Books: Cultural Amnesia |
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Cultural Amnesia

Notes in the Margin of My Time

US Edition, Norton 2007. ISBN 0-393-06116-1
“Necessary Memories from History and the Arts”
Picador UK edition
ISBN 0 330 48174 6
Prototype cover
Alone in the Café
Cover inspiration
(AEG Lamps poster,
Peter Behrens 1907)
Aung San Suu Kyi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ingrid Betancourt
and to the memory of
Sophie Scholl
All history is contemporary history.
B E N E D E T T O   C R O C E
At certain times the world is overrun by false scepticism. Of the true kind there can never be enough.
B U R K H A R D T ,   W E L T G E S C H I C H T L I C H E   B E T R A C H T U N G E N
One insults the memory of the victims of Nazism if one uses them to bury the memory of the victime of communism.
J E A N - F R A N Ç O I S    R E V E L,   L A   G R A N D E   P A R A D E
In a universe more and more abstract, it is up to us to make sure that the human voice does not cease to be heard.
W I T O L D   G O M B R O W I C Z,   J O U R N A L
We should esteem the man who is liberal, not the man who decides to be so.
To philosophize means to make vivid.
Those are nearer to reality who can deal with it light-heartedly, because they know it to be inexhaustible.
G O L O   M A N N

Jacket Blurb


Nearly forty years in the making. Cultural Amnesia is the work of a lifetime. Poetic in its language. magisterial in its scope, and courageous in its defense of the human spirit, it is both an enlightening and a despairing work, written by one of the world’s most renowned critics. Clive James, a man who laments the loss of learning and reason, hopes that this unorthodox volume will be embraced by readers everywhere and will serve as an antidote to the political ideologies and the cultural decay that has eradicated much of our history and learning.

On a mere structural level, Cultural Amnesia can be viewed simply as an extraordinary encyclopedia, containing over one hundred essays, all of them never before published, and arranged from A to Z around celebrities, intellectuals, tyrants, and writers, whose apothegms have fascinated James throughout his adult life. The inquisitive reader has several options when first encountering this compendium. He or she can—ambitiously—plunge in and read from beginning to end or simply decide to browse, and choose to read a piece at night before bed, or in the library, or alone in a café, which is where James always hoped these reflections might first be imbibed.

On a more profound level, Cultural Amnesia functions far beyond any mere reference guide. Indeed, every one of its many essays was written especially to fit with all the others in a vast verbal mosaic of the mental life of modern times, the area where politics and culture meet. The book teems with famous names: villains like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong—and the gullible intellectuals who admired them; heroes like Albert Camus, who was never tempted away from liberal ideals by the illusions of power. In discussing, among others, Louis Armstrong, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, James illuminates, rescues, or occasionally demolishes the careers of many of the greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists, and philosophers of the twentieth century. And in quoting them he shows why they should be remembered and why cultural amnesia is a continuing danger.

Possibly the most dramatic book of its type written since Camus’s The Rebel, Cultural Amnesia brings out, better than any formulaic manual of cultural studies, the true binding force of creativity. Soaring to Montaigne-like heights, it is the work of a man who, even after a lifetime of reading in several languages, can accuse himself of never knowing enough but still feels bound to hand down what he knows to a new generation already facing the same hard questions about whether humanism can survive the threat of the forces ranged against it. "But," as James writes, "somewhere within the total field of human knowledge, humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all. The beckoning, however, grows increasingly feeble."

CLIVE JAMES, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.

“In these aphoristic and richly provocative short essays, Clive James offers a crash course in civilization—and the assault on civilization—in Europe of the twentieth century.” —J. M. COETZEE

“He is, in the best English tradition, a master of eloquent distemper.... [He Is] the ideal dilettante and therefore, granting the impossibility that there could be such a thing, the perfect critic.” —A. O. SCOTT, New York Times

“Thank God for writers like Clive James. There aren’t many like him left.” —ROGER KIMBALL, Wall Street Journal

“He combines the most potent attributes of what Philip Rahv called redskin and paleface writers, managing to be street smart and scholarly, swaggering and cerebral, all at the same time.” —MICHIKO KAKUTANI, New York Times

Clive’s note for

In this book can be heard the merest edge of an enormous conversation. As they never were in life, we can imagine the speakers all gathered in some vast room, wearing name tags in case they don’t recognize each other (although some recognize each other all too well, and avoid contact). My heroes and heroines are here. The reader will recognize some of their names, while other names will be more obscure. My intellectual bêtes noires are here too, and the same division might apply.

In April 2007, Cultural Amnesia was published in the USA, and since May 2007 it has been available in the UK, Australia and the Republic of Ireland. Four years of work went into the text — basically it is what I was doing after I vanished from the small screen in 2001 — so I was glad to see that bits and pieces of the finished product were being published as extracts in the UK, in the US and in my homeland, Australia. Finalising the manuscript would not have been possible without my editors at Norton. It might seem a pity to break pieces off their finished work, but I think the integrity of their concentrated effort can only stand revealed more clearly. The most comprehensive set of excerpts was run by Slate online magazine, based in New York. (You can see them HERE.) Under the guiding hand of Meghan O’Rourke, the first excerpt appeared in the afternoon of February 5 EST, marked with the name of the subject, the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. 24 more excerpts followed — a sumptuous aggregate which still represents only a small fraction of a large book.

Reviews cited by :

Corriera della SeraNew Zealand Herald
TeleRead e-book reviewBill Moyers Journal, PBS
The Washington TimesNew York Times
New York ObserverNew York Sun
Boston GlobeFinancial Times
Sydney Morning HeraldThe Australian
Curlew RiverFirst Post
Powell’s BooksVanity Fair
Village VoiceBaltimore Sun
The AtlanticLondon Times Podcast
The full text of Cultural Amnesia, including the Introduction, A Note on the Text, Acknowledgements,
Overture and all the individual essays, may be accessed via the menu column to the left of this page.
[ The images accompanying these essays are those used to illustrate the first printed edition,
with minor grey scale adjustments in some cases to improve clarity.
Better portraits can be found elsewhere on the Web. ]
Critical discussion with links to reviews and excerpts may be found at Midnight Voices