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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Cultural Amnesia

Clive James

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To purchase Cultural Amnesia

Title: Cultural Amnesia
Author: Clive James
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2007
Length: 869 pages
Availability: Cultural Amnesia - US
Cultural Amnesia - UK
Cultural Amnesia - Canada
  • US sub-title: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts
  • UK sub-title: Notes in the Margin of My Time

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting pieces, odd assemblage

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 30/3/2007 Richard King
The Atlantic Monthly . 4/2007 Christopher Hitchens
The LA Times . 18/3/2007 Matthew Price
The Nation . 14/5/2007 William Deresiewicz
The NY Observer . 19/3/2007 Regina Marler
The NY Times . 20/3/2007 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/4/2007 Liesl Schillinger
The Observer . 27/5/2007 Robert McCrum
Salon . 9/4/2007 Allen Barra
San Francisco Chronicle . 29/4/2007 Ilan Stavans
Sunday Times . 13/5/2007 A.N.Wilson
The Telegraph . 14/6/2007 Philip Hensher
TLS . 14/9/2007 Adam Bresnick
The Village Voice . 30/3/2007 Gary Indiana
The Washington Post . 20/5/2007 John Simon

  Review Consensus:

  Generally quite enthusiastic -- if also a bit overwhelmed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Cultural Amnesia is not only huge (it would be unputdownable if, at 900 pages, it weren't unpickupable), it is also a remarkable intellectual achievement. It's the book James will be remembered for, if you can be remembered for a book about amnesia." - Richard King, The Age

  • "He has a gift for noticing and highlighting the telling phrase. (...) One of James's charms as a critic is that he genuinely seems to enjoy praising people. (...) If you open Cultural Amnesia in the hope of getting a bluffer's guide to the intellectuals, you will be disappointed; but if you read it as an account of how an educator has himself been self-educated, you will be rewarded well enough." - Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "A lifetime's reading has gone into this doorstop of a book. But I have to ask: What was James thinking ? (...) But alphabet soup a la James left me with indigestion." - Matthew Price, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Indeed, Cultural Amnesia is less a collection of great figures than of great sentences. Each entry begins with a thumbnail sketch of the individual in question but mainly consists of James's commentary on one or more quotations drawn from his or her writing. Sometimes the commentary concerns its author, sometimes not. No matter what it concerns -- pornography, movie dialogue, the politics of literary exile, the problem of high seriousness in modern art -- it is invariably absorbing. Reading the book feels like having a conversation with the most interesting person in the world: You're not saying much, but you just want to keep listening anyway. The reason James is such a good talker, though, is that he's such a good listener." - William Deresiewicz, The Nation

  • "Cultural Amnesia is designed to be dipped into casually, but it can be read from beginning to end if you want to set your scalp on fire. (...) Although he takes aim at literary theory, academic obscurantism, racism, reverse-racism and intellectual dishonesty of every stripe, Mr. Jamesí recurrent theme is the danger of political ideologies. Signing onto an ideology entails ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Itís a mind-shutting maneuver. (...) Mr. Jamesí tone ranges from confiding to bombastic, and heís entertaining at either extreme. His conclusions are brilliantly reasoned, but his relentless focus on World War II, the Holocaust, Stalinís purges and extreme authoritarianism is enough to convince you that there were no hula hoops, no soap operas, no cupcakes in the 20th century -- in fact, that intellectual seriousness demands that there be no cupcakes." - Regina Marler, The New York Observer

  • "In other cases Mr. Jamesís mania for digression runs amok. Although his buoyant, sportive prose means that his ruminations are rarely dull, the reader does wish at times that heíd stick to the subject at hand, using his erudition and enthusiasm actually to give us an appreciation of an artistís work instead of using it as a springboard for repetitious chatter about his own preoccupations. (...) In the end, one of the most valuable things about this volume is that Mr. James not only sends the reader in search of original texts written by or about his subjects, but also provides lots of other useful reading suggestions. (...) Itís not the sort of volume most people will want to read straight through, but rather one to dip into here and there -- a volume to be treasured less for its own sake than for all the other books it will make the reader want to read." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "On the whole, the portraits are thoughtful and entertaining; James takes pains to season them with piquant details and memorable aphorisms to hold the interest of learned, jaded palates. (...) James probably never intended for readers to consume his massive tome front to back; and tucking into the entries on a need-to-know basis can provide rich rewards with no choking risk. Grab a loaf here and there, and feed your mind." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In the absence of an intelligible argument, or through line, in a volume that never quite dispels the suspicion that the author is frugally recycling some ancient intellectual compost, James and his editors have resorted to a helpful alphabetical arrangement, in which the essential link is its author's autodidactic fervour. The disproportion of gravy to beef makes Cultural Amnesia a wonderful book for a long afternoon in a left-bank cafe, or a transatlantic plane ride, but perverse and sometimes baffling to fans who might have been hoping for a Jamesian summation." - Robert McCrum, The Observer

  • "Clearly James has only chosen subjects that had an impact on him -- there isn't a single piece in the book that reads as if it was written out of an obligation to relevance. That's a plus, as it makes every selection seem vibrant. (...) One of the things that distinguishes Cultural Amnesia from the finger-pointing, eat-your-bean-sprouts tomes about canons and multiculturalism is that James doesn't make you feel guilty, he makes you feel hungry." - Allen Barra, Salon

  • "As expected, James displays his intellectual virtuosity with gusto. But the result is, for the most part, rambling and misconstrued, mainly because he has too much to say and no parameters to measure it against. Often it seems as if he simply cannibalized his data bank of old reviews. He starts with a line of argument but quickly loses track. (....) The misbegotten volume took him 40 years to write. It fails, but not because of lack of courage. (...) In spite of its flashes of insight, as a whole, it's a waste." - Ilan Stavans, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Although a long book, Cultural Amnesia is not substantial. Donít expect it to be instructive. (...) James sits on the judgeís bench assessing each author for their views. This is no mere collection of bits; it is a book with a theme, namely how the Kingdom of Letters did or did not stand up to the murderous philistinism of the dictators, especially Hitler and Stalin." - A.N.Wilson, Sunday Times

  • "I like James's evident curiosity and his cheerleading for language-learning, and how, like few people now, he leads us to some unexpected places through his readerly energy. But I wish I understood why, at the end of 876 pages of argument, what I had mostly found out was what I already knew. And most of that was about Clive James in any case." - Philip Hensher, The Telegraph

  • "At times the reader is hard-pressed to keep up with him. (...) At first glance it is hard to know for whom this book was written, as scholars will most likely find its courses too brief and too allusive, while laymen may well experience a certain bewilderment in the face of so much information. (...) James's literary and musical sensibilities may be problematically conservative, but it must be said that he is never dull in his condemnation of the things he dislikes." - Adam Bresnick, Times Literary Supplement

  • "James's rescue effort on behalf of a civilization that has already collapsed is, to paraphrase the artist Jenny Holzer, beautiful but stupid. James's potted lives are sincere attempts to convey ideas that shaped this civilization, but perhaps the snap, crackle, and pop approach instilled by a career in television accounts for his habit of miniaturizing figures he disagrees with and hyperinflating his personal heroes. James can expound his subjects' accomplishments without oversimplification; what he can't do, apparently, is interrogate his own broad assumptions and prejudices. (...) Despite its highbrow-for-middlebrows exposition of other people's work and personalities, abrupt flights of shabby moralizing over trivia, and conspicuous impertinences, Cultural Amnesia is, for much of its 800-some pages, "a good read," and it may actually gain something from its author having his head in the clouds and his feet in the toilet." - Gary Indiana, The Village Voice

  • "The warts are few; the all is absorbing." - John Simon, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Cultural Amnesia looks, at first glance, to be a collection of brief portraits (mainly of authors and 'intellectuals') arranged in alphabetical order. It turns out not to be quite that: many of the pieces are brief summings-up of these people's lives, but James presents each first with a brief biographical sketch, then a quote attributed to the person in question -- and then a longer bit that generally takes the quote as its starting point. (In a few cases James works with several quotes.) So while the focus is on some aspect of the person's life and work in a majority of the cases, James occasionally leaves them far behind and offers something completely different: the Thomas Browne leads to a discussion of arriving at book titles, Terry Gilliam leads to torture, and Heinrich Heine to fan letters. In fact, these are often the most fun, because of the connexions he makes -- though he makes connexions everywhere else as well.
       It's not quite a 20th century book, though the focus is clearly on that century -- specifically its art and inhumanity. Most of the figures are from the 20th century, with a stray ancient (Tacitus) and a few figures from more recent times (from Montesqieu to Hegel to Chamfort). There are clusters of interest, specifically from Vienna's coffee-house culture (Altenberg, Friedell, Polgar) as well as the larger circle of Viennese intellectuals from the first half of the 20th century (Freud, Kraus, Schnitzler, Wittgenstein, Zweig, etc.) and a variety of French intellectuals. Latin America figures prominently -- Borges, Paz, Sabato, Vargas Llosa -- as does the Soviet-dominated East. Conspicuously absent: Scandinavia, Africa (Camus is about as far he ventures), and most of Asia (Mao, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, and Isoroku Yamamoto are pretty much the extent of it). (There are also more philologists and jazz musicians than one might expect.)
       James does often mention reading (or trying to) many of the authors in the original, suggesting which are best-suited to picking up a language, and one of the many secondary purposes of the book is to serve as a sort of reader's guide to much overlooked (and occasionally untranslated) literature and intellectual history. James certainly endorses some very worthwhile books (and does so with quite convincing enthusiasm).
       A major theme of the book is: doing the right thing, and James is pretty hard on several authors who he feels didn't. Borges' silence in totalitarian Argentina troubles him, while he seems to have little more than contempt for Saramago. His frustration is perhaps best summed-up in his attempts to explain his issues with Brecht (who doesn't rate an entry of his own). After stating that "Brecht's fame as a creep will prevail, as it ought to" he adds:

Brecht's fame as a poet will depend on a wide appreciation of what he could do with language, and there lies the drawback: because the more you appreciate what he could do with language, the more you realize how clearly he could see, and so the more you are faced with how he left things out. You are faced, that is, with what he did not do with language.
       Speaking (and standing) up -- and for the right thing -- is what counts for James. Nothing is more honourable, nothing 'better' (in the absolute sense of the world) than selfless commitment to the ideals of the world as it should be. So he not only pays tribute to Sophie Scholl but dedicates the book to her memory (along with three others) -- and it's one of the few portraits where he really gets carried away, for example quoting without questioning that: "The chief executioner later testified that he had never seen anyone dies so bravely as Sophie Scholl". But even this sort of ideal-worship comes with its cleverly presented twist, as James (convincingly) makes the case for why Natalie Portman should play Scholl in a film version.
       James offers an interesting mix of good and bad guys, and it makes for a good overview of all that went wrong in the 20th century, especially from the intellectual angle. Part of his warning is obvious: humanism didn't save us, ideals are easily twisted (especially by those who are smart and/or have a way with words). As he notes: Mao "started off as a benevolent intellectual: a fact which should concern us if we pretend to be one of those ourselves." But worthy figures, the ones who saw the horror and warned of it, dominate, James trying to show example after example of what people were capable of (though admitting also often that it defeated them).
       Still, there's a lot else mixed in the book. The fascination with language (such as the precision of Kraus' and Wittgenstein's), the looks at film (from Chaplin to Michael Mann to Chris Marker), TV (Dick Cavett), and music (mainly jazz): a great deal seems to pull from its centre. There are some great quotes and quite a few good anecdotes, but it's no surprise that James seems to revel particularly in writers who didn't necessarily collect their thoughts in the neatest way. From Lichtenberg's Sudelbücher to Valéry's notebook (with so many volumes to it that James notes that: "Even in French it has been published only in facsimile") and the coffee-house-writers of Vienna, he seems drawn to the attempts that gather in as much as possible, if not always as neatly as possible. (Though he has a thing for the monumental histories too -- Friedell's is a particular favourite.)
       It is an interesting and appealingly mixed assemblage (it's hard not to approve when he even throws Dubravka Ugresic into the mix), and there are good points made by these examples. Ironically, Cultural Amnesia probably makes a better impression if the gallery of characters isn't that familiar, if the people he introduces are new (as way well be the case for many readers) -- i.e. part of that 'cultural amnesia' he's concerned with. For those for whom the majority or all are more or less familiar it's harder to see quite as much to it, and while the individual pieces are almost all worthwhile the sum doesn't add up quite as convincingly. It's frustrating, because there are threads running through all of this, several at a time -- but it's not tied together well enough to truly make for an argument (or several).
       The pieces outweigh the whole, but that's also enough for considerable reading pleasure and thought-provoking. Still, an odd book, overall.

       Note that Cultural Amnesia gets off to an odd start: in the last paragraph of 'A Note on the Text' James thanks Tom Mayer of Norton for ensuring that: "the process of correcting the corrections did not finish off the author along with the book". The same paragraph about "correcting the details" is printed two pages later, at the end of the 'Acknowledgements.' That would feel like merely an amusing copy-editing oversight were it not for the lack of corrections elsewhere in the text, specifically in the use of German words.
       A few missing Umlauts might pass (though there are many, many), but at a certain point one has to wonder why Norton didn't hire the services of a German-speaker to go through the few dozen pages where James uses German terminology or mentions titles. And some of these even a literate English speaker should have caught -- like the claim that: "In the original German, The Tin Drum is Der Blechtrommel" (81), when, of course, it is Die Blechtrommel.
       Among the other slips: "The Germans have a word for it: Todgeschweigen" (330) -- no, they don't: the word they have (in this form) is totgeschwiegen. And Rilke's poem is Das Karussell, not Das Karrussel (617). Indeed, the title-slips are most baffling, since that's the sort of stuff that's easily checked even by non-German speakers: it's Jünger's Das abenteuerliche Herz, not Das abenteuerliches Herz (338), for example.
       In a somewhat similar vein, antipodean James was perhaps getting his seasons mixed up when he stated that in Vienna: "in spring you can drink Heurige Wein in the gardens" (5). While you can find open 'Heuriger' to go to and drink wine at, the namesake wine is, of course, that year's wine (that's what 'heurig' means) and that is only ausgesteckt start late summer and fall.

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Cultural Amnesia: Reviews: Clive James: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Clive James lived 1939 to 2019.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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