Cultural Amnesia

Cultural Amnesia
Clive James

“Notes in the margin of my time,” runs the subtitle of this collection of fascinating character sketches and highly quotable marginalia. The “my time,” however, is a bit of a stretch, since James (born 1939) is mainly interested in the collapse of the cosmopolitan intellectual culture of pre-First World War Europe (Vienna is the touchstone) and the rise of twentieth-century totalitarianism (Hitler, Stalin, et al.). But while passionately defending individualism against the forces of ideology and closed systems of thought, some of the essays veer into their own judgmental closed-mindedness, a slamming of round pegs into square holes. This is, however, the way cultural memory works. We use it (for our own purposes, of course) or lose it. In the process it is necessarily transformed.