Cultural Amnesia, p.1Clive James
NOTES IN THE MARGIN OF MY TIME
P I C A D O R
Aung San Suu Kyi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ingrid Betancourt
and to the memory of
A Note on the Text
Jorge Luis Borges
Sir Thomas Browne
Nirad C. Chaudhuri
G. K. Chesterton
Ernst Robert Curtius
Pierre Drieu la Rochelle
W. C. Fields
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Charles de Gaulle
Heda Margolius Kovaly
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Rainer Maria Rilke
Wolf Jobst Siedler
Henning von Tresckow
Miguel de Unamuno
Pedro Henriquez Ureña
Mario Vargas Llosa
Coda: Kun-Han-Su Eckstein and the Egyptian Kinghopper
Introduction to the Extras
All history is contemporary history.
At certain times the world is overrun by false scepticism. Of the true kind there can never be enough.
BURCKHARDT, Weltgeshichtliche Betrachtungen
One insults the memory of the victims of Nazism if one uses them to bury the memory of the victims of communism.
JEAN-FRANÇOIS REVEL, La Grande Parade
In a universe more and more abstract, it is up to us to make sure that the human voice does not cease to be heard.
WITOLD GOMBROWICZ, Journal
We should esteem the man who is liberal, not the man who decides to be so.
To philosophize means to make vivid.
Those are nearer to reality who can deal with it light-heartedly, because they know it to be inexhaustible.
IN THE FORTY years it took me to write this book, I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern. It would be organized like the top of my desk, from which the last assistant I hired to sort it out has yet to reappear. The book I wanted to write had its origins in the books I was reading. Several times, in my early days, I had to sell my best books to buy food, so I never underlined anything. When conditions improved I became less fastidious. Not long after I began marking passages for future consideration, I also began keeping notes in the margin beside the markings, and then longer notes on the endpapers. Those were the very means by which Montaigne invented the modern essay, and at first I must have had an essay of my own in mind: a long essay, but one with the usual shape, a single line of argument moving through selected perceptions to a neat conclusion.
In the short term, many of my annotations went into book reviews and pieces for periodicals: writings which took an essay form, and which, when I collected them into volumes, I unblushingly dignified with that term. But there were always annotations that struck me as not fitting any scheme except a much larger one, to be attempted far in the future, probably towards the end of my life. By the time that terminus was in clear sight, however, I had begun to live with the possibility that there could be no scheme.
There could only be a linear cluster of nodal points, working the way the mind—or at any rate my mind, such as it is—works as it moves through time: a trail of clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence, like the phosphorescent wake of a phantom ship. Far from a single argument, there would be scores of arguments. I wanted to write about philosophy, history, politics and the arts all at once, and about what had happened to those things during the course of the multiple catastrophes into whose second principal outburst (World War I was the first) I had been born in 1939, and which con- tinued to shake the world as I grew to adulthood. Even in an ideal world, none of those subjects would be an easily separable category, and in the far from ideal world we had been given to live in they were inextricably mixed. Each of them, it seemed to me, could have no overt order at the best of times: its order could only be internal, complex, organic. And in the worst of times, which has become our time, any two or more of them taken together must show the same effect dizzily multiplied: the organic complexities intermingled into a texture so intricate that any order extracted from it could be called only provisional.
Well, that would fit. Modern history had given us enough warning against treati
SO THIS IS a book about how not to reach one. If I have done my job properly, themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligible. But it will undoubtedly be a turbulent read. The times from which it emerged were hard on the nerves, even for those of us who were lucky enough to lead charmed lives. I hope that the episodically intermixed account of direct experience from my own charmed life will alleviate the difficulties of a densely woven text, but I make no excuse for them. If this book were not difficult, it would not be true.
To younger readers who might find themselves wondering why it is so full of forgotten names, and takes such a violently unpredictable course, the first thing to say is: welcome to the twentieth century, out of which your century grew as surely as a column of black smoke grows from an oil fire. The second thing, though an adjunct of the first, is even more important: there is a lot at stake here. In the nineteenth century, in the time of the great philologist Ernest Renan, and despite the contrary evidence already provided by the French Revolution, Studia humanitatis was still thought of as an unmixed blessing. If the eighteenth century had meant to usher in the age of reason, the nineteenth century, with the cold snick of the guillotine ringing in its ears, meant to supply some of the regrettable deficiencies of reason by the addition of science. Apart from the prophets—Dickens, despite his inborn optimism, was one of them—few people with any aspirations to a philosophical view doubted that the extension of human knowledge would, in Renan’s typically generous phrase, élargir la grande famille: produce a race of the enlightened to lead a life of mathematically calculable justice. By now, after the twentieth century has done its cruel work, that is exactly what we doubt. The future of science, Renan’s cherished avenir de la science, can be assessed from our past, in which it flattened cities and gassed innocent children: whatever we don’t yet know about it, one thing we already know is that it is not necessarily benevolent. But somewhere within the total field of human knowledge, humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all.
That beckoning, however, grows increasingly feeble. The arts and their attendant scholarship are everywhere—imperishable consumer goods which a self-selecting elite can possess while priding itself as being beyond materialism; they have a glamour unprecedented in history—but humanism is hard to find. For that, science is one of the culprits: not the actual achievement of science, but the language of science, which, clumsily imitated by the proponents of Cultural Studies, has helped to make real culture unapproachable for exactly those students who might otherwise have been most attracted to it, and has simultaneously furthered the emergence and consolidation of an international cargo cult whose witch doctors have nothing in mind beyond their own advancement. By putting the humanities to careerist use, they set a bad example even to those who still love what they study. Learned books are published by the thousand, yet learning was never less trusted as something to be pursued for its own sake. Too often used for ill, it is now asked about its use for good, and usually on the assumption that any goodwill be measurable on a market, like a commodity. The idea that humanism has no immediately ascertainable use at all, and is invaluable for precisely that reason, is a hard sell in an age when the word “invaluable,” simply by the way it looks, is begging to be construed as “valueless” even by the sophisticated. In fact, especially by them. If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates. Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.
It was terrible, that age. Bright, sympathetic young people who now face a time when innocent human beings are killed by the thousand can be excused for thinking that their elders do not care enough, and indeed it is true that complacency tends to creep in as the hair falls out. But their elders grew to maturity in a time when innocent human beings were killed by the million. The full facts about Nazi Germany came out quite quickly, and were more than enough to induce despair. The full facts about the Soviet Union were slower to become generally appreciated, but when they at last were, the despair was compounded. The full facts about Mao’s China left that compounded despair looking like an inadequate response. After Mao, not even Pol Pot came as a surprise. Sadly, he was a cliché.
Ours was an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir. But the accumulated destruction yielded one constructive effect, salutary even if solitary. It made us think hard about the way we thought. For my own part, it made me think hard about all the fields of creativity that I seemed to love equally, whatever their place in a supposed hierarchy. I loved poetry, but such towering figures as Brecht and Neruda were only two of the gifted poets who had given aid and comfort to totalitarian power. I loved classical music, but so did Reinhard Heydrich and the ineffable Dr. Mengele. I loved modern fiction in all its fearless inclusiveness, but Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the author of that amazing phantasmagoria Voyage au bout de la nuit, had also written Bagatelles pour un massacre, a breviary for racialist fanatics. On examination, none of these exalted activities was a sure antidote in itself to the poison of irrationality, which is inseparable from human affairs, but fatal to them if granted a life of its own. And for the less exalted activities, examination was scarcely necessary. I loved popular music, but one look at Johnny Rotten was enough to show you why even the SS occasionally court-martialled a few of its personnel for nihilistic behaviour beyond the call of duty, and more recently there have been rap lyrics distinguishable from the “Horst Wessel Song” only in being less well written. I loved the art sports, but so had Leni Riefenstahl, who also provided evidence that there was nothing necessarily humanist about the movies: Triumph of the Will is a spectacle everyone should see, but no one should adore. It would have been nice to believe that comedy, one of my fields of employment, was of its nature opposed to political horror, but there were too many well-attested instances of Stalin and Molotov cracking each other up while they signed death warrants, and there was all too much evidence that Hitler told quite good jokes. If there was no field of creativity that was incorruptibly pure, where did that leave humanism?
GRADUALLY I REALIZED that I had been looking in the wrong place. As a journalist and critic, a premature post-modernist, I was often criticized in my turn for talking about the construction of a poem and of a Grand Prix racing car in the same breath, or of treating gymnasts and high divers (in my daydreams, I astonish the Olympic medalist Greg Louganis) as if they were practising the art of sculpture. It was a sore point, and often the sore point reveals where the real point is. Humanism wasn’t in the separate activities: humanism was the connection between them. Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it. Builders of concentration camps might be creators of a kind—it is possible to imagine an architect happily working to perfect the design of the concrete stanchions supporting an electrified barbed-wire fence—but they were in business to subtract variety from the created world, not to add to it. In the connection between all the outlets of the creative impulse in mankind, humanism made itself manifest, and to be concerned with understanding and maintaining that intricate linkage necessarily entailed an opposition to any political order that worked to weaken it.
SUCH WAS THE conclusion I had already reached after thirty-seven years of preparation. I was doing other things to earn a crust, but the book was never out of my mind, somewhere at the back of the building between the storeroom and the laundry. In the three years it took to compose the actual text, I was faced more and
THERE ARE HUNDREDS of voices in this book, and hundreds more which, although not cited directly, are nevertheless present in the way its author speaks. In that sense, the best sense, there is no such thing as an individual voice: there is only an individual responsibility. The writer represents all the expressive people to whom he has ever paid attention, even if he disapproved of what they expressed. If anything in this book seems not to fit, it isn’t, I hope, because it is irrelevant, but because I have written about it in the wrong tone, or the wrong measure. The polemicist has the privilege of unifying his tone by leaving out the complications. I have tried to unify it while encompassing the whole range of a contemporary mind. The mind in question happens to be mine, and any psychologist could argue persuasively that mine is the mind I am least likely to know much about. This much, however, I do know: it would not be a mind at all if its owner had allowed his multiplicity of interests to be restricted by a formula. He might have been more comfortable had he done so. But we have to do better than just seek comfort, or the Exterminating Angel will overwhelm us when he returns. He is unlikely to return at the head of a totalitarian state: even after the final and irreversible discrediting of their ideological pretensions, there are still a few totalitarian states left, but their days are surely numbered.
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