I have been reading some of the twelve Clive James Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts essays that are appearing in Slate and I am of the opinion they up there with his very best. They prove, for once and for all, that his sharpness as a critic has not been dulled in any way by years of making “dumbed down” television.
If anybody wants to check that out, then read the 12 Slate essays that are now available. The essay on Duke Ellington is probably a good place to start, if only because it offers the reader some considerable insight into Clive’s views on popular music and popular music-making.
Here he his at his very best. After saying that Philip Larkin had said all the funny things that were to be said about John Coltrane, he writes:
There is not a phrase that asks to be to be remembered except as a lesion to the inner ear, and the only purpose of the repetitions is to prove that what might have been charitably dismissed as an accident was actually meant. Shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals. Above all, and beyond all, there is no end to it. There is no reason except imminent death for the cacophonous parade to stop. The impressiveness of the feat depends entirely on the air it conveys that the perpetrator has devoted his life to making this discovery: Supreme mastery of technique has led him to this charmless demonstration of what he can do that nobody else can. The likelihood that nobody else would want to is not considered.
That is Clive James at his very best. That is the Clive James who first came to my attention, and who made me think that criticism did not have to be dry and cheerless to be good.
You may not agree with the judgments he makes – and I myself am not wholly convinced about them here – but you have to admit that, through sheer force of argument, they do make you sit up and pay attention. I especially like the line which says that the only purpose “of the repetitions is to prove that what might have been charitably dismissed as an accident was actually meant”. Sheer class!!!!
If you are in vicinity of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York, before 7PM on Monday the 26th of March, then consider popping along to catch Clive at the New York Public Library where, in the South Court Auditorium, he’ll be talking to the library’s Director of Public Programs Paul Holdengräber about Cultural Amnesia.