by Thomas Riggins
Clive James' "Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the margin of my time" is 896 pages long and made up of 106 essays ranging over the cultural and historical debris of the 20th century. It is reviewed by Adam Bresnick in the TLS for 9-14-2007.
In a busy world with zillions of books should you invest your time in reading this gigantic tome? If the review is any indication of the contents of the book I would say both yes and no. It depends on your intellectual commitments. Clive is supposedly a "humanist" and opposes the hoary and meaningless abstraction of "totalitarianism." He appears, from the review, to be merely a conservative pro-imperialist intellectual snob. If you like that kind of writing this is the book for you.
You will learn that "Soviet communism and Nazi fascism are obverse sides of the same murderous coin." History doesn't appear to be one of James' strong points. He should read Isaac Deutscher's "Stalin" to find out the differences between a system dedicated to war, conquest and genocide and one that ended up brutal and backwards due to trying to improve the world without the material and moral means of doing so. The Catholic Church produced both St. Francis and Torquemada. The Soviet system produced its share of both but the Nazi's were Torquemada down the line.
James writes the following idiotic observation (based on reading cold war hacks such as Raymond Aron), "The liberal believes in the permanence of humanity's imperfection; he resigns himself to a regime in which the good will be the result of numberless actions, and never the result of conscious choice." So, I won't join the Society for the Abolition of Slavery because I would be making a conscious choice and should rather rely on the numberless actions, presumedly of "good" masters, to bring about some improvements in the imperfection of humanity. James may have a great "style" but he has a sponge for a brain.
Even Bresnick, who approves of the book and this way of thinking is forced to admit that "Jamie's literary and musical sensibility may be problematically conservative" [tastewise that is] and that sometimes he "gets carried away with himself [phrase making]" and also at times it is difficult "to take James seriously" (he seems not to have understood "Paradise Lost").
All in all this seems to be a book by a gifted stylist and intellectual narcissist
whose understanding of the world is warped by ruling class cold war ideology masquerading as a profound understanding of reality. Don't waste your time on this one.