Books: Cultural Amnesia — A Note on the Text |
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Cultural Amnesia : A Note on the Text

MAINLY BECAUSE A thematic classification would be impossible, the essays are arranged in alphabetical order by author of the heading quotation. Any other rhyme or reason is meant to emerge in the reading. This might well be the only serious book to explore the relationship between Hitler’s campaign on the eastern front and Richard Burton’s pageboy hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare, but such an exploration is fundamental to its plan, which is to follow the paths that lead on from the citations, and try to go on following them when they cross. As for the citations, page references are given where a scholar might wish to check my interpretation. Otherwise, in the interests of readability, such notations have been kept to a minimum. Qualified linguists will quickly detect that I command only smatterings in any language except my own, but I remain convinced that tinkering with foreign tongues has stood me in better stead than concerning myself with literary theory, which would have taken just as much time and left me knowing nothing at all, instead of merely not enough. With a view to the impatience of the monoglot young reader I once was myself, almost every foreign phrase is translated on the spot; but the occasional single foreign word is left to stand alone when its meaning can be easily inferred. Sometimes a quoted phrase, or the account of an incident, is repeated when there seems a genuine benefit to be gained by seeing it from a different angle. (One of my models, Eugenio Montale, favoured that practice, and as a reader I was always grateful for it.) Fiction and poetry are seldom drawn upon for the heading quotations; partly out of a wish not to injure an organic context; mainly out of a conviction that it is in their ancillary writings that authors are more likely to state their opinions in a detachable form. (The argument that we should not want to detach the opinions of an artist is familiar to me: we shouldn’t, but we do.) An autobiographical element is mixed in when the concrete information seems pertinent to one of the general themes.

Believing that “they” is no fit substitute for “he” in the singular, and finding “he or she” cumbersome, I have stuck with the traditional masculine dominance of the indeterminate gender. I have also availed myself of the European tradition by which sufficiently distinguished females are honoured through being referred to by their first names. I can quite see—or, anyway, I can almost see—how gallantry might be patronizing, but I don’t see how confusion counts as a blow for justice. Nadezhda Mandelstam, for example, is actually insulted by being called just Mandelstam, because that surname belongs to her husband, Osip, in the first instance. I would rather convey my reverence for her by my argument than pay her the empty compliment of a modern formula that to me seems hollow.

Female readers can put all this down to unreconstructed chauvinism if they wish, but I don’t think they will find their representatives slighted in this book: merely outnumbered. Female readers might find themselves grateful for that. This is a book about a world men made, and it taught plenty of us to wish that women had made it instead.