Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia.

William Deresiewicz has written a long and perceptive review of Clive James’s* Cultural Amnesia** in yesterday’s issue of The Nation.
It’s, for very good and obvious reasons, headed Café Society, but, bearing in mind that it is written for an American readers, many of whom will not be familiar with Mr. James’s writing , I believe it could just as easily, and as usefully, be called Introducing Clive James.
If you consider these paragraphs lifted more or less at random from the piece, I think you’ll see what I mean:
His imagined reader is a young intellectual making his or her start in culture the way the author himself did half a century ago, and James offers a steady stream of advice on how to go about the business of self-education: must-reads and how-tos, anecdotes and exemplars. One of his highest terms of praise is “he figured it out for himself.”
In James’s cosmology, the university is the infernal (and infertile) counterpart to the paradise of the cafe. Humanism means interconnection, and the cafe gives that interconnection social form. Academia necessitates specialization and incessantly discourages intellectual breadth (now more than ever, no matter how much lip service is paid to “interdisciplinarity”)
Cultural Amnesia is an extended defense of literary journalism as occupying not only an honorable place within the hierarchy of cultural discourse but the supreme one. For journalism demands both simplicity and compression, and compression makes language glow. James’s stylistic models are writers like Altenberg, who could “pour a whole view of life, a few cupfuls at a time, into the briefest of paragraphs.” His highest hero, “the voice behind the [book’s] voices” (and one of several exceptions to his rule of writing only about twentieth-century figures), is Tacitus. It was Tacitus who wrote the sentence out of which the entire volume grew: “They make a desert and they call it peace.” James heard the line quoted as a young man and “saw straight away that a written sentence could sound like a spoken one, but have much more in it.”

*see blogroll on the right.   

**subtitled Notes in the Margin of my Time for the UK and Australian market and Necessary Memories from History and the Arts for the U.S market 

A slightly ammended version of this appears Midnight Voices section of the Pete Atkin website


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