Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cultural Amnesia, by Clive James

One of my life's treasures is a single Word file: Various Quotes.doc

A collection, begun about a decade ago, of quotes that have caught my eye, it's become a record of my intellectual life: my reading, my thinking, my enthusiasms, my obsessions, my laments, my solitude, my delight. I've assembled the quotes as I've encountered them, so it's order is chronological, and I've recorded their origin, including the page number, so I that I can easily locate them again, should I need to. What riches.

Fundamentally, Cultural Amnesia is Clive James's Various Quotes.doc, consolidated into a book, with commentary. The book is filled with astonishing quotes, taken from a life of reading—my goodness, what reading—and film-going, listening, traveling. James uses his various quotes to contemplate people whom in his view we should not forget, mostly for their grandeur, occasionally for their depravity. The quotes get him rolling, and his essays often turn in unexpected—and consistently marvelous—directions: a mediation on the anti-Nazi heroine and martyr Sophie Scholl, for example, turns into a celebration of Natalie Portman. James imagines Portman playing Scholl in a movie of Scholl's life—which takes him to a claim about the limitations of cinema:
If Natalie Portman plays the role, the girl won't die. Natalie will go on after the end of the movie with her career enhanced as a great actress, whereas Sophie Scholl's career as an obscure yet remarkable human being really did come to an end. The Fallbeil (even the name sounds remorseless—the falling axe) hit her in the neck, and that was the end of her. Her lovely parable of a life went as far as that cold moment and no further. It's a fault inherent in the movies that they can't show such a thing. The performer takes over from the real person, and walks away. For just that reason, popular, star-led movies, no matter how good they are, are a bad way of teaching history.
The essays in Cultural Amnesia wander like this, as essays should—orbiting elegantly, satellites crossing the firmament, around their brilliant quotes. The quotes are shining little planets upon which they gaze, and which give them the axis all orbits require.

The primary pleasures of this text, which as a whole constitutes the most compelling defense of Western liberal democracy that I've ever read, number three: 1) reading the quotes James has gathered; 2) becoming acquainted, or re-acquainted, with some of the essential figures of (mostly) 20th century cultural and political history; and 3) following the movement of the author's mind, which, in the end, is any essay's fundamental gift.

The good news here is that Clive James has a exceptional mind and he has given us an indispensable book.

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