Margaret Thatcher, Humanist Icon: Reflections on Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia

May 14, 2007 | 6 15 min read

coverThe year is young yet, but I’d like to direct your attention to what will no doubt be recognized as one of the finest short stories published in it. It is called “Walter Benjamin,” and it appears in the Australian journalist Clive James’ experimental omnibus, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. I use the term “experimental” advisedly; like the revelatory works of W.G. Sebald, Cultural Amnesia weaves history, fiction, and memoir so tightly together that it may be hard for the casual reader to tell the imaginary from the real… particularly as Cultural Amnesia purports to be a work of criticism. Compound this postmodern pliability with a classic unreliable narrator – James himself – and vertigo quickly sets in.

So how does an artist hold together such an ambitious edifice? “Style,” James tells us, in one of his not infrequent moments of insight. And if some of James’ critical pronouncements lead us to suspect him of a tin ear, his writing confirms that he has learned a great deal from Proust, from Gibbon, from Waugh. Cultural Amnesia, which at 850 pages looks like intellectual heavy lifting, turns out to be a lively read: clear, colloquial, provocative, and often funny. James the stylist prizes clean rhythms, practical diction, an air of erudition, and above all the art of aphorism. We discover early on that he is a fine coiner of apercus, and if fatigue sets in halfway through the book, we finish with exhausted admiration: the man is a mint, a machine churning out sheet after epigrammatic sheet.

Unfortunately, in literature, unlike science, elegance is no indicator of truth, and it’s not always clear whether James’ clever turns of phrase are backed by any standard other than authorial fiat. To put it another way (paraphrasing Virginia Woolf), Clive James seems willing to throw a few truths on the fire in order to make an essay blaze. Of Rilke, for example, he writes, “There is a dangerous moment when, in the [Duino] elegies, ‘the tear trees, the fields of flowering sadness’ start sounding like fine shades of meaning, instead of forced exercises in sentimentality.” James’ British resistance to even the mildly visionary does lend this assessment a bumptious snap, crackle, and pop. But in straining for a phrase to parallel “fine shades of meaning,” the critic does violence to the poet he professes to admire. Whatever they are, the Elegies are less like “forced exercises” than anything else in the Rilke canon… possibly in 20th Century poetry. And this slip recursively undermines one of James’ earlier aphorisms, decrying “ways of studying the arts so as to make the student feel as smart as the artist.” (Because what else is James doing with Rilke here? (And do we really venerate artists for their “smarts?”))

coverWe can forestall the dizzying cascade of parentheses that might ensue by reminding ourselves that Cultural Amnesia is, among many other things, a character study. Its subject: one Clive James. For the duration of our reading, we are in the presence of a voice no more self-aware than that of Nabokov’s Kinbote. As with Pale Fire, we get to what is worthwhile not by nodding along with the narrator but by reading through him, by teasing out the contradictions he’s straining to conceal. And because our narrator’s subjects are seldom so small as a line of Rilke – because he rarely stoops to close reading – the potential rewards, are enormous.

Really, despite some introductory fulminations against “ideology” (a neat lift from the Marxism it purports to abhor), Cultural Amnesia aims at a kind of unified field theory of 20th Century history and culture. In alphabetized essays running from Anna Akhmatova through Dick Cavett all the way to Stefan Zweig, James returns again and again to the same questions: How did artists (not to say works of art) respond to the atrocities of Nazism and Communism? How should we value works of art, and why, and which ones?

These are, as James suggests, humanist questions, and if the answers he arrives at don’t quite meet that standard, there’s much to admire in the attempt. Over and above the sheer pleasure of James’ style stands his passionate moral engagement with history. He assays his new humanism on behalf of the millions and millions of victims of totalitarian movements. Like McDuff, he feels these losses as a man.

Indeed, writing about the suicide of Viennese polymath Egon Friedell, as storm troopers come “marching down the street,” James sounds almost envious that he was born too late to have been there alongside Friedell, to prove his own mettle. Our current pieties and abstractions about the war in Iraq or the genocide in Darfur can sound hollow in comparison to James’ moral outrage; there is much to learn from the way he takes massacres personally, and the critic owes it to him to take seriously the possibility that Stalin’s gulags might be a “central product” of socialism, rather than an aberration. (There was a time when Jean-Paul Sartre did not take that possibility seriously, and if James’ renunciation of everything Sartre wrote requires some willful misreading, at least it stands for something. James and Sartre have this in common: the belief that critical positions should never be lightly held.)

It bears saying, too, that we are lucky Clive James is on our side. Passion is crucial to thought – it’s what makes thought matter – but it can also cloud judgment, and too frequently in Cultural Amnesia James’ zeal for laissez-faire liberalism tips over into a ratification of corporate capitalism or a crotchety disdain for “economic determinism [and] dogmatic egalitarianism.” In the Introduction, he writes,

“Bright, sympathetic young people who now face a time when innocent human beings are killed by the thousand can be excused for thinking that their elders do not care enough […] but their elders grew to maturity in a time when innocent human beings were killed by the million.”

Even as he ignores Rwanda and Darfur (syntactically blaming the bright young things for even bringing them up), James seems implicitly to dismiss the liberal, democratic catastrophe in Iraq by saying, in effect, “well, things could be worse.” Such Panglossian sophistry, pronounced throughout the book, is a blot on the good name of humanism.

Nor does James quite follow through on his pluralist aspirations, which are the best and most deeply held part of his own ideology. He can imagine Duke Ellington jamming for Igor Stravinsky, but cannot hear the “we vs. they” contradictions in his assessment of leftist academics:

“The Procrustean enemies of our provokingly multifarious free society are bound to come, sometimes merely to preach obscurantist doctrine in our universities, at other times to fly our own airlines into towers of commerce. What they hate is the bewildering complexity of civilized life.”

To align the “witch doctors” of Cultural Studies with Al Qaeda is to fail to understand either, and this failure is not just intellectual, it is moral.

In more supple hands, the conjoinment of conscience and illiberalism in James’ essays – the way even his “descriptive” certainties shade toward systems of intolerance and control – might help illuminate the vexing ideological blind spots James exposes in subjects like Sartre. A fuller humanism, that is, might explore the ethical tensions of being human. But James, despite having his own person as good evidence to the contrary, conceives of human beings as unitary creatures, either cowardly or heroic. And, with sometimes disastrous results for his criticism, he resists the idea that generally lousy people can make genuinely great art.

Given James’ stern opposition to critical theory, it is both ironic and heartening to hear him decry the commodification of culture. In years past, an essayist’s insistence on learning as its own virtue might have suggested a doctrine of art for art’s sake. James, however, seems to view an artist’s works as an accessory to his or her life. Beneath a veneer of newfangled catholicism, he is that most old-fashioned of creatures – a biographical critic. Reading carefully through his renunciations of ideology, it becomes possible to discern James’ own. He does not believe that an artist with socialist sympathies can be as great as an artist who made do without them… or that a book colored by an objectionable ideology may also be a great one.

coverLouis-Ferdinand Celine, the author of that amazing phantasmagoria Voyage au bout de la nuit, had also written Bagatelles pour un massacre, a breviary for racialist fanatics,” he writes, blithely ignoring the incipient racism in the former. Why can’t he see Journey to the End of the Night for what it is? Would remembering Celine’s jaundiced account of the “primitives” in the novel’s African section make Journey less of a book? Or does the dialogic form of the novel allow us to situate Celine’s fictional alter-ego in a fully articulated ethical world, in which we can evaluate and possibly understand his misanthropy? Answering these questions would require a wholesale reexamination of James’ precepts about art… and might even force him to borrow a trick or two from Marxist literary theory, or – horrors! – from deconstruction. But James, blithely assured that academic critics “have nothing in mind beyond their own advancement,” can’t entertain the notion that moral and ideological ambiguity might enrich, rather than reduce, a text.

coverOf course, evaluating a genius mainly in light of his stated views on totalitarianism can itself become a reductio ad absurdum. Here, for example, is James’ version of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:

“Wittgenstein had thus constructed an instrument for discussing the totalitarian mentality, but he never used it. […] There is evidence, however, that when he finally saw the photographs of the hideous aftermath in the concentration camps he forgot his famous rule about being silent on issues of which one cannot speak, and broke down in tears.”

Aside from being a vulgar misapprehension of Wittgenstein’s proposition about the limits of language (or, if James had the nerve, a gestural opening into Wittgenstein’s later philosophical investigations), this moment of voyeurism is spectacularly beside the point, reducing Wittgenstein and the Holocaust to mere credentialing mechanisms for one another. James presupposes that a virtuous human being surprised by the evidence of totalitarian slaughter could be anything other than grief-stricken. (In James account, Sartre would be one of those human beings. Here bad historiography is the accessory to bad criticism, falsifying the way Stalin’s propaganda machine worked… which is not to excuse Sartre, who should have known better.) Anyway, we end up learning more about Clive James than about Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Even those artists lucky enough to have died before the rise of totalitarianism are not spared the indignity of becoming Rorschach tests for James’ various preoccupations. Gibbon gets taken to task for his prose (!) and Proust gets praised for all the wrong reasons. To hear James tell it, Proust’s virtue is his essayistic “wisdom”; In Search of Lost Time has “no structure to speak of.” This is heroically contrarian, but also dead wrong, and points to the blessing and curse of Cultural Amnesia. Unless we are inspired to remember the works of art James is nobly attempting to rescue, we’ll be stuck having to take his word for it.

Proust’s “wisdom” isn’t contained in his discursive speculations, the critical essays (sometimes enchantingly specious) indebted to Ruskin and Bergson. The Search’s essayistic passages are aesthetic movements, not entries in a philosophical rolodex (a critic who characterizes Wittgenstein as primarily a poet should understand this.) It is precisely the structure of In Search of Lost Time, mapped in miniature by the “Combray” section, that embodies Proust’s species of wisdom. James, not surprisingly, sees Proust’s book as a mirror of his own – “an imaginative encyclopedia” – and misses the ironic reversals, the ultimate recognition toward which Proust’s grand structure tends.

But in James’ own search, as in Proust’s, the narrator’s most dubious conclusions may serve to highlight deeper truths of psychology. The truth about Clive James is that he can’t entertain the idea that his triumphalist brand of capitalist liberalism might have its own flaws to be guarded against, its own totalizing tendencies, its own rolls of the dead. James is wonderful on artists whose lives and work are ideologically in harmony with each other and with him, but is much less tolerant than his bete noire Georg Lukacs of those whose ideas challenge a laissez-faire global political order. James frequently and rightly affirms that a right to dissent saves liberal democracy from becoming a totalizing ideology, but can’t conceal his resentment of the ungrateful few who exercise that right. And in the absence of Proust’s structural wisdom – in the absence of a Recognition scene, in which the narrator belatedly discovers his own imperfect apprehension of things – Cultural Amnesia trembles with unresolved tensions, threatening to bring down even the heroes James has enlisted on behalf of his cause.

To borrow from his sketch of Egon Friedell, James “comes on like an actor and a thinker both.” And sometimes the point of his performance seems to be to indemnify the capitalist West against any notion of progress. This leads him to the two tendencies that compromise, perhaps fatally, several of his essays.

The first tendency is to distort the legacies of the cultural figures he admires (those who fit comfortably within the current version of centrist, bourgeois tradition) through misplaced emphasis. In James’ ode to Louis Armstrong, Armstrong’s single greatest achievement appears to be that he admired Bix Beiderbecke. Margaret Thatcher, we are told, posed “a crisis for Britain’s ideological feminists, who could no longer maintain that there was a glass ceiling.” Thomas Mann? “A solid paterfamilias.” One does not doubt that Mann confined his homosexual feelings to his fantasy life, that Thatcher vexed feminists, and that Armstrong approved of white musicians. But surely the collective achievements of this triumvirate amount to more than allowing straight white heirarchs to say, “Look, boys, he’s one of us!”

Nor does James does reserve distortions for his fellow humanists. If he mischaracterizes artists who worked to shape the center, he fictionalizes those on the left.

A tortured eulogy for Edward Said dissolves into an orgy of bad faith, as our narrator tells himself that faint praise and outright damnation add up to an ingenuous farewell.

“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 Western civilization can bestow. What can be doubted is his accuracy. […] It is important to say that there were some Arab thinkers who […] found Orientalism a wrong-headed book. According to them, it encouraged a victim mentality by enabling failed states to blame the West for their current plight: a patronizing idea, common to the Western left. Though most of Said’s Western admirers were never aware of it, this ambiguity marked Said’s written work throughout his career: he was continually telling the people he professed to be rescuing from Western influence that they were helpless in its embrace. A quality of self-defeating ambiguity also characterized Said’s role as a practical diplomat.”

This tangle of innuendo belies James’ insistence elsewhere that transparency of prose and transparency of meaning are synonymous. Every possible charge against Said is given space on the page, even as James conceals his endorsement. The rhetorical coup de grace comes when James hides behind “some Arab thinkers.” These nameless Arab thinkers’ sole contribution to 20th Century culture seems to be that they make it easier for Clive James to write off a subaltern whose politics he finds threatening; in the rest of the book, James evinces no interest in Middle Eastern culture.

We are further informed, in the space of a paragraph, that “the Western and non-Western worlds of creativity had not been symmetrical”; that “no Orientalist had ever been more damagingly superficial than” Edward Said (again, according to non-Western scholars); that “Egypt had Napoleon to thank for everything it possessed” (said Naguib Mahfouz – and he won the Nobel Prize, so who can doubt him). James is nothing if not a marvel of compression:

“Said was right to this extent, however: Occidental intellectuals find out very little about what is thought and written in the Oriental world. Very few of Said’s admirers in the West could begin to contemplate the fact that there are some bright people in the East who thought of Said as just another international operator doing well out of patronizing them, and with less excuse. I finished writing the piece that follows not long before Said finally succumbed to cancer, and I have left it in the present tense to help indicate that I was treating him as a living force, brave in a cause that was very short this kind of soldier.”

We are witnessing here the birth of a new rhetorical mode: character assassination by friendly fire. Maybe James was right to suggest that Said should have stuck to playing piano.

James is even worse on Sartre, whom he hates above all others. His inability to give Sartre a fair reading is a shame, as Sartre, unlike Said, might actually have been convicted of the most of the charges against him. To wit:

“When Sartre broke with the Communists, he retained respect for their putatively benevolent social intentions, and was ready to say something exculpatory even if what he was exculpating was the Gulag network, whose existence, after he finally ceased to deny it, he never condemned as a central product of a totalitarian system, but only regretted as an incidental blemish.”

But as excoriation curdles into invective, James sinks so low as to suggest that Sartre’s “physical ugliness” shaped his cultural positions, that Sartre was “debarred by nature from telling the truth for long about anything that mattered.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell what really enrages James most: Sartre’s apologies for Communism, or the fact that he beat James to the punch in opposing Nazism.

coverIn light of Sartre’s socialist sins, Being and Nothingness is written off here as an update of Heidegger’s “high-flown philosophical flapdoodle”… the product of “a mind that could not grant itself freedom to speculate in […] its own compromises with reality.” Now, in Heidegger, we have a man whose conduct under totalitarian rule deserves all the opprobrium that can possibly be heaped upon it. But Being and Time cannot be dismissed as “flapdoodle” on the grounds of biography alone. Nor can Being and Nothingness, whose author has the advantage of having participated in the Resistance. In fact, both Sartre and Heidegger were keenly interested in the mind’s compromises with reality, though they didn’t conceive of it in those terms (see, for example, Being and Time, Part One, Division I, Section V).

It’s likely that Heidegger’s agnosticism on the subject the Other (later critiqued by that self-interested Witch-Doctor Emmanuel Lewinas) enabled his early political enthusiasm for Hitler. But it’s also possible to hang Heidegger out to dry on the grounds of his own definition of authenticity. Sartre, too, for that matter . To the extent that they endorsed or excused (respectively) totalitarian regimes, Heidegger and Sartre could be seen to have fallen short of their own philosophies. But to reach this nuanced verdict, one has to have actually tried to understand the philosophies in question, and James can’t be bothered with philosophy (not a great quality in a cultural critic). Even Hegel and Kant get his goat. I had always thought of the anti-intellectualism and paranoia as a combination peculiar to the American far right, but apparently it can afflict Aussie humanists, too.

Which brings me to “Walter Benjamin,” the essay I hailed above as a fine piece of fiction. It’s not historical fiction, in that it doesn’t hew closely enough to fact. But as a work of imagination, it’s audacious.

Okay, I’ll admit it… I’m being unfair to James. But only because James is unfair to Walter Benjamin. Apart from being a thinker whose sensibility – which can in no way be construed as ideological – has changed my life, Benjamin should be enrolled among James’ angels. He was a victim of totalitarianism, killing himself in the Pyrenees when it seemed he wouldn’t be able to escape the Reich. But because Benjamin practiced a syncretic version of Marxism, and would become popular, posthumously, with leftist academics, James can’t let him die with dignity.

“It remains sadly true, however, that he is more often taken for granted than actually read. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ is the Benjamin essay that everybody knows a little about. Whether its central thesis is true is seldom questioned, just as the value of his work as a whole is seldom doubted. His untimely death was such a tragedy that nobody wants to think of his life as less than a triumph. But there had already been many thousands of Jewish tragedies before his turn came, and what is remarkable for the historically minded observer is just how slow so brilliant a man was to get the point about what the Nazis had in mind. About the other tragedy, the one in Russia, he never got the point at all.”

How terrifying it is to see a fine mind in the grip of ideological fervor… I mean James’, of course. How terrifying the totalizing flatness of the phrasing: “his turn came”; “Jewish tragedies.” How awful the statement that Benjamin’s death was less remarkable than his failure to get the hell away from Hitler, the tiny insinuation that somehow his death was his fault. And how bizarre to take Benjamin to task for not having “got the point” about a tragedy he didn’t live to survey the extent of. And then James has the gall to tell us he’s doing Benjamin a “courtesy!”

In real life, Benjamin is pretty widely read, and “The Work of Art” is well known precisely because its central thesis isn’t really up for debate. A quick comparison of James’ “proof” that this thesis is bogus with the thesis itself reveals that James hasn’t understood what Benjamin means by “aura.” Not even one bit. Normally, the James method would be to chalk this misunderstanding up to Benjamin’s obscurity – he goes on and on about Benjamin’s “all-inclusive obscurity” – but he’s made the mistake of granting that “The Work of Art” features “a general point designed to be readily understood.” So why can’t James understand it? If I may expropriate some other lines from this essay. “His life story gives us the answer: he was cushioning reality. It needed cushioning.”

Of course Benjamin’s reality, James tells us, was anti-Semitism. (And if he knew what was good for him, the implication is, he’d have written about that, in the form of journalism, rather than theorizing about Parisian cafes (shopping arcades, actually.)) But what reality can a successful TV personality, in his (I’ll say it) idiotic dismissal of a cultural giant, possibly be cushioning himself against?

That reality is the world we now find ourselves in. The Soviet bloc has collapsed, without affording Clive James the chance to prove himself worthy of his heroes. Nazism, though it still persists, has dwindled. Only in the past few years have the lines for a new global conflict have been drawn. That the good guys have so far not acquitted themselves heroically challenges James’ picture of liberal democracy as a system that doesn’t require progressive intervention or even vigilance (only totalitarian ideologies have such requirements, he thinks). And so, rather than refine his model, James saddles up and goes looking for enemies. Too often, he finds the wrong ones.

Given the amount of cannibalizing he’s done of his own body of work here, an odd palimpsest effect sets in… as if James is trying to reshape decades of enthusiastic reading and writing into a brief against the new enemies of civilization. Between the fits of intemperance, ignorance, and magnificent self-satisfaction are principled reflections on those who actually have blood on their hands, on Trotsky and Goebbels and Mao. And though it’s often said that it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one, James writes insightfully about figures like Albert Camus, whose art and political record were both sterling. His encomiums extend to literary critics, philologists, and historians from all over the world, and have left me with a list of writers I’m eager to read. I don’t know enough about Gianfranco Contini or Georg Christoph Lichtenberg to do anything other than enjoy James’ writing on them.

In his role as a bourgeois provocateur, however, James is too willing to substitute ardor for attention, attention for smartness, smartness for intelligence. Cultural Amnesia is always ardent, often attentive, frequently smart, and sometimes intelligent. And boy is it learned. About the big things, it’s absolutely right. As students of culture, we must connect the dots. We must take a stand against oppression, against mass murder.

But we know that already; we want our new humanism to help us with the details (with Guantanamo, with nuclear proliferation, with the ongoing totalitarian tragedies in North Korea and Iran). And it’s the details where James’ claims to humanism get dicey. He would rather praise that paragon of moral imagination, Mrs. Thatcher, than actually calibrate the human cost of the laissez-faire branch of economic determinism. (I can’t resist quoting this little cascade of reasoning (read closely, now): “She should have trusted her instincts and shut out the smart voices […] Her best instinct was to stick to a simple course of action once it had been chosen. That instinct became her enemy, and the enemy of the country, on those occasions when a simple course of action is not appropriate. In domestic policy it hardly ever is.”)

What we can take from Cultural Amnesia, in the end, is a largeness of ambition, a breadth of learning, a catholic sensibility, and a heroic belief that culture can be a matter of life and death. But we must explore the finer points of art and history for ourselves, and reach our own conclusions. We must be intelligent readers. We must be careful not to let Clive James’ “necessary memories” stand in for our own.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.