I am just in the process of reading a book I would rank alongside Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence for its breadth of scope and value to the reader. At the same time, it is wonderfully well written. Yet it ought also to carry something of a health warning for the average person, who will probably feel, as I do on almost every page, humiliated by their own comparative lack of knowledge.
The book to which I am referring is Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of my Time. Basically a collection of short essays, James has taken a character, usually (though not exclusively) from the twentieth century whom he feels has made a significant contribution to our culture, and more or less written about them.
Sometimes there is a great deal ‘less’ than ‘more’. The book is not ‘an introduction to’ whomever, but rather almost a ‘stream of consciousness’ reaction to or reminiscence about them which sometimes veers off in unpredictable, but fascinating, directions. The discussion of Richard Burton’s haircut in Where Eagles Dare is a particularly good example, occurring as it does in the essay on the Viennese physician and writer, Arthur Schnitzler.
At times I have found myself simply embarrassed by my ignorance. Last night I began reading about Einstein, but couldn’t match the picture of the balding ‘bank managerial’ figure at the beginning with the usual ‘mad hair’ image one associates with the name. Then I realized it was actually Alfred, his cousin and music critic, not Albert the scientist, about whom I was reading.
There followed a wonderful piece (mostly about Schubert as it happens), but all the way through I couldn’t help thinking, “How have I lived so long and not known there was an Alfred Einstein?”
Many of us will know James as a TV pundit and, perhaps, writer — not least of the autobiographical Unreliable Memoirs. Those who do will be aware that he can be very funny indeed — something like a cross between Jeremy Clarkson and Ian Hislop, though the sardonic Australian style sometimes calls for small doses.
There is a laugh-out-loud line, for example, in Unreliable Memoirs about the visiting ‘dunny man’ — like dustmen, only for the outside toilets typical of pre-war Australian homes — who tripped over the boy James’s bicycle left lying in the alleyway, thus spilling the contents of the said dunny. “The amazing thing,” wrote James (as I recall), “Was how almost none of it missed him.”
The same wit carries over into Cultural Amnesia. James can be eloquently amusing at astonishing length in the way that Rowan Williams is astonishingly lengthy but baffling.
Yet there is much more here than amusement. There is an intensity about the writing, shot through, I felt, with that melancholy which comes with age — the realization that not only must ‘all this’ pass but so, too, must one’s own accumulated awareness. The ‘amnesia’ of the title is, I think, not that we forget so much we have read or experienced, but that entire cultures forget because the only repository of ‘remembering’ is our own fragile and finite selves.
There is also a constant reminder of the dreadfulness of the last century. So many of James’s subjects were victims of — but sometimes participants in — Nazi or Soviet persecution: Einstein (of course), but also virtually every other Jewish or Russian character (and there are many) in the entire book, plus several others:
The whole of modern Polish literature ... might have had an utterly different layout if some Nazi thug ... had not put a bullet through the head of Bruno Schulz ... (187)
The overall impression is of a century which, perhaps more than any in human history, sought to create its own ‘cultural amnesia’ by the deliberate and systematic elimination of the bearers of that culture. Hitler and Stalin between them have far and away the most references in the index, simply because they ruined or terminated the lives of so many of the others in the book. Close third is Jean-Paul Sartre who, as James writes, “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. (669)
You get the idea. Perhaps most painful of all is the essay on Sophie Scholl (1921-1943), about whom, James writes, “there are few facts to record, because she did not live long.” The reason for this is that in 1942 she joined, with her brother Hans, the White Rose resistance group, and was (along with him and their fellow ‘conspirators’) subsequently guillotined by the Nazis:
The chief executioner later testified that he had never seen anyone die so bravely as Sophie Scholl. Not a whimper of fear, not a sigh of regret for the beautiful life she might have led. She just glanced up at the steel, put her head down, and she was gone. Is that you? No, and it isn’t me either. (709)
Don’t worry. It isn’t all gloom, but there is, by my reckoning, a sense of frustration — that this book on ‘amnesia’ is James’s way of saying to the rest of us, “Remember! Remember!” That, and perhaps, “Take and read!”
And this is where the book sits so well, and so tellingly, alongside Barzun’s even more monumental work (this is not a small book!).
At the end of From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun imagines a Western world which somehow rediscovers a culture. Yet there seems to be no actual prospect of this happening. The terrible awareness that grows whilst reading Cultural Amnesia is that virtually everyone in it is dead: Miles Davis, Frederico Fellini, Franz Kafka, Marcell Proust and so on. There are perhaps three dozen essays, but the index contains hundreds of names, mostly from the past.
The world today is vastly less threatening to the typical Westerner than it was for most of the twentieth century. Even the threat of terrorism must be balanced against the equal unpredictable, but vastly more probable, ravages of diseases which, a mere century ago, could carry one off in an afternoon.
Yet what has happened to the culture? There is a great section in James’s essay on Duke Ellington which, to my mind, sums it all up:
The aesthetic component was standard for all the arts in the twentieth century: one after another they tried to move beyond mere enjoyment as a criterion, a move which put a premium on technique, turned technique into subject matter, and eventually made professional expertise a requirement not just for participation but even for appreciation. (In architecture, the turning point came with Le Corbusier: laymen who questioned his plans for rebuilding Paris by destroying it were told by other architects that they were incompetent to assess his genius.) (192)
‘Culture’ today is for the experts. ‘Mass culture’ is ever more empty of either meaning or ambition. Meanwhile, our universities have become ‘degree factories’ whose controlling ethos is increasingly their observable contribution to the economy.
Who is creating a cultural ‘stir’ today? Or who is providing any inspiration about the present or the future either in the arts or society?
By the time this century is over — and it is already well under way — we may wonder what the equivalent of Cultural Amnesia will have to say.
John RichardsonPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.
30 April 2011
30 April 2011