Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts by Clive James

Source of book: I own this.
Date originally published on Facebook: August 4, 2010

This review is one of my early ones, and has been a jumping-off point for the discovery of other works. (Thy Hand, Great Anarch is one.)  I would say that Cultural Amnesia remains one of the top five non-fiction books I have ever read. I highly recommend it to all who care about freedom, totalitarianism, history, morality, or the arts.

This book has been my non-fiction project for the last 6 months. I originally discovered this book because published a few excerpts. I was fascinated, and decided to buy the book myself. I was certainly not disappointed, but have enjoyed the journey, discovering a significant list of books to read in the future.

What kind of book is this? An unusual collection of essays? What is the theme? That is harder to say, as any attempt to do so would leave out at least one key facet. Perhaps it is best to say that it is Clive James’ musings on the totalitarian disaster of the 20th Century, as seen through key figures in thought and art. But even that falls short. An Australian by birth, James has spent the better part of 40 years writing and reading in numerous languages, and perhaps exemplifies the modern international renaissance man. He doesn’t just write about historical figures, he has read their works in the original language, and more often than not succeeds in linking them by ideas and history across borders of geography and era.

There are a total of 107 essays, all on individuals, arranged alphabetically across 851 pages of fairly small print.

The names range from the familiar: Louis Armstrong, G. K. Chesterton, Sigmund Freud, John Keats; to the infamous: Trotsky, Hitler, Mao; to the names you probably should know: Anna Akhamatova, Raymond Aron, Miguel de Unamuno; to the truly obscure: Sophie Scholl, Golo Mann. There are heroes, such as Albert Camus, and villains such as Sartre. All the essays include at least one memorable quote from the individual.

The essays are not biographical sketches, nor do they stick strictly to the topic. They use the person, an idea, a quote, as a leaping-off-point for a discussion which rarely fails to draw the reader in, leaving him with a new perspective.

A key element of the appeal of this book is James’ command of the language. He writes well, very well: the book would perhaps be fun to read for the language alone, even absent the ideas. However, the ideas themselves are the heart of the book.

James recognizes that civilization itself survived two great threats in the last century: Nazism and Communism. What shook James to his core was that many of the figures of culture, learning, and art not only failed to see the threat, but cooperated with it. In most of those cases, the end was the destruction of the art and usually the person with it. Such a despicable character as Sartre survived only because the Allies rescued France.

I feel that words fail me to describe this book in a way that makes it sound as good as it is. I would list it in the top 5 non-fiction books I have ever read. I quoted sections to my long-suffering wife on nearly a nightly basis.

Here are few of the quotes, both from the subjects and the writer:

“[M]ore recently, there have been rap lyrics distinguishable from the “Horst Wessel Song” only in being less well written.” (From the introduction)

“When we talk about the imponderables of life, we don’t really mean that we can’t ponder them. We mean that we can’t stop.” (Introduction)

“Solitudeinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” ~Tacitus (They make a desert and they call it peace.) Perhaps one of the best statements of the results of totalitarianism ever written.

“Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes” ~Albert Camus

“’Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron’ is still meant to be a slogan testifying to political seriousness, rather than to intellectual suicide. (From the essay on Raymond Aron)

“In the course of the last forty years, the only part of the world that has enjoyed peace is the continent divided between two zones of political civilization both of them armed with atomic bombs.” ~Raymond Aron, in The Last Years of the Century.

There is much, much more, including whole paragraphs to lengthy to quote here on the philosophy of art, music, and so much else.

I will end with the opening of his excellent essay on Trotsky.

“After being murdered at Stalin’s orders, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, alias Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), lived on for decades as the unassailable hero of aesthetically minded progressives who wished to persuaded themselves that there could be a vegetarian version of communism. Trotsky could write, orate, loved women, and presented enough of a threat to the established Soviet power structure (admittedly showing signs of rigidity by then) that it should want to track him down to his hiding place in Mexico and rub him out. It followed, or seemed to follow, that Trotsky must have embodied a more human version of the historic force that sacrificed innocent people to egalitarian principle: a version that would sacrifice fewer of them, in a nicer way. Alas, it followed only if the facts were left out. “

Buy or borrow this book. Read it, and see if your perspective on the 20th Century is not expanded and enlightened.

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