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Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time

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But somewhere within the total field of human knowledge, humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all. Chamfort’s “Maximes” took their place in literature “for those connoisseurs of the aphorism who positively liked the idea that there was a wasted lifetime behind the wisdom. We are all doomed to be actors, in the sense that our abilities and deficiencies will guide us, in certain ways if not in others, to becoming active participants in a productive society, whether we like that society or not.

He condenses his thoughts into linguistic firework displays, arresting, crackling, beautiful and provocative. A lifetime is exactly what it has taken Clive James to read them, and at times this book is presented as being something of a life's work for him. I underlined things, put stars in the margin, added knowing comments about the provenance of Valery’s ideas (“Croce was here! Gresham’s law, that the bad drives out the good, has acquired a counter-law, that the bad draws in the good: there are British football hooligans who can sing Puccini’s “Nessun dorma. Active from the early years of the twentieth century until the Nazis turned off the lights in Austria, the Viennese prodigy knew everything, or talked as if he did.

In the rich tradition of French aphorists” he committed suicide when faced with the guillotine in 1794. In the nineteenth century, in the time of the great philologist Ernest Renan, and despite the contrary evidence already provided by the French Revolution, Studia humanitatis was still thought of as an unmixed blessing. The mind in question happens to be mine, and any psychologist could argue persuasively that mine is the mind I am least likely to know much about. As the time for assembling my reflections approached, I resolved that a premature synthesis was the thing to be avoided.

James seems overjoyed that English is now the universal language, owing to “the American international cultural hegemony”, which he apparently feels much at ease with. The decline of grammar is a feature of our time, so I have tried, at several points in this book, to make a consideration of the decline part of the discussion. Overture and all the individual essays, may be accessed via the menu column to the left of this page.With fascinating essays on artists from Louis Armstrong to Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud to Franz Kafka and Beatrix Potter to Marcel Proust, Cultural Amnesia is one of the crowning achievements in Clive James's illustrious career as a critic. To make matters worse, James dedicates the whole book to Scholl, and yet he spills five times more ink on Tony Curtis. It would have been nice to believe that comedy, one of my fields of employment, was of its nature opposed to political horror, but there were too many well-attested instances of Stalin and Molotov cracking each other up while they signed death warrants, and there was all too much evidence that Hitler told quite good jokes. It also suggests what I have failed to learn, and now will probably never learn, because it is getting late.

I have been in that apartment, and admired the Picasso, and envied its owner: I especially envied him his third wife, who had the same eyes as Picasso’s second mistress, although they were on different sides of her nose. If the eighteenth century had meant to usher in the age of reason, the nineteenth century, with the cold snick of the guillotine ringing in its ears, meant to supply some of the regrettable deficiencies of reason by the addition of science … By now, after the twentieth century has done its cruel work … the future of science, Renan’s cherished avenir de la science, can be assessed from our past, in which it flattened cities and gassed innocent children: whatever we don’t yet know about it, one thing we already know is that it is not necessarily benevolent. There were several moments where James caught me entirely off-guard with his stealth humor, and many of his essays are very enlightening.Witty, insightful and unashamedly erudite, the book is a superb miscellany of 20th-century cultural and political subjects. The word phenomenon isn’t even really English, certainly not an English form, and I am troubled by its misuse about as much as I am octopi vs. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, James illuminates, rescues, or occasionally demolishes the careers of many of the greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists, and philosophers of the twentieth century.

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