Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: Cultural Amnesia

I’ve recently been reading a book called Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of my Time. The author is a well-known cultural commentator who, though you might already know him, I won’t name until I’m done.

The book consists of the author (C) recalling a lifetime of reading and, to a lesser extent, watching and listening: each chapter approaches a different cultural figure by starting with a quotation from one of his or her works and expanding out from there. Its stated theme is the defence of humanism: that is, as I understand it, the belief that the free life of the mind is best lived through the appreciation of culture, and that by doing this we learn what is finest in human thought and achievement and also, therefore, that human civilization is itself a fine thing that deserves protection from what threatens it.

For C the biggest threat to civilization was the totalitarian madness of the twentieth century. He writes extensively and knowledgeably on pre-war German and Austria cultural life, and the sadness of it all – the event that made so shiningly clear the value and dearness of humanism was the same event that largely destroyed it in continental Europe, and murdered its advocates.

Building up his argument slowly and discreetly across the many portrait pieces, it is clear too that C attributes the degeneracy of much modern continental philosophy and criticism to humanism’s demise (also literal), in which a generation of writers and thinkers were murdered in the death camps, and also to the bad faith, dishonesty, and self-unease of many of those who survived. How could anyone in good conscience defend humanism when they had shamefully collaborated with its Nazi exterminators – even Sartre, the villain of this piece, had the decency to turn his face away from what he betrayed, and seek sanctuary in deceitful obscurantism.

All of this I agree with.

So, my purely hypothetical reader might ask, why write about it merely to say that you like it and think it’s good? This is an apt question – be patient, however, I’m just getting the good points out of the way before I give it a good going over.

A good going over

First of all, it is clear that style is very important to C: one of the major themes of the book is its narrative of how C learned to become a writer by imitating great authors. I don’t think C is particularly strong in analysing the technicalities of style, but there’s no doubting that much of the book is very well written.

A problem is that C’s style doesn’t leave much room for such trivialities as proof or argument. The grand gesture is everything:

‘In the long run, of course, there was a cosmic joke: he [F Scott Fitzgerald] was a wise man. Great failure had made him so. It takes a great artist to have a great failure’ 

Is this definitely true? William McGonagall had great failures did he not? A bit of reasoning wouldn't go amiss here.

‘Hemingway took on board every technique that Tolstoy ever devised.’ 

Did he? Every one ever?

‘Though the religious might hate to hear it said, the West graduated from its nightmare only because religion ceased to matter in any way except privately.’ 

A claim that bold will take more than assertion to make it so.

‘an idea built into the English language over centuries of comic richness is that learning and knowledge must be kept in balance.’

This is a classic vague comment on language. How 'built into it'? Is it the case then that a careful study of, say, Turkish syntax would yield an outline of the idea 'a successful modern Islamic state attempts to reconcile the religious and the secular'? No, of course not, and that isn't what C means. It's what his words entail, but all he’s after is a styled semblance of knowledgeable authority, rather than reasoned argument – therefore a vague gesture to the inner technicalities of the 'English language', and his mysterious familiarity with them, suffices.

And again:

‘As a writer, in short, Sartre was unable to escape history, because his use of language could not keep it out.’

Maybe if C would explain what he meant by this, his sentence might mean something. Explanation, however, would cramp his style, and so he doesn’t bother.


Granted I'm not so keen on this rather headlong style - I find it slapdash and too many arguments are left unreasoned - but C's tastes and ambitions are quite openly towards the aphoristic, and the book's stated method of taking single quotations from writers and breaking out in new directions naturally orients it towards the sententious. It also makes for an amusing read (though if I'm honest, perhaps not as amusing as one would hope from this writer).

Under scrutiny are the quotations of Louis Armstrong, Albert Camus, Alfred Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Edward Gibbon, Edward Said, Tacitus, Margaret Thatcher, Evelyn Waugh. These are admittedly the more well-known subjects - some of the best chapters concern obscure (to me) journalists and critics from early-20th century Germany and Austria, and the book was largely worth reading for C's knowledge of and insight into these writers.

But there are problems in understanding writers, and especially systematic thinkers, via snippets of prose. I'm not really sure how much scope there is for uncovering complexity or sustained argument in ‘quotations’, ‘cracks’, ‘remarks’, and 'phrases'.

‘[Wittgenstein] had things to say that were as good as Hegel’s line about the owl of Minerva. He was the poet without a context, the poet in the waste land.’

This is pretty thin stuff. And what does C mean by ‘line’? It’s an intriguing usage. It could be as in a line of poetry, given that he’s treating philosophers as poets. It certainly means some sort of structurally contained, circumscribed string of words. But whereas poetic metre, musical rhythm, and theatre and film scripts all break up sentences into patterns of lines, philosophy doesn’t. The ‘line’ is not really an organic unit of philosophical discourse –arguments, hypotheses, premises are – and in saying that it is, C betrays the shallowness of his approach.

Throughout, what he takes from writers is their style, the very surface of their writings:

‘writers can read a great deal, among all the best exemplars, and still not take in the power to discriminate on critical points of grammar, derivation, usage, punctuation and consistency of metaphor.’

Fine, but what of truth, logical consistency, precision? Given that an overwhelming theme of his book is the totalitarian assault on truth and reason, why does C overlook the need for writers to argue honestly and clearly and logically? He seems himself to realize that atomizing works into lines might cause us to misunderstand them as a single cohesive whole, saying that ‘ideally, nothing in a written work should show signs of wanting to hive off and start another work’ – he says this, N.B., even though this entire book is based on lines he has hived off to start another work.

What undoes him is his love of, and hankering after, the aphoristic style. Reading and writing in lines, snippets, and remarks distracts him from the altogether more important business of joining remarks together to create higher-level discourses, such as arguments, theories, and narratives.

Look at this as an example of the limitations of the gnomic style:

‘The true political monster insists that, apart from a few hand-picked satraps, there shall be no individuals except himself. Everyone must be reminded, all the time, that solitude is all there is: solitude in the sense of helpless loneliness, awaiting its instructions from the leader’s voice.’

The rejoinder ‘solitude in the sense…’, where C abandons the gnomic style (everyone, all the time, all there is) to clarify what he actually means by ‘solitude’, is rather illustrative. An aphorism isn’t enough, and sometimes we need to qualify or explain ourselves.

That is, we need an argument to be elaborated enough such that we can determine the senses of the words contained in it. If I screamed the word ‘SENSE!’ at you while standing at a bus stop, you would have no clue what I meant, though if I expanded it to ‘HAVE SENSE!’ or ‘SENSE THE WONDER!’ then we’d be getting somewhere. That is, our words need to be minimally qualified or collocated to make sense, which forces on us a certain degree of expatiation  –because words often have many senses and the sense cannot be clear in a stand-alone word.

C needs to define his terms, because that is what one needs to do in making an argument – it is part of the boring and unglamorous process of describing things as one thinks they are, or of arranging one’s thoughts. And C cannot do it in a single aphorism above, because its formal restrictions rule out such self-referential tidying up. Which inevitably leads me to ask if a stylistic form that obstructs the composition of decent arguments is any good – and indeed whether it will help us to describe and debunk the fallacies, lies, and absurdities of the ideologue.

Note too the following aphorism quoted approvingly by C:

‘“A fanatic redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.”’

Very true – but note that the only thing that differentiates it from a proverb is the fact it has a known author (I forget who in this instance). Without authorship, it is a rather trivial truism. C goes on to use this aphorism to show how difficult it supposedly is to distinguish the author of one aphorism from another:

‘It is not so much that the memory plays tricks: rather that, in this area of distilled truth, there is not all that much difference between personalities.’

He is certainly on to something – it is true that quoting authors in piecemeal small chunks makes them difficult to tell apart. The reason, however, is probably not that aphorisms function at the level of searing truth, where vestiges of personality are burnt away. No – far more likely is that personality is evident at, again, a higher level of discourse than ‘points of grammar, derivation, usage, punctuation and consistency of metaphor’. Much more plausible is that writers make their mark through showing their thought patterns and opinions and beliefs and interpretative tendencies – all of which usually require more than a one-liner.

It should be no surprise if at this superficial level writers are alike. Any writer, no matter how distinctive, could be mistaken for any other when at his most trite or undeveloped . It is in discourse, systems of thought, and argument that writers are distinctive. Distinctiveness very often requires complexity, if only for purely combinatorial reasons.


C’s aphorisms – and I suppose aphorisms in general – often impress the reader by using their brook-no-argument brevity to impose a definition or axiom that would otherwise be dubious:

'That’s what history is: the story of everything that needn’t have been like that.'

‘Their minds are alike, and one might as well say their talents are alike: because in art the mind is the talent.’

‘any deeply felt philosophy is an autobiographical novel.’

‘In London, Freud was still Vienna.’

Even if any one of these were true, we would still have to say it was too reductive to be useful.

So why would we still assent to them (as I think we sometimes do)?

Maybe it is force of personality (in the case of this particular author), and also what might be called force of style. The latter we could define as the purposeful use of rhythm and phrasing etc. to disincline the reader from interrogating further what is said.

In the case of these definitions, where we are told with quite grand certainty just what something ‘is’, there is a particular ‘disinclination’ that C is playing on – namely our own uncertainty over the meaning of the verb ‘to be’. While in one of its senses it functions as a kind of equals sign (‘Eric Blair is George Orwell’, ‘the current Mayor of London is Boris Johnson’) it can also mean, in weakened sense:

‘to be identical in function or essence (though not in literal fact) with, to be as good as; to be the embodiment or expression of’
(OED ‘be’ v. 10c)

And also:

‘To be the same in purport as; to signify, amount to, mean’ 
(sense 11)

It’s fairly clear that ‘Freud was Vienna’ fits the second sense, 10c. But I wouldn’t like to split the remaining three between the other two senses. To state my credentials briefly, I carried out part of the research on the OED entry for ‘be’ v., so I know how hard it can be to distinguish between these senses.

I think too that we are all of us fairly reluctant to distinguish between the different senses of such a fundamental, important (and difficult) word – after all, what if we look into the matter and confuse ourselves? the word is too important for us and too prevalent to risk losing our unexamined intuitions of its meaning. Whereas with some words we are customarily used to checking the sense (‘funny haha or funny peculiar?’) we are perhaps less inclined to ask in what sense C means that something ‘is’ something. When was the last time you asked in all seriousness ‘what do you mean by “be”?’

So even though it can always be difficult to distinguish what ‘is’ means from one sentence to the next, it is clear that to me C exploits our equivocation and discomfort to prevent us from asking what he really means – specifically, from asking the very tricky question of the mode in which he is speaking, whether he is speaking with literal truthfulness or in a more complex and qualified way.

He thus evasively declines to commit himself to any one way in which his definition is true. It is not just that his chosen stylistic form precludes the defining of terms – it actively evades it.

So, going by this instance at least, force of style – or ‘the purposeful use of rhythm and phrasing etc. to disincline the reader from interrogating further what is said’ – is really what we should call ‘rhetoric’. The use of stylistic tactics (delaying features, hurrying features, plain shouting, etc.) to close down further interpretation and exploration, and therefore to allow dishonest or at least problematic statements to escape further scrutiny


All of which I find unpleasant enough. Rhetoric is essentially a bullying form of argument which arrogates its justification through forcefulness and wrongfooting. But then we all know that rhetoric isn’t very nice and why it isn’t, and saying so is rather trite.

More important is that it banjaxes, knackers, and torpedoes the entire thrust of the book, which celebrates the humanistic tradition as a strain of pithy, sententious rhetoric.

‘And one of those issues, by implication, is the most troubling that faces the humanist heritage: how are we to pass it on in its full complexity, and what can transmit that except style? [my italics]’

So the argument seems to go like this:
  • The humanist tradition is constituted by style, and style is best exemplified by aphoristic rhetoric
  • Humanism is the tradition that protects against the totalitarian and the ideologue
  • Therefore we can counter totalitarianism by learning and cultivating rhetoric.

In sum, the argument is hopelessly flawed: humanism, C claims, can save civilization from the destructive madness of ideologues, but as he defines humanism as a deep care for the style and form that writers give their language, he ends up committed to the absurd position that we can protect civilization from the political ideologue (the Fascist, the Islamist, the Maoist) by being good at rhetoric.

In fact, this is patently absurd. The totalitarian and the ideologue both rely on rhetoric to pass off their absurdities – what sort of purchase can we get by countering it with rhetoric? If the problem with ideological language is its elision of untruths and also its unwarranted forcefulness, we won’t get anywhere by substituting it with a critique that also elides its reasoning under a similarly forceful, stylized bluster.

Or, put differently, we won’t be making a better kind of argument – C wants to help us escape our past in which uncontrolled brute power made 2 + 2 = 5, but wants to do so largely by presenting us with a prettier alternative in which artifice and aesthetic say-so make 2 + 2 = 5 instead. This is to miss the point somewhat. We hate O’Brien for making 2 + 2 = 5 not because it damages fine language, but because it damages reason and logic and common sense. These are the things humanism needs to salvage.

This has all been said already, and much more cogently, by Orwell in ‘Politics and the English Language’. This is something C knows well, noting precisely that he ‘analysed in detail [how] totalitarian obsession distorts the logical element within language.’
In fact I suspect sometimes that C himself might be aware that his notion of style as rhetoric veers far too close to the ideologues he (rightly) attacks:

‘Vidal was at the height of his written eloquence when he began to advance his thesis that the United States provoked Imperial Japan into a war in the Pacific. The kind of proof he offered was on a par with Hitler’s proof that Poland had provoked Germany into a war in 1939, but the way he offered it was dazzling.’

C here praises Vidal for making the weak argument seem strong – which is the ancient, and still valid, definition of sophistry.

Despite everything to commend in this book – the wit and charm, the erudition, and the human feeling – it fails on its own terms, and is too pushy, unreasoning, and superficial. It is unfortunate then that the author is someone I have admired for some time, namely Clive James. Doubly unfortunate that I’m putting the boot into a dying man. But he won’t read this, and as at the moment I am considering whether I myself want to become a writer, and if so a writer of what, this has been an important exercise in identifying to myself a mode of writing I very much do not wish to adopt.

The book is the story of James’s times and a lifetime of reading, but perhaps James’s lifetime of writing is significant too. His times and the way he has passed them have made him ill-equipped for the ambitious task he sets himself here – it is the sad sight of a fine mind worn thin and superficial by too many years as a journalist.

Postscript: errata

It is apparent throughout that James has an axe to grind against professional academia, frequently denigrating it to the advantage of journalism. Despite this he refers to his reader throughout as his ‘student’, whom he guides through the Republic of Letters. No journalist refers to their reader as a student, but an academic certainly might – is James an academic manqué, and a slightly embittered one at that?

Perhaps not, and he simply enjoys being magisterial. Anyway, I thought I would stick up for the academics, being vaguely of that background, by playing the tutor and flagging up the mistakes in James’s ‘essays’ (I should say, only on those matters on which I can correct him – many of the figures he writes about are unfamiliar to me).

‘“I have heard the chimes at midnight,” says Falstaff’

should read ‘we have heard’

In the same chapter, he fails to pick up that Thomas Browne’s ‘dreams out of the ivory gate’ is an unmistakeable allusion to one of the most famous lines in Vergil (and all Latin poetry – Aeneid 6.893-6). Excusable, were it not that elsewhere James with breezy confidence advances some, if not erroneous, certainly rather wobbly ideas about Vergil.

Staying with Vergil, on Hazlitt’s line

‘Burke’s style was forked and playful as the lightning, crested like the serpent.’

James says:

‘Possibly there was a crested serpent somewhere in Shakespeare, and Hazlitt was making a subtle reference; or Shakespeare might have had a crested servant, and Hazlitt was remembering a sequence of sounds rather than a specific meaning.’

This is from Vergil again, this time the almost equally famous killing of Laocoon and his sons by ‘Two Serpents rank’d abreast … / Their flaming crests above the Waves they show’ (Dryden trans. Aeneid 2.270-2).

His claims that Edward Gibbon writes impenetrably seem to me more a complaint about Latinizing early-modern prose as a whole – not only does he greatly exaggerate the syntactic disorder of his writing, he also fails to realize that Gibbon is using a well-worn stylistic figure called zeugma (more specifically, syllepsis).

He misfires particularly badly on Milton:

‘[Hazlitt] found it hard, however, to point out any phrase from Milton that looms and resonates like the clouded ruins of a god.’

Only if Hazlitt was so remiss a reader as to miss a famous simile from Paradise Lost Book 1:

'… his [Satan’s] form had not yet lost
All her original brightness, nor appear'd
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th' excess
Of Glory obscur'd: As when the Sun new ris'n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark'n'd so, yet shon
Above them all th' Arch Angel.
Actually, has James even read the damn thing?

‘There has never been any real liking for the poem’s story, however, because there isn’t one.’

He must have missed the bit about man’s first disobedience and the loss of Eden and all that (which is strange, as it’s right there in the first lines and there throughout – the title is also a hefty clue).

Last Miltonic fumble, and it’s a pearler:

‘I have a friend who studied Paradise Lost at Oxford and has read it constantly ever since. But I have heard him quote Milton only twice in all the years I have known him, whereas he quotes Shakespeare all the time, and as naturally as breathing. There’s the difference: Paradise Lost is unspeakable.’

Yes, and my mate Derek quotes it all the time. Even if you’ve not agreed with a single word I’ve written so far, you must concede that this is extraordinary guff.

Moving on:

‘the German reflexive verb: und der Nationalsozialismus mordete sie mir. Murdered them for me’

This is not reflexive.


‘the aim [Of Wittgenstein’s philosophy] we can find summed up for him on his brass plate in Trinity College chapel in Cambridge: Rationem ex vinculis orationis vindicam esse.’

This is not the correct Latin quotation. In fact it isn’t even Latin.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Republicanism vs. monarchism, again

It struck me recently, nearly two years after it happened, that at the 2012 London Olympics the Queen actually pretended to parachute out of a helicopter accompanied by James Bond.

Here's a picture. You don't need it, but it makes the page look more eventful.

Obviously it's a stuntman, not the Queen herself (nor is it Prince Edward having been bullied into it by his father, though that certainly crossed my mind).

Looking back on it, I'm amazed not only that such an obvious gimmick went down largely well with the public, but that the royal family risked it in the first place. Twenty, maybe ten years ago (whenever the annus horribilis was) this would have been unthinkable: just the idea of it would have been laughed off as a desperate and embarrassing attempt to ingratiate by a terminally out-of-touch dynasty, as happened with their disastrous appearance on 'It's a Royal Knockout'.

That the Queen got away with it, and more importantly gambled that she could get away with it, is further proof that republicans are faring terribly in the public debate about the monarchy and offer no meaningful resistance. Perhaps they are so assured of the unassailable moral and ideological rightness of their position, they feel no need to press their argument home - or perhaps they feel there isn't much of a public debate going on right now.

Both are gigantically wrong-headed. The royal family is constantly making the case for its own survival, not openly but indirectly (critics might say insidiously). It's perhaps no surprise that they're prevailing, given that dynasties exist only to ensure their own survival, and this one has been doing it for a thousand years. But republican complacency only makes that job easier.