In Defense of Clive James

Not that Clive James needs my help, but I was almost all the way through his new book Cultural Amnesia when I read a review of the same by Gary Indiana in the Village Voice. Teachers of argumentative writing may wish to use the article for its myriad examples of sloppy reasoning and technique, but I might not even have given the situation a second thought (since the Village Voice is no longer a particularly serious newspaper) were it not for the fact that Indiana attempts what he thinks is a devastating indictment of the book on factual grounds, only to come off sounding like he never actually read the thing. I doubt that the Village Voice pays particularly well for a book review (although they probably pay the extensively published Indiana better than some), so I understand that there is incentive to dash these things off as quickly as possible, with a resulting risk of making some oversight or misreading something. But to see Indiana use his misread as an attempted coup-de-grace on a book I quite enjoyed… Well, let’s just say it irks me.

After a list of what he considers to be the book’s conceptual and ideological flaws (among these its appreciation of liberal democracy), Indiana draws his sword, hikes up his tights, and dances in close with the following:

“…if part of James’s project is to “destroy” people he considers malignant or less wonderful than other people think, as the jacket of this book asseverates, he should, at least, hire a fact-checker. It really is inexcusable to reproach the writer Karl Kraus for failing to raise his voice against Hitler’s onrushing Anschluss with Austria, if only because this event occurred in 1938. Kraus died in 1936.”

In case you’re wondering, “asseverates” means “says”; and what an interesting and perhaps telling critical practice, by the way, to rely so heavily on “the jacket of [a] book” rather than the book itself, but I digress.

I wonder where Indiana learned that Karl Kraus never lived to see the Anschluss? Perhaps it was in the first sentence of James’s chapter on the man, and, try as I might, I can’t seem to find the part where James “reproach[es]” him “for failing to raise his voice against Hitler’s onrushing Anschluss with Austria.” Maybe Indiana has a different edition from mine, or maybe he — or the Voice — should try to find out more about this whole “fact-checker” concept.

Indiana’s other complaints include being bothered by the fact that James is “slobbering over… names,” which seems to be a way of accusing him of some sort of hero worship, but then Indiana turns right around and sniffs at James’s excoriations of Sartre, who Indiana seems to feel should be off limits because he was “one of 20th-century France’s indispensable minds.” (James’s criticism of Sartre revolves around the small matter of this “indispensable mind” continuing to make excuses for the USSR long after that country’s crimes were well-known, a not insignificant misstep for a philosopher concerned with free will and morality.)

And let’s take another look at this “slobbering” business. The full quote, which echoes Indiana’s earlier characterization of the book’s “pedagogy” as “the worship of proper names,” is: “Slobbering over images and the names attached to them is one of the things that’s taken us to where we are today,” and “where we are today” is in a “collapsed… dead civilization” that has “regressed to barbarism” and is ruled over by a “totalitarian democracy,” and, by the way, James’s project will never succeed in “put[ing] any glacial shelf back together on [the] North Pole.” (I’m compressing but I really don’t think I’m being unfair. Should I just leave Indiana lying there, panting, or can I just quickly point out that James never takes on the restoration of the ice cap as a goal in this book? And what have Indiana’s books done for the polar bears lately? No, no, that would just be piling on.)

So I’ll leave most of that alone, as I think it speaks for itself, but I must ask: has it really been “slobbering over” names like Anna Akhmatova or Benedetto Croce or Raymond Aron or Tacitus or Montesquieu “that’s taken us to where we are today”? Really? Like, George Bush swept to power on the strength of his classical allusions? Our generals have been paying too much attention to Herodotus and too little to the facts on the ground? The American people can’t stop their obsessive rereading of Solzhenitsyn long enough to notice that we don’t really have a Constitution anymore?

I’d hate to see the ignorant, ahistorical society we’d be living in if we hadn’t been slobbering over such names, then. Oh, wait, I think I can.