Cultural Cohesion, p.40Clive James
Diehard opponents of the American Empire—on this subject Gore Vidal remains determined to be only half as clever as he is—insist that America rebuilt the defeated nations only to secure markets, and so forth. This seductive notion first took off along with the economies of the rebuilt nations. Quite often, it was noised abroad in newspapers and magazines that owed their editorial freedom to guarantees insisted upon by the victorious Allies, with America in the forefront. Suspicion of American power became harder to quell as American power went on increasing. Perhaps that was a good thing: about power, suspicious is the way we should always be. But to focus on America’s misuse of its economic and military strength was to abdicate the obligation, and the opportunity, to talk about the aspect of American power that actually worked—its cultural influence, the thing that made America irresistibly attractive even after it had just finished dropping bombs on you.
The Japanese had been told that the American GIs would rape their women. The threat was easy to believe, since the right to rape civilians was an unofficial but commonly granted reward for conquest in the Imperial Japanese Army. But in the American Army of Occupation the penalty for rape was imprisonment or death. When the GIs handed out gum instead, the Japanese got the point in the first five minutes. The Germans had got the point while the war was still on. German civilians threatened with liberation by the Russians headed in the opposite direction. Surrendering to the Americans became the rule in the Wehrmacht when the SS or the military police weren’t watching. Any defeated nation had something with which to compare America—itself as it had previously been. America’s allied nations, their gratitude either tinged by jealousy or annulled by it, were less inclined to admire but just as bound to compare: America was their measure, whether as a challenge or as a threat. America’s problem was that it had no standard of comparison except its own ideal of itself.
The problem got worse, and by now it is acute. This is where America’s congenital insulation from the less fortunate contemporary world, and its isolation from the needy past brought about by abundance in the present, has played the Devil. Both from the Right and from the Left, America attacks itself for lapsing from its supposedly normal condition as the ideal state. But the ideal state is a platonic concept destined to be even more frustrating than platonic love. For the Right, modern America is a disappointing lapse from godliness, purity and order. For the Left, modern America is a disappointing lapse from social justice. Increasingly, the argument between them is about language and its legalistic interpretation, with the Constitution as the unquestioned yet ineffable ur-document, as if God’s will were literally a will, leaving everything he ever owned to America, but on certain conditions, all of which conflict.
In sober moments, we know that the Constitution of the United States would mean nothing without the laws that grow out of it and back it up. Without them, the rights it promulgates would be no better guaranteed than those enshrined in the old Soviet Constitution, a document that, as the dissident sociologist Alexander Zinoviev suggested, was published only in order to find out who agreed with it, so that they could be dealt with.
Americans, however, are less inclined to realize that the laws would mean nothing without the spirit that gave rise to them, and that this spirit was first made manifest in the country’s classic literature. To see the problem, it helps to be outside America looking in. Angst at falling short of its dreams for itself has sapped the country’s initial confidence that it could alter circumstances in its own favour: the lure of the ideal has stymied the practical. It is a dream to imagine that even the most comprehensive laundering of language would expunge racism from human consciousness. The realistic alternative is to deny racist consciousness practical expression. It won’t be easy, but to disarm the population would be a good start. A start can’t be made, though, because the gun lobby has too much power. On this point, as on so many others, left-wing idealists and right-wing idealists work in a fearful synergy to undo the possibility of practical government. Seemingly conflicting interests have combined to erode an institution.
. . .
As a more recent institution, one that is actually still growing rather than falling apart, the Library of America provides a heartening example of what can be done. Perhaps it will give courage to people who would like to see public television properly funded. In the United States, public-service institutions, unless they are operating in a field where private enterprise has no urge to compete, are in the position of a heresy against an orthodoxy. But in matters of the mind they are essential to the nation’s health. Twain was in no doubt on the point. In 1898, having grown old in the new country, he warned against the consequences of a free-market culture. Thirty years before, he said, Edwin Booth had played Hamlet a hundred nights in New York. Now Hamlet was lucky to get a look-in. Comparing the Burg Theatre, in Vienna, with Broadway, he thought Broadway was nowhere. “You are eating too much mental sugar; you will bring on Bright’s disease of the intellect.”
As we now know, Broadway was to be the fons et origo of twentieth-century popular culture in its most sophisticated form: the musical show. But Twain still had a right to speak, because the popular culture that was on its way wouldn’t have been the same without him. What he couldn’t guess—because he was only a genius, not a clairvoyant—was that it would go so far, that entertainment would become, on such a scale, mere entertainment. Modern America is a society of abundance in almost every aspect, even when it comes to quality. The visitor who prides himself on his sophistication is first startled, then benumbed, to find that everything he thought treasurable where he came from is present in America, only more so. If he is interested in the Books of Hours of the early Renaissance, he will find the world’s greatest collection in the Pierpont Morgan Library. He can be a world expert on Ming vases and still not survive the shock of turning a corner on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles to find a glass-fronted warehouse chock-full of them. There are classical-music lovers in London who pay for a return plane trip from New York with what they save buying a suitcaseful of CDs at American prices. A few years ago, in a music shop on Broadway, I reached into a discount bin and fished out a boxed set of cassettes of the Mahler First and Second Symphonies in the touchstone performances conducted by Bruno Walter. Five bucks. It made me annoyed that I had previously paid so much, and then afraid that I was not paying enough. The precious was practically free. It was value without price.
But that doesn’t offset the menace of price without value. The abundance isn’t intelligently distributed, and never could be by a free market, whose famous invisible hand is incurably short of a brain. Unless public-service institutions are made robust, the art will go to the elite that knows what it wants, while those who might have wanted it but never found out about it are stuck with the junk. Twain was an elitist: when he punished Cooper for supposing that “more preferable” was a more impressive way to say “preferable” he was saying that literary expression isn’t just self-expression. But he would have been appalled to be told in advance that the enlightenment of the American people was going to be a matter of niche marketing. He would have regarded that, surely correctly, as a boondoggle.
Though beset by remorse for his own failings, Twain had a sure sense of his rank, but he didn’t imagine that he had attained it by his own unaided efforts. He had an institution to help him—the world literary heritage, which he regarded as belonging to America by right, because America was the world’s country. Twain’s own contribution, daring in every way, was most daring in its dedication to the principle that the institution belonged to the people, and not to its adepts. He was a man so superior he needed no support from self-esteem. One wonders whether the Kaiser, for once in his life face to face with a real aristocrat, realized the implications.
They weren’t revolutionary—not politically, anyway. Though a devout republican at home, Twain abroad had a soft spot for monarchs. But culturally he was a bigger revolutionary than Karl Marx, and, in the long run, more
Huckleberry Finn may survive the misguided clean-up of the library shelves. Unless I lost count, there are forty-two instances of the word “nigger” in the first fifteen chapters of the book, but its heart is so obviously in the right place that it may weather the intentions of the politically correct, whose salient folly is to arouse false expectations of the past. Even if Huck makes it, however, he won’t ever again be read by everybody. Professional admiration for the book will remain intense. (In Green Hills of Africa, when Hemingway names Huckleberry Finn as the book that made American literature, for a moment the campfire fabulist is speaking the truth.) Amateur enjoyment must remain restricted to those who actually read books instead of just hearing about them or watching the video of the movie. Twain was marginalized by the popular culture he helped to create. It had to happen.
Where these four beautiful books will have their effect, along with the Library of America as a whole, is in the academy. With a few exceptions (which have been punished ferociously by qualified reviewers who realize that this project, above all others, is too important to permit lapses from its own standards) every volume in the collection is a model of scholarship in service to literature. By now the damage reports are in and we know that a whole generation of students have had literature killed for them by the way they have been obliged to study it. Instead of the books, they have had to study theories about the books, always on the assumption that the theorists are wiser than the authors. And finally scholasticism, as always, has reduced itself to absurdity, with the discovery by the theorists that there were no authors. There weren’t even any books, only texts, and there wasn’t any history for the texts to emerge from, because history was just a set of signs, too.
Well, here are the books, with not a text in sight except as a reasoned agreement on what the author actually wrote. Every volume in the Library has a chronology to help you follow the life of the author (who actually existed), with pertinent notes to place him in the context of history (which exists, too). Armed with this subsidiary information, the student will be able to give a book the only “reading” that counts—the one by which the book brings something to him, without his bringing a load of hastily acquired pseudoscience to it. The authors will emerge as the living human beings who made the larger Constitution, the one behind the document. And one author will emerge as even more alive than the rest, stricken by tragedy but unquenchable in his delight, shaking his head as if he had seen everything—even the future that is our frightening present—and not given up.
The New Yorker, June 14, 1993; later included
in Even As We Speak, 2001
My reference to the temptation Huckleberry Finn might offer to the politically correct text-cleansers was made at a time when it still looked possible that gentle ridicule would stave off the menace. Alas, the New York State Board of Regents went on to prove itself in deadly earnest, applying their principles of selection to the school library bookshelves with the same intractable enthusiasm as the thought police of an ideological power. How this totalitarian residue should have come to flourish in a nominally liberal democratic state is a nice question. Part of the answer, I suspect, is that the democratic component of liberal democracy contains an ideological breeding ground, commonly known as egalitarianism. An indeterminate abstract concept masquerading as an ideal, it encourages any amount of censorship to be imposed in its name. There could be no more important specific task for the humanities than to oppose it by protecting the integrity of the classic books, as part of the broad, general and increasingly urgent task of liberalizing liberal democracy before it democratizes itself out of existence. For encouragement, we can daydream with delight of how a New York Regents examination paper might be answered by Mark Twain come back to life.
Considering his disapproval of prominent men who allowed their lust to interfere with the accepted forms, Twain might also have been pretty scathing about my warm invocations of Bill Clinton. But at the beginning of Clinton’s presidency the picture looked bright for any observer who thought that the Difference Principle of John Rawls was the truest guide to what an American government should do: benefit the poor. In the long run, that was roughly what Clinton’s administration did, although he finally blotted even that part of his record by benefiting some of the rich with absurd pardons cynically bestowed as he made his exit. But it was the record of his private behaviour that determined the general opinion of him, and would probably, alas, have determined Twain’s opinion of him too. Twain’s implacable conventionality on the subject of sexual conduct was an example of the way America was not like Europe.
A century later, the media uproar over the Monica Lewinsky affair proved that the difference had scarcely changed. As the consequences of Clinton’s private folly drove him all the way to a public impeachment, mighty decathletes of the boudoir like François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac must have been astonished. Each had been able to spend decades exercising the droit de seigneur with no thought of recrimination from the press, the surrounding culture or even, apparently, from their wives. No doubt that was what was wrong with both of them. There is unquestionably something self-serving about the European reluctance to identify the private and the public life, just as there is unquestionably something admirable about the American assumption that they should form a unity. Unfortunately there is also something dogmatic about the “should.” Compelled by such a concretized ideal, the real unity is between conventionality and legalism. If only love can lead to marriage, any new love must lead to divorce. Innocent people start to disappear, and at the level of intellect and sensitivity as well as at the level of kitsch and glitz. Saul Bellow’s wives join Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands among the legions of the discarded, to the long-term profit of nobody except lawyers. Despite the almost universal opinion that they should join in this grotesque process, the Clintons have so far failed to do so—a reluctance on their part that is surely worth consideration, if not endorsement.
Very few American journalists have been reckless enough to suggest that the fated couple might be held together by passion; or that his attractiveness to women might be one of the things she finds exciting about him; or that a part of the attractiveness might reside in a gallantry as irrepressible as his libido. On that last point, it is still considered naive, in American company, to even hint at the possibility that the President, when he told his first lies about Monica Lewinsky, might have been just as concerned to protect her future as to protect his job. It was said at the time, and is still said, that she meant nothing to him except as an available intern. There is certainly a sense in which charm is the capacity to lavish intimacy on strangers. But Clinton’s charm might well be of the order in which a casually met woman is led to deduce very quickly that she is not a stranger at all: that he cares for her fate. (The deduction might not even be erroneous, at the time.) To say that Clinton had no concern for his young admirer was to demonize him, and to demonize him was to call her an idiot: something which many of those who claimed to be repelled by his contempt for women were quick to do, thus ruling out the possibility that the same charm which seduced her might have seduced them. But they should have ruled it in. Anybody can see through a man like that from a distance. The trick is to see through him from close up.
CASANOVA COMES AGAIN
Casanova, outed long ago as a flagrant heterosexual, is out again. This time he’s out in paperback—the whole of his memoirs, in six hefty double volumes. What a pity he couldn’t be here for a launch party at, say, the Algonquin. He always said that his literary career was the one that really mattered. In his small talk for the assembled prominenti he would have said it again, even as he put the moves on the younger and more personable females at the thrash: the editors, the journalists, the PR flacks, the bimboid wannabes toting the canapés. Feeling his age but galvanized by the attention, he would have taken on the biggest challenge in the room: the drenchingly beautiful, impeccably refined junior editor on the point of marrying the tortoise-necked publishing tycoon jealously quavering in the background. As the lights dim for a screened montage of his big moments on film, Casanova talks his target out the double doors, down the stairs and into a cab. Most weekends, like the modest, well-brought-up girl she is, she takes the jitney home to East Hampton, but when Cas explains that he gambled away the last of his per diem stash the previous night she immediately offers to cover the cab fare with her spare change. Step on it! The publisher’s heavies are already on the sidewalk and scoping the street through their dark glasses. Back upstairs, the indignant publisher has personally lifted the phone to consign the entire print run of Casanova’s great book to a garbage scow, but our hero’s authorial ambitions never did stand a chance against his primal urge.
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