Cultural Dyspepsia


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As a teenager watching Clive James on the TV of a Sunday night, I was never quite sure what to make of his combination of sparkling wit and sneering sarcasm. He was undeniably funny and reassuring yet at the same time somehow unable to disguise his discomfort at fronting a show composed of short, superficial witticisms on the quintessential mass medium of the second half of the 20th century. He seemed to feel it was beneath him, or at the very least that he would have preferred to be elsewhere, and that it was only the chance to chat to Vitali Vitaliev or P.J. O’Rourke every couple of weeks that kept him coming back.

It’s now clear to me precisely where he would rather have been: 1920s-30s Vienna. Much of the cultural activity referred to or discussed in this infuriating, intimidating, and baffling book seems to centre on or be connected to the Austrian capital. It took me a period of several weeks to read the whole thing, dipping in and out but proceeding assiduously and alphabetically, through its potted biographies, and I found myself increasingly bemused by the frequent references to Viennese culture; only when I looked back, in preparation for this review, did I see, having forgotten all about it, that the biographies are preceded by an “overture” (the book also has a “coda,” just to give you an idea of the kind of pretentiousness we’re dealing with here) that is devoted to the city in question. It’s in this overture that James explains the significance of the location that forms the focus of his work: Vienna was the source of a Jewish intellectual diaspora that, in his view, had a huge influence on the development of Western culture. This was the motherlode whence came much of the high modernism he holds in such esteem: Stefan Zweig, Karl Kraus, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, and a whole swath of others. Not that they all receive biographies of their own in this volume, but their influence seems to pervade the biographies of those who do.

However, underlying this case study in oppression is the broader theme of the struggle of Western liberal humanism against various forms of totalitarianism, and this usefully explains why among those profiled are Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sophie Scholl, Leon Trotsky, Mario Vargas Llosa, Czeslaw Milosz, Raymond Aron, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Brasillach, to name but a few, protagonists on one side or another of this struggle. The humanism in question, though, is a peculiar, idiosyncratic, eccentric version, albeit one explicitly related to “civilization” and civilizing activities such as the arts and humanities. In his introductory chapter, James writes:

As a journalist and critic, a premature post-modernist, I was often criticized in my turn for talking about the construction of a poem and of a Grand Prix racing car in the same breath, or of treating gymnasts and high divers (in my daydreams, I astonish the Olympic medalist Greg Louganis) as if they were practising the art of sculpture. It was a sore point, and often the sore point reveals where the real point is. Humanism wasn’t in the separate activities: humanism was the connection between them. Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it. Builders of concentration camps might be creators of a kind . . . but they were in business to subtract variety from the created world, not to add to it.

All well and good, although given that Walter Benjamin is one of those profiled, it wouldn’t have been too much to expect James to know that, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” For consistency’s sake, why not exclude any artist whose work depended on the patronage of empire, upon the destruction of the lives of thousands, if not millions, of others? Well, perhaps because this is not a humanism to which James seems willing to admit all of humanity. It is sad to think that he might once have recognized the craftsmanship and skill that went into the construction of a Grand Prix car, all the more interesting because of the involvement of so many individuals in its construction, but the fact is that since those early, broad-minded days of journalism, he seems to have taken a step backwards. There are no profiles in this book of car designers, despite the motor car being one of the most significant cultural forms of our age. There are no architects, no painters, no sculptors. A few people from the mass media: TV, film, radio. Not theatre. There are some musicians, but classical. In the main, there are poets, there are essayists and novelists, and there are politicians. And there is only a handful of women, which says something highly significant: This is a humanism that excludes more than half of humanity.

And this is odd, because the whole book is dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ingrid Betancourt, and the memory of Sophie Scholl, as much as to say that these women are exemplars of the humanism that the author holds so dear. Indeed, while discussing postwar American education, he writes,

. . . the resulting story made Eleanor Roosevelt, whose idea the GI Bill was, into the most effective woman in the history of world culture up until that time, and continues to make her name a radiant touchstone for those who believe, as I do, that the potential liberation of the feminine principle is currently the decisive factor lending an element of constructive hope to the seething tumult within the world’s vast Muslim hegemony, and within the Arab world in particular.

Disregarding the patronizing “feminine principle” and the murkiness of the sentence as a whole, might we not consider this a case of motes and beams? Where, in your book, are the liberated feminine voices of Western civilization, Clive? Where’s Aphra Behn, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, your own Germaine? They are absent. Women who had to struggle to have their voices heard are silent in this pantheon. And, most egregiously, not to say obscenely, the chapter devoted to Sophie Scholl, she of the White Rose movement, deals but briefly with her heroism and soon devolves into a multipage eulogy for Natalie Portman, the waif-like actress toward whom James seems to nurture unwholesome intentions and regards as the only suitable actress to take on Scholl’s life story. I have to say, his ill-disguised and squalid slaverings left a nasty taste in my mouth too. I suppose Portman at least should be flattered that she has such power to distract such a dedicated humanist from the ostensible subject matter of his work.

The cover of this edition carries a blurb from J. M. Coetzee describing the book as “a crash-course in civilization.” It is no such thing. A car crash is more civilized. Rather, this is a series of biographies of a very particular subset of a specific generation, around whom the author has built an edifice composed of a grab-bag of heroes and villains in order to demonstrate (1) the size of his library, which he never stops going on about, (2) the extent of his own erudition, (3) the number of languages he can speak, and (4) that democracy is all very well in principle, but someone has to tend to the finer things in life and it can’t very well be the great unwashed.

The writing, it should be said, is generally clear and fluent, unless James is trying to advance a simple argument, its simplicity concealed by superfluous references and asides, and the reader is rarely stopped in his or her tracks trying to figure out what’s just been said. Perhaps that’s the remnants of the journalist in James. It’s rare, though, that what is being proposed is either striking or original. Much of the argument is, truth be told, unchallenging and sophomoric: It’s Fukuyama light. Liberal democracy is unstoppable, history is liberty becoming conscious of itself. Totalitarianism cannot last. To make matters worse, the case is made in a voice of such arrogance and self-assuredness that you can’t help but sometimes feel that you’d be tainted if you agreed with it. Try this, from his chapter on Italian philologist Gianfranco Contini:

One night in Florence in the early eighties, my wife and I accompanied Contini to the opera. . . . After the performance it was raining so heavily that Contini accepted a lift home, with my wife at the wheel of our worn-out Mini. He was in the front passenger seat and I was folded in the back. They talked scholarly stuff . . . The rain was so heavy that we ended up going the wrong way. I remembered, and recited, a tag from Dante: “Chè la diritta via era smarrita.” Because the right way had been lost. Contini smiled from ear to ear, and when I added my regrets that I hadn’t written the line myself, he laughed aloud. My timing hadn’t been that good, but the pedagogue had been pleased to the depths of his soul. This is what he had been in business to do all his life: spread the word about culture across cultures. And one of his aesthetic beliefs, acquired as an inheritance from Croce, was that Dante had been in business to do the same. It was the universal conversation, conducted through memory, and it had happened right there beside the Arno, in the dying echo of the music.

Though it can be overdone, there is nothing like a trading of quotations for bringing cultivated people together, or for making you feel uncultivated if you have nothing to trade. Nowadays very few people can quote from the Greek or would think to impress anyone if they could, and even quoting from the Latin-still a universal recognition system in the learned world when I was young-is now discouraged. Quoting from the standard European languages is still permissible at a suitably polyglot dinner table: I was once at dinner in Hampstead with Joseph Brodsky when we both ended up standing on restaurant chairs clobbering each other with alexandrines.

Who, at this point, could not but feel sympathy for totalitarians?

And this, from the chapter on Evelyn Waugh:

The decay of grammar is a feature of our time, so I have tried, at several points in this book, to make a consideration of the decline part of the discussion. Except in a perfectly managed autocracy, language declines, and too much should not be made of the relationship between scrambled thought and imprecise expression. . . . Everybody wants to write correctly. But they resist being taught how, and finally there is nobody to teach them, because the teachers don’t know either. In a democracy, the language is bound to deteriorate with daunting speed. The professional user of it would do best to count his blessings: after all, his competition is disqualifying itself, presenting him with opportunities for satire while it does so, and boosting his self-esteem.

There is much else besides in this book to demonstrate that reading does not equate to intelligence. The snobbery and the recourse to poorly supported arguments such as this latter one (I can recommend, off the top of my head, Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language and Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster for relatively easy-to-find and stronger counterarguments) suggest that in spite of having read so much, James understands very little. This struck me most forcefully when I read his chapter on Jean-Paul Sartre, one of James’s villains-the devil’s advocate of the volume, he says-not just for his defence of the Soviet Union but also for his fraudulent philosophy. Now, while it might be acceptable in some circles to suggest that there was more than a coincidence in Sartre’s decision to base his existentialism on Heidegger and Husserl’s philosophies during the German occupation, and to infer that his subsequent fellow-travelling with the Communists was another marriage of convenience, to argue that his philosophy was, as a result, pure sophistry, and to say so in such a vindictive and definitive manner, tells this reader that James really doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. A. J. Ayer and the Logical Positivists decided long ago that there was no need to read Heidegger because he used the word “Nothingness” incorrectly, and that was the extent of their refutation. James doesn’t seem to have even gone that far before deciding that Sartre’s philosophy is a sham. And given that we know this, what reason is there to suppose that James actually understands anything else that he has written about in this book? The entire volume is suddenly suspect, if it wasn’t already (French culture as a whole receives short shrift in this book; apparently it has never managed to regain its pre-war heights). Or perhaps it’s just that James likes his philosophers analytical, clear of prose, and foundationalist: Plato, Russell, the early Wittgenstein. You won’t find any Rorty here, nor Foucault or Derrida. But then, where’s the problem when, as James reminds us, Alan Sokal has already shown that they were just a bunch of conmen?

This really is a bizarre and partial book. Nevertheless, I was determined to get through it, all 850 pages, and determined to write a review, of sorts, so that I could put it aside for good. To see such a vast amount of knowledge expended to so little consequence is profoundly annoying. It really got under my skin. The only upside to reading it, I would suggest, is that the reader might learn other, better lessons at the author’s expense.

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10 Responses

  1. Hugh Green

    October 24, 2008 11:29 am

    Great stuff. My suspicions about James and his polymathical polylingualism arose when I saw him do a TV show on Cuba. Over a shot of a wall which bore the legend ‘Una revolución de verdad’ (a true revolution), he gravely translated this as ‘a revolution of truth’, as though what was at stake here was some sort of enormous philosophical project. The confidence of his delivery made it embarrassing and annoying.

  2. Peter brophy

    January 20, 2011 10:37 pm

    This is a pitiful review.
    The reviewer, while revering the memory of Simone de Beauvoir and JPS ignores their essentially collaborationist activity in WWII.
    And further overlooks their complicity in overlooking the Soviet show trials and extermInations of the 30s and the late 40s.
    James may not be likeable, but that doesn’t make him wrong in his assessments.
    As Koestler put it:
    You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons-fear of being in bad company is not an expression of polotical purity but a lack of self confidence.

  3. John Green

    January 21, 2011 9:17 am

    Sorry that you were unimpressed by my review, Peter. I wasn’t intending to downplay Sartre and de Beauvoir’s crimes, ethical or otherwise. My point about James’s assessment is that he extends his personal distaste for them as individuals into his assessment of their philosophy. One thing Sartre and de Beauvoir’s philosophy is not is “fraudulent.” One can argue over its merits in comparison with Heidegger or Husserl, perhaps, but people tend to forget that Sartre’s earliest works were on the imagination, the imaginary, the nature of consciousness and the emotions. All of these before he wrote Being & Nothingness and was lumbered with the label “existentialist.” That Sartre subsequently moved towards Marxism doesn’t invalidate the insights of his earlier philosophy. It’s lazy writing by James and it both relies upon and betrays the reader’s trust.

  4. William Wall

    January 21, 2011 3:06 pm

    Couldn’t agree less with Peter Brophy. It is in fact a very good review, and supports none of the accusations levelled at it. In any case, whether Sartre and De B were collaborationist is a moot point. Equally, for a more nuanced view of the communist silence over Russia one should look at Calvino, for example, who wrote about his own membership and explained his position.

  5. Peter Brophy

    January 21, 2011 9:18 pm

    John, thanks for your measured response.
    I too was and am a great admirer of some of Sartre’s novels. My accusation is that he displayed exactly what he decried in others, namely “bad faith”.

    His denunciation of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 as “rightist” did not stop nearly half a million members of the italian communist party from defecting, including finally Calvino. This was a country (Hungary) where it has been estimated (Postwar, T Judt) that out of a population of 10 million, between the years 1948-53, about one million were persecuted and/or imprisoned.

    And to defend the nuanced views of western apologists for Stalin and the 20th century marxist experiment is to ignore what was well-known in the late forties-even in many cases broadcast on the radio pour encourager les autres-namely the show trials.

  6. John Green

    January 22, 2011 12:35 am

    Hi Peter–

    I can’t comment on Calvino’s explanation, not being familiar with it, but in the case of Sartre I don’t think his problem was even one of bad faith. I think it was sheer cluelessness. This was a man who spent his 20s, 30s, and 40s inside classrooms, libraries and bars gazing into his own navel. By his own admission, he had NO interest whatsoever in politics until the end of the second world war. That he then threw in his lot with the Communists was the act of a man with little awareness, as you rightly point out, of what was already commonly known about the crimes of Stalin.

    I reviewed John Gerassi’s book of interviews with Sartre here:

    and made this comment about their stilted conversations:

    “I exaggerate for comic effect, but the absence of self-awareness that usually accompanies similar such exchanges will be familiar with anyone with experience of ultra-leftist organizations, and Sartre and Gerassi’s own apparent ease with the executions of counter-revolutionaries in Cuba suggests the sort of latent sociopathy one often finds in those high up hierarchical organizations used to pushing people around checkerboards by the thousand.”

    Many of us are inclined to expect our public intellectuals to be capable of exercising their expertise across every domain when in fact the majority of them are specialists whose authority is the result of devoting their time to the study of one subject to the exclusion of everything else. Consequently, they can be relied upon at some point to take the most idiotic positions on some issue or other. Sartre was nothing special in this respect.

  7. William Wall

    January 22, 2011 5:36 pm

    I was thinking of Calvino’s remark that ‘what mattered at the time (post war) was action and the communists were the most active and organised force’. In many cases European activists were drawn to the CP because of its involvement in various ways in various resistances during the war and because, as an ‘organised force’ it provided the best chance of change. A refusal to criticise the USSR fell under the heading of ‘not giving aid and comfort to the enemy’ (I’m paraphrasing Calvino because I don’t have the book to hand), but internally there was plenty of criticism. It’s easy to sit here in 2011 and look back to 1945 and accuse people who had lived through the rise of fascism and the war of being collaborationist.
    I’m afraid I approach this stuff from a purely literary viewpoint – my grasp of the history is limited, and I bow to Peter’s knowledge in relation to Hungary. Nor would I like to be an apologist for Sartre.
    Finally, I agree with John’s last point – that we must expect public intellectuals to make complete idiots of themselves from time to time otherwise they would hardly hazard opening their mouths at all.