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Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007)

by Clive James

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1,1022214,778 (4.19)64
Echoing Edward Said's belief that "Western humanism is not enough, we need a universal humanism," renowned critic Clive James presents here his life's work. Containing over one hundred original essays, organized by quotations from A to Z, this book illuminates, rescues, or occasionally destroys the careers of many of the greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists, and philosophers of the twentieth century. In discussing, among others, Louis Armstrong, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, James writes, "If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into the new century, it will need advocates. These advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive." This is the book to burnish these memories of a Western civilization that James fears is nearly lost.--From publisher description.… (more)
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English (21)  Dutch (1)  All languages (22)
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
Highly readable, very fun. ( )
  k6gst | Feb 21, 2022 |
There were two world wars, a period of relative quiet in between, then another brief period after. The twentieth century saw mass murders in the millions on the orders of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Trotsky, and Pol Pot. There were no Mozarts, no Beethovens, no Van Goghs. It was up to–as it always is–the writers, poets, painters, film-makers, music-makers, and journalists to bear witness and report back to the planet. Some did better than others. Clive James suggests a 'cultural amnesia' was a result and thus has written a tome of humanist biographical sketches to bring us back to consciousness. Instead of a cultural amnesia, perhaps it was a cultural concussion. Shell-shock on a mass level where concussion protocol was required before the global body politic were ready to see with clarity what just happened. These 'sketches' that James has curated aren't really biographies of the assembled humanists, rather they afford him springboards for riffing on a panoply of topics and tangents which may or may not stay on topic. He seems to have read more words than any human at this point in time. He speaks 100 languages, and is disappointed that you and I do not. Most importantly, he campaigns loudly for a world population that embraces art and artists, and writers and poets, including a world that hungers for a music of inclusion, inspiration, and elevation. He campaigns well. ( )
  mortalfool | Jul 10, 2021 |
A paean to a lost age. Despite the periods covered, James here is musing over the lost world of the Viennese coffee-house and its clientele - the 'intelligentsia' of Europe in effect. From my first read (on publication), this has been invariably on my 'Desert Island' list. Add to this James's writing style (the man was a stylist par excellence), and one has the recipe for a book that is simply never from from me. A sad, tragic read mostly, but absolutely engrossing.
  JacobKirckman | Nov 7, 2020 |
This is all over the place but it's mostly ' the Vienna thing '. Another Sarte hater. ( )
  Baku-X | Jan 10, 2017 |
I haven't read it all, but the first few chapters were promising. Then I got to the chapter I know something about—jazz—in the form of the Louis Armstrong "take." It's terrible, mainly because it says almost nothing about Louis and focuses almost exclusively on the amazingness of Bix Biederbeck. Um, okay. The Miles Davis chapter is about how money ruined Miles artistically. Um? And there's a long screen in the Duke Ellington chapter about how terrible John Coltrane's playing was, which... well, none of that does anything to help me feel I should trust him on the subjects I know less about. This is an author who doesn't realize when he doesn't know enough to talk about a subject. It doesn't inspire confidence, or an eagerness to read the rest of the book, though I may return to it occasionally, for chapters in the literary field, since James probably knows more about that subject. I suppose... maybe. ( )
1 vote gordsellar | Jan 14, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
One of James’s charms as a critic is that he genuinely seems to enjoy praising people. (An early collection of his poems was actually titled Fan Mail.) But in order to appear ungrudging, he is sometimes hyperbolic, and therefore unconvincing: Is it really apt to write of Camus that “the Gods poured success on him but it could only darken his trench coat: it never soaked him to the skin”? Or of Flaubert that “he searched the far past, and lo! He found a new dawn”?

Yet much may be forgiven a man who can begin a paragraph by saying, “It will be argued that Heinrich Heine was not Greta Garbo,” or who can admit that for years he has been authoritatively mispronouncing the name Degas and the word empyrean. If you open Cultural Amnesia in the hope of getting a bluffer’s guide to the intellectuals, you will be disappointed; but if you read it as an account of how an educator has himself been self-educated, you will be rewarded well enough.
added by SnootyBaronet | editThe Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens
 
The book's bulk is impressive, as if its 900 pages were the product of cerebration on steroids. James himself views it as a Herculean labour, remarking that it has taken him 40 years to write. Halfway through, he worries that it might be "a folly", like one of those overgrown, impractical architectural projects designed by eighteenth-century dilettanti who built pagodas or zigurrats onto their Georgian houses. James's twinge of panic is justified: Cultural Amnesia, I am sorry to say, is incoherent, garbled and ultimately pointless, meandering through a series of endless circuits inside his crowded, voluminous head. In its way, it's a noble folly, quaintly and quixotically idealistic. But it is also, from time to time, merely foolish. During those four decades of toil, James apparently lost sight of what kind of book he wanted to write - or rather he has ended up writing several contradictory, self-cancelling books at once, producing an amorphous, myriad-minded monologue whose structure and purpose are far from clear...

The varying subtitles of Cultural Amnesia acknowledge its mental muddle. The proof copy I read proclaims that these are "Necessary Memories from History and the Arts", which sounds sternly prescriptive: we are expected to absorb this elephantine curriculum with its immemorial wisdom. But the Australian edition is subtitled "Notes in the Margin of My Times", which sounds more plaintively peripheral. Notes, however, do not generally accumulate into such an onerous pile, and marginalia, like the so-called nature strips in the Hobart suburb where I grew up, are kept under control by the narrowness of the space in which they're scribbled. James is a brilliant columnist, unbeatable if confined to a couple of thousand zippy words. But a few hundred columns do not add up to a cathedral.
added by SnootyBaronet | editThe Monthly, Peter Conrad
 
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To Aung San Suu Kyi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ingrid Betancourt, and to the memory of Sophie Scholl
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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Echoing Edward Said's belief that "Western humanism is not enough, we need a universal humanism," renowned critic Clive James presents here his life's work. Containing over one hundred original essays, organized by quotations from A to Z, this book illuminates, rescues, or occasionally destroys the careers of many of the greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists, and philosophers of the twentieth century. In discussing, among others, Louis Armstrong, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, James writes, "If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into the new century, it will need advocates. These advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive." This is the book to burnish these memories of a Western civilization that James fears is nearly lost.--From publisher description.

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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393061167, 039333354X

 

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