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Cafe Society

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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.

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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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?

Never mind the space--where does he find the time? Not by cutting corners: "At one stage I read all the way through [Sainte-Beuve's] collected Causeries de lundi columns in a bunch of disintegrating paperbacks I bought from a bouquiniste on the Left Bank.... (It was one of the ways I learned French)." Either by reading fast or not sleeping: On the same weekend he read Karl Tschuppik's book on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a Bohemian state library, "I worked through the two imposing volumes of Metternich's Denkwürdigkeiten." James pays his audience the high compliment of assuming it shares his energy and appetite. His imagined reader is a young intellectual making his or her start in culture the way the author himself did half a century ago, and James offers a steady stream of advice on how to go about the business of self-education: must-reads and how-tos, anecdotes and exemplars. One of his highest terms of praise is "he figured it out for himself."

But James's vision of the life of the mind only begins with the individual. His introduction explains how he used to struggle with the seeming paradox that culture doesn't necessarily lead to humanism--witness Leni Riefenstahl or Louis-Ferdinand Céline, both of whom made common cause with totalitarian regimes. Then it dawned on him: "Humanism wasn't in the separate activities" that comprise culture, "humanism was the connection between them," "all the aspects of life illuminating one another, in a honeycomb of understanding." Humanism is the embrace of human creativity in all its variety. From this principle follows a complete aesthetics, politics and sociology of humanistic endeavor, though James would reject such lifeless and systematizing terms for the philosophy he elaborates, unsystematically and in full-blooded contact with the particulars of dozens of actual lives, across the length of the book.

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