three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
By: 
Clive James
user_rating: 
0

Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

A-Cultural AmnesiaWhat do Louis Armstrong, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Anna Akhmatova, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, and Beatrix Potter have in common? Not much, perhaps, except that übercritic Clive James profiles each—and about 100 others—in the eclectic, encyclopedic Cultural Amnesia. Four years in the making, the book sets out to define a "necessary"—and dangerously neglected—cultural universe. In biographical essays on important poets, writers, and philosophers; musicians, composers, and actors; and politicians and despots, James opens a window on the evolution of Western thought, particularly that of the last century. "If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into the new century," he writes, "it will need advocates." Self-appointed advocate James pleads a passionate case for each entry—and, by extension, the mission of humanism.
Norton. 768 pages. $35. ISBN: 0393061167

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Cultural Amnesia is not another of those dreary ‘cultural literacy’ books, which purport to list for us all the things we ought to know. … Rather, James wants to rescue and preserve humanism—that universal catalog of ethical beliefs affirming the dignity and worth of all people." Alan Cate

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"On the whole, the portraits are thoughtful and entertaining; James takes pains to season them with piquant details and memorable aphorisms to hold the interest of learned, jaded palates. … James probably never intended for readers to consume his massive tome front to back; and tucking into the entries on a need-to-know basis can provide rich rewards with no choking risk." Liesl Schillinger

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Cultural Amnesia, with its encyclopedic length and organization and the intense jostle of its ideas, is not to be read at a sitting. … If the dipper occasionally brings up exasperation, it brings up astonished delight far more often; and, best of all, exasperated astonished delight." Richard Eder

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In many cases the portrait of the individual in question is simply a launching pad for the author’s free-associative musings, which tend to spiral around several recurrent themes: the shattering legacy of Nazism and Communism, the two totalitarian movements that overshadowed the 20th century; the dangers posed by ideologies that try to reduce the world’s dazzling complexity to simplistic formulas; and the preciousness and fragility of humanism as a cultural ideal. … In the end, one of the most valuable things about this volume is that Mr. James not only sends the reader in search of original texts written by or about his subjects, but also provides lots of other useful reading suggestions." Michiko Kakutani

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"He confesses in his introduction that his approach ‘could only be internal, complex, organic.’ That’s fine in theory, but those are poor operating instructions, making for an unholy mess of a book." Matthew Price

San Francisco Chronicle 1.5 of 5 Stars
"As expected, James displays his intellectual virtuosity with gusto. But the result is, for the most part, rambling and misconstrued, mainly because he has too much to say and no parameters to measure it against." Ilan Stavans

Critical Summary

For more than 40 years a critic, writer, and public personality, the Australian-born Clive James, prolific author of Unreliable Memoirs, The Meaning of Recognition, and North Face of Soho, among many other books, has garnered a well-deserved reputation as "an eclectic master of the high/low" (Los Angeles Times). James’s wide-ranging intellect is on display here in a big way: "doorstop" appears more than once in reviews of the book. Fortunately, the book moves along—thanks to the author’s deft prose, his keen sense of humor, and his ability to connect a host of disparate subjects. Though the book clearly isn’t meant to be read straight through, even those skeptical of James’s agenda admire the scope of the undertaking. Red flags: the seeming randomness of some of James’s entries, his digressions, and his inclusion of fewer than a dozen women (including Coco Chanel and Margaret Thatcher) on the list.