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?

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.