Clive James's essay about G.K. Chesterton in his new book reaches a conclusion that any arts lover could live by: "Either in life or in the mind, there can be no such rigid division of the classical and the fashionable. A work of art has to be judged by its interior vitality, not by its agreed prestige." Naturally, it comes from a work that screams classical.
Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (Norton, $35, hardcover) is a grand statement and a half: 876 pages long, consisting of 110 alphabetically arranged profiles of (mostly) 20th-century figures that the Australian-born historian and critic shapes as a kind of latticework subterranean history of the century. Many of the book's subjects are intellectuals, writers and politicians; there are also musicians, filmmakers, human peacocks, professional ingénues and political resisters. (The "C" chapters give you an idea: There's Albert Camus, Dick Cavett, Coco Chanel, Charles Chaplin and Tony Curtis, among others.)
Most grandiose of all, James' primary topic isn't the century or the people who embodied it, but the way his protagonists did or did not embody liberal humanism, and why. Well, of course nothing packs 'em in like serious thought latched to a pop framework, and if Cultural Amnesia is anything, it's ingeniously structured. Each essay begins with a brief biographical sketch of the name at the top of the chapter, followed by a quote from the name. This is where things go purposefully haywire: The quote is a trigger for James to ruminate on, or focus on a single aspect of, or begin a high-toned sneer at the work or life of the person in question or, often as not, someone or something else entirely.
Take Chesterton's quote. "To set a measure to praise and blame, and to support the classics against the fashions" is cited without provenance, a rarity here, and James' forgetting to write down where it came from 20 years prior becomes his jump-off point for discussing the false line between the classical and the fashionable. A line of Sir Thomas Browne's ("Dreams out of the ivory gate, and visions before midnight") is grist for a hugely entertaining disquisition on borrowing lines from literature for book titles. (Visions Before Midnight was James' first collection.) The five-page Proust passage, and Hitler's seven, are misleading: Both men saturate the book, the former as James' ultimate angel of good in the arts, the latter as evil incarnate.
James' unflinching morality is one of Cultural Amnesia's strengths. Political repression is at the book's heart; James could well have shaved the few chapters that don't deal directly with it into their own collection and retitled the remainders Profiles in Totalitarianism. Certainly that's where much of the best writing is here: James' prize riffs tend to be on the Viennese, Parisian, and Berlin artists and intellectuals who thrived before Hitler, and the ones who either collaborated against or resisted him, such as the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus and the German novelist, poet, historian, and self-made feminist badass Ricarda Huch.
Cultural Amnesia is absurdly quotable. The writing is screw-cap tight even when James is hammering home a point for the second or fifth time. And James does go on about liberal humanism. It's probably smart that, unlike many like-minded writers, he doesn't presuppose his readership shares his bias, but it doesn't stop him from wielding his liberal-humanist yardstick like a licking switch.
Sometimes this is wholly entertaining, as in his snarling takedowns of people he views as charlatans, like Jean-Paul Sartre: "a devil's advocate to be despised more than the devil, because the advocate was smarter."
It also has its absurd moments. His Louis Armstrong chapter turns, bewilderingly, into a discussion of how it's OK to like white jazz musicians, particularly Benny Goodman and Bix Beiderbecke, because Pops did, despite what the author's college classmates thought a half-century ago. Few serious jazz lovers question white musicians' impact on the form; James' hang-ups here are mostly his own. (Also, Clive: Patronizing much?)
Yeah, yeah aging New Yorker critic fusty, film at 11. In the book's introduction, James sets himself up as an elder attempting to pass on his amassed knowledge to the next generation; forgive my disappointment that he occasionally hamstrings himself on his own nobility. Most of the time, though, just when James seems as if he's going to get ponderous, he flicks away the impulse and hurtles forward, like the best parts of the century he plumbs.
Michaelangelo Matos is a freelance writer. Send comments to email@example.com.