Slate: Where do you think it comes from?
James: I don't know—but I know it comes from practically before the ability to think, practically from before language. There is a wonderful passage in Wittgenstein somewhere, maybe in Philosophical Investigations, where he talks about the state before attention, the state before you become focused on something—a readiness for awareness. It's that deep. When Auden says you don't really get a poet unless they are interested in language first, I think he was right; but of course, that is not enough. We all know that the really trivial poet is the one who just does wordplay.
Slate: What do you think of contemporary American poetry?
James: I'm the American classicist. I love writing pot-stirring pieces about the necessity of reading Robert Frost, and Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur. Richard Wilbur was my man. Hecht's poem "Japan" is one of the great poems of the 20th century. It's ridiculously good; it's got the intricate stanza form, incredibly intense perceptions, the works. That's the tradition in American that I love. The other tradition that comes out of William Carlos Williams through [Charles] Olson and [Louis] Zukofsky scarcely interests me. Because you can't tell when it's bad. I forget who said that about abstract art: The trouble with it is that I can't tell when it is bad! Incidentally—there is certainly such a thing as a formal poem that meets all the requirements and is dead. So, there is probably a permanent revolution going on, but it's a palace revolution.
Slate: Cultural Amnesia is a somewhat eccentric collection of profiles, arranged loosely from A to Z—there are many M's but only one O, for example. What was the principle of selection and inclusion?
James: The alphabetical arrangement is really a way of being random. Not even all the heroes are there or all the villains. The selections were themed. The quotations gave rise to themes, and sometimes the quotations were selected because that theme was going to be in the book. It's less of an encyclopedia in the sense of a useful guide to people and events than any publisher would have liked. No publisher would have commissioned this book if they could have seen a prospectus. It took Bob Weil [the executive editor of W.W. Norton * ] to see how it would hang together. He was practically the co-author in that sense. He would keep going at the manuscript and say, More of this, less of this, and he was right every time.
Slate: One of its enduring themes is how we think about the legacy of totalitarianism, and how totalitarianism shaped the 20th century. Can you talk about how that became an preoccupation of yours?
James: Well, the intellectuals didn't perform very well in the 20th century. They read their best qualities into humans who didn't have them, which is a constant human theme. But I think you have to face the fact that the civilization we value in the 20th century might only exist in contention with totalitarianism; that it wouldn't be the way it is without it. And this might be true of all of history: that nothing is created except through disaster. Which is a fairly depressing conclusion to reach. But one thing I'm certain of is that totalitarianism hasn't gone away; totalitarian states may die out, but it will remain alive and vigorous. It is a spirit and virus. Religions can have it. People can have it. It's a solution. It's the dream solution. It's the delirious frenzy of certitude, which culture exists to contend against. One of the constant themes of the book is that any artist who fancies himself above politics is doing worse than dreaming. If you fancy yourself above politics you are actually in collaboration with the enemies of civilization, who would love you to think that. The book is built around the slow—painfully slow, sometimes—realization that in the 20th century, the forces of destruction are not open to reasoned argument, that they would track down any sort of reasoned argument and eliminate it on principle.
Slate: One of the themes that comes across powerfully is that criticism is not just a system of thought but part of the work of living. Given that, who would you most have liked to spend a night in the cafes with?
James: We wouldn't necessarily be together at the cafe, but I'd have liked to look across the cafe and see Akhmatova. I would like to have sat there with Schnitzler. He was a big hero of mine; I cannot imagine him having said anything unfascinating, but he might have just said, "Bugger off!" A lot of them were real solitaries. Karl Krauss never got on with anybody. But it is one of the themes of the book—not only is the personality complex, but it is almost invariably true that great talent is allied with a great flaw in character. Perfect people don't write perfect books. Thomas Mann, for example. The circumstances of the 20th century brought out all that was most complex about Thomas Mann—his fierce pride, his tremendous pomposity and conceit. And allied with all these things, and probably a product of them, is his wonderful productivity and his sense of duty, which he hated. He hated being forced to do all those altruistic things! One of the things I'd like the book to teach is to give up this preposterous business of going on and on reading and writing biographies that "stunningly" reveal some creative person to have been flawed. Well, of course they are! You've got plenty of perfect people in your own family. How interesting are they? That is a flaw!