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Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Artsby Clive James
"If you open Cultural Amnesia in the hope of getting a bluffer's guide to the intellectuals, you will be disappointed; but if you read it as an account of how an educator has himself been self-educated, you will be rewarded well enough." Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
Forty years in the making, a new cultural canon that celebrates truth over hypocrisy, literature over totalitarianism.
Echoing Edward Said's belief that Western humanism is not enough, we need a universal humanism, the renowned critic Clive James presents here his life's work. Containing over one hundred original essays, organized by quotations from A to Z, Cultural Amnesia illuminates, rescues, or occasionally destroys the careers of many of the greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists, and philosophers of the twentieth century. In discussing, among others, Louis Armstrong, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, James writes, If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into the new century, it will need advocates. These advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive. Soaring to Montaigne-like heights, Cultural Amnesia is precisely the book to burnish these memories of a Western civilization that James fears is nearly lost. 110 photographs.
"From Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, Tacitus to Margaret Thatcher, this scintillating compendium of 110 new biographical essays plumbs the responsibilities of artists, intellectuals and political leaders. British critic James (Visions Before Midnight) structures each entry as a brief life sketch followed by quotations that spark an appreciation, a condemnation or a tangent (a piece on filmmaker Terry Gilliam veers into a discussion of torturers' pleasure in their work). Sometimes, as in his salute to Tony Curtis's acting or his savage assault on bebop legend John Coltrane's penchant for "subjecting some helpless standard to ritual murder," James's purpose is just bravura opinionating. But most articles are linked by a defense of liberal humanism against totalitarianisms of the left and right — and ideologues who champion them. He lionizes prewar Vienna's martyred Jewish cafe intellectuals; castigates French apologists for communism — especially Sartre, who "could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing"; and chides Borges for not noticing Argentina's descent into fascism. This theme can grow intrusive; even in an entry on children's author Beatrix Potter, he feels called upon to denounce Soviet children's books. But James's brilliantly aphoristic prose, full of aesthetic insights but careful not to let aesthetics obscure morality, makes for a delightful browse suffused with a potent message. Photos." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright © Reed Business Information)
"Let us concede some things to Clive James right away. He is, or can be, a brilliantly original thinker; he is, or can be, a brilliant writer. He has read voraciously and multifariously on any number of subjects and put it all to excellent use. He has taught himself several languages, including some Japanese, by means of serious reading with the dictionary by his side. And having journeyed all over... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the world and sojourned in many places, this Australian is truly cosmopolitan. Such a wealth of prerequisites suggests the ideal author for 'Cultural Amnesia,' an 876-page book assembling brief essays about epochal figures in history (including politics, sociology and philosophy) and the arts. There are film directors and actors, jazz musicians, a fashion designer (Coco Chanel), an opera singer (Zinka Milanov) and, like James himself, a television host (Dick Cavett). Intellectual prowess so nearly encyclopedic comes at a price; it is hard for its possessor not to feel omniscient, his taste unimpeachable. Consciously, James offers many disarming disclaimers; but there remains the inexpugnable unconscious. Not content with adducing key figures of the past century, James enshrines others as far back as ancient Rome. To cite only literary, historical and philosophical luminaries, we encounter Chamfort, Gustave Flaubert, Heinrich Heine, John Keats, Montesquieu, Sainte-Beuve and Tacitus — in alphabetical order, like the book itself. Given this, how can the author escape the charge of arbitrariness? Had James picked a less absolutist subtitle, his choice of 107 heroes and villains would have been unassailable. I found reading about those I know as stimulating and rewarding as reading about those I didn't. Especially useful to Anglophone readers is the preponderance of foreign figures, most of whom James read in their native languages. Judicious is the inclusion of Hitler, Goebbels, Mao, Trotsky and their likes: evil geniuses as historic as the good ones. The essays usually begin with a shorter, more generalized survey, followed by one or more sections expatiating on one or a few headlined quotations, sometimes no longer than a half-dozen words. Just about every essay wanders off onto other figures, writings, ideas, events. An essay about Miguel de Unamuno turns into one about book reviewing; one about Chaplin is mostly about Einstein; one about Eugenio Montale considers poetry, literature, music and ballet in general. The essay on Camus brings in Mrs. Ceausescu, Mussolini, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marshal Pitain, Hitler and Fats Waller. Topics such as true or false democracy, terrorism and anti-Semitism appear everywhere. Names drop like autumn leaves as the obiter dictum is raised to a genre. Though soup and dessert may be equally pleasing, you may not want to be, after a few dips into the one, jolted to the other. That, near the end of a rambling essay, James will usually return to the ostensible subject — from mixed berries back to soup — makes matters scarcely better. On the credit side, James is a master of aphorism and wry humor. Brevity, we have it on good authority, is the soul of wit, and wit is the salt of the aphorism. A page without several epigrams is a rarity; a page without one, nonexistent. They range from tickling irony to stinging insight, often simultaneously. Herewith some samples: 'The only thing I have to say against most modern poetry is that so much of it avoids all verse conventions without rising to the level of decent prose.' On Walter Benjamin: 'He got up into the realm of theory, where critics rank as philosophers if they are hard enough to read.' Concerning Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago: 'He published an article pointing out that no ruling party elected by the people ever truly represents them. The possibility that an unelected ruling party would represent them even less he left unexamined.' From an essay on the French thinker Raymond Aron: 'Though the French will probably go on thinking proudly of Sartre as the Victor Hugo of political philosophy — the most mentions, the most mistresses, the biggest funeral — Aron's name is nowadays quite often invoked by those who believe there is an alternative to getting everything brazenly wrong.' And finally, 'This is a book about a world men made, and it taught plenty of us to wish that women had made it instead.' Entire essays are as pertinent and persuasive as these pregnant sallies. Despite no particular interest in jazz, I was completely won over by the entries on Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. Furthermore, James possesses the magic touch for knocking usurpers like Sartre off their pedestals, reaffirming our love for the likes of Camus and making sure we don't overlook a heroine like Sophie Scholl. And how could we resist Tony Curtis sandwiched between the great philosopher Benedetto Croce and the distinguished scholar-critic Ernst Robert Curtius? On the debit side, James' German is riddled with shocking errors; his French, less so. More disturbing are flaws in his English: 'Polgar, whom he realized was his equal'; 'Thankfully he was too old'; and 'the main reason ... was because.' Occasionally, too, misinformation: An art song in French is a milodie, not a chanson. But none of this makes the often delightfully autobiographical 'Cultural Amnesia' less cherishable. The warts are few; the all is absorbing. John Simon is the New York theater critic for Bloomberg News and the 'Etcetera' columnist for Broadway.com." Reviewed by Amanda SchafferDaniel StashowerMichael TomaskyPerri KlassJonathan YardleyJohn Simon, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"In this towering volume, the fruit of 40 years of passionate involvement, James proves to be a consummate writer of biographical essays....James not only preserves culture and nurtures humanism but also revitalizes the beauty and power of the English language." Booklist (Starred Review)
"It's not the sort of volume most people will want to read straight through, but rather one to dip into here and there — a volume to be treasured less for its own sake than for all the other books it will make the reader want to read." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"[A] finely written, valuable, and comprehensive almanac...highly recommended..." Library Journal
"Exemplary cogitations without a trace of jargon or better-read-than-thou condescension." Kirkus Reviews
"James probably never intended for readers to consume his massive tome front to back; and tucking into the entries on a need-to-know basis can provide rich rewards with no choking risk. Grab a loaf here and there, and feed your mind." Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
"Cultural Amnesia...is not to be read at a sitting. It is to be dipped into over weeks and months. If the dipper occasionally brings up exasperation, it brings up astonished delight far more often; and, best of all, exasperated astonished delight." Richard Eder, The Boston Globe
"A lifetime's reading has gone into this doorstop of a book. But I have to ask: What was James thinking?...James tries to capture this Vienna's bickering, zesty, experimental fizz, but it's a high-wire act even the most agile Viennese intellect couldn't pull off." Los Angeles Times
Book News Annotation:
On one hand, this work by British cultural and literary critic James can be seen as a simply an encyclopedic survey of figures important to the philosophy, history, politics, and arts of the 20th century (together with a small handful of non-20th century figures, such as the Roman historian Tacitus). It offers 116 separate profiles in which James offers his thoughts on such disparate individuals as Louis Armstrong, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Dick Cavett, Charlie Chaplin, Miles Davis, Alfred Einsteni, W. C. Fields, Gustave Flaubert, Sigmund Freud, Edward Gibbon, Terry Gilliam, Adolf Hitler, Norman Mailer, Thomas Mann, Mao Zedong, Octavio Paz, Beatrix Potter, Rainier Maria Rilke, Edward Said, Jean-Paul Sartre, Margaret Thatcher, Leon Trotsky, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Despite this seeming eclecticism, James has a unitary purpose, which is to defend the values of reason and liberal democracy against "ideologists" and authoritarianism. Annotation ©2007 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Containing more than 100 original essays organized by quotations, James illuminates, rescues, or occasionally destroys the careers of many of the greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists, and philosophers of the 20th century. 110 photographs.
Echoing Edward Said's belief that "Western humanism is not enough, we need a universal humanism," the renowned critic Clive James presents here his life's work. Containing over one hundred original essays, organized by quotations from A to Z, Cultural Amnesia illuminates, rescues, or occasionally destroys the careers of many of the greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists, and philosophers of the twentieth century. In discussing, among others, Louis Armstrong, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, James writes, "If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into the new century, it will need advocates. These advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive." Soaring to Montaigne-like heights, Cultural Amnesia is precisely the book to burnish these memories of a Western civilization that James fears is nearly lost.
About the Author
Clive James the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker. He lives in London.
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