Books: Cultural Amnesia — Introduction |
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Cultural Amnesia : Introduction

IN THE FORTY years it took me to write this book, I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern. It would be organized like the top of my desk, from which the last assistant I hired to sort it out has yet to reappear. The book I wanted to write had its origins in the books I was reading. Several times, in my early days, I had to sell my best books to buy food, so I never underlined anything. When conditions improved I became less fastidious. Not long after I began marking passages for future consideration, I also began keeping notes in the margin beside the markings, and then longer notes on the endpapers. Those were the very means by which Montaigne invented the modern essay, and at first I must have had an essay of my own in mind: a long essay, but one with the usual shape, a single line of argument moving through selected perceptions to a neat conclusion.

In the short term, many of my annotations went into book reviews and pieces for periodicals: writings which took an essay form, and which, when I collected them into volumes, I unblushingly dignified with that term. But there were always annotations that struck me as not fitting any scheme except a much larger one, to be attempted far in the future, probably towards the end of my life. By the time that terminus was in clear sight, however, I had begun to live with the possibility that there could be no scheme.

There could only be a linear cluster of nodal points, working the way the mind—or at any rate my mind, such as it is—works as it moves through time: a trail of clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence, like the phosphorescent wake of a phantom ship. Far from a single argument, there would be scores of arguments. I wanted to write about philosophy, history, politics and the arts all at once, and about what had happened to those things during the course of the multiple catastrophes into whose second principal outburst (World War I was the first) I had been born in 1939, and which continued to shake the world as I grew to adulthood. Even in an ideal world, none of those subjects would be an easily separable category, and in the far from ideal world we had been given to live in they were inextricably mixed. Each of them, it seemed to me, could have no overt order at the best of times: its order could only be internal, complex, organic. And in the worst of times, which has become our time, any two or more of them taken together must show the same effect dizzily multiplied: the organic complexities intermingled into a texture so intricate that any order extracted from it could be called only provisional.

Well, that would fit. Modern history had given us enough warning against treating simplifications as real. The totalitarian states, the great sponsors of mass atrocity against innocent human beings, had been propelled by ideologies, and what else was an ideology except a premature synthesis? As the time for assembling my reflections approached, I resolved that a premature synthesis was the thing to be avoided.

SO THIS IS a book about how not to reach one. If I have done my job properly, themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligible. But it will undoubtedly be a turbulent read. The times from which it emerged were hard on the nerves, even for those of us who were lucky enough to lead charmed lives. I hope that the episodically intermixed account of direct experience from my own charmed life will alleviate the difficulties of a densely woven text, but I make no excuse for them. If this book were not difficult, it would not be true.

To younger readers who might find themselves wondering why it is so full of forgotten names, and takes such a violently unpredictable course, the first thing to say is: welcome to the twentieth century, out of which your century grew as surely as a column of black smoke grows from an oil fire. The second thing, though an adjunct of the first, is even more important: there is a lot at stake here. 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. 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. Apart from the prophets—Dickens, despite his inborn optimism, was one of them—few people with any aspirations to a philosophical view doubted that the extension of human knowledge would, in Renan’s typically generous phrase, élargir la grande famille: produce a race of the enlightened to lead a life of mathematically calculable justice. By now, after the twentieth century has done its cruel work, that is exactly what we doubt. 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. But somewhere within the total field of human knowledge, humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all.

That beckoning, however, grows increasingly feeble. The arts and their attendant scholarship are everywhere—imperishable consumer goods which a self-selecting elite can possess while priding itself as being beyond materialism; they have a glamour unprecedented in history—but humanism is hard to find. For that, science is one of the culprits: not the actual achievement of science, but the language of science, which, clumsily imitated by the proponents of Cultural Studies, has helped to make real culture unapproachable for exactly those students who might otherwise have been most attracted to it, and has simultaneously furthered the emergence and consolidation of an international cargo cult whose witch doctors have nothing in mind beyond their own advancement. By putting the humanities to careerist use, they set a bad example even to those who still love what they study. Learned books are published by the thousand, yet learning was never less trusted as something to be pursued for its own sake. Too often used for ill, it is now asked about its use for good, and usually on the assumption that any goodwill be measurable on a market, like a commodity. The idea that humanism has no immediately ascertainable use at all, and is invaluable for precisely that reason, is a hard sell in an age when the word “invaluable,” simply by the way it looks, is begging to be construed as “valueless” even by the sophisticated. In fact, especially by them. If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates. Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.

It was terrible, that age. Bright, sympathetic young people who now face a time when innocent human beings are killed by the thousand can be excused for thinking that their elders do not care enough, and indeed it is true that complacency tends to creep in as the hair falls out. But their elders grew to maturity in a time when innocent human beings were killed by the million. The full facts about Nazi Germany came out quite quickly, and were more than enough to induce despair. The full facts about the Soviet Union were slower to become generally appreciated, but when they at last were, the despair was compounded. The full facts about Mao’s China left that compounded despair looking like an inadequate response. After Mao, not even Pol Pot came as a surprise. Sadly, he was a cliché.

Ours was an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir. But the accumulated destruction yielded one constructive effect, salutary even if solitary. It made us think hard about the way we thought. For my own part, it made me think hard about all the fields of creativity that I seemed to love equally, whatever their place in a supposed hierarchy. I loved poetry, but such towering figures as Brecht and Neruda were only two of the gifted poets who had given aid and comfort to totalitarian power. I loved classical music, but so did Reinhard Heydrich and the ineffable Dr. Mengele. I loved modern fiction in all its fearless inclusiveness, but Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the author of that amazing phantasmagoria Voyage au bout de la nuit, had also written Bagatelles pour un massacre, a breviary for racialist fanatics. On examination, none of these exalted activities was a sure antidote in itself to the poison of irrationality, which is inseparable from human affairs, but fatal to them if granted a life of its own. And for the less exalted activities, examination was scarcely necessary. I loved popular music, but one look at Johnny Rotten was enough to show you why even the SS occasionally court-martialled a few of its personnel for nihilistic behaviour beyond the call of duty, and more recently there have been rap lyrics distinguishable from the “Horst Wessel Song” only in being less well written. I loved the art sports, but so had Leni Riefenstahl, who also provided evidence that there was nothing necessarily humanist about the movies: Triumph of the Will is a spectacle everyone should see, but no one should adore. 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. If there was no field of creativity that was incorruptibly pure, where did that leave humanism?

GRADUALLY I REALIZED that I had been looking in the wrong place. As a journalist and critic, a premature post-modernist, I was often criticized in my turn for talking about the construction of a poem and of a Grand Prix racing car in the same breath, or of treating gymnasts and high divers (in my daydreams, I astonish the Olympic medalist Greg Louganis) as if they were practising the art of sculpture. It was a sore point, and often the sore point reveals where the real point is. Humanism wasn’t in the separate activities: humanism was the connection between them. Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it. Builders of concentration camps might be creators of a kind—it is possible to imagine an architect happily working to perfect the design of the concrete stanchions supporting an electrified barbed-wire fence—but they were in business to subtract variety from the created world, not to add to it. In the connection between all the outlets of the creative impulse in mankind, humanism made itself manifest, and to be concerned with understanding and maintaining that intricate linkage necessarily entailed an opposition to any political order that worked to weaken it.

SUCH WAS THE conclusion I had already reached after thirty-seven years of preparation. I was doing other things to earn a crust, but the book was never out of my mind, somewhere at the back of the building between the storeroom and the laundry. In the three years it took to compose the actual text, I was faced more and more, as it moved forward, with the consequences of not having isolated my themes. If I was determined on avoiding those broad divisions that I thought not only artificial but actively inimical to my view, the question was bound to keep on arising of where the book’s unity was to come from. Answering that question over and over in the course of long days and longer nights, I had to intensify a faith that I had always kept throughout my writing life: the faith that the unity would come from the style. From the beginning of my career, whenever I had written an essay, it was most likely to come alive when its planned progression of points was interrupted by a notion which surprised me, and which could be brought to order only by making the manner of writing more inclusive instead of less. In other words, I took the same approach to prose as to a poem. When young and cocky, I had defined a poem as any piece of writing that could not be quoted from except out of context. Older but even more ambitious, I had the temerity to define prose in the same way: a prose work of whatever length should be dependent, in each part, on every other part of what was included, and so respect the importance even of what had been left out. From the force of cohesion would come the power of suggestion, and one of the things suggested should be the existence of other voices.

THERE ARE HUNDREDS of voices in this book, and hundreds more which, although not cited directly, are nevertheless present in the way its author speaks. In that sense, the best sense, there is no such thing as an individual voice: there is only an individual responsibility. The writer represents all the expressive people to whom he has ever paid attention, even if he disapproved of what they expressed. If anything in this book seems not to fit, it isn’t, I hope, because it is irrelevant, but because I have written about it in the wrong tone, or the wrong measure. The polemicist has the privilege of unifying his tone by leaving out the complications. I have tried to unify it while encompassing the whole range of a contemporary mind. 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. This much, however, I do know: it would not be a mind at all if its owner had allowed his multiplicity of interests to be restricted by a formula. He might have been more comfortable had he done so. But we have to do better than just seek comfort, or the Exterminating Angel will overwhelm us when he returns. He is unlikely to return at the head of a totalitarian state: even after the final and irreversible discrediting of their ideological pretensions, there are still a few totalitarian states left, but their days are surely numbered.

Totalitarianism, however, is not over. It survives as residues, some of them all the more virulent because they are no longer hemmed in by borders; and some of them are within our own borders. Liberal democracy deserved, and still deserves, to prevail—one of the aims of this book is to help stave off any insidious doubts on that point—but in both components of liberal democracy’s name there are opportunities for the ideologist: in the first component lies inspiration for the blind devotee of economic determinism, and in the second for the dogmatic egalitarian. From within as well as without, the Procrustean enemies of our provokingly multifarious free society are bound to come, sometimes merely to preach obscurantist doctrine in our universities, at other times to fly our own airliners into towers of commerce. What they hate is the bewildering complexity of civilized life, which we will find hard to defend if we share the same aversion. We shouldn’t. There is too much to appreciate. If it can’t be sorted into satisfactory categories, that should make us take heart: it wouldn’t be the work of human beings if it could.

There was never a time like now to be a lover of the arts. Mozart never heard most of Bach. We can hear everything by both of them. Brahms was so bowled over by Carmen that he saw twenty performances, but he had to buy twenty opera tickets to do so. Manet never saw all his paintings in one place: we can. While Darcey Bussell dances at Covent Garden, the next Darcey Bussell can watch her from Alice Springs. Technology not only has given us a permanent present, but has given it the furniture of eternity. We can cocoon ourselves, if we wish, in a new provincialism more powerful than any of the past empires. English is this new world’s lingua franca, not because it was once spoken in the British Empire but because it is spoken now in the American international cultural hegemony. Born to speak it, we can view the whole world as a dubbed movie, and not even have to bother with subtitles. Should we wish, we can even savour the tang of alien tongues: a translation will be provided on a separate page, to be dialled up at a touch. We can be world citizens without leaving home. If that seems too static, we can travel without leaving home. The world is prepared to receive us, with all its fruits laid out for our consumption, and wrapped in cling film to meet our sanitary standards. 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.” It would be a desirable and enviable existence just to earn a decent wage at a worthwhile job and spend all one’s leisure hours improving one’s aesthetic appreciation. There is so much to appreciate, and it is all available for peanuts. One can plausibly aspire to seeing, hearing and reading everything that matters. The times are not long gone when nobody could aspire to that—not even Egon Friedell, a man once famous for being better informed than anybody in Vienna. In a city stiff with polymaths, he was the polymath’s polymath.

Egon Friedell looms large in this book. 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. There was nothing he could not talk about brilliantly. Some thought him a charlatan, but no charlatan is ever remembered for making clever remarks: only for trying to make them. One of the most famous cabaret artists of his day, Friedell in the 1920s combined his career in show business with a monkish dedication to his library, in which he produced a book of his own that must count as one of the strangest and most wonderful of the twentieth century: Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit (The Cultural History of the Modern Age). A fabulous effort of style and concentration, a prestidigitator’s trick box packed with epigrammatic summaries of all the creativity in every field of art and science since the Renaissance, a prose epic raised to the level of poetry, Friedell’s magic show of a book remains a fantastic demonstration of the mind at serious play. At the time, he left people wondering if there was nothing he might not do next. That kind of expectation can easily breed envy. Though he did his best to be humble, there were many in his audience who thought him not humble enough. Friedell believed that an artist of his type needed “a magnetic field” in which to operate. He was well aware that he was surrounded by the kind of people whose only ambition was to cut off the electricity. They were Nazis, and he was a Jew. On the day of the Anschlu? in 1938, Friedell saw the storm troopers marching down the street, on their way to the building in which he had his apartment full of books. He was only a few floors up but it was high enough to do the job. On his way out of the window he called a warning, in case his falling body hit an innocent passer-by.

I CAN’T IMAGINE being brave enough to copy the way Egon Friedell made an exit, but there was something about the way he made an entrance that could be a model for us all. He came on as a combination of actor and thinker. 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. Alas, we will be participants even if we hate it: terrorism, which will not tolerate a passive audience, is already part of the show. But to palliate that condition, we are nowadays much more free to be thinkers than is commonly supposed. The usual division is to treat our daily job as the adventure and our cultural diversions as a mere mechanism of renewal and repose. But the adventurous jobs are becoming more predictable all the time, even at the level of celebrity and conspicuous material success. Could there be anything less astonishing than to work day and night on Wall Street to make the millions that will buy the Picasso that will hang on the wall of our Upper East Side apartment to help convince us and our guests that we are lucky to know each other? 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. But I didn’t envy the man his job. In the same week, I was filming in Greenwich Village, and spent an hour of down-time sitting in a café making my first acquaintance with the poetry of Anthony Hecht. I couldn’t imagine living better. The real adventure is no longer in the job. In the job we can have a profile written about us, and be summed up: all the profiles will be the same, and all the summaries add up to the same thing. The real adventure is in what we do to entertain ourselves, a truth which the profile writers concede by trying to draw us out on our supposed addictions to shark fishing, fast cars, extreme skiing and expensive young women. But even the entertainment can no longer be adventurous if it serves a purpose. It will be adventurous only if it serves itself. In other words, it will not be utilitarian. It has always been part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance.

What this book then proposes—what it embodies, I hope—is something difficult enough to be satisfactory for an age in which to be presented with nothing except reassurance is ceasing to be tolerable. As the late Edward W. Said wrote after the attack on the World Trade Center, Western humanism is not enough: we need a universal humanism. I agree with that. The question is how to get it, and my own view is that it can’t be had unless we raise our demands on ourselves a long way beyond decorating our lives with enough cultivation to make the pursuit of ambition look civilized. When the doomed Russian poet Osip Mandelstam said that he was nostalgic for a world culture, he didn’t mean that it would be a world culture if everyone could live in Switzerland.

THE IDEOLOGISTS THOUGHT they understood history. They thought history had a shape, a predictable outcome, a direction that could be joined. They were wrong. Some of them were intellectuals who shamed themselves and their calling by bringing superior mental powers to the defence of misbegotten political systems that were already known to be dispensing agony to the helpless. Young readers will find some of that story here, and try to convince themselves that they would have behaved differently. But the way to avoid the same error now is not through understanding less. It can only be through understanding more. And the beginning of understanding more is to realize that there is more than can be understood. As an aid to that end, this book is not a testament to my capabilities, but to the lack of them. Proust talked about “that long flight from our own lives that we call erudition.” There is nothing inherently wrong with erudition: it’s not as if we’re drowning in it, and anyway Proust himself wrote the most erudite book in the whole of French literature. But this book is the reverse of erudite. It does not just record what I have learned. It also suggests what I have failed to learn, and now will probably never learn, because it is getting late. The student who flicks through these pages in the bookshop will see many strange names, and perhaps be impressed. But what impresses me is all the names that are missing. I would never have taken a note in the first place except out of the fear that what I was reading would soon slip away: a fear all too well founded. The Russian symbolist writer Andrei Bely once said that what we keep in our heads is the sum of a writer: a “composite quotation.” But the only reason I still know that Bely once said that is that I wrote it down.

There was a time when I could fairly fluently read Russian, and get through a simple article in Japanese about my special subject, the war in the Pacific. I hope to get Russian back, but the written version of Japanese is the kind of language that you can study hard for five years and yet can’t neglect for a week without its leaving you like a flock of birds. I hope they return as easily as they went, but I remember how long they took to arrive in the first place. I have always loved the title of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I hope this is a book of laughter, at least in places. But it is everywhere a book of forgetting. I am not urging young people to follow me on the path to a success. I am showing them the way to a necessary failure: the grim but edifying realization that a complete picture of reality is not to be had. If we realize that, we can begin to be realistic. Thinking otherwise, we doom ourselves to spinning fantasies, which might well be fluent, but could equally be lethal. Stalin and Hitler both thought that they could see the whole picture, and look what happened.

WHATEVER WE SAY, it is bound to be dependent on what has been said before. In this book can be heard the merest outside edge of an enormous conversation. As they never were in life, we can imagine the speakers all gathered in some vast room. Or perhaps they are on a terrace, under the stars. They are wearing name tags in case they don’t recognize each other. Some of them recognize each other all too well, but they avoid contact. Thomas Mann, with the family poodle snuffling petulantly at his knee, would rather not talk to Brecht, and Sartre is keen to avoid Solzhenitsyn. Kafka tells Puccini that he would have approached him at the Brescia flying display in 1909, but he was too shy. Nabokov tells Pavlova that he never forgot the time he danced the waltz with her. Yeats has failed to convince Wittgenstein about the importance of the Mystic Rose. All over the place there are little dramas. Standing beside the piano, Stravinsky refuses to believe that Duke Ellington is improvising. Robert Lowell has cornered Freud and is telling him that when he, Lowell, has a depressive phase he imagines he is Adolf Hitler. With barely concealed impatience, Freud mutters that Hitler spends very little time imagining he is Robert Lowell. Anna Akhmatova at her most beautiful, a catwalk model with the nose of an unsuccessful pugilist, has moved in on Tony Curtis at his most handsome, dressed for his role as Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success. Curtis looks frightened. Akhmatova’s friend and rival Nadezhda Mandelstam, on the other hand, seems delighted to have met Albert Camus: she distrusts the way he turns on the automatic charm even for an old lady, but she approves of his opinions.

Not all the figures are from the twentieth century. Some have been invited because what they said was prescient, or at least portentous. Heine and Wagner are getting on better than Nietzsche expected: neither has yet strangled the other. Montesquieu is doing his best to put up with Talleyrand. It is not a fancy dress party, but “come as you are” means that Tacitus has arrived in a toga, and the poet Juana Inés de la Cruz in a nun’s habit. One of the great beauties of the seventeenth-century Spanish world, Juana Inés is a ringer for Isabella Rossellini. Tacitus seems quite taken with her, perhaps partly because she speaks fluent Latin. Never a million laughs, he tells her his story about the daughter of Sejanus: a story which the reader will find in this book. Tacitus thought it was the most terrible story he could imagine. We know what he doesn’t: that in the twentieth century the story of Sejanus’s daughter will be repeated several million times.

MY HEROES AND heroines are here. The reader will recognize some of their names: Albert Camus, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka. Other names will be more obscure: Miguel de Unamuno, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Leszek Kolakowski, Golo Mann, Arthur Schnitzler, Witold Gombrowicz, Manès Sperber, Raymond Aron, Hans Sahl, Jean Prévost, Stefan Zweig. My intellectual bêtes noires are here too, and the same division might apply. Everyone has heard of Sartre, Brecht, Céline. Not everyone has heard of Georg Lukács, Robert Brasillach, Ernst Jünger, Louis Aragon. There is a category of super-villain easy to assess: Hitler, Stalin, Mao. But although Hitler and Stalin both talked like maniacs from the start, Mao was capable of something like human reason early in his career; a fact to remind us that the merely verbalizing villains—those benighted intellectuals who truckled to power—were not always without a spark of reason. It might have been better if they had been: they would have done less damage. As it happened, not even Sartre could be wrong all the time, although he tried hard. And there were heroes who were not always right: Thomas Mann, in his youth, was terrifically wrong about militarized nationalism, and part of his later anguish was that he had lived to see the destructive consequences of a passion that he had once believed to be self-evidently creative. George Orwell thought, and said, that the bourgeoisie was the enemy of the proletariat, until the practical evidence persuaded him that anyone who believed the two classes could not be reconciled was the deadly enemy of both. 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. Hence the conversation: a Sargasso of monologues that were all attracted to the noise.

Some of the voices are talking murder while thinking it to be medicine. Others, the blessed ones, are talking reason. Almost always it is because they know their own limitations. But unless they were born as saints, they had to find out they were not infallible by listening to the words of others. Most of the words were written down, and most of the listening was done by reading. Certainly it was in my case, during all those intervals in a busy life when I escaped to be alone in the café, and found that I was never alone for a moment. Because, as a journalist and television presenter, I travelled professionally for more than twenty years on end, the café was in many different cities: Sydney, London, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Florence, Rome, Venice, Paris, Biarritz, Cannes, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Moscow, Madrid, Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Bombay, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cairo, Jerusalem, Valletta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami, Mexico City, Havana, Rio, Buenos Aires, Auckland, Wellington, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney again. But the café table always looked the same once I had piled it high with books. Out of the pages they came: those who thought they were wise and those who really were. So many of the first, and so very few of the second. Just enough, however, to make me thankful to have lived, and want to join them. If this book makes the reader want the same, it will have done its work. What I propose is a sum of appreciations that includes an appreciation of their interdependence: a new humanism. If I could put it into a sentence, I would say that it relies on the conviction that nothing creative should be excluded for the sake of any other conviction. Another way of putting it is this book.

—Clive James, London, 2006