James’ Giant Peach

As an incitement to wholesale reading and indiscriminate humanism, Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia stands alone.

Of course, having picked up the book, the first wholesale reading you’re going to do is of Cultural Amnesia itself.  It consists of over 100 essays on culturally or politically significant figures in both the Eastern and Western parts of our globe over the span of – oh – call it two millennia; it weighs in at 850 pages, or just shy of a kilo.  So if you’re reading with care, the reading will take you a while.

I bought my copy just about a year ago, and it’s now heavily underlined; the margins are dotted with exclamation marks and notes and the spine is just starting to give way (I’m looking for a hard-back edition, by the way – if anyone out there is fool enough to part with one, I feel sure we could do business).

Having had a year to browse and cogitate, to scribble notes and to google, I feel just about ready to write about it.  But only just.

In July 2005, in an interview on Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope, James said:

‘If you’re a good person when you come to the books, then you’re going to get more out of them.  But whether books can educate you is the question I’m actually investigating now.  I’m writing a book.  A huge book, Andrew.  It’s called Alone in the Café. It’s going to be a quarter of a million words long and it’s about my reading over the decades.  It’s either the best thing I’ve ever written or complete folly.  I don’t know which.’

Cultural Amnesia is the book James was talking about, and it certainly isn’t complete folly.  Whether it’s the best thing he has ever written is (as he would say) a nice question, but if I go into that here, this post will turn into a thesis.

That title James gave in the Denton interview, though… don’t you prefer Alone in the Café to Cultural Amnesia?  I do.  And indeed the only criticism I have of this mighty tome comes down to just that difference in titles, and therefore attitudes: it’s true that many of the figures James writes so passionately and acutely about are neglected if not absolutely forgotten (it’s instructive, though hardly conclusive, to note that four of James’ subjects don’t even have wikipedia entries), but a curmudgeonly attitude towards the forgetful is not, perhaps, the one most likely to reignite their fervent interest.

But this is to quibble.

Cultural Amnesia would be worth its retail price if it only contained the quotations (often translated by James himself) which are the spurs that prick the sides of his intent in each essay.  It would be worth the retail price all over again if only for a few of its more arresting thoughts.  A few of the more heavily underlined passages in my copy read like this, and these are only a small sample that a quick rifle through the pages yielded.

On Anna Akhmatova:

‘That’s what history is: the story of everything that needn’t have been like that.  We also have to grasp that art proves its value by still mattering to people who have been deprived of every other freedom: indeed instead of mattering less, it matters more.’

On Mao Zedong:

‘As Swift foretold and Orwell analysed in detail, totalitarian obsession distorts the logical element within language, cancelling and even reversing its power to specify.’

On Josef Goebbels:

‘A man’s relationship with his books tells you a lot about him, and in the case of a man like Goebbels we should pay close attention, because a crucial early choice he made was one that continually faces any of us who read at all.  He chose a life of action, and his life would have been different if he had not.  It could be said that the lives of millions of innocent people would have been different too, but there we should be equally alert to the danger of optimism.’

On Goebbels again:

‘When absolute power is on offer, talent fights to get in.’

And on Edward Gibbon:

‘There was never much to the assumption that a sentence is only ever read diachronically from left to right with never a backward glance: the eye doesn’t work like that and neither does prose.  But there is still something to the assumption that a sentence, however the reader gets to the end of it, should be intelligible by the time he does, and that if he is forced to begin again he has been hoodwinked into helping the writer do the writing.’

Trying to review Cultural Amnesia is a fruitless task: there’s too much of it, and too much of it is too good.  Attempting criticism of it, in the best and strictest sense of the term, takes about four more languages than I’ve got, and a great deal more book learning.

So I don’t quite know what I’m doing with it here: appreciation? abject worship?

It doesn’t really matter, because having read it, the idea of writing on it in any form scares the shit out of me.  And here’s why:

‘From a made for television movie called The Movie Murders I noted down this perfectly bad line of dialogue: “A fire is a Frankenstein when it’s let out of its cage.”’

‘A fire can be a caged animal if you don’t mind a cliché.  But a caged Frankenstein is worse than trite.  Frankenstein was not the monster, he was the monster’s creator: so the use of his name in an inaccuracy.  By now the inaccuracy has entered the language, like the juggernaut that serves us for Juggernaut’s car; but one of the things that good writing does is to fight a rearguard action against this automatic absorption of error.  For example, a competent writer would look twice at “rearguard action” to make sure that he means to evoke a losing battle, and check “automatic absorption” to make sure that it falls within the range of phenomena against which a battle might conceivably be fought.  He had better also know that “phenomena” should not be used in the singular, although that knowledge, too, is becoming rare.  Competent writers always examine what they have put down.  Better than competent writers – good writers – examine their effects before they put them down: they think that way all the time.  Bad writers never examine anything.  Their inattentiveness to the detail of their prose is part and parcel of their inattentiveness to the detail of the outside world.’

So much for my status as a writer, then.

I know that Frankenstein is the doctor, rather than the monster: but Juggernaut?  That’s news to me.  I’d like to think that I take more than the absolute minimum level of care with a sentence I’m writing, but now I’ve got Clive leaning over my shoulder, swishing a chalked cane with ominous enthusiasm, and he’s got a sharpened blue pencil tucked behind one of his ears.

Every one of the essays in Cultural Amnesia deserves an essay written about it, but on that point, again, James was there before me:

‘No writer, not even Chekhov in his short stories, can be Vermeer.  A painter can leave you with nothing left to say.  A writer leaves you with everything to say.  It is of the nature of his medium to start a conversation within you that will not stop until your death, and what he is really after is to be among the last voices you will hear.’

That little gem is the finale of an essay nominally about Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.  Heard of him?  Be honest, now…

I hadn’t.  But it’s the one essay I keep coming back to in Cultural Amnesia: it’s the longest by a decent stretch of nose, and it sits waiting for you about half way through the book.  It is the essay to start with in Cultural Amnesia because it’s the essay that gets to the heart of the three concerns that more than any others, have been at the heart of James’ work: good writing, human beauty and artistic beauty.

If James’ Lichtenberg piece were a blog post, the tags would look like this:

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Bad Writing, Metaphor, Mixed Metaphor, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Titanic, Lord Macaulay, Robert Montgomery, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Malcom Muggeridge, Gombrowitcz, Julius Caesar, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth I, Carlo D’Este, Journalism, David McClintick, Henry James, Proust, Flaubert, Nabokov, James Joyce, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Rembrandt, Goethe, Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Homer, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Kingsley Amis, Frank Kermode, George Orwell, Pushkin, Heinrich Mann, Voltaire, Ben Johnson, Moliere, Swift, Peacock, Shelley, Peter Porter, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Kant, Benedetto Croce, Egon Friedell, Philip Larkin, Auden, Stefan Zweig, Coleridge, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Beethoven, Barbirolli, Mahler, Stalin, Shostakovich, W B Yeats, Plato, Caravaggio, Brecht, Freud, Helen of Troy, E M Forster, Terry Southern, Mason Hoffenberg, Stanley Kubrick, Pornography, Male Porn Stars, Female Porn Stars, Sado-Masochism, Female Beauty, The Da Vinci Code, David Duchovny, Catherine Deneuve, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Kurt Tucholsky, George Saintsbury, Homosexuality, Heterosexuality, Christopher Isherwood, Promiscuity, Cruising, Mao Zedong, Lavrenty Beria, Zhisui Li, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Mann, Lew Hoad, Keats, Solzhenitsyn, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nikolay Berdyayev, F Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Anthony Powell, Chekhov, Vermeer.

You would think, based on that little list, that the essay in question would be either unbearably intimidating or merely a collection of tangential ravings.  That it is neither is a testament both to the essay as a form, and to James as an essayist.  The breadth of learning on display – the astonishing range of reading that is (seemingly) effortlessly drawn upon to balance one point, shore up another, comment on yet one more – inspires in me a burning envy.

What we really see in this essay is the working of a particular kind of mind, and that mind’s central preoccupations.  It’s a passionate defence of what language can do if you care about how you use it; it shows that wide and discriminating reading is useful not only for its own sake but for the sake of broadening the perspective of the person doing the reading.  Perhaps most important of all, it reveals how a lifetime’s reading creates a rich and self-reinforcing network of associations, ideas and impressions.

And it’s also a comment on beauty, and the ways in which beauty alone can fall short of the ideal.  Here, though, we enter problematical waters, and the curmudgeon in James pops up again.  Having got to the subject of pornography and prostitution (a complicated journey, and one I don’t propose to summarise here), James notes that

‘there is no such thing as nothing but sex: if there were, there would be nothing in the bordello but naked women.  As things are, the women can hardly get into the bordello for the props: uniforms, whips, trapezes, leather masks, torture instruments, plunge baths full of custard.  Imagination will not be denied, and least of all when ecstasy is for sale.  Everyone wants a relationship.  Even if the girl does everything for your eyes, she must also do something for your mind’s history.’

Is there really no such thing as nothing but sex?  I can see why that should be aspired to as an ideal, but how many of us can look back on our sexual histories and say, hand on heart, that there was something more than a mere shag in each and every episode?  And then say (other hand on – I don’t know – liver?) that the mere shag is necessarily fundamentally dissatisfying?  And why this disapproving list of props?  You can tell James disapproves, because there’s an excess of them: so many that ‘the women can hardly get into the bordello’.  To be sure, ‘plunge baths full of custard’ is a nice (and very Jamesian) exaggeration, but there’s something a bit funny about what precedes it, is there not?

If you want to be whipped by a woman (or indeed by a man) who is wearing a leather mask while swinging on a trapeze as you recline on a rack submerged in custard then you’re free to do so, as far as I can see.  And I salute both your zeal and your creativity.  But I doubt that James does, and I wonder why not.

And then there’s the ideal of a partner who ‘does everything for your eyes’ and also ‘something for your mind’s history’…  There are perhaps some people who are more easily to be satisfied than others in this regard, but can you imagine the kind of girl Clive James would really go nuts for?  Do they exist?  Are there Natalie Portman look-alikes out there who can read six languages, dance the tango, quote Hegel and tell Ottava Rima from Terza Rima?

If Cultural Amnesia didn’t have moments that leave you puzzled or dissatisfied or disappointed, then it wouldn’t be a book of essays.  The word ‘essay’ derives from the French essayer: to try, to attempt.  The essay is a form of writing, alas, that has become synonymous with schooling, and with higher academia.  It’s good to have Clive James around to remind us that that needn’t be the case.


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