Andrew Anthony has been writing for The Observer since 1993. He is the author of On Penalties, which examines the metaphysics of football, and the polemical memoir, The Fallout. In this essay, Andrew writes about Clive James's Cultural Amnesia.
Andrew Anthony on Cultural Amnesia by Clive James
I have mixed feelings about Clive James, though they are not necessarily the same mixture most commonly felt about the veteran critic, poet, linguist and novelist. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that he betrayed his literary talent for television celebrity – or if I did subscribe, it was only briefly and my subscription has long since lapsed. No, my reservations stem from a more personal disappointment.
Like many people of my generation, I grew up reading James's TV criticism. Ours was not the most urbane of households, but we did at least get The Observer every Sunday. And even as a young boy I recognized the extraordinary richness of James's style. It was funny, learned, knowing, playful and moral all at the same time, and about the least promising subjects. Best of all, it was a joy to read.
Nowadays everyone's a TV critic. The deconstruction of soap operas has become, in the era of media studies, a kind of basic membership requirement for the cultural classes, rather like reading D.H. Lawrence was for a previous generation. It's part and parcel of the postmodern sensibility, the highbrow tackling the lowbrow, which usually means the middlebrow browbeating the middlebrow.
Though his interests spanned the cultural spectrum, James was no postmodernist. For instead of making the simple appear complex, he made the difficult look easy. James worked hard so that the reader didn't have to. Take for example his observation that Harry Carpenter called Wimbledon 'Wmbldn'. It's a throwaway joke which in fact perfectly captures Carpenter's laconic commentary. Most journalists wouldn't come up with a memorable image like that if they sat down for a year. James did it almost every week for 10 years.
Anyway, you might say I was something of a fan when, 12 years ago, I ran into James at a grand prix in Belgium. I was there to do to an interview with Damon Hill, but Hill had withdrawn to his trailer and was not speaking (unbeknown to me – I wouldn't recognize a scoop if it punched me in the face – Hill had just been told he wasn't wanted by the Williams team). This presented a problem for me, as a large hole was waiting to be filled in that Sunday's paper. I decided to change plans and write a piece about the faded glamour of motor racing. I knew that James was a grand prix enthusiast, and as we were both hanging out in the Williams pit, I introduced myself, said I worked for The Observer (his old paper), and asked if he'd mind speaking to me about the grand prix scene. He looked at his watch and said: 'I can tell you it's 1.30pm', turned his back and walked away.
I doubt if a doorstepping tabloid hack, nosing into a popular vicar's fondness for crossdressing, has ever been dismissed with such lofty contempt. I didn't stop liking James's writing at that moment, but it became harder to appreciate the humanity that, every bit as much as the humour, has been a trademark of his best work. Somehow it didn't ring quite so true any more.
Of course, I was making the classic mistake of confusing the writer with his words. But if it was a mistake, it didn't appear to levy any great cost. It wasn't as if James was writing much. I wasn't interested in his novels, and the poetry didn't do much for me, so my new resistance hardly amounted to a noticeable loss. Then I did a stint as TV critic for The Observer, which rekindled my respect for his talent (it really isn't as easy as he made it seem). I read the occasional essay and book review again, then I bought a couple of collections, and before long I could go a full page without recalling the snub in Belgium, and eventually whole chapters.
What completed my social amnesia, however, was Cultural Amnesia, James's compendious collection of biographical essays on influential cultural and political figures, as well as more obscure subjects, like the young Nazi-resistor Sophie Scholl. Published in 2007, the book garnered some approving reviews, but I don't think the full depth and breadth of James's achievement has been widely acknowledged.
One of his strengths as a TV reviewer was that he brought an old-fashioned intellectual hinterland to bear on a modern medium, so that the jokes were the fruit of genuine knowledge rather than, as is now more common, the means to cover its absence. Nevertheless the hinterland was only hinted at, even if the hints were sometimes heavy. In Cultural Amnesia, subtitled Notes in the Margin of My Time, we get to see the dauntingly vast and multilingual landscape of James's reading: Proust – en français, naturellement - Karl Kraus in German, Paul Muratov in Russian and Borges in Spanish, 'a language,' James pronounces, 'that every student of literature should hold in prospect' – though perhaps a prospect which most of us will hold at a safe distance.
There are a number of examples of this kind of sage advice handed down throughout the book. Some might find it irritating or patronizing but I rather savoured the flattering conceit (for both the reader and James) that literary scholarship was the agreed end. The book is made up of a series of profiles, set out in alphabetical order, from Anna Akhmatova right through to Stefan Zweig. In between, the likes of Rilke and Wittgenstein share common space with Coco Chanel and Tony Curtis. James has some fun with a few of the arrangements, most obviously the successive entries for the great German family of letters, Heinrich, Thomas and Golo Mann, which are interrupted by Michael Mann, the Hollywood director of Heat.
The author is in favour of most of his subjects, sometimes passionately, though never uncritically. There are obvious enemies, like Hitler and Mao. 'The full evil of Mao Zedong,' he begins his essay on the Chinese dictator, 'is continually being rediscovered, because it is continually being forgotten.' It's an archetypal Jamesian sentence, so perfectly balanced that its pronounced clarity almost, but not quite, obscures its profound truth. This is the paradox that confronts the finest essayists: the better the prose, the more danger that style might consume meaning. James is never ready to sacrifice one for the other, and the result is an intoxicating interplay between language and ideas in which, ultimately, both triumph.
Another loose category that could be identified is that of intellectuals working against the backdrop of totalitarian threat. Some, like Jose Saramago and Jean-Paul Sartre, James singles out for excoriation. Saramago he portrays, accurately, as an unreconstructed communist with his head buried in the volcanic sand of Lanzarote. Of Sartre's influence by Heidegger, James writes: 'German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas.'
Towards the end of the war, after France was liberated, Sartre managed to position himself as something of a Resistance hero, while the role of real heroes, such as Marc Bloch and Jean Prevost, was conveniently overlooked. James seeks to put that injustice right in his incisive treatment of Bloch and Prevost, anti-Nazis of the kind that paid with their lives and were therefore ruled out from self-mythologizing on two grounds: that they weren't alive and what they did was not a myth.
In each of James's essays he begins with a quote by the subject. In the case of Raymond Aron, determined anti-totalitarian and therefore anti-utopian, the French thinker who did most to challenge Sartre's brand of revolutionary posturing, it is a passage from The Opium of the Intellectuals: '... the liberal believes in the permanence of humanity's imperfection, he resigns himself to a regime in which the good will be the result of numberless actions, and never the object of a conscious choice. Finally, he subscribes to the pessimism that sees, in politics, the art of creating the conditions in which the vices of men will contribute to the good of the state.'
Aron's pessimism was not the anti-progress relativism of, say, John Gray. Nor was it reactionary or authoritarian. He remained, James insists, a man of the left throughout his life. 'But he was always disgusted by the thirst of putatively humanitarian intellectuals for the lethal certitudes of Marxist dogma.'
Certainly James's own disgust with an intelligentsia enthralled by the simplifying spectacle of violence is plain to see in those words and many others in the book. For the discursive thread that joins all the disparate characters, stories and situations of Cultural Amnesia together is the cultural and moral value of democratic humanism and, in turn, social tolerance and civic decency. Given what the alternatives inflicted upon the world in the 20th century, it may seem odd that democracy and a liberal conception of humanity are in need of such spirited defence. But we live in a world, or at least many academics do, that seems incurably besotted with a form of intellectual nihilism. We live in a world, in fact, where the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities can write that 'crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not "essential" enough' and be hailed, as Slavoj Zizek has been, as one of the leading thinkers of our age.
James's judgments are not always infallible. (I agree with Fredrick Raphael who, while praising the book, suggested that James harshly misrepresented the French philosopher and activist, Bernard-Henri Lévy). But they do, in the end, always come back to character. Time and again, he returns to the humanity of his subjects, the question of not just whether they wrote or performed well but also whether they did good, and even, perhaps, were good.
It's not a fashionable area of inquiry, but it will always be a compelling one. For who really believes deep down that the dissemination of ideas and the choice of personal actions are, or should be, divorced from one another? The relationship between what is said and what is done is seldom straightforward, it's true, but there is a relationship and it's worthy of examination. In this respect, and with particular regard to the intellectual tendency to see spiritual salvation in revolutionary terror, it's a lesser life of the mind that doesn't mind about life.
As there is indeed so much to mind about in life, once I had completed this endlessly thoughtful book it seemed ridiculously petty to harbour any resentment, however small, about a distant slight. I resolved to write a note to James in praise of his epic work, a gesture that would serve the dual purpose of pleasing the author (like cheques through the post, praise is always welcome regardless of the source) and demonstrating, to myself, some kind of critical maturity. In the event, I never got round to writing the letter – I may no longer bear a grudge, but that hasn't cured my laziness. About a year later I saw James at a party. Now, I thought, I am positively obliged to convey my compliments. I went up and introduced myself. He greeted me as one might greet a stalker brandishing a cut-throat razor. I told him how much I admired Cultural Amnesia, and that I'd bought it as a present for various friends. 'That's good,' he said, and abruptly turned on his heel.
'Great writers supply us with the strengths to measure their weaknesses,' James writes of Hegel. By that measure James himself is a great writer, and by many others Cultural Amnesia is a great book.