How do you define your humanity, your worth and the meaning of the good life? Did the last book you read, the last poem heard, the choir on Classic FM, the last serious piece of reportage in the newspaper make you think, widen the space for thought, help you engage more as a citizen? Did you make a note of the words that hit a spot? Remember to look that book up when next in the library, wonder what that old book of essays would be like you came across in the second hand bookshop. Perhaps as you get older do you see a pattern in what moves you in music, what is good writing and which political ideas increases the possibility of greater freedom of expression and those that close the creative spaces down?
One way to describe this book is to see it as Clive James 40 years exploration to make sense himself, his work and the world around him through works of the well-known, forgotten, cut-short or bogus mainly western intelligentsia. These are over but not confined the past 150 years. He also throws in 20th century film stars, fashion designers, TV broadcasters, jazz musicians and reporters. The format is over 100 individual pen-sketches grouped in alphabetical order of individuals that have aroused his interest with as sentence, comment, or thought and been inked over the years in his journal. From these seeds grows an essay that critically reveals more about the idea or the character or the context but done in his usually witty light foxtrot prose. Knowing that nothing worse then a judgement on writing style not seem here are three extracts.
Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (p.177)If you have gone… “er never heard of them” then that’s a major theme of this book which examines the fate of those intellectuals and their works in the fall out of the Red and Fascist terrors of the 20th centuries as well as the South American dictatorships. Voices lost as they are swept away to death camps, or corrupted to stay on the right side of the prevailing political winds. Books left as floating corpses as the Saloon life of St Peters, Vienna and Paris sank and burned in the 20’s and 30’s:a tradition with roots in a different form of Jewish prejudice. Another theme is the cant and empty postures by usually left wing intellectuals during the Cold War that would have resulted in a long death in the countries they claim to admire.
`And above all, I am not interested enough in politics to let them encumber my last days’
On the face of it, Drieu’s valedictory testament was absurd. It was 1944, after the liberation of Paris; he had never made any secret of collaborating with the Nazis; his deeds were done and his time had run out. And his entire personal disaster had been because of his interest in politics. Already resolved to suicide, he was attributing a deficiency to himself in the very area where he had been most obsessed.
Chares De Gaulle (p.258)
After a life of misery, Anne de Gaulle, who had a severe case of Down’s syndrome, died choking in her father’s arms. She was 20 years old. At her funeral, de Gaulle is reputed to have said, “Now she is like the others”. The awful beauty of that remark lies in how it hints at what he had so often felt…For us, that overhear the last gasp of a long agony, there is a additional poignancy of recognising that the Man of Destiny lived every day with an heavenly dispensation he could not control. But to be faced from day to day with a quirk of fate not amenable to human will is sometimes the point of sanity for a man who lives by imposing his personality-the point of salvation, the redeeming weakness.
Miguel De Unamuno (p771)
The eternal, not the modern, is what I love: the modern will be antiquated and grotesque in ten years, when the fashion passes.
The quoted passage makes more sense when we trace what he meant by eternismo, the eternal. He didn’t mean an appeal to transcendental values: he meant attention to the profane reality that is always there. On the same page…he wrote the universal is in the guts of the local and circumscribe, and that the eternal is the guts of the temporal and evanescent … (memo to myself and younger readers: all guesses about tone in a foreign language should be checked with someone who speaks it for a living).
I have sympathy with this augment having seen at first hand the middle class student Trotskyites who saw the working class as the ideal except when meeting the wider trade unions membership and ordinary people. Who naturally were seduced by the media to not grasp the wisdom of their leaders in waiting. I was one of those who joined the Communists in the 80’s but had no illusions of what they were doing in Russia and China. I saw the dedication and faith that the little band of activists in wanting to change things by active mobilisation rather then electoral engagement alone. Of course we would have all been the first to vanish in any of the systems that we were assuming the UK to be. But read the book and you don’t see the poverty and lack of opportunity and social justice that creates the Left. I still see politics of changing the agenda more important then the politics of elections and would tackle the illusion of liberal democracy not with the charge that they are not democratic but that they see democracy stopping at the gates of the factory or school. Other notions such as Social Capital and Environmental Justice movements show currents shaking off traditional notions of Electoral Socialism.
These are minor quibbles for what is timely reminder what we are losing in this country with an Education system that fetishes churning out workers and not enabling citizens. Clive James reads many of the books he discusses in their original language, has a lively interest in how films, TV, poetry are creating our cultural life. He can judge and put into context what the writer or performer is offering. Can you? Would you try? See what you lose if you don’t try.
In a conversation on Picasso’s Guernica Matthews asked his students to…look at their inner response…what sound do you hear from the painting?... the room exploded in howls of pain and rage. The door flew open and two students from the hallway stuck their heads in, their expressions resembling the faces in the painting itself.
Said one participant, ‘Suddenly I saw that these art forms were making a claim on me. They were saying, “Wake up! Live your real life.”
Stanfield, R.B. (2000) The Art of Focused Conversation p.2