Trivializes the canon and canonizes the trivial,

January 12, 2008
The book jacket describes Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia as “an antidote to the political ideologies and the cultural decay that has eradicated much of our history and learning.” The book is hardly an antidote; “exemplar” would have been more accurate. The book is overwhelmed by political ideology. Any history or learning that is not the history and learning of the fight against Russian, Chinese, Nazi and the occasional regional totalitarianism is of no consequence.

A good example is his fascinating, but peculiar chapter on the classical historian Tacitus. For James the only relevance of Tacitus beyond his efficient Latin prose is his warning against the totalitarian ideology. Were his tyrants dissimilar to James’ view of a few select twentieth century dictators, his writings, like most others predating World War I would be irrelevant. If James could bother to read (or perhaps in his case “read into”) other classical historians, perhaps Livy or Thucydides, he might see that even Republics create their share of irrational death, destruction and suppression of minorities and non-conforming individuals.

“On a mere structural level, Cultural Amnesia can be viewed simply as an extraordinary encyclopedia.” Lacking the ability to tell a story, sustain an argument, or develop and idea, James has structured his book using one of the twentieth century’s great intellectual cop-outs: the bulleted list. His rambling and unfocused essays are “organized” into an alphabetical list of names. Taking a cue from Harold Bloom’s lazy collections of unedited notes on Genius, Shakespeare and The Canon of Western literature, James fails to write and merely assembles, leaving the thinking and ordering of information to his hapless readers. He would no doubt claim this is a more democratic form of writing as it resists totalitarian control of the text.

Hegel was the last great creator of complex philosophical systems. As the philosophical grandfather of James’ personal bugbears of Communism and National Socialism one would expect an especially thoughtful and substantial treatment. Yet we only get a superficial six pages, compared to filmmaker Terry Gilliam who is given half again as much space.

In the essay on French historian Marc Bloch, the only book that merits a mention is The Historian’s Craft, a personal work that he wrote when he did not have access to books or library resources. Bloch’s only interest to James was his contribution to the French Resistance. While that contribution was not insignificant, it was not unusual and was duplicated by thousands of his compatriots at the time. His major contributions to the Annales School of history on the other hand were important, significant and certainly unique and yet merit hardly a mention. But then the Annales School advocated the long view of history over centuries and millennia and looking at history from anything beyond a myopic late 20th century perspective is antithetical to James thesis.

Throughout, Cultural Amnesia consistently trivializes the canon and canonizes the trivial. He describes Melville’s Moby Dick as “one of those books you can’t get started with even after you have finished reading them,” a book “which is fated to be more taught than enjoyed.” Gibbon is written off for his punctuation and use of articles. Television and movie celebrities Tony Curtis and Dick Cavette are praised. He argues “that Heinrich Heine was not Greta Garbo” “Rilke is a prick” and he devotes an entire chapter to Margaret Thatcher’s mispronunciation of the name of the Soviet dissident writer, “Solzhenitskin.”

He criticizes Borges, one of the world’s great readers, for his supposed elementary reading knowledge of English and not having the foresight of James’ own political hindsight. Yet in the process of that critique James’ confesses his own reading habits. “In the language of book-bluff, “re-read” is often a claim to have read something that one has merely dipped into or even skipped entirely, but there was a period of my early life which I did actually occupy with getting through Moby Dick.” He writes a chapter on Dubravka Ugresic while admitting that “her novels, which I have not yet read” but “one of them has, at least in English translation, the best title of the twentieth century’s twilight years: The Museum of Unconditional Surrender.” Reading is dead or at least over-rated and Cultural Amnesia, the book as well as the affliction, is the triumph of the visual, the trivial, the sound-byte and the bulleted list parading as informed critique.

If you are looking for the antidote to the “cultural decay that has eradicated much of our history and learning” promised on the book jacket you might look to The House of Intellect and The Culture We Deserve by Jacques Barzun. Or for a real challenge—actually reading Moby Dick instead of the synopsis.

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~ by severalfourmany on January 12, 2008.

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