Bits of News, Sunday 04 November 2007


Clive James is a figure unlike most others in our world- James has made a career of being an omnivore. From the chatshow couch to the comic circuit to the learned essay, James has succeeded everywhere he has gone. Writing and broadcasting, he has turned his natural wit to good account and provided a series of sparkling memoirs to furnish the bookshelves of the learned with. Cultural Amnesia, his latest book, is a fine effort to capture the unique folds of James’s own mental landscape- he provides a short essay on over 100 cultural characters mainly from the last century. All the essays come out of a single quote- and often James doesn’t even pause to ponder the life, instead pondering the importance of that quote.

The quoted range from Duke Ellington to Hegel, Federico Fellini to Margerate Thatcher, from Tacitus and Edward Gibbon to Coco Chanel and Adolf Hitler. The range is astonishing- though the absense of any scientists is equally astonishing. James mentions an Albert Einstein but its the musician not his more famous namesake and relative the physicist. Indeed science is one of the leading absenses from the collection which is biassed very much towards the arts. Analytical philosophy is also underepresented- we have an essay on Wittgenstein but characteristically in it philosophy students are dismissed for giving him the ‘credit for everything that would have struck them if they had ever been left along with the merest metaphysical lyric from the early seventeenth century.’ The Wittgenstein that matters to philosophers is the one that ‘they can prove only to each other’ and what James is interested in is the Wittgenstein that matters to the writer- to the humanist.

Entire article here