October 8, 2007

Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia

Filed under: History, Literature — duncan @ 8:05 pm

I’ve been reading Clive James’s ‘Cultural Amnesia’ on and off for some time now. It’s a collection of biographical essays about mostly twentieth century cultural figures. It took me surprisingly long to figure out the obvious: it’s a bad book. I wanted to write a few quick remarks, and ended up sweating over this rambling post. There’s still almost everything wrong with what I say here; but my patience has run out. For a proper, better review you might want to check out the Millions, here.

Start with the book itself.

 1) Everything James touches makes him think of Stalin or the Holocaust. There’s scarcely a personality who isn’t considered in the light of their response to the political horrors of twentieth century Europe. James is endlessly judgemental; he’ll condemn almost anyone for political complicity. Medieval Philologist Ernst Curtius: “It is comprehensible and forgivable that Curtius said nothing about Nazi atrocities during the war. Incomprehensible and unforgivable is that he said nothing about them after it.” (p. 159). Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Neither in his philosophy nor in his ancillary writings did he ever say much about what subsequently happened in the German-speaking countries, at the very time when civilization was facing its greatest threat. It could be said that he was under no obligation to, but it is still a strange omission.” (p. 804). Jean Cocteau: “At the Propaganda Staffel receptions, with cocktails and finger food, Cocteau was a fixture, if a chameleon crossing a swastika can be called that.” (p. 131). Some of the attacks are reasonable; some are not. But over nearly nine hundred pages they produce a sense of monomania. At times (as in the piece on Wittgenstein) James reaches dizzy heights of tastelessness and irrelevance.

2) James sees the battles between totalitarianism and democracy in twentieth century Europe as exemplifying the conflict between humanism and its enemies. This is a conflict James wants to participate in. But there’s a weird contradiction in his intervention. James ceaselessly condemns the cultural figures he discusses for their failure to engage with the politics of their time; but James’s book is almost entirely backward-looking. He scolds Camus (for instance) for not playing a greater role in the French resistance (“Apart from the brave few who went underground and fought at the risk of their lives, the French intellectuals gave the Nazis little trouble, and were morally compromised as a consequence. Not even Camus, a writer whose stature depended on his very real capacity for translating his ideals of authenticity into action, was entirely untouched. But at least Camus had the grace to admit that his Resistance activities had not amounted to much,” p. 35). But James passes over in almost total silence any political or moral challenges of our own time; challenges that might confront him, Clive James, or you and me, his readers.

3) Contemporary enemies of humanism only surface in the margins of the text; and when they do, they are grimly predictable. James has something in common with that group of literary/political journalists (Christopher Hitchens; Nick Cohen; Martin Amis) who use the rhetoric of liberal anti-totalitarianism to advance substantially conservative agendas. But James is far more thoroughgoingly conservative than these writers. The enemies of humanism today include the failure to make students memorise verse in Latin (“What have we gained, except a classroom in which no one need feel excluded?” p. 135) and a misguided egalitarianism (Baroness Sidonie Nadherny von Borutin’s “intrinsic worth went deeper than that. She was the product of a social order, which [Karl] Kraus had admired only for its accoutrements…. Though he was pleased to appropriate the concept of gentility as a talisman against modern opportunism, he had no real capacity for valuing noblesse oblige, which is the long-gestated product of a society of obligations, not of rights” (p. 373).) Apart from the totalitarian leaders, hardly any political figures get an essay of their own – but Margaret Thatcher is given a glowing write up. Her “courage” over the Falkland Islands is praised in the terms we by now expect: “There were yells of protest from the far left, which would have preferred to give a green light to the Argentinean fascists rather than resort to gunboat diplomacy. The far left preferred love-boat diplomacy: an interesting reprise of the Labour party’s position in the late thirties, when the menace of Hitler was admitted but the menace of rearmament seemed greater.” (p. 739). This shoddy conflation (and misrepresentation) of two almost completely different political scenarios is typical of James: everything is seen in terms of anti-totalitarianism, which provides the justification for political confusion and emotional blackmail. Opponents of the Falklands war, you understand, were no better than Hitler’s appeasers.

4) Much of the time, however, James doesn’t concern himself with actual politics. He is preoccupied, instead, with the politics of style. In particular, he is preoccupied with the opposition between plain-speaking vernacular prose, and academic or literary obscurantism. The former speaks the truth; the latter evades it. In the battle between humanism and its enemies, we must join with lucid journalists against charlatan academics or litterateurs. So, in pre-war Europe, journalists “took the opportunity to create a new language for civilization, a language that drew strength from the demotic in order to cherish the eternal” (p. 55). On the other hand, “Foucault, Derrida and the like shouldn’t have needed scientific debunking to prove them fraudulent: the pseudo-scientific vacuity of their argufying was sufficiently evident from the wilful obfuscation of their stylistic hoopla” (p. 671). The two sides of James’s ‘argument’ – his preoccupation with totalitarianism and with stylistic felicity – come together in his discussion of Sartre. “Sartre… looms in the corner of this book like a genius with the evil eye. For the book’s author, Sartre is a devil’s advocate to be despised more than the devil, because the advocate was smarter. No doubt this is a disproportionate reaction. Sartre, after all, never actually killed anybody. But he excused many who did… If Sartre wanted to avoid examining his own behaviour – and clearly he did – he would need to develop a manner of writing philosophy in which he could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing. To the lasting bamboozlement of the civilized world, he succeeded” (p. 675).

5) James, then, sees stylistic obscurity as a potent ally of political evil. Stylistic directness is the best way to represent reality; and humanism, or liberalism, is reality’s true voice. “Liberal democracy was, and is, reality.” (p. 44). It follows that the further you get from reality, the further you get from liberalism; and the further you get from stylistic lucidity, the further you get from reality. When James is talking about figures such as Sartre, or Heidegger, these connections can seem just about plausible. But his thesis looks deeply suspect when he comes to figures whose work aligns itself less neatly with his claims. Take his essay on Paul Celan. In one way, Celan should be perfect fodder for James’s preoccupations: here, if anywhere, is a cultural figure who engaged obsessively with the horrors of recent European history. But James’s essay radiates unease. “Celan’s usual hermeticism, his obliquity that amounts to an insoluble encryption, was a necessity for the poet, not the poetry: there was never any reason poetry written in the dark light of the Holocaust should be indecipherable, and he wrote at least one poem to prove it. In ‘Todesfuge’ you can tell exactly what is going on.” (p. 103). James’s thesis is that Todesfuge is a great poem, but that the rest of Celan’s work is marred by its difficulty – a difficulty produced by Celan’s need to find a refuge from harsh reality. We may feel there’s something in this, or we may not, but James’s discussion of Celan’s work is so superficial that it undermines our faith in his critical sensibility. “Number me among the almonds” Celan says. James responds: “At the time I noted this instruction down, I couldn’t resist the unwritten addition: ‘And call me a nut.’ But [James goes on] I knew that a mental defence mechanism was at work to fend off the sense of being under-rehearsed that one is bound to have when reading about someone upon whom history came down with its full weight, thereby justifying any amount of eccentric behaviour later on.” (p. 102)

6) Just so. James’s flippancy is a defence mechanism to avoid fully engaging with the issues he discusses. He never proceeds to the idea that stylistic accessibility can be just as evasive as literary or academic obscurity. At times, as in his essay on Hegel, he comes close to admitting that obscure writing can be necessary or appropriate, equal to the difficulty of the issues it tackles – or the trauma it expresses. More often James takes stylistic difficulty as proof, in itself, of vacuousness. This is a deeply defensive position, fighting James’s own corner of journalistic, conversational (albeit relentlessly allusive) prose. James’s refusal to find value in work that forbids easy reading is part of his own flight from reality.

7) Throughout the book we hear the sound of a writer abandoning thought to the movement of his rhetoric. Before long James’s style – the riffs, the gags, the endless antitheses – becomes intensely irritating. More or less at random: “All too often, and especially towards the end, he [Raymond Aron] was a bit too fond of drawing himself up to his full height. But he never lost contact with the earth.” (p. 37). “Iago’s business was duplicity, but one of his weapons was straight sense.” (p. 207). “Eugene Onegin is a miracle of lightness in which every word has been weighed.” (p. 288). “Heinrich Heine…, one of the greatest writers in German, spent only the first third of his mature creative life being a great writer in Germany.” (p. 311). And on and on. The book’s length could be cut by a third if the second half of every other sentence was dropped, and the reader filled in the blanks herself. This style works well enough in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement; in a nine-hundred page survey of twentieth century culture, it sets your teeth on edge. James is almost always willing to sacrifice coherent argument for stylistic display: exactly the charge he levels at literary charlatans.

8 ) Ideology is at the heart of this debate. Return to that Hegel piece. After reading Cultural Amnesia’s first three hundred pages, we feel we know what to expect. After all, Hegel is one of the most notoriously obscure writers of all time; he is often criticised for attempting to legitimate repressive nationalistic government. But James doesn’t just forgive Hegel his impenetrable style and suspect politics: he adores him. James quotes the famous line “The owl of Minerva begins its flight only in the gathering darkness”. (Mysteriously, he quotes it by way of Egon Friedell.) James comments: “the best reason for believing that the tangles [Hegel] got into [in his obscure philosophising] were legitimate is that he could have an idea as delicately suggestive as this and write it down without breaking it.” (p. 306). Why, one wonders, is this same charity not extended to Celan, or Walter Benjamin, or Rilke, or any of the other writers whose obscurity James deplores?

9) James extends Hegel this charity because Hegel is doing important ideological work for James. In the book’s peroration James discusses his “faith that the rule of decency – which at last, and against all the odds, looks as if it might prevail [?] – began in humanism [?], and can’t long continue without it.” (p. 851). Here are the book’s last words: “Even within ourselves, there are many voices. Hegel, when he said that we can learn little from history, forgot about Hegel, author of the best thing about history that has ever yet been said. He said that history is the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself.” This is an extraordinary conclusion for a book that has so relentlessly, obsessively returned to the horrors of recent European history. “History is the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself”? Is this the lesson we should take away from an eight hundred and fifty page survey of totalitarian crimes? How is it possible – how is it anything other than monstrous – for James to affirm Hegel’s view of historical progress?

10) In my opinion, James’s preoccupation with political horror is an ideological ballast. The real drive behind James’s emotive arguments is the attempt to exclude from the essence of Western culture the brutality that has played such a large role in its history.

The post is now going to become a bit more diffuse. Please bear with me.

11) ‘Cultural Amnesia’ is half personal reflection, half grand synthesis – and James’s commitment to idiosyncrasy allows him to avoid important topics, which a more systematic approach would have placed centre stage. Perhaps the most notable absence from the book is non-Western culture. Since James’s subject is twentieth century Europe, this is, perhaps, to be expected. But the few forays James makes into literature beyond the Western canon indicate the extent to which James’s Eurocentrism is not just a case of ‘write what you know’. James lavishes praise, for example, on Nirad C. Chaudhuri, who dedicated his ‘Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’ to “the memory of the British Empire in India… because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British Empire.” But when James comes to discuss Edward Said, the story is very different. To take just a couple of examples: “There is no call to doubt [Said’s] integrity just because he had been raised in transit on luxury liners, laurelled at Princeton and Harvard, and otherwise showered with all the rewards that Western civilization can bestow” (p. 650) And: “He played the piano to professional standard: a piquant demonstration that the Western and non-Western worlds of creativity had not been symmetrical. But his answer to that was convincing: if both sides had not created the music, they could both perform it.” (p. 651) This is cultural supremacism with a vengeance. It shines a revealing light on many other passages in the book.

12) James is certain of the superiority of Western civilisation to other cultures. But if he is to maintain this sense of superiority, he needs to find a way to reconcile it with the brutality that plays such a overwhelming role in Europe’s history. The true Europe, for James, is the Europe of ‘humanism’ – and the humanist ideal can be detached from any actual historical instantiation, while still being used to justify real political endeavours and regimes. James recasts the history of Europe as a battle between humanism and its enemies. “I wanted to write about philosophy, history, politics and the arts all at once, and about what had happened to those things during the course of the multiple catastrophes into whose second principal outburst (World War I was the first) I had been born in 1939, and which continued to shake the world as I grew to adulthood.” (p. xvi). Okay then. Start with philosophy.

13) With the Second World War, European philosophy’s centre of gravity shifted from Germany to France. From Kant to Heidegger, the story of modern Western philosophy is, to a remarkable degree, the story of German philosophy. Then, with WWII, this changes; we find a flourishing, largely in France, of a very disparate collection of thinkers, who are intensely preoccupied with critically transforming their, largely German, philosophical heritage. As Jeffrey Mehlam puts it, in his translator’s introduction to Laplanche’s ‘Life and Death in Psychoanalysis’, “In recent years, it has become increasingly – at times, disquietingly – clear that one of the rare and most intense sources of intellectual energy currently available to literate intellectuals has been a series of readings, performed in France, of certain German-language texts.” Lacan’s return to Freud; Derrida’s deconstructions of Husserl and Heidegger; Foucault’s Nietzschean genealogies; Sartre’s existentialism; Levinas’s ethics of alterity: all these are part of a broader current which transforms the German classics for a post-war French audience or climate. This change is connected to the war. These post-war figures are (in large part) struggling with the question of how the great intellectual tradition they have inherited – and the civilisation it represents – can be reconciled with the horrors it also visited upon a continent.

14) ‘Cultural Amnesia’ is a participant in the culture wars; wars represented within philosophy by the still abysmal divide between the ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ traditions. Of course these things are incredibly complex. Still, I think a profitable way to read the massive and persistent cultural difference represented by the analytic / continental split is in terms of differing responses to the wars that almost destroyed Europe. In one sense, Britain and American were more radically transformed by those wars than continental Europe: Britain lost and America acquired superpower status between 1914 and 1945. But in another sense those wars did not traumatise the Anglo-American cultural imagination in the same way they did Europe’s. Britain and America were combatants in those wars, but they were never part of the contested territory. In the British cultural imagination, World War One is represented as a meaningless folly – albeit a folly that undermined the British faith in Empire. The dominant British cultural response can be found in Lytton Strachey and Auden, rather than in the violently anti-cultural movements of the European avant-garde. World War Two is, from a Anglo-American perspective, still more easily recuperable as a narrative of idealistic heroism: steadfast courage held the line for civilisation. (We are still within the cultural wake of this self-imagination.) In a European context, by contrast, the horrors of WWII cannot be so easily dismissed. Despair – or nihilism – plays a far more central role in recent European than in Anglo-American culture; and one reason for this is the effect of the wars.

15) In a European context the wars, and particularly the Second World War, represent the suicidal self-destructiveness of central Europe. The question for post-war European intellectuals was how their commitment to civilisation could be reconciled with that civilisation’s self-destructive violence; and this generated an unprecedented examination of the historical, political and ideological forces behind Europe’s self-image: a fundamental attack on the concept of historical progress, as it had dominated ‘the Enlightenment’. In literature, this takes the form of a new absurdism, or avant-gardism. Given James’s preoccupations, it’s striking that he never once mentions Beckett – who participated in the French resistance, and whose work was deeply marked by the experience of the war. Of course, Beckett was Irish; but he moved to France, and wrote all his greatest work in French. In a sense, Beckett exemplifies both the cultural changes wrought by WWII, and the differences between English- and French-speaking literary/philosophical culture.

16) In philosophy, the shift between pre- and post-war culture took the form of what came to be known as the move to ‘anti-humanism’. Modern continental philosophy’s vision is often characterised by a remarkable pessimism; or, at least, a remarkable readiness to treat the darkest aspects of human nature as fundamental to civilisation. This is of course not simply a product of the wars; Nietzsche shows to what extent European thought was already turning in this direction. But in Nietzsche’s own time there was no fundamental divide between the continental and Anglo-American philosophical schools. At the turn of the century, many English philosophers were Hegelian; the analytic reaction had not begun. Then Principia Mathematica (1910); Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1918); Being and Time (1926). By the time we reach Word and Object (1960) or History of Madness (1962), there is really no miscegenation between these philosophical traditions.

17) It goes without saying that I’m being wildly over-simplistic. (Sartre described himself as a humanist, for instance. And it’s impossible to give an adequate account of the rise of post-war French philosophy without considering its reception within the American academy – which sort of undermines the argument I’m trying to make.) Still, in terms of the culture wars that (I think) drive James’s book, the point I’m making is: James’s contempt for pretentious continental intellectuals is driven, to a very large extent, by his refusal to acknowledge a tradition that does not see modern history as a battle between humanism and its enemies, but that instead chooses to emphasise the violence at the heart of humanism. Rather than tackle the real content of intellectual ‘anti-humanism’, James is willing to simply, and dishonestly, link it to the brutality of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. And this renders ‘Cultural Amnesia’ largely worthless as cultural history.

18) There’s a whole lot more that could and indeed should be said. But instead I’ll wrap things up with a famous passage from Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. James is extremely hard on Benjamin. Of course he can’t resist a long discussion of Benjamin’s death: “Considering the refinement of Benjamin’s mind, his fate was a crucifixion” (a singularly ill-chosen piece of imagery). But, James continues: “we are talking about his reputation, the prestige he still has, and, for the humanities, the baleful encouragement he gave to the damaging notion that there is somehow a progressivist, humanitarian licence for talking through a high hat. There is no such licence. The wretched of the earth get no help from witch doctors, and when academic language gets beyond shouting distance of ordinary speech, voodoo is all it is.” (p. 56). There is, no doubt, an element of truth to this. But it is also a lie. By writing in this way James seems to imply that his own lucid and readable style is in the service of “the wretched of the earth” – that James’s cultural journalism is somehow more ‘progressive’, and has more ‘humanitarian’ effect, than hermetic and self-indulgent academic or literary writing. It’s nonsense, of course; James’s work has exactly the same humanitarian effect as all cultural journalism: none. But it’s also dishonest because Benjamin, contrary to what James implies, is not an academic manqué. Benjamin’s project is not to write like an academic, but to bring the academic and journalistic worlds together – to bring the profundity of philosophical thought into the medium of the occasional essay. In this sense, Benjamin is a precursor of cultural studies; would ‘Cultural Amnesia’ have the same form without Benjamin’s example lurking somewhere in the background? The important point, however, is that Benjamin’s style is not devoted to obscurity, but, at its best, has the resonant lucidity of the fable and the aphorism. For an example of which, see Thesis IX of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. It’s so frequently referenced that it’s almost become a cliché; but, for me, it never loses its power. James agrees – Benjamin, he says, was “a poet” when he wrote these lines. But James never discusses their significance. No sooner is the passage mentioned (in the piece on Hegel, significantly enough), than it is dropped, in one of James’s characteristic, evasive digressions. This is a vision of history compatible with the ‘lessons’ of twentieth century Europe. It is certainly a better starting point for an analysis of that horror than Hegel’s unfolding Geist. James never explains why, in the face of this vision of history, we should take seriously the concept of progress at all.

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”


  1. in addition my edition was appallingly edited

    Comment by paul carling — March 24, 2011 @ 4:08 am

  2. […] ‘Cultural Amnesia’, in terms of various thinkers of that same century, but then I read this post, and now I find it hard to take the same […]

    Pingback by A dialogue: Book as lever, book as sextant, book as sandcastle | Tiny Camels — March 21, 2013 @ 10:12 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: