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Cafe Society | The Nation

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Cafe Society

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The sociology comes first. Before he launches his symphony of voices with Anna Akhmatova, James gives us an "overture" on the cafe culture of prewar Vienna. It is the place where his imagination seems most at home, precisely because it was a time when the life of the mind was lived collectively and interconnectedly, by an astonishing array of wits and polymaths and artists and journalists (like Friedell and Polgar and Peter Altenberg and Stefan Zweig, who fittingly bookends the alphabetical procession). The cafes were their clubhouse, their debating society, their stage, sometimes even their mailing address. They were there, for the most part, because they were Jews, and as Jews they were excluded from the universities. The situation was humiliating for many, but the result, James says, was that "whole generations of Jewish literati were denied the opportunity of wasting their energies compiling abstruse doctoral theses."

About the Author

William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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By a lucky chance, I started reading Cultural Amnesia on my way down to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, the professional organization of literary academics. Nothing in a long time has focused my discontent with academic life more pointedly than James's assertion that "Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus." In James's cosmology, the university is the infernal (and infertile) counterpart to the paradise of the cafe. Humanism means interconnection, and the cafe gives that interconnection social form. Academia necessitates specialization and incessantly discourages intellectual breadth (now more than ever, no matter how much lip service is paid to "interdisciplinarity"). The academic conference, where small groups of identically specialized professionals meet to debate narrow questions of interpretation and doctrine, is the cafe's demonic double.

But James's evocation of Viennese cafe society is elegiac, and not just because that society was destroyed by Hitler. James, too, has been a denizen of cafes, but he has haunted them alone. Friedell and Polgar and Altenberg were sitting on the table, not around it. Though James's life has been richly social, as he hints from time to time, still, "most of [my] listening was done by reading." For a host of reasons--the expansion of universities, of suburbs and of telecommunications, to name three--the kind of face-to-face intellectual-artistic life that Vienna exemplified, and that flourished in other twentieth-century cities, simply no longer exists. James's answer to this bereavement is the book itself. Here is the cafe he has created in his mind, a convocation of voices that respond to one another across the barriers of language, outlook, expressive form and, most of all, time.

If, for James, the cafe is humanism's ideal social context, its necessary political one is liberal democracy. The civilized life that humanism seeks to embrace in its totality is by its nature "provokingly multifarious" and "bewilderingly complex." Its preconditions, James believes, are pluralism, tolerance and freedom, the values that liberal democracy enshrines. All else, he implies, is totalitarianism, whether of the right or the left. For James, totalitarianism's essential intellectual structure is ideology (which, when it travels in the academy, goes by the name of "theory"): the belief that you possess an idea that explains everything. With such a key in hand, you can stop learning, stop doubting yourself, stop listening to other people--all the activities that humanism most requires. If your ideology is salvationist (and which of them isn't?), you will even feel justified in shutting those other people up--if necessary, by killing them.

The twentieth century's two great totalitarian ideologies were Nazism and Communism, and James devotes a large number of his essays to figures involved with one or the other--as perpetrators, apologists, resisters or victims. If James's cultural imagination is rooted in Vienna, his political imagination is rooted in the decades when Hitler and Stalin forced European intellectuals into the direst of moral choices. The cumulative message of these entries is that history has a way of waking up and finding you out. And so the reason to read history, James quotes Zweig as saying, is "to see how other men had acted" when tested by events, and to measure oneself beside them. Faced with Hitler or Stalin, some, like the saintly Sophie Scholl, executed at the age of 21 for refusing to renounce her nonviolent resistance to the Nazi regime, martyred themselves in the cause of righteousness; some, like Nadezhda Mandelstam, survived to bear witness; some, like Ernst Robert Curtius, the great romance philologist, withdrew from public life; and some, like Jean Cocteau, openly collaborated.

And then there was Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre is the book's antihero, who "looms in the corner...like a genius with the evil eye." For James, Sartre's response to both Nazism and Stalinism was just about the worst an intellectual can do. After largely acquiescing in the occupation, Sartre retroactively co-opted the Resistance by placing himself at the head of the "post-Liberation witch-hunt" that "called down vengeance on people whose behavior had not really been all that much more reprehensible than his own." After the war, he became a paragon of the ideologically committed leftist intellectual, James's bête noire, and it is a major project of Cultural Amnesia to impugn the credibility, intellectual as well as moral, of him and everyone like him. James's own political heroes are liberal intellectuals like Sartre's great nemesis, Raymond Aron, who exposed Communism and defended the sanity, strength and value of liberal society.

But Sartre's sins were stylistic as well as political, and they bring us to James's humanist aesthetics and its connection to his humanist politics. For James, Sartre's abstruse, impacted philosophical style was designed to conceal more than just the vacuity of his thought: "If Sartre wanted to avoid examining his own behavior--and clearly he did--he would need to develop a manner of writing philosophy in which he could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing." And it's not just Sartre; it's also Heidegger, Lacan, Derrida and the rest of the Obscurantist International. Clarity is the enemy of self-deception, and of the larger deception known as ideology. Style is not an ornament of thought but its very substance, and thinking is an ethical act. Humanism, which seeks a complex integration of disparate experience, requires the most difficult kind of style: a simple one. "Great writing," James tells us, "is not just writing," because to become great it must respond to, and thus forces us into an awareness of, the whole of reality. The crabbed, pedantic cant typically favored by academics responds to only a tiny crumb of reality; the abstract bombast of ideologues responds to no reality whatsoever.

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