things one takes in, the more discerning one becomes, and James is proof: liking Mantovani may not be a good qualification to discuss Beethoven, but an understanding of Beethoven can't help but better inform one's ability to sift through pop music.

There's so much in here; at times it feels like James has included anything interesting he's learned over the last seventy years, and the book's all the better for it. For example, there's all sorts of advice for writers, spread through many different chapters, from straightforward writing tips James values up to what to do with your fan mail when you're famous. Don't be put off if you scan the chapter headings and only recognize Beatrix Potter and Charlie Chaplin, either - there's plenty of pop culture working its way into arguments when James feels it's warranted or when he feels like talking about the contextual justifications for Richard Burton's hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare. He's been a popular movie and TV critic for decades, remember.

Cultural Amnesia is constantly surprising, yet there are no accidents. It all means something, and James is never confused about what that might be. When prose this good is in full flight, even at its swoopiest there's still graft on the paper beneath and a detailed map to guide it home.

The bad

It's a book of opinions, make no mistake. Sure, they're about as well-informed as you can get, and I wouldn't dare step on Clive's toes way in any sort of critical capacity (often because I have only the flimsiest grasp of the works involved - he could tell me Marcel Proust was a bunch of bees and I'd have little choice but to believe him. Because I trust him. Maybe it's those glasses, they're very trustworthy). But there are a few problems I had with Clive's political opinions.

I would agree that a moderate, rational outlook which ignores bollocks like "right" and "left" is necessary for a thinking man to maintain. However, when this outlook ignores reason in favour of centrism it becomes another ideology, and if there's one thing James can't diss enough, it's an ideology. For example, at one point James alights on the topic of Australian immigration policy. Discussing the Tampa Bay incident he makes valid points regarding the cultural hegemony of the intellectual left and the immigration process itself. But then he can't resist making the claim that, to those who consider all illegal immigrants refugees, people smugglers thus become saintly figures. Following the debate from inside Australia, I never heard even the most rabid greenie try that one on. Those who claim territory outside an issue's fences must be careful that their self-defined alternate perspective does not form a vacuum AHEM Germaine Greer AHE-AHEM. However, the fact this little overstep is rare enough to be memorable is a mark of James' commitment to reasonableness.

No, the one real problem I have with the book is the faint but recurrent odour of hypocrisy. James forcibly asserts his (and our) right to judge not only an artist, but also the totality of their work, by the manner in which they were prepared to face that which was taking place in the world around them. Argentinean writer Jorge Louis Borges is reappraised in the ugly sodium light of his failure to acknowledge (or, James implies, think about) the disappearances and tortures taking place blocks away from his home, and poor old Sartre's entire style is defined by a desire to avoid the reality of the world around him, specifically his ignoble post-war calls for vengeance on collaborators and support of Soviet power. This is all a valid, valuable perspective, of course, and it may well be a better world if artists were judged more often by this standard (James' constant commitment to the intrinsic value of legibility over "academic" language is a self-illustrating example) but it also brings the reader's eye to bear on the way James sometimes fails to meet his own standard.

James uses Terry Gilliam, in particular a line from his troubled film Brazil, as a stepping stone to the subject of torture. James examines the concept of the "banality of evil" by looking at the total lack of difficulty that evil rulers have experienced throughout history in finding those willing to torture. James mentions Abu Ghraib, among a dozen other regimes, but he does not mention Guantanamo Bay, CIA black prisons, extraordinary rendition, signatories to the Geneva convention employing lawyers to describe it as irrelevant, the suspension of habeas corpus, or democratically elected U.S. politicians quibbling over the semantics of somebody else's organ failure. Nor does he mention the one advantage citizens of brutal regimes have over the West in such matters - when their leaders sanction torture, they are not complicit. He is also almost silent on what may turn out to be, certainly in my lifetime, the most irresponsibly blown opportunity for promoting the values of James' liberal humanist ideal: the Western response to the 9/11 attacks. In a chapter about an Italian politician/writer tasked with routing terrorism, James is brave enough to explore the historical validity of terrorism as a tool of change. The Italian's quote is: "Only Democracy can heal itself." But James does not have the stomach to apply this to the single most devastating terrorist event of my lifetime, and one which, through the actions of a ruling elite, has upended democratic ideals in a way no Al Qaeda member possessed the imagination to pray for. In another book this would be an excusable admission, but here it is an unmistakeable cross on James' self-penned test paper.

This area of reticence was something to which my mind returned on a few occasions throughout the book; partly due, I admit, to my desire to feel that the learned, avuncular author was on the side of the angels, or, to put it another way, me. It's hard to avoid thoughts of hypocrisy when an author will discount a dead man's work for its failure to stare into his society's dark heart, and then get cagey when dispensing his own judgment on current politics. Gore Vidal, James' aged mentor, doesn't. James says that "the Left" is at its weakest when it imagines that the past would have been different with better men (because, of course, those making the statement consider themselves the better men) but he is not above suffering a weakness of "the Right", either, i.e. retroactively re-framing OUR brutal excesses of force against a hypothetical worse-case scenario; the very page after his statement about the left, he is hinting that Japan's nuclear program was better developed, pre-Hiroshima, than most of us know, which is a meaningless addition to the chapter's otherwise convincing argument that the bombing of Hiroshima was a justifiable act.

Throughout Cultural Amnesia run currents of hope and fear. The hope shines on each page like the bulb on the cover, and it's based in the inherent worth of art, rational thought and culture and the enlightenment it can spread to the benefit of all. The fear is based in distrust. James has witnessed too much history to believe that the next generations will not repeat the past through their failure to remember the worst of it. This is a reasonable, if pessimistic, reaction, but unfortunately it generates the paradoxical subtext that no human tragedy occurring right now can compete with the horrors of, for instance, Stalinist Russia. James is also overly fond of the idea that any state which allows its residents to criticise it aloud is therefore a free one; only on the penultimate page of the book, discussing the future, does he posit the possibility of a future "bad state" where the leaders are smart enough to allow the culture to continue without interference while they disassemble freedom from the inside. I would argue that such states have already developed, in the reverse order: Russia and China have been fucking efficient at knocking up a facade of Western civilisation behind which the filthiest excesses of Freidmanian capitalism are busy crushing any hope of the security of a stable middle class. Of course, you would be insane to hold such things up against words like "Buchenwald" or "Auschwitz", and James is right to push this line. No state, even the utopia of our visions, should be allowed to forget the evil in its past. But there must be a point when saying "It's better than Communism" becomes as meaningless as yelling "Bush is a Nazi".

The book has a fantastic conclusion, where James looks to the future and examines a few of the points mentioned above. Sadly, it's all too brief. I would dearly have loved James to further elaborate on the challenge faced by future generations in keeping the flame of liberal humanism burning brighter than the ideologies which seek to extinguish it, and which will be all the more effective in the future for their increasingly sophisticated attempts to do so. My generation must promise never to forget that the current sense of democracy's inevitable ascension is half illusion and half a reality which was arrived at over a hundred million corpses. In return, his generation (which still, let us not forget, rules the planet) must come to terms with the fact that we know the fucking Cold War is over, and we do not accept that any objection to you selling the ground from under our feet can be decried as an attempt to create some sort of beret-wearing Marxist atheocracy. As Naomi Klein notes in Shock Doctrine, it is orthodoxy in most quarters (James' included) to deduce from the slaughters and inhumanities of Communism that the ideology itself is thus horrifically, inescapably wrong; James has no time whatsoever for suggestions that such abominations were broken eggs of a better societal omelette. Yet, for no obvious reason, this same standard is never applied to the dictatorships, poverty and torturous regimes resulting from the West's strongarm application of Freidmanian free market ideology (AKA "laissez-faire" capitalism, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, etc) to countries from Pinochet's Chile to C
heney's Iraq. It will be the younger generations who discover whether or not this destructive, devolutionary perversion of valid economic theory can be halted by any measure short of its own world-inverting implosion.

Forgive me, I'm being thorough because Cultural Amnesia is so good it makes me wish I was a better writer. This is easily the best book I've read in the past two years. It's a lifetime's learning between covers. Read it and you will be a bit smarter and a bit better read, but also, I guarantee, inspired to become even MORE smarterer and better read (like I are). This is brilliant, in fact - an illuminating radiance both of, and thrown onto, thought and art.

What I learnt

Here's a tip - if you start this and it grabs you (the intro ought to do it), use a scrap of paper for a bookmark. Every time you read about a writer, artist or muso who you've been meaning to investigate for years or who simply sounds fascinating, write it on the bookmark. This is the kind of thing libraries are built for, and if you've ever stood in the middle of one, thinking, "if only I knew where the good stuff is," you will now have valuable clues. If you're working on your Italian, German, French, Russian or Spanish and need a writer to start on, I assure you they're in here too.

In short

Title: Cultural Amnesia
Author: Clive James
Publisher: W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393061167
Year published: 2007
Pages: 768
Genre(s): Non-Fiction, Literature, Art, Culture
Review Type: