Somewhere in the ether of critic Clive James’s imagination is a dowdy mitteleuropäisches coffeehouse where the shades of twentieth-century Western humanism congregate. Mostly French or Jewish, overwhelmingly white and male, battered but not defeated by the trahison des clercs, their conversation continues to be about the classics, the role of reason, and the accumulation of knowledge. Unworldly priests of the intellect, they are men who saw themselves engaged in a battle they believed they would win. Looking back from the leading edge of a new millennium, they may seem to many of us to be so many little Dutch boys stopping the dykes with their fingers, failing gloriously. To James, they are heroes-fallen heroes, whose passing testifies to the fragility of humanism, indeed of Western civilization.
Bringing that coffeehouse to life for his readers is the business of Cultural Amnesia, James’s vast, sprawling tribute to twentieth-century European humanism. The book consists of a hundred or so biographical essays, by turns mischievous, entertaining, and just a little pompous, on a wide variety of individuals. Some of the subjects may surprise. Sure, Sartre and Camus, Croce and Valéry and Czeslaw Milosz. But Tony Curtis? Beatrix Potter? Dick Cavett? James, who grew up in Australia, possesses a maverick streak that has made him a popular media figure in his adopted Britain, and Cultural Amnesia-an ironic title for an author who seems to forget nothing-proceeds according to a highly personal principle of selection. James comes off like your favorite over-erudite uncle, showing us how many languages he can handle, sounding off on topics far and wide. Each essay could be a dinner-party soliloquy, and one suspects that some of them may have begun exactly that way.
As anyone who has followed his career knows, James cannot fail to be witty. But in Cultural Amnesia the wit is put to the service of more than mere delight. Over and over again, James draws attention to the heroism and cowardice that mark the lives of the most revered European intellectuals of the last century. Assessing the ranks of French writers, he skewers Nazi collaborators -people like Robert Brasillach or Drieu de la Rochelle-and praises true martyrs of the resistance like Jean Prévost. His greatest contumely is reserved for those, like Sartre and Cocteau, who slid through occupied Paris with ease, socialized with Nazis, and emerged in 1945 with their status inflated, ready to tell the tale of how secretly brave they really were.
These essays proceed in surprising ways, digressing freely. James provides a brief biographical paragraph or two, then pursues ideas in a manner that at times seems less like a train of thought than a stream of consciousness. His shortish piece on Marc Bloch, the brilliant historian who joined the French resistance and was eventually captured and executed by the Nazis, is a good illustration. After five pages it proceeds from Bloch to a critique of Derrida and other later French thinkers-and from there to Ezra Pound, Randall Jarrell, Wilhem Reich, and Egon Friedell, the Austrian writer and cabaret performer, a figure almost totally unknown outside of German-speaking cultures.
Friedell, a Jew who in 1938 leapt to his death from the roof of his house when two SA thugs arrived to arrest him, was a notable polymath-a philosopher, historian, and journalist as well as an actor. James views him as an emblem of humanism’s belief in the inherent value of knowledge (and wonders if Friedell might have had second thoughts as he jumped to his death). But surely the really telling point is that as he fell, so the story goes, Friedell called out a warning to those below; his last words are said to have been “Look out, please!” James seems to overlook the possibility that it is Friedell’s decency, rather than his intellect or knowledge, that puts him on the side of the gods.
Yet if it was humanism that made Friedell and others into the best of people-what Evelyn Waugh classified as “good sorts”-why didn’t it have the same effect on Sartre and his ilk? After all, Sartre, Drieu de la Rochelle and the others were very smart people. They just weren’t decent human beings. Their humanism seems to have placed them in Waugh’s opposing category, “absolute shits.” If the twentieth century taught us anything, it was that knowledge most certainly doesn’t equal virtue. If humanistic studies don’t make a good person, and James is clear that they don’t, then could it be that the “good humanist” is just a good person steeped in the humanities? Isn’t that the only way to distinguish Camus from Sartre? In any case one could argue that the humanism James loves hasn’t really done that much for regular people. Who, finally, was the more important figure in Western culture, Albert Camus or the inventor of the washing machine?
James tells us that Cultural Amnesia took him decades to write, and a reader may need quite a while to get through it as well. The book is nearly eight hundred pages long, its thesis is elusive, and the strictly alphabetical arrangement of the essay-subjects bedevils any effort to find a thread. But then, a narrative thread in a work of nonfiction is also called a theory, and to James, theory is a Bad Thing. If you are a well-paid academic or a successful exponent of theory, still worse of théorie, read this book at your peril, because James is obviously out to get you. Whatever humanism is, apparently, it doesn’t correlate highly with tenure.
It’s odd, perhaps, that an attack upon postmodern academic pretensions should take such a defiantly postmodern approach to structure. In addition, one wonders whether the argument in Cultural Amnesia is at all undermined by the paucity of women James writes about (by my count, 9 out of 106, if you count Margaret Thatcher), or the fact that the only African Americans discussed-all three of them-are famous for having been jazz-band leaders. Chalk this up to its author’s eccentricity, the resolute quirkiness of a critic always unafraid to venture an outrageous gambit or three.