Cultural Cohesion, p.1Clive James
THE Essential ESSAYS, 1968–2002
TO THE MEMORY OF
Barbarism is not the prehistory of humanity but the
faithful shadow that accompanies its every step.
A Note on the Text
Introduction to the Paperback Edition
PART I: POETRY
1. On Auden’s Death
2. On Seamus Heaney
3. Robert Lowell’s Marble Chips
4. Four Essays on Philip Larkin
5. Poetry’s Ideal Critic: Randall Jarrell
6. Two Essays on Theodore Roethke
7. Charles Johnston’s Catacomb Graffiti
8. Nabokov’s Grand Folly
9. Stevie Smith: Not Drowning but Waving
10. Galway Kinnell’s Great Poem
11. Les Murray and His Master Spirits
12. The Great Generation of Australian Poetry
PART II: FICTION AND LITERATURE
13. D. H. Lawrence in Transit
14. The Perpetual Promise of James Agee
15. The Sherlockologists
16. Raymond Chandler
17. Bitter Seeds: Solzhenitsyn
18. Go Back to the Cold!
19. A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses
20. A Death in Life
21. Primo Levi’s Last Will and Testament
22. Primo Levi and the Painted Veil
23. The All of Orwell
24. Mark Twain, Journalist
25. Casanova Comes Again
26. Hamlet in Perspective
PART III: CULTURE AND CRITICISM
27. F. R. Leavis in America
28. A Whole Gang of Noise: Susan Sontag
29. Germaine Greer: Getting Married Later
30. The Metropolitan Critic
31. It is of a Windiness: Lillian Hellman
32. Mailer’s Marilyn
33. From Log Cabin to Log Cabin
34. Hard-Core Gore
35. Evelyn Waugh’s Last Stand
36. As a Matter of Tact
37. These Staggering Questions
38. How Montale Earned His Living
39. N.V. Rampant Meets Martin Amis
40. Hitler’s Unwitting Exculpator
41. He That Played the Fool
42. Bertrand Russell Struggles after Heaven
PART IV: VISUAL IMAGES
43. The New Diaghilev
44. Pier Paolo Pain in the Neck
45. Mondo Fellini
46. Who Was That Masked Man?
47. The Gentle Slope to Castalia
48. Pictures in Silver
About the Author
Further praise for CULTURAL COHESION
Also by Clive James
A NOTE ON THE TEXT
Over the years I have made it a practice, which I continue here, of leaving an article virtually untouched when collecting it into a book. Sometimes I was glad to reinsert a sentence or two which I had thought particularly clever and an editor had taken out, probably for that very reason; and occasionally there were simple factual errors which should have been caught at the time. But on the whole it seemed best to leave things unimproved. If you start updating a piece in the light of subsequent developments, the result is a tacit claim to a congenital infallibility of judgement: an attribute which, were one to possess it, would remove the whole point of critical journalism at a blow. Aspiring to permanence only by the measure with which it illuminates the ephemeral, such writing can be pertinent or not, but either way it has to be contingent: if it tries to cut itself free from time and chance, it removes itself from life.
So each piece is marked with its provenance, not as a claim to automatic importance but as a reminder that it was written at a specific moment of modern history by a specific person, who was younger and less wary than the codger carrying the same name now. When the expressed sentiments cry out to be updated, the necessary work is done in a postscript. Some of the postscripts date from 1992, when I reissued my debut book of pieces The Metropolitan Critic, which had been originally published in 1974 and was so full of stylistic excesses that my only choice seemed to be between rewriting it and forgetting it. Conceit ruled out the second course, and a new, sudden and strange access of humility ruled out the first. Hadn’t my young clumsiness been a true testimony, and wouldn’t an airbrushed refurbishment be a false one? Better to admit the absurdities, and say how they had come to be perpetrated. Thus I hit on the scheme of commenting on my own commentary.
More recently, in the year 2001, a “best of” selection called Reliable Essays—drawn from half a dozen separate collections—was published in Britain, and I added more postscripts where they seemed appropriate. Some of them are here, marked with that date. Other postscripts were written especially for this selection, the initiative for which I owe Robert Weil, along with the rare combination of enthusiasm and selectivity he brought to the task of convincing the author that one or two things might just possibly make their best contribution by being left out, so as not to dim the light of all the coruscating stuff that was demanding to be put in.
Though it would please their author if the pieces in this book were to be called essays, there is no denying that most of them had their first life as literary journalism. If we take it for granted that a writer is posturing if he calls himself an essayist, just as he would be preening if he called himself a wit, it is partly because the essay had its origins in a low trade whose practitioners awarded distinction to each other only on performance, and never on mere membership. As a form in the English language, the essay had its true beginnings in the London coffee houses, where it depended for its energy on a seeming paradox: contributing to a periodical designed to be thrown away, the essayist composed his piece as if it were meant to be kept. There was always the chance that he might be the only one to keep it, but if he failed in his aim of bringing permanence to ephemerality, he could always congratulate himself on having respected his disrespectable work by devoting his best efforts to it. I hope I can plausibly claim that much—that these pieces are workmanlike—because when I add up the time it took to write them, the sum accounts for a large part of my life.
For almost forty years I have been writing literary journalism in London, and London is probably where I will go on writing it until the pen drops from my fingers. Actually, of course, although I still write my first and second drafts in a notebook, the dropped pen no longer applies as a token of weary death. More likely, when it comes to the last word, I will multi-punch the laptop’s keyboard with my face, my fingers only halfway through the sequence that activates the most sadly beautiful of all modern rubrics, Windows Is Shutting Down. And English grammar are checking out. When the time comes to follow it into oblivion, my exit will probably owe more to old age than to malnutrition. As a slow writer who got slower still the more he had to say, I could never have earned a living from literary journalism alone. It was always amateur night, and I made my eating money by other means, first as a television critic, then as a television performer. There are reasons for thinking that in the field of literary journalism, full professionalism in the economic sense is not necessarily a desirable object. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to get paid something, and luckily I always was. But it ne
America is magnetic in its power, drawing all the world’s activities towards it for their validation, with the possible exception of football with a round ball; and even then, Brazil’s great Edison Arantes do Nascimento, later known as Pele, probably counted it as one of the highlights of his life when he showed President Ford how to bounce the ball on his foot, and President Ford showed him how not to. Good foreign movies are drawn towards Los Angeles, where they are remade as bad ones for their only chance at the world market. Japan’s black-belt sushi cooks are drawn towards the restaurants of Aspen, Russia’s most gorgeous young female tennis players towards the sports-babe nurseries of Florida. When the suicide pilots were drawn towards the twin towers of New York, their unerring flight was a confirmation as much as it was a criticism. They were making their mark where the whole planet would see it. To be famous throughout the world, you must first be famous in America. Shakira’s contrapuntally undulating stomach muscles are famous in Latin America, but when they are famous in the real America they will be famous in Iceland. If it hasn’t happened in America, it hasn’t happened. Foreign media personnel, especially if they stem from the Left, are apt to decry this assumption; but they are just as apt, and especially if they stem from the left, to succumb to it when their moment comes. Given the chance, they go for the green card. Should writers do the same?
I know several that have. Even if they forgo the card, each has shifted the powerhouse of his mentality—the centre of his attention—out of London and into New York. They have probably done the right thing. As a world figure, Salman Rushdie feels more at home in the centre of events than he ever did at home—the home which was already his second home, India having been the first. Rushdie, like Nirad Chaudhuri and other subcontinental masters of the English language before him, knows that there is a sense in which the phrase “England made me” is undeniable. But he also knows that when the British government sensibly decided to pay for his protection as the cheapest way of fighting the war which Iran had declared by pronouncing a death sentence on a British resident, the decision was not unanimously approved by his fellow men of letters. Some of them thought he should pick up the tab, and among those there were a vocal few who clearly believed that it would be no bad thing if he paid for his fame with his life. In America, he thought, nobody who mattered would speak that way. John Lennon no doubt thought the same, and had not been entirely wrong: the man who killed him did not matter except for a moment. So Rushdie went to the centre of the magnetic field.
So did Martin Amis, when he declared that Britain no longer leads the world in anything, except in decline. For those of us who stick with Britain, or at any rate are stuck with it, this might have seemed a large statement, but only a churl could blame him for making it. Some of the British journalism written to spite his success has to be read to be believed. In most cases it is written by people who would like to be him: you can tell by the way they ape his epithets without possessing the talent to ape an ape. In London he is besieged by carping graduates in media studies—mad on America even when they are mad against it—who measure his achievement only in terms of money and success: their key concepts of value sound like the titles he gives his novels. In New York he can at least meet that kind of materialism at first hand. If the Moronic Inferno is your adversary, you might as well go up against it in the main furnace, rather than in some subsidiary steam-room rattling with rusty pipes. The main furnace powers the magnet. For Christopher Hitchens, the adversary was the capitalist conspiracy against the wretched of the earth. Somewhere around the time that Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer and the people danced in the streets instead of greasing the wheels of the tumbril, Hitchens decided that Britain was the wrong place to fight the battle. To the dismay of his friends, but with their heartfelt understanding, Hitchens subtracted his brilliance from London and took it to America, there to beard the adversary in his den. When the planes hit the towers, Hitchens bravely faced the unsettling fact that some of the wretched of the earth might be adversaries too, but there is no sign that he has wavered in his choice of platform, and every sign that his platform revels in its choice of him. With a neigh of pleasure, America has taken Hitchens over as its licensed horsefly. When Dwight Macdonald assailed America’s conduct of World War II, he had to do it in magazines of small circulation, usually under his own editorship. When Hitchens calls for the indictment of Henry Kissinger as a war criminal, he can do it in Vanity Fair: angelically phrased invective on double-coated art paper, closely supported by radiant images of Gwyneth Paltrow. Even at the heart of the magnetic field, his wit, instead of being flattened, dances for the delight of all, with the possible exception of Kissinger. For Hitchens, as for Rushdie and Amis, the centre of the attraction is the heart of the action.
There is only one disadvantage I can think of, but I have thought of it often, and in the long term I have staked my life on it. The centre of the magnetic field is the wrong place to see the distortions it creates. This might not matter for novelists like Rushdie and Amis, or for a globe-girdling political commentator like Hitchens, but for a literary journalist it should be a consideration, because literary journalism is weakened when allied to power, which breeds power within itself, and thus reinforces specialization. In New York, one woman writing for the New York Times can decide the commercial fate of a novel. She exercises her power with independence and integrity, but it is an awful lot of power to have. In London nobody ever had it, not even Cyril Connolly when he was reviewing for the Sunday Times every week. The master of writing a review you cared about of a book he scarcely cared about at all, he had influence but not power, and there is a difference. In New York, prominent members of the Fourth Estate behave as if they were part of the government of the country, encouraged in that belief by the publications they write for. The publications behave like journals of record. I don’t know what happens at Hustler, but at any other American paper or magazine of which I have knowledge, the contributor is likely to find himself edited as if he speaks for the publication before he speaks for himself.
In London, none of this happens. There is editing, but it is done by agreement, and to help you to sound more like yourself, not less. Otherwise there is little intervention, even in fact checking. I don’t deny that a light hand in that department can leave a writer feeling lonely. Unless the editor knows the difference, if you attribute the Goldberg Variations to Beethoven instead of Bach the mistake will go straight into print, to make you a laughing stock for a month. More seriously, it would be very difficult in London to pull off a triumph like Nicholson Baker’s initial New Yorker article about the junking of library cards (the article served as the precursor for his marvellous book Double Fold, in which the world’s great libraries emerge as remorseless engines for destroying books in the name of their preservation) because no London publication has the staff whose busy surveillance would automatically provide a free source of additional research. Most of the London editors work on the assumption that if a blunder is committed, it will be pointed out in the letters column. (It’s the main reason that the letters columns of the London publications are so much more informative than the equivalent forums in New York, where a typical letter either lauds the “insightful” richness of some piece in the previous issue or damns it to hell.) And as for the style, the piece is much more likely to go into the paper pretty much as written, with the writer’s allusions left unflagged and all his quirks intact. The late Anthony Burgess got so used to this that when he contributed to American magazines, and found an American editor calling him to order on the transatlantic telephone, Burgess would bark, “Just print i
Admittedly, London publications can overdo their respect for individuality. In recent years, with the collapse of the Left, the New Statesman has yielded its position of the weekly “everybody reads” to the Spectator. Politically, the Spectator is chiefly concerned with restoring credibility to the Conservative Party, a victim of the collapse of the Right. Since the only politics that matter are now in the centre, anybody can write for the Spectator with a clear conscience; but it can be disturbing, when you send the magazine your latest poem, to contemplate the possibility that it might make its appearance framed by the chill prose of Diana Mosley. Nevertheless, the tolerance for a wide range of political affiliation is a good thing for literary journalism. The conversational tone can become sibilant and even waspish, but there are not really any separate tables. In London, the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books could never go to war against each other as the New York Review of Books and Commentary once did. In London, the annual parties thrown by the literary magazines still matter more than any book launch, and to each of those parties everybody comes. There is a sense of community, even when opinions differ. It could be said that this is only because nobody’s opinion is felt to matter very much, but that would not be quite true. The writers have their pride. But they know that they have no power. Prestige is acquired not from position, but from the possession of a personal style.
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