Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time

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Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time

Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time

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Soaring to Montaigne-like heights, Cultural Amnesia is precisely the book to burnish these memories of a Western civilization that James fears is nearly lost. There was a time when I could fairly fluently read Russian, and get through a simple article in Japanese about my special subject, the war in the Pacific. It might seem a pity to break pieces off their finished work, but I think the integrity of their concentrated effort can only stand revealed more clearly. In the passage above, in the part after the ellipses, he grumbles about the horrid misuse of the singular and plural forms of the word “phenomenon. It was an essay by James, in another of his collections, that got me addicted to The West Wing, the DVD box set of which I've watched all the way through three times {so far} and for that alone I'm eternally grateful.

James, on the contrary, laments that “humanism is hard to find” in the modern world, and charges that “science is one of the culprits” for this. To read him is to bask in phrases and sentences which flow without a single dud line, exemplifying the "art that conceals art". You never know where the essay will take you, its path is often idiosyncratic but never less than arresting.Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).

He condenses his thoughts into linguistic firework displays, arresting, crackling, beautiful and provocative. But somewhere within the total field of human knowledge, humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all. It probably is neither necessary nor healthy to take on the 800 pages of Cultural Amnesia in a single go. James’s philosophy of criticism is marvelously summarized in his intention about the book, which is to demonstrate the truth of his belief that our literary inheritance “is our real and inextinguishable fortune. Builders of concentration camps might be creators of a kind—it is possible to imagine an architect happily working to perfect the design of the concrete stanchions supporting an electrified barbed-wire fence—but they were in business to subtract variety from the created world, not to add to it.Just because he has an incurable knack of making himself sound arrogant shouldn't deafen us to the truth of his humility.

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. It would be a desirable and enviable existence just to earn a decent wage at a worthwhile job and spend all one’s leisure hours improving one’s aesthetic appreciation. It would help if the world's large supply of anti-American commentators could decide on which America we are supposed to be in thrall to: the Machiavellian America that can manipulate any country's destiny, or the naïve America that can't find it on the map. The book is a series of essays on 106 people James has been fascinated by, most of them from the 20th century.The lessons of history don't suit our wishes: if they did, they would not be lessons, and history would be a fairy-story. This book alone has determined me to get to grips with all manner of novels, essays and verse, by the likes of Witold Gombrowicz, Egon Friedell, Montesquieu, Alfred Polgar, Karl Kraus, Heda Margolius Kovaly, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Jean-Francois Revel, Raymond Aron, and a holy host of others; and that's merely scratching the surface. I underlined things, put stars in the margin, added knowing comments about the provenance of Valery’s ideas (“Croce was here! What this book then proposes—what it embodies, I hope—is something difficult enough to be satisfactory for an age in which to be presented with nothing except reassurance is ceasing to be tolerable. And I take it that this is what he wants us to do with the contents of Cultural Amnesia - talk exuberantly about the wealth which is there for the taking.

It is not a fancy dress party, but “come as you are” means that Tacitus has arrived in a toga, and the poet Juana Inés de la Cruz in a nun’s habit. He’s not shy about saying, in his Note on the Text, I have stuck with the traditional masculine dominance of the indeterminate gender … (and) the European tradition by which sufficiently distinguished females … referred to by their first names … Female readers can put all this down to unreconstructed chauvinism if they wish [he doesn’t care], but (their representatives in the book are not slighted) ‘merely outnumbered’. more excerpts followed — a sumptuous aggregate which still represents only a small fraction of a large book. For my own part, it made me think hard about all the fields of creativity that I seemed to love equally, whatever their place in a supposed hierarchy.The meaning of the term humanism has fluctuated, according to the successive intellectual movements which have identified with it. Each essay starts with a brief biography, then launches into an essay on some aspects of the figure's history, triggered by quotations from the works which at some point James jotted down in his notebooks as he read. But the adventurous jobs are becoming more predictable all the time, even at the level of celebrity and conspicuous material success. This book has inspired me to learn much more due to the stories he tells and the connections he makes. Near Fine/Near Fine 1st impression 1st ed 2007 Picador hardback, unclipped DJ, highly impressive collection.



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