Book Review: Cultural Amnesia, by Clive James

Clive James’s monumental anthology of cultural portraits: a powerful defence of humanism and clarity of expression

Australian author and critic Clive James: “a crash course in civilization” | Illustration: Katarina Klein

Battling Cultural Amnesia

In the Kaffeehaus culture of fin-de-siècle Vienna, writes essayist Clive James, the richest life of the mind took place outside the university. It was a time when education was a life-long process, broader in many ways than the university, and more fun.

“In Vienna there were no exams to pass, learning was a voluntary passion and wit a form of currency,” he writes. “You didn’t complete your education and start your career, your education was your career. And it was never completed.”

Thus begins James’s captivating collection of essays Cultural Amnesia – Notes in the Margin of My Time, a set of reflections on the 20th century told through a series of biographical discussions of more than a hundred figures in the arts, history and politics.

The book is the product of 40 years’ worth of reading and annotations, lifted from the margins of James’s notebooks to wrest an important legacy from oblivion: through the stories of its characters, Cultural Amnesia is a powerful defence of the vibrancy and relevance of  humanism, liberal democracy and clarity of expression – what reviewer J.M. Coetzee called a “crash course in civilization.”

Enormously popular in Britain, where he has lived since the 1960s, and throughout the Commonwealth, Australian author and critic Clive James is best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs and for his talk shows and documentaries on British television.

While less well known in America, the book was listed among the “Best of 2007” by The Village Voice, which described James as “the greatest cultural critic of our time; he’s what you’d get if you crossed the DNA strands of [literary critic] Edmund Wilson and [film critic] Pauline Kael.”

Without question, Cultural Amnesia is a tour de force, a gathering up of the threads of thought and experience that have created the modern world. In discursive essays on the people he has read and read about, James weaves a fabric worthy of a humanistic life. It’s a treasury of thoughts jotted down that didn’t fit into the original reviews, saved for decades.

“There were always annotations that struck me as not fitting any scheme except a much larger one,” he wrote. But by the time he got to writing the book, he “had begun to live with the possibility that there could be no scheme…, only a linear cluster of nodal points, working the way the mind works as it moves through time.”

Like George Orwell, Clive James sees the possibility of a moral life only in the messy complexity of tolerance and variation. After the horrors of the 20th century, we understand the brutality of ideology in its insistence on simple answers, as well as the failed promise of science as solely a force for good. Even the arts seem to have betrayed us, equally loved as they have been by totalitarians and torturers. So we are left with humanism, he says, which “still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all.”

For humanism doesn’t exist so much in the separate activities of the creative mind but in the connections between them; it is “distinguished from the destructive by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it.”

Vienna is thus the best place to begin unravelling what happened to 20th-century culture, because here, with all the complications, the ideal of humanistic pluralism was real.

The Viennese Kaffeehaus literary circle was largely, although not only, a Jewish culture, due to quotas at the universities that pushed scholarship and humanism into other forms, and lasted until the Anschluß in 1938 when a third were able to flee. The others died at the hands of the Nazis. Finis Austriae, as Sigmund Freud noted in his journal.

The ranks of James’s Vienna subjects include many familiar names: Franz Kafka, Arthur Schnitzler, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stefan Zweig, but also names like Peter Altenberg, Egon Friedell, Karl Kraus and Alfred Polgar whose words and writing have never crossed the language barrier, although they defined the literary café life of Vienna until the end.

Peter Altenberg holds a special place in the assembly, being one who literally lived in his Kaffeehaus, the Café Central, sponging off his friends and turning out pearls of insight. The quote James chooses to launch his essay makes the point nicely:

“There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man,” wrote Altenberg, “love trouble, ambition and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three, and there are a lot more.”

Critic and essayist Alfred Polgar was considered the master German prose stylist of his day giving, James tells us, “a picture of his era no other writer could match for wealth of registered detail and subtlety of argument.” And wit – raising tragedy to the level of poetry, commenting that “many attempt, without success, to make up for their lack of talent with defects of character.”

Karl Kraus was Vienna’s biting satirist, publisher and sole author of Die Fackel (The Torch) who attacked bourgeois culture in all its forms, including anyone with a taste for success. For all Kraus’s sparkling wit, James suggests that “by helping to undermine the bourgeoisie as a class,” he joined other intellectuals who “unwittingly served future masters whose only dream was to annihilate them.” Satire, in the end, is not a world view.

It is Egon Friedell who holds perhaps the highest place in James’s esteem. Educated in math and science, Friedell was also a cabaret star and a consummate wit, a jack and master of all trades, at a level unusual even in Vienna. He also wrote books, including A Cultural History of the Modern Age, a piece of work that survived all the years of upheaval in the German-speaking world as an expression of confidence in the value of civilization, and a sorely needed reminder of the continuing importance of humanism in the modern era.

But these characters are only the beginning; there is so much to savour here, and across an extraordinary range: from poet Anna Akmatova and trumpeter Louis Armstrong to writers Jorge Luis Borges and Albert Camus. There’s Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, W.C. Fields, Edward Gibbon and Terry Gilliam; Norman Mailer, Czeslaw Milosz, Montesquieu; Margaret Thatcher, Leon Trotsky and Evelyn Waugh. That’s right; it’s alphabetical.

If there is a complaint to be made about this fascinating and engaging book, it is that Clive James seems to know too little of Vienna today.

“Vienna feels empty now,” he writes; beyond the opera or a Heuriger, the city lives in the past; the “eternally fresh impulse of humanism” never returned after World War II. This judgment feels unfair, or at best incomplete, to anyone trying to keep up with the pace of the intellectual and artistic life that saturates the calendar September through to June. But perhaps it is understandable; James, like most who are fascinated with Vienna as the hothouse of the future it was in the early 20th century, look now for the earmarks they recognize from that time, rather than sensing the energy of internationalism and intellectual exchange whose signs are there to see on every side.

His fundamental argument, though, is beyond challenge: There is so much that we forget; the world moves so fast, it is hard keep up, and even harder to grasp hold of.

“If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates,” he writes. “Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.”


Cultural Amnesia:

Notes in the Margins of My Time
by Clive James
W.W. Norton & Co, New York (2007)
available at Shakespeare & Company
1., Sterngasse 2, (01) 535 5053

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