What I'm Reading: Clive James' Cultural Amnesia

Came back Sunday night from the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, much too over-stimulated and inspired by many meetings to give a coherant account of the experience: I saw this one, heard that one, developed a little crush on another, bumped into this one or saw such-and-so a mighty one from a distance drinking overpriiced scotch in the hotel bar. I expect the anecdotes and insights will come dribbling out bit by bit as I have time to process them.

Here is one such: the comic book artist Matthew Dow Smith and I had an informal gripe session about why some "superstar" artists who shall remain nameless turn into shitheels. I compared notes from my own experience watching medieval graduate students evolve into professors and my own brief encounters with the famous (in my experience, famous persons most deserving of reknown have been the least pretentious, and showed the most curiosity about the world around them.) It costs so little-- seconds really-- to show noblesse oblige to someone farther down the ladder than yourself, and pays off down the road by spreading good will. He was interested in my ideas about the "poison mentor", the false friend and father figure who uses the apprentice instead of teaching them, a type who causes at least as much damage in society as the overly-analyzed "devouring mother".

All this is prologue to saying that Cultural Amnesia is a very generous book, by which I mean Mr. James has crammed so much good thought and bonhomie into this collection, you can browse just one or two of the essays and come away with passages that will keep your wheels turning for a week. Cultural Amnesia is a collection of original essays concerning the violence of the past century, a handful of people who did their best to stave off the darkness, and favorite writers off Mr. James' shelves. I plan on giving it to my more thoughtful former students as a friendly introduction to the larger world of humanistic thought and why it matters, as generous a gift as the Durants' Story of Civilization. A long time ago, a casual recommendation by a professor when I was a teen led me to Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and the works of Joseph Campbell, and when I came across them years later, took me miles from where I started. Cultural Amnesia is that kind of resource. This is how we are nutured by those who have gone before, rather than exploited.

Slate magazine has a selection of some of the essays here, enough perhaps to make you buy a copy and keep it on your shelf for reading with your morning coffee. I got mine as a birthday present and read it through the summer, starting with characters I was already familiar with, and then more slowly from A-Z. Someone in the old Whole Earth News recommended this approach when reading new reference books: start by reading the entries on a subject you already know something about, and if it's good, start working your way in deeper.

It's like a really good buffet from a generous host. This morning I dipped into "Hegel" and "Keats" and found enough in there to have me muttering to myself the rest of the day. Here are a few bites from the essay on Adolf Hitler:

"Some of the last aphorisms written by the great Robert Musil were devoted to summarizing the pathogenic nature of Hitler. Beautifully crafted statements, they had no effect on Hitler whatsoever."

"... a sufficient concentration of violence could neutralize any amount of culture, no matter how widely diffused."

"It may seem unfair to condemn intellectuals who conspire to undermine vulgar democracy in favor of a refined dream for failing to foresee the subsequent nightmare. And Moeller was only one among many. But there were too many: That was the point. Too many well- read men combined to prepare the way for a pitiless hoodlum who despised them, and they even came to value him for being a hoodlum: for lacking their scruples, for being a drum of nature."

If that doesn't take the piss out of the neo-conservative "intellectuals", the Podhoretzs, Kristols and Abrams who have enabled Bush the past several years, now foisting Rudolph Guliani on us, nothing will-- their self-love is adamantine.

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