By Clive JamesNorton
I opened this book, which despite its subtitle is a series of mini-profiles promising a rich and varied salad of brief lives and long reputations, only to nearly slam it shut again when I read Clive James thanking an editor for rescuing him from a confusion between Louis Malle and Miloš Forman—“a conspicuous instance of the embarrassing phenomenon known to clinical psychologists as the Malle-Forman malformation.” How could anyone, embarking on such a project, be so arch and so ingratiating?
Yet perhaps the joke, such as it is, was on me. Clive James knows very well that there is huge confusion and insecurity as to which Mann was which, and as to the differences between, say, the Frankfurt School and the Vienna Circle, and part of his objective is to show— disarmingly, in the result—how long he himself took to acquire any confidence in these matters. A certain amount of evolution is required to produce the omnivore. I once heard Susan Sontag, in conversation with Umberto Eco, define the polymath as one “who is interested in everything, and in nothing else.” A trifle annoying and complacent as that was, it nonetheless raised the question of how a polymath—or omnivore—should learn to discriminate.
Although in choice of subjects James oscillates as far in one direction as Coco Chanel and as far in the other as Czesław Miłosz, he doesn’t waste very much time in giving us his principle of selection. It is of the sort that might have been employed by Isaiah Berlin, or the editors of the old Partisan Review. To qualify for his admiration, you must have witnessed for liberal principles in a time of trial. To earn his disapprobation, you need to have said something so wickedly stupid that (to paraphrase Orwell) only an intellectual would be daft enough to fall for it. Most of the candidates are therefore drawn from the gaunt gallery of the 20th century, with a strong emphasis on its hellish midpoint: the locust years in which the “European tidal waves,” as James phrases it in writing about Manès Sperber, “collided.” Even those few who evade this verdict by the grace of early birth, like Hegel and Proust, are reviewed in its retrospective light. If a single motto could distill the whole, it might be the one furnished by the Italian prosecutor Virginio Rognoni, who took on the Red Brigades in the 1980s without resorting overmuch to police-state tactics and said: “In whichever way a democratic system might be sick, terrorism does not heal it; it kills it. Democracy is healed with democracy.”
Such a platitude excites few intellectuals. In fact it bores and disgusts so many of them that they prefer to deal in high-sounding justifications for violence. Thus another way of summarizing James’s ambition might be to say that he tries to glamorize the uninspiring—tries to show how tough and shapely were the commonsense formulations of Raymond Aron, for example, when set against the seductive, panoptic bloviations of Jean-Paul Sartre. This might appear to be too easy a task—how much nerve does it really take to defend the vital center?—but James succeeds in it by trying to comb out all centrist clichés, and by caring almost as much about language as it is possible to do.
Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote an essay called “How to Write About Lenin—and How Not To,” in which he said that the one unpardonable historical sin was that of being patronizing. If you could not or would not care to imagine what conditions were like in 1905 or 1917, then it might be best if you kept your virginal judgments to yourself.
On the whole, James passes this test. He can see why, as a German nationalist, Ernest Jünger might have been soft on Hitler, which means that he can see where Jünger went wrong. He grants that Fidel Castro possessed charisma and then wasted it. Instead of simply saying that Leszek Kołakowski got most things right about Poland and about Communism, he says the following about his Main Currents of Marxism:
[The book extends] from Marx’s own lifetime to those crucial years after Stalin’s death when the dream, somehow deprived of energy by the subtraction of its nightmare element, was already showing signs of coming to an end, in Europe at least.
This sentence does a lot of work, especially in its second clause, while that coda about Europe (somewhat inelegantly tacked on, perhaps) shows that James revisited the aperçu and thought about it in the light of Chile and South Africa.