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Cafe Society | The Nation

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Cafe Society

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Great writing requires loftiness of soul. Good writing merely requires a reader who has the option of turning the page. The Viennese writers who were denied the chance to write dissertations for an audience of one "were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation and the necessity to entertain." They wrote essays, reviews, sketches and squibs; they also wrote in longer and more conventionally prestigious forms, but always in styles that had been honed by the whetstone of conversation. Cultural Amnesia is an extended defense of literary journalism as occupying not only an honorable place within the hierarchy of cultural discourse but the supreme one. For journalism demands both simplicity and compression, and compression makes language glow. James's stylistic models are writers like Altenberg, who could "pour a whole view of life, a few cupfuls at a time, into the briefest of paragraphs." His highest hero, "the voice behind the [book's] voices" (and one of several exceptions to his rule of writing only about twentieth-century figures), is Tacitus. It was Tacitus who wrote the sentence out of which the entire volume grew: "They make a desert and they call it peace." James heard the line quoted as a young man and "saw straight away that a written sentence could sound like a spoken one, but have much more in it."

About the Author

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

Also by the Author

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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. He means it literally when he says that the book took forty years to write, because its quotations are the harvest of the notebooks he has kept for all that time, and the notebooks are the harvest of his insatiable reading.

Ever since running into Tacitus, James has been a connoisseur of aphorisms and aphorists--of writing that is both conversational and compressed and of the kinds of minds that produce it. It's no coincidence that he is also a connoisseur of music. "Echoes of a predecessor's rhythm, pace and melody are rarely accidental": That sentence contains four terms that sound like they refer to music, but it's about writing. Rhythm is central to James's understanding of style, and so are "echoes"--that is, memory. He is himself an incandescent and virtually habitual aphorist--I wanted to follow his advice and copy down his best lines into a notebook of my own, but I would have had to transcribe the entire book--and so his love of the beautifully turned phrase goes far deeper than mere appreciation. "Few writers have ever had a more identifiable tone of voice than Egon Friedell," he writes, "but the tone was a synthesis of all the voices he had ever heard, and so is ours." The most individual style in the world is the product of a collective effort. In gathering the voices that inhabit his own, the echoes he hears in his head, James has indeed produced an epic on the growth of his mind, a song of himself.

Still, for all his talent for aphoristic utterance and sensitivity to other people's, James has some curious ideas about style. For one thing, he thinks the closer good writers get to the truth, the more they tend to sound the same, as if wit operated by a single set of principles that all its practitioners follow. For another, he believes there is a single ideal English prose style, and that it was achieved by one or two writers in the years between the wars. The two positions are clearly related. If you think there's a single template for good writing, you will necessarily think that some writers come closer to approximating it than others, and you may also think that a few writers actually achieve it. For James, the writer who achieves it, at least in English, is Evelyn Waugh: "Nobody ever wrote a more unaffectedly elegant English; he stands at the height of English prose; its hundreds of years of steady development culminate in him." Despite the characteristic absoluteness of the judgment, however, top honors are apparently shared by another writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, practitioner of what James calls "the ideal natural, neutral style."

There are several problems here. For one thing, languages don't develop, much less steadily; they only change. Sir Thomas Browne wrote one kind of English prose in the seventeenth century, Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth, John Ruskin in the nineteenth, Joan Didion in the twentieth. Each may represent a kind of local summit, but none is higher than another, only more or less pleasing to particular ears, which are always formed by the language of their time. It is probably no accident that Waugh and Fitzgerald flourished in the years just before James was born. For another thing, a neutral style isn't necessarily better than a highly accented one. I love Waugh's elegance, and I also love the virtuosic kvetching of Portnoy's Complaint, and I don't see why I should have to choose between them. Art isn't American Idol; there doesn't have to be a winner. For a third, there is no such thing as a neutral style, only ones that try to sound that way. Style is the thumbprint of personality, and Waugh and Fitzgerald were two writers whose personalities were shaped by an outsider's need to blend into--to appear neutral to--an intensely suspicious aristocracy. And the ideals of aristocratic behavior, of course, are naturalness and elegance. Finally, James himself doesn't believe any of this stuff about neutral styles half the time. As he says about Friedell and implies again and again in the book's many subtle stylistic appreciations, every good voice is an idiosyncratic one. There's no mistaking Wilde for Shaw, or Pascal for Rochefoucauld, or Martin Amis for Clive James.

There are also problems with James's political ideas. After a lifetime of fighting doctrinaire leftists, he's become a bit doctrinaire himself in his dismissal of everything that smacks of progressive thinking. There's little sense in the book that liberal democracies ever do anything wrong. He makes excuses for the Red Scare, soft-pedals colonialism and makes no distinction between political and economic freedom. He does say that the two components of "liberal democracy" must remain in balance, but he ignores the fact that capitalism, and capitalist governments, have often been inimical to both freedom and democracy, especially in the developing world. As for that world, James remarks that "most of the poverty on Earth is caused by the number of people being born who would ordinarily never have been conceived." Even if we amend "been conceived" to "survived," the statement is incredibly simplistic and ill-informed (not to mention creepily Malthusian). However wide James's erudition, it apparently doesn't extend to economics.

But there's a larger issue. For all his acuity about the moral dilemmas posed by totalitarian societies to intellectuals and others, James seems uninterested in the possibility that liberal democracies can pose such dilemmas, too, even if far less tragically or urgently. To say that we're better than Stalinist Russia sets a pretty low bar, and hardly settles the matter. Granted that Cultural Amnesia is intended to convey the experience of earlier generations to the latest one, I see no point in reminding us that history has a tendency to find you out without also pointing out, at least in passing, how it's doing so right now. Totalitarianism may be essentially finished, as James says, but history isn't, and one would think that he, of all people, knows that. Instead, astoundingly, he concludes the book by declaring precisely the reverse: "The young might do well to tie a handkerchief over the rear-view mirror and just get on with it. The world is turning into one big liberal democracy anyway." This is a statement in which Francis Fukuyama and Dr. Pangloss hold hands and jump off a cliff. It also sounds exactly like the kind of thing people were saying just before the start of that era of peace and justice known as the twentieth century.

These last-minute reversals are rather stunning, but they do little to diminish this overwhelmingly valuable book and indeed may be inseparable from the source of its many strengths. Does he contradict himself? Very well then, he contradicts himself. He is large, he contains multitudes.

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