When I was younger and more pretentious, I used to toy with the idea of founding something called the Boethian League. Boethius, the sixth-century Roman philosopher who was put to death by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great after spending his life trying to preserve classical learning, was, to my imagination, the Last Man of Antiquity, and I used to picture him gazing out, as if on the edge of a dark sea, over the abyss of barbarism that followed in his wake. We Boethians would be the Last People of Western Culture, leagued together for the purpose of leaving some record of what that culture had been for the remote posterity that might someday rediscover it, as the Renaissance had rediscovered classical civilization eight centuries after Boethius. Our collective output would be called Letters to the Fourth Millennium.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that a one-man Boethian League was already in operation, and that his name was Clive James. Cultural Amnesia, forty years in the making and the summa of James’s unparalleled career as a cultural critic, may not be a letter to the fourth millennium, but it is explicitly one to the twenty-first century, from and about the twentieth and prompted by the suspicion that a new age of barbarism is indeed descending. At the same time, this vast work is also an epic of the mind that produced it, an implicit record of its author’s remarkable life and an argument for the intertwined values of humanism, liberal democracy, literary clarity and moral courage.
The catalogue has been a convention of Western epic ever since Homer sang of the thousand ships that sailed for Troy, and James ends his introduction with a catalogue of the cities in whose cafes he has sat over the course of his long career as a journalist and television presenter–not to mention novelist, poet, lyricist, essayist, memoirist, travel writer and book and television critic–working his way through tall stacks of books. The list begins with Sydney, his birthplace, wends its way across forty cities on six continents and ends up back in Sydney–a symbolic circumnavigation of the geographic and literary worlds. The books were in French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish and Latin, as well as English, languages that James mostly taught himself, and Cultural Amnesia is a series of meditations on the writers and other figures, more than a hundred of them, who have meant the most to him for reasons good or ill.
The book, then, is itself a kind of catalogue, alphabetically arranged–an abridged encyclopedia of twentieth-century art, thought and politics: Marcel Proust and Jean Prévost, Aleksandr Zinoviev and Alexandra Kollontai, Thomas Mann and Josef Goebbels, G.K. Chesterton and Margaret Thatcher. The list is remarkable for its range: composers like Erik Satie and Duke Ellington, performers like W.C. Fields and Dick Cavett (James disdains the distinction between high and low art), heroic victims like Sophie Scholl and Heda Margolis Kovaly, discoveries like Paul Muratov, whom James calls “the most learned, original and stylistically gifted Russian art historian of his time” but whose work is now almost completely forgotten.
The Muratov essay typifies the book in a number of ways. There is the magisterial judgment I just quoted, which bespeaks not only breathtaking erudition but also supreme self-confidence. Elsewhere we’re told that the Viennese wits Alfred Polgar and Egon Friedell wrote “the most successful full-length cabaret script of the years between the wars,” that Enrique Santos Discépolo was the most gifted and prolific tango lyricist in Buenos Aires and, with a rare qualification, that Abba Eban’s Personal Witness is “perhaps the most remarkably sustained work of intricate diplomatic exposition ever published.” Then there is James’s bibliophilia (or bibliomania). He tells us that he’s assembled his collection of Muratov’s work by ransacking bookstores worldwide, and throughout the book he lingers to describe the color or texture of particularly handsome editions. Rilke’s are apparently especially beautiful, with the result that James’s shelf of the poet’s books (“let alone of books about him”) now measures some five feet and counting. Where does he find the space?