The Omnivore

Clive James champions justice and common sense, with style.

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.

He has a gift for noticing and highlighting the telling phrase. Albert Camus’ observation, in The Rebel, that “tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes” allows James a useful meditation on the role of sheer tedium in the apparatus of totalitarianism. Indeed, several of the miniature portraits here are occasions for tangential reflections. Heinrich Heine provides an excuse for discussing the terrifying rise of celebrity culture. William Hazlitt spurs an excellent piece on the importance (and rarity) of generosity among literary rivals—where a paragraph on Auden and Yeats wouldn’t have come amiss. Reflections on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg detour into some notes on the disappointments of modern pornography. A treatment of Evelyn Waugh becomes a learned disquisition on the use of the dangling modifier by, among others, Anthony Powell.

There are also occasional repetitions: James (whose Australian father was a casualty of the Pacific War) thrice attacks Gore Vidal for his belief that Franklin Roosevelt deliberately provoked Pearl Harbor, but in the process makes a useful point by describing Japan’s modern right wing as “recidivist”—a far better term than the more common “revisionist.” There are some oddities: Beatrix Potter is upbraided for concealing the awful truth about bacon in The Tale of Pigling Bland, whereas any schoolboy knows that she could be positively ghoulish about human and other carnivorousness—see especially The Tale of Mr. Tod, but also Peter Rabbit. Of H. L. Mencken it is said, very acutely, that “a guardian angel riding in his forehead made sure that the stuff from his brain’s bilges didn’t get through from his secret diaries to the public page.” (The word usually might have been forgivable here.)

In attempting to do this anthology justice, I am running the risk of making it sound more eclectic than it really is. If James could have been born in another time and place, he would have chosen Mitteleuropa in the first third of the 20th century—that drowned world and lost Bohemia of Jewish savants and painters and café-philosophers. It is men like Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus whom he envies, while of course never ceasing to wonder (as we all must) how he himself would have shaped up when the Nazis came. Another of his gold standards is the Russian and French literary opposition, leavened with a good sprinkling of those—like Robert Brasillach—whose talents led them to identify with the overdogs.

A unifying principle of the collection is its feminism. James believes that this is a good cause in its own right, and also a useful negation of the ideological mind-set, since “feminism is a claim for impartial justice, and all ideologies deny that such a term has meaning.” He celebrates and mourns Anna Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam—I wish he had included Rosa Luxemburg—and highlights less-well-known heroines such as Heda Kovaly, Ricarda Huch, and Sophie Scholl, flawless ornament of the White Rose resistance circle in Hitler’s Germany. The book is dedicated to Scholl’s memory, and to the living examples of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Ingrid Betancourt. Men who maltreated or exploited women, or who took them for granted, are invariably awarded a chivalrous drubbing—Rainer Maria Rilke being given a deservedly hard time in this respect. And James clearly wants us to understand that his historical examples are meant to be contemporary and relevant, in that today’s Islamist totalitarianism has given us all the warning—precisely by its contempt for women—that we could possibly need.

One of James’s charms as a critic is that he genuinely seems to enjoy praising people. (An early collection of his poems was actually titled Fan Mail.) But in order to appear ungrudging, he is sometimes hyperbolic, and therefore unconvincing: Is it really apt to write of Camus that “the Gods poured success on him but it could only darken his trench coat: it never soaked him to the skin”? Or of Flaubert that “he searched the far past, and lo! He found a new dawn”?

Yet much may be forgiven a man who can begin a paragraph by saying, “It will be argued that Heinrich Heine was not Greta Garbo,” or who can admit that for years he has been authoritatively mispronouncing the name Degas and the word empyrean. If you open Cultural Amnesia in the hope of getting a bluffer’s guide to the intellectuals, you will be disappointed; but if you read it as an account of how an educator has himself been self-educated, you will be rewarded well enough.

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