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Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time

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The times are not long gone when nobody could aspire to that—not even Egon Friedell, a man once famous for being better informed than anybody in Vienna. While we're waiting for the decision, it might help if we could realize the magnitude of the fix that America got us out of in 1945, and ask ourselves why we expect a people rich and confident enough to do that to be sensitive as well. Those were the very means by which Montaigne invented the modern essay, and at first I must have had an essay of my own in mind: a long essay, but one with the usual shape, a single line of argument moving through selected perceptions to a neat conclusion. In the job we can have a profile written about us, and be summed up: all the profiles will be the same, and all the summaries add up to the same thing. Not long after I began marking passages for future consideration, I also began keeping notes in the margin beside the markings, and then longer notes on the endpapers.

How will we know if our earthly paradise is coming to pieces, if we don’t know how it was put together? The times from which it emerged were hard on the nerves, even for those of us who were lucky enough to lead charmed lives. I find myself starting with those figures I feel I know best (which is never as well as James) and drifting onto the (for me) relatively obscure names. The lessons of history don't suit our wishes: if they did, they would not be lessons, and history would be a fairy-story. A lifetime is exactly what it has taken Clive James to read them, and at times this book is presented as being something of a life's work for him.He starts from a position of their purpose, their intention and works back to his own criteria of the aesthetic, which he then frequently modifies based on his quite remarkable empathy. The question is how to get it, and my own view is that it can’t be had unless we raise our demands on ourselves a long way beyond decorating our lives with enough cultivation to make the pursuit of ambition look civilized. English is this new world’s lingua franca, not because it was once spoken in the British Empire but because it is spoken now in the American international cultural hegemony.

I hope to get Russian back, but the written version of Japanese is the kind of language that you can study hard for five years and yet can’t neglect for a week without its leaving you like a flock of birds. Bond tosses it back to her with the admirably curt reply, ‘You forget I got a First in Oriental languages at Cambridge. Hegel, when he said that we can learn little from history, forgot about Hegel, author of the best thing about history that has ever yet been said.The mind in question happens to be mine, and any psychologist could argue persuasively that mine is the mind I am least likely to know much about. Sometimes he seems to hold these people up to some very demanding standards: he's convincing on Sartre's feeble response to Nazism, but surely it's a bit much to question why Wittgenstein never mention the Fascists in Philosophische Untersuchungen, a work of pure linguistic philosophy? Thomas Mann, with the family poodle snuffling petulantly at his knee, would rather not talk to Brecht, and Sartre is keen to avoid Solzhenitsyn.

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