Thursday, August 23, 2007

What Else I've Been Reading

Cultural Amnesia, Clive James
One wouldn't think this kind of a book—a sort of compendium of profiles of forgotten cultural figures and whimsically tangential feuilletons supposedly related to those misplaced persons—would induce anger. It is actually just the sort of project I really appreciate—a recovery of the brilliance that has been unaccountably covered over by the caprices of intellectual and artistic history. I'm often afraid that, as an academic, I will turn into the kind of person who seeks to do only this kind of work—I'm already somewhere down this path after a thesis on Saul Bellow, who is quite academically dead at the moment.

But James's book infuriated me, for, despite its ostensibly inclusivist ethos and purpose, it is disgustingly polemical and partisan. Reaching across centuries, but oppressively focused on the mid-twentieth century, James's unswerving support for anyone who ever turned from the hard left to the soft right (Aron, Vargas Llosa, et al.), or who ever said anything bad about Communism, is unmannered and vindictive.

I am not in the least interested in excusing figures like Sartre from their idiotic support of Stalin, but I am interested, a great deal more than James, in the large amount of salvageable material that can be taken from the Marxist left, and from Marx himself, whom James never even pretends to think about despite his obsession with shaming anyone who ever saw something in Marxism without eventually recanting demonstratively.

James also cries acid tears over the losses Europe suffered under Hitler's reich, but when looking at what James is actually wailing for, one might be a little shocked. It's not so much the lives lost as the wit that was concentrated in pre-war Vienna. James is fixated on witty conversationalists (Altenberg, Polgar) especially if they wrote little down. Being most piqued by the loss of the Viennese cafe banter is rather like pointing dolefully at a split lip on a man with his throat slashed.

I know a great many people respect Clive James, and many would find my criticism of his opus terrifyingly off-base. For proof, however, I offer one profile and its attendant essay—Walter Benjamin's. James writes spitefully and maliciously about Benjamin, essentially blaming him for a deterioration of academic intellectualism and a concomitant depreciation of art and artists.

Compared to James's glowing portrait of Wittgenstein, whose ideas have done more than their share of supporting academic excuses for writing obscurely (it's all "language games," they say), Benjamin's profile makes it clear what James is really writing for: to spread his animus for one target over a number of its representative heroes and crown the thorns that target has unsuccessfully attempted to pick from its side. The target, Cultural Amnesiac Enemy #1, is the academic left as it sits entrenched in formal education.

James's project explicitly elevates autodidacticism at every turn while surreptitiously denigrating formal education whenever it can. He pretends to have kind words to say about Edward Said, but it is really a token gesture at trying to damn with faint praise.

The irony of this all is that Benjamin, a focal point for James's ire, was quite depressingly kept out of the university system by no one less than Adorno, who rejected his Habilitationsschrift on grounds of incomprehensibility, pretty much killing any academic hopes he had. One would think that James might capitalize on such an anecdote, feasting on such low-hanging fruit, but he completely leaves out this explanation of Benjamin's frustrated career, breezily accrediting his dashed aspirations to the quota system of the day (which likely did play a role). Could it be that James is simply unfamiliar with The Origins of German Tragic Drama? Could it be that James is guilty of the same ignorant use of Benjamin for quasi-political purposes of which he accuses the academic left? If pursued, I would imagine James saying something along the lines of "I've read enough to know there's nothing in it," an excuse which is one thing for a hedgehog-type of writer, burrowing only ever deeper into a single idea (like, say, Ayn Rand), but even James cannot pretend that Benjamin is such a limited thinker.

James nearly admits in the coda to being, at times, minorly fraudulent in his claims to and almighty, omnivorous capaciousness, allowing that sometimes he will wonder if, when accosted by an annoying cocktailer brandishing the name of an unknown work or author, he shouldn't pretend to have read it to curtail the man's lusty exposition of said book/author. The digressive style of the book and its busy breadth are ways to curtail any critical analysis of the vast deficiencies of the book—deficiencies which, appropriate to the book's purpose, are not about forgetting of any involuntary (amnesiac/aphasiac) nature, but of a very intentional nature—repression. Repression of the full spectrum of horrors in the past century, generated not merely by totalitarian regimes; repression of the knowledge of great leftists who stayed leftists and have been forgotten or reduced in memory (Ralph Fox, who I will hopefully be reading soon, being one); repression of the necessity of something more than wit with which to face the evil of the world. James's beloved pre-Anschlüss Wien was full of men whose ephemeral heritage rested only in the memories of those who remembered their quips and barbs. While I understand James's desire to revive those memories, his overweening preference for the journalistic over the discursive, the aphorism over the argument, the self-instructed over the formally learned—all this seems unnecessarily Manichean. James forces a partisanship upon a cornucopia of learning and knowledge, of literature and letters, and it is a pity. James recalls in his profile of Tacitus the famous sentence "They make a desert and call it peace." James makes a battlefield and calls it memory.

Much later edit [12/29]: Cf. this post on The Millions.

The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, James Wood
This volume of essays contains the rightly famous denunciation of what Wood dubbed "hysterical realism." I would like to say a great deal about it, but my thoughts on Wood's peculiarities and passions need a bit of time to form more concretely. I often agree with Wood, which makes it more difficult for me to articulate to myself why I don't on the occasions I find his opinions unfair or over-zealous, and which makes it difficult for me to critique his overall vision. I'm going to read his other volume of essays, that one on belief, and hope I'll be able to say one or two interesting things.

The Complete Works of Isaac Babel
Clearly, I didn't read the complete complete works, but what I did read was incredible, so much so that I returned the book to the library to save some for later. Also, I'd like to look for a less unwieldy edition; I don't need his never-filmed screenplays.

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Grace Paley
I had been meaning to read Paley for awhile, but her recent death finally brought me to pick her book up from the library. There are writers of whom I cannot really do much more than point and say, this is an astonishing writer. I will not do either her or myself the discredit of saying that her writing is beyond words; it is quite within them, and lives above all through them. Her narrators exist in varying degrees of literacy or fluency, but always in the upper register of expressiveness. Nabokov, in a lecture on Austen, described a certain feeling of such full expressive power that it bent at the end to a right angle, like a knight's move in chess, moving with such force that it ends up in a different place from a simple linear trajectory. Paley has that power; her sentences take you always to a place beside where you might think yourself to be.

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