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 Slate.com 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.
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.
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.
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
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:
recently, there have been rap lyrics distinguishable from the “Horst
Wessel Song” only in being less well written.” (From the introduction)
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)
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
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
There is much, much more, including whole paragraphs
to lengthy to quote here on the philosophy of art, music, and so much
I will end with the opening of his excellent essay on Trotsky.
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.