Deresiewicz on James

William Deresiewicz reviews Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts, in The Nation.

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.