From Cultural Amnesia, a collection of biographical essays by Clive James:
Mechanisms of influence are hard to trace. Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature, and of course scholars make a living by following that same assumption. But a writer’s ideal of a properly built sentence might just as well have been formed when he was still in short pants and watched someone make an unusually neat sandcastle. He might have got his ideals of composition, colour and clean finish from a bigger boy who made a better model aeroplane. To the extent that I can examine my own case of such inadvertently assimilated education, I learned a lot about writing from watching an older friend sanding down the freshly dried paint on his motorbike so that he could give it another coat: he was after the deep, rich, pure glow. But for the way I thought prose should move I learned a lot from jazz. From the moment I learned to hear them in music, syncopation and rhythm were what I wanted to get into my writing. And to stave off the double threat of brittle chatter and chesty verve, I also wanted the measured, disconsolate tread of the blue reverie. Jazz was a brimming reservoir of these contending qualities. Eventually I was listening to so much classical music that I left jazz aside, but I never for a moment thought that I had left it behind.
If I ever need a quotation on how writing can be influenced and affected by the unlikeliest things, that passage will be my first choice. James has a real gift for aphorism, and Cultural Amnesia is full of little gems of summation and description. The trouble is, getting to them is like digging through a huge box full of styrofoam peanuts.
The passage quoted above is emblematic of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. It comes from an essay that is ostensibly about Louis Armstrong, but mostly about whether Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman were as good at playing jazz as black musicians, and whether Fred Astaire’s dancing was as compelling as the footwork of Bojangles Robinson. (The short answer, to end the suspense, is yes all around.) Satchmo can barely get his foot in the door while James charts the rise and fall of his own listening habits, and muses on the terrible ways that racism distorted the careers of black artists. All true, and yet once the curtain comes down, we are left with the feeling that Armstrong has been kept offstage by the man who stood up to introduce him.
I’m all for loose, discursive essays with room for interesting asides, but far too often James loses the thread of his own writing as he goes frisking off after pet peeves and fond remembrances. His essay on Marcel Proust, for example, is really about Jean-Francois Revel and the supposedly shrewd things Revel said in his book about Proust, which I will certainly want to read one of these days but which I suspect appeals to James mostly because Revel’s politics do as well.
Similarly, the essay on Rainer Maria Rilke barely gets going before James, spurred by Rilke’s shrewd observations on the nature of fame, starts blatting about how Marion Davies should be remembered for her talent rather than her role as the inspiration for Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane, and how Bertolt Brecht was a dreadful man and an inferior poet. Again, while everything I’ve read about Brecht makes him sound like a mutt — I think it was Ezra Pound who said that not only was Brecht the only man who deserved capital punishment, he was also the only man Pound himself would like to carry out the sentence upon — we end up hearing less about Rilke than we would have liked.
James’s long-windedness amusingly undercuts itself in the essay about Albert Camus, which approvingly quotes a line from The Rebel — “Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes” — and then goes on at tedious length about the tedious speeches given by Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Having finished James’s drone about droning, we are left to muse on the fact that Camus needed only seven words to convey what James needs to pound at for seven pages.
Part of the problem with Cultural Amnesia — a big part of the problem, actually — is that it comes freighted with ambitions that cannot be supported by collection of short pieces and knock-offs. Each of these essays is supposed to use the subject as an object lesson in the defense of liberal humanism against totalitarian ideologies. This works well when James is evoking the cafe intelligentsia of Austria in the years before the Anschluss, but it becomes hilarious when James throws in celebrity appreciations of Tony Curtis and W.C. Fields, and groaningly tedious when James derails a salute to Beatrix Potter in order to denounce Soviet children’s books.
The rest of the problems lies in the fact that Clive James, while formidably well-traveled and well-versed in languages and literature, is at bottom a middlebrow snob — often an amusingly fatuous one. No madeleine crumb falls from Proust’s table without exciting his wonder and awe, but he groans like a bored high school student over Herman Melville’s philosophical musings in Moby-Dick. James is also howlingly ignorant of science and all too ready to convict it of complicity in the mass murders that defined the 20th century:
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.
Spoken like a true creative writing student who just flunked his physics exam! Here’s another ripe piece of intellectual cheese:
Science lives in a perpetual present, and must always discard its own past as it advances. (If a contemporary thermodynamicist refers to the literature on phlogiston, he will do so as a humanist, not as a scientist. Nor did Edwin Hubble need to know about Ptolemy, though he did.) The humanities do not advance in that sense: they accumulate, and the past is always retained. The two forms of knowledge thus have fundamentally different kinds of history. A scientist can revisit scientific history at his choice. A humanist has no choice: he must revisit the history of the humanities all the time, because it is always alive, and can’t be superseded.
A pity that James, who includes Tacitus among his list of notables, did not cook up a profile of Isaac Newton, who wrote in a letter to another scientist that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Scientists carry their history wherever they go, simply because they want to avoid repeating its mistakes; writers and artists are forever reinventing the wheel — it’s part of their charm. No scientist would talk about phlogiston as anything but an antique theory, tested and discredited by other scientists. Clive James, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of humanist who might still be impressed by it.
Plenty of mushy thinkers blame science for the horrors of Hitler and Stalin, as though anti-Semitism had not existed before there were trains, as though the czars had not been equally careless and vicious with the lives of their subjects, as though the decay of the old European monarchies had not set loose poisons in the political and cultural bloodstream of the world. Worldwide cataclysm was launched from Germany, the land of Goethe and Beethoven, and Italy, the wellspring of classical civilization.
I recommend that Clive James read Jacob Bronowski and learn that the gap between the two cultures is not as vast and unbridgeable as he thinks.