Monday, 21 June 2010

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time by Clive James (Picador 2007)

Growing up in Britain in the Eighties and Nineties I used to watch the Australian presenter interviewing celebrities on ITV in the Clive James show amongst other things. The show featured the bizarre Cuban singer Margarita Pracatan, whom I believe Clive James (CJ) discovered in a New York department shore, and who would give unbelievably tone-deaf and Hispanically inspired renditions of pop songs, not quite high culture. Nothing of that show led me to realise that CJ harboured a secret, that he was and still is an incredibly intelligent polymath.

Cultural Amnesia is the result of many, many years of wide reading and the scribbling of notes in the margins (as well as copious underlinings and end notes). Alphabetically ordered, the book deals with over 100 writers, poets, philosophers, film directors, musicians and talk-show hosts ranging from Raymond Aron, Albert Camus, Josef Goebbels, a whole host of Manns (Golo, Heinrich, Michael and Thomas), Beatrix Potter, Ernesto Sabato to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Aleksandr Zinoviev. After an introductory biographic paragraph or two CJ takes a quote of suitably aphoric quality and uses that quote as the basis of an essay.

When I started my first professional job a few years back, on or around my payday I would take the tube over to Eustion Square Station and go down to the academic branch of Waterstones on Gower Street in London. Finally earning a professional salary I was excited that I could now buy interesting books. The boring and drab reading I had to do for work was rewarding me with the chance of becoming a polymath and I started to read voraciously into semiotics; Umberto Eco,  Jacques Lacan, Claude Levi Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Charles Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure and so on. CJ echoes that excitement with a very catching love of and striving towards knowledge.

As I wrote about in my earlier post on polyglossia CJ can read in an astonishing eight different languages and he talks about and references writers of German, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian languages that you either could not read in English or whose works would be better to have read in the original. This could be a serious downside of the book with CJ almost taunting you with an ambrosia that was out of reach if his love of languages and their learning was not so infective (an infection I have since caught).

As wise as he is I do take issue with some of the conclusions that CJ draws. For instance in his essay on Sartre (and in quite a few others too) he is rather unjustly grilled for making the most out of his time in the resistance as he only held meetings rather than actively resisted. CJ's persistence on this point feels somewhat tacky to me, a rather poor ploy to try and undermine him. Sartre is also criticised for his failure to critique the Soviet regime and one can't help but feel that CJ is more forgiving to those who stayed silent to the Nazi atrocities. CJ is generally pretty critical of those he describes as 'gauchist', Bertolt Brecht, Albert Camus, George Bernard Shaw are all, amongst others, judged somewhat harshly. The reason is that, as with George Orwell, Clive James wants to drive home the wrongs of the Communist regimes of Soviet Russia and Maoist China; socialism and liberal democracy do not seem to be able to live side by side in his mind.

There are some problems with the book, some essays are not long enough (the essay on Proust should be a lot longer) and some essays fall into somewhat mindless mental wanderings and asides such as the essay on Arthur Schnitzler which is mostly made up of a discussion of the movie 'Where Eagles Dare' or more specifically, Richard Burton's hair in the movie. However, this book has excited me like none other I have read in a long time. I feel enthused to reading, learning and languages and have an Amazon wishlist a mile long so I shall not be short of inspiration for something to read for a long time to come. Because of this excitement I can only give the book one rating.