The humanist condition

Matthew Price is a journalist and critic in New York.

IN "Cultural Amnesia," the prodigious critic Clive James succumbs to a mighty ambition: In 100-plus alphabetically arranged essays, he pays homage to the vast western humanist enterprise (writing, filmmaking, music, philosophy, theater), defending it from myriad enemies. I don't fault his intelligence or erudition: This Australian omnivore has read, traveled and thought more than perhaps any critic alive. An eclectic master of the high/low, he writes on German metaphysics as fluently as on TV sitcoms (he's a former TV critic and sometime broadcaster), swiveling from poetry to novels to history with authority and conviction.

A lifetime's reading has gone into this doorstop of a book. But I have to ask: What was James thinking? It's not that his scheme is a bad idea. After an "Overture" extolling late 19th and early 20th century Vienna, he sets out a loose series of biographical sketches and citations, starting with Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and ending with Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. (Austrians loom large in "Cultural Amnesia.") In between, he heaps praise on his heroes -- among them Raymond Aron, Albert Camus, Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka -- and excoriates his villains: obvious ones like Hitler, Goebbels and Mao Tse-tung as well as a few fascist intellectuals you may not have heard of. Nor does he spare the left, twitting brand names like Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertolt Brecht ("the creepiest major talent of modern times").

But alphabet soup a la James left me with indigestion. He works with a lot of ingredients here. A clutch of books could be spun off from "Cultural Amnesia": on Vienna circa 1900, on European cultural life between the wars, on the greatest hits from the liberal arts curriculum. Oh, and a treatise on totalitarianism, plus assorted screeds on this and that. The present book might well be titled "The Collected Hobbyhorses of Clive James." Perhaps it's best defined as a meditation on the fate of the liberal humanist mind in the last century. For James, that mind is fragile, beset by the hobgoblin of modernity, ideological reductionism. The poisonous creeds of modern history -- fascism, Nazism and communism -- forced terrible simplicities on us, whereas humanism revels in the complex, the provisional, the spontaneous. James endorses the creative impulse's "propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it" and sees humanism as still imperiled: "The idea that humanism has no immediate ascertainable use at all, and is invaluable for precisely that reason, is a hard sell in an age when the word 'invaluable' [begs] to be construed as 'valueless' even by the sophisticated."

He's out to smite all that in this book. At least he practices the variety he preaches. Leafing through "C," you'll find Dick Cavett, originator of the brainy chat show, and Tony Curtis, smack after Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (of whom James approves: "The secret of his fecundity as a thinker was to open up possibilities rather than close them off"). In "M," it's amusing to find film director Michael Mann sandwiched between German writer Heinrich -- who in 1936 eerily predicted, "The German Jews will be systematically annihilated, of that there can be no more doubt" -- and his famous brother, Thomas. This is variety and then some.

Yet I wonder who James thinks his audience is. He worries that younger people might be unfamiliar with some of the names, but such readers will find him of little help. Take the Heinrich Mann entry: James gives a few biographical particulars, but then, musing on Mann's prediction, weighs the merits of different Hitler biographers. He confesses in his introduction that his approach "could only be internal, complex, organic." That's fine in theory, but those are poor operating instructions, making for an unholy mess of a book. Often, he piles glosses upon glosses. An entry on 17th century English writer Sir Thomas Browne -- "one of those minor English prose writers whose reputations are always rediscovered in times of crisis" -- turns into a pointless amble on book titles. Since James thinks we're in a crisis, I want to know why I should rediscover Browne, but I'm left hanging.

Still, there are some surprises. Most intellectuals fall over themselves praising German Jewish writer Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 in flight from the Nazis. You'd think James too would revere him as a victim of the forces James deplores. Nope: He rightly questions Benjamin's reputation and rues "the baleful encouragement he gives to the damaging notion that there is somehow a progressivist, humanitarian licence for talking through a high hat." Of Sartre, the very model of engage intellectual, James cracks that in his style "German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas."

Looking through "Cultural Amnesia," you'd think the last century was a huge conspiracy against the values and creativity James cherishes. True, liberalism may be the most detested creed of the modern era, hated by extremes of left and right alike. Stalin hounded Akhmatova. French historian Marc Bloch, another of James' heroes, was tortured and executed by the Nazis. The book's list of persecuted figures is chilling. Small wonder James loves prewar Vienna, where "learning was a voluntary passion, and wit was a form of currency" and intellectual polymaths reigned with the cafes as their campus. But that world was doomed: Many of its free-ranging thinkers were Jewish, and the rest is too sad to contemplate. In "Cultural Amnesia," James tries to capture this Vienna's bickering, zesty, experimental fizz, but it's a high-wire act even the most agile Viennese intellect couldn't pull off. *

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