Paul LakelandNovember 19, 2007 - 11:51am0 comments
Necessary Memories from History and the Arts
Norton, $35, 768 pp.
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...