Malcolm Muggeridge once dismissed Clive James’ appetite for culture with the quip: “He seeks it here, he seeks it there, he seeks it everywhere.” The inference being that ‘Australian intellectual’ constitutes an oxymoron, and Clive James learning Russian (not to mention Spanish, Italian, German, French, Polish, Japanese and the rest) in order to read non-English works in the original was akin to putting lipstick on a pig. Maybe James was still smarting from that long ago taunt because in Cultural Amnesia he indulges himself with a couple of brief (and gratuitous) digs at Muggeridge.
There is, to be fair, something of a self-conscious exhibitionism about Clive James. Take his essay on Karl Tschuppin, chronicler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Having provided us with his own translation of a passage from Metternich’s Denkwürdigkeiten (Things Worth Thinking About), James reproaches himself for not capturing “the vigour” of Metternich’s style. A page later he bemoans the fact that having bought gorgeous second-hand volumes of works by Masaryk and Benes in Olomouc (guest of honour at a film festival, please note), he has yet to add Czech to his linguistic arsenal.
The notion of a vulgar autodidact in search of a theme is further suggested by the very structure of Cultural Amnesia: more than 100 essays evaluating a range of famous, not-so-famous and straight-out infamous characters arranged in alphabetic order. A more random thematic arrangement of material is hard to conceive; and yet Cultural Amnesia is deceptively coherent. Although many of James’ artists, thinkers and politicians are illuminated with dazzling insight, most are props in an overarching construction. Cultural Amnesia is not just a paean to the uniqueness and fragility of Western civilisation in the twentieth century, but also a warning about its vulnerability in the twenty-first.
In one essay James rightly disparages the idea that Trotsky should be revered as “some kind of lyrical humanist” because he wrote more lucidly than his homicidal comrades. James’ point is that aesthetic sensibility and psychopathy need not be mutually exclusive. Nothing especially profound in that, but there is more. Towards the end of the essay James coolly segues to Osama bin Laden: “According to students of Arabic, he commands his native language with vibrant fluency, giving a thrilling sense of its historical depth…” The juxtaposition of Bolshevism and Al Qaeda alerts us to a deeper purpose in Clive James’ tome.
Cultural Amnesia’s not-so-secret agenda – Sophie Scholl and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are included in the dedication – is to retell the stories of our past encounters with tyranny in order to forewarn us of what lies ahead. Power, asserts James in his essay on Grigory Ordzhonokidze, a Bolshevik apparatchik, is the real goal of humanity’s oppressors, the various ideologies of the world no more than a ruse. The victim with a boot in his face or gun to his head or electrode to his genitals can never expect sympathy from his tormentor. Any sympathy on the part of the tormentor is jealously reserved for himself: “Himmler was always telling his lovingly nurtured SS officers how hard it would be for them to overcome their natural compassion.”
The arts do not in themselves protect us from tyranny, and numerous great writers and thinkers failed to recognise tyranny’s appearance. Having “banished God and the Devil” from his own secular religion, Freud took too long to grasp that a very different secular religion – National Socialism – came with its own Devil incarnate. Remarkably enough, the French high priest of human freedom, John-Paul Sartre, got totalitarianism wrong not once or even twice but three times. He brazenly lied about his exploits against the Nazis: “He pretended that he had been brave: the single most shameful thing a man can do when other men have been brave and paid the price.” For a number of years after the Second World War, Sartre was an apologist for the USSR, and on one particular trip to Moscow unknowingly stood within feet “of a black Maria full of innocent prisoners”: darkly ironic considering he refused to believe there were innocent prisoners in the Soviet Union. One of the famous philosopher’s final incarnations was as a Maoist.
Contrariwise, some artists or thinkers have done their finest work in the shadow of totalitarianism. Heinrich Mann, a “knockabout bore” who never scaled the heights of his younger brother, understood in 1936 what greater intellects were still refusing or unable to grasp: “The German Jews will be systematically annihilated, of that there can be no more doubts.” Moreover, the Third Reich forced Thomas Mann “to be a better man than he really was”. Raymond Aron was at his brilliant best during the Cold War “saying hard things” about Soviet communism when it was not fashionable amongst his liberal compatriots to do so.
Dissent, of course, takes on an infinitely darker hue for those trapped inside a terror state or threatened by terrorists. Osip Mandelstam’s satirical portrait of Stalin has to be one of the twentieth century’s wittier suicide notes. In that context, Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish dissident, was ‘lucky’ to be exiled. He went on to write Main Currents of Marxism, a crucial treatise on the nature of totalitarianism. Aleksandr Zinoviev’s oeuvre was the nightmare of everyday life in the Soviet Union. He too was exiled, but when the Soviet Union disappeared so did Zinoviev’s prominence; today “very little of him is in print”.
Context, then, is critical. Twenty-one-year-old Sophie Scholl wrote very little before the Nazis guillotined her at Stadelheim prison in 1943. The totality of her work is a collection of “skimpy pamphlets”. There is nothing Shakespearean about the language she employs at her ‘trial’, and yet her words tell us all we need to know about the potential of the human spirit: “Finally, someone has to make a start. We only said and wrote what many people think. They just don’t dare to express it.” James’ essay on Sophie Scholl is my favourite in Cultural Amnesia, its final two sentences the most affecting passage in the entire book: “But part of the sad truth about Sophie Scholl is that nobody remembers a thing she said, and in her last few minutes alive she said nothing at all. If she had said something, the man who bore witness to her bravery would have remembered it.” Sophie’s stillness, James intimates, is a valiant girl’s fierce concentration as she heroically conquers her sense of horror: “The rest is silence”.
Clive James’s fate – the fate of most writers and artists and thinkers – is not to play Hamlet the Dane and be “set naked” upon the shores of an evil kingdom in order to right all wrongs. More than enough to be Horatio: to tell the story of Hamlet – or Sophie – and thus reclaim a “wounded name”. Better, as James argues, to be a literary “plodder” like Victor Klemperer, conscientiously assembling a detailed study of evil (I Shall Bear Witness and To the Bitter End), than a literary savant who fails to recognise the “most deadly enemy of the humanist culture” he purports to embody. A point as true today as ever it was.
Clive James is the best kind of expatriate. His leave-taking in 1962 proved a blessing for Australia, although not in the way (say) John Pilger’s departure the same year was a blessing. In his essay on another Australian émigré, Alan Moorehead, a notable Second World War correspondent and author (African Trilogy), James acknowledges the importance to adventurous Australian artists of “Moorehead’s pioneering example of the confident interloper who showed how it could be a positive advantage to come from somewhere else”. Moorehead not only paved the way for those who came after him, his work helped explain to Australia its role in the world – the significance of Tobruk, for instance. This is an echo of James’ line about a very different expatriate: “Gombrowicz served the eternal Poland by being Polish in Buenos Aires.”
The writings of Alan Moorehead are an antidote to Australian parochialism: the same might be said of Clive James’s work. Still, if Australia benefited from the dispersion of its finest artists and thinkers to the wider world, then the wider world profited in equal measure. James speaks not only of the “dignified vigour” of Moorehead’s prose, but also his capacity to see the world with fresh yet knowing eyes. A European of sorts, Moorehead was a European of no particular persuasion: just like Vivian Clive James. A man from the Antipodes can be truly cosmopolitan, a writer or artist who speaks “complex and vital truths” to Europe without fear of national chauvinism. Here, rather than some cheap jibe, is the perfect rejoinder to Malcolm Muggeridge.
Western civilisation, when we open our eyes, is in peril. The great paradox is that a person who lives their entire life in walking distance of the Musée du Louvres can be more blinkered than someone who spent their childhood in the dusty outer suburbs of Sydney. Since September 11 our destinies have become more interdependent than ever, and Clive James’ masterpiece might serve as a handy reminder in any future moment of forgetfulness.