Questions for Clive James.

Examining culture and the arts.
March 14 2007 12:35 PM

Renaissance Man

Questions for Clive James.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Clive James was born in Australia in 1939 and emigrated to England in the 1960s, where he has become a key figure in the world of British letters. A critic, poet, and novelist, he is known for his incisive wit and for his lightly worn learnedness—the person you can reliably turn to when you want to know who once wrote, for example, "There is less to this than meets the eye." This month marks the publication, in the United States, of Clive James' Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts, which Slate has been serializing over the past month. Until now, James' nonfiction work consisted mostly of book reviews and topical essays on issues of the moment. Cultural Amnesia, by contrast, has been some 40 years in the making. It explores the complex relationship between the totalitarian ideologies that shaped 20th-century history and the intellectuals who opposed or embraced those ideologies. Along the way, the reader is treated to thoughtful essays on pop cultural icons such as Dick Cavett, Beatrix Potter, and Michael Mann, as well as provocative examinations of sometimes-tragic figures like Anna Akhmatova, the Mandelstams, and Stefan Zweig. James spoke to Slate by phone from his office in England.

Slate: I wanted to begin by talking about the many faces of Clive James. We live in an era of increasing specialization. Yet you have worked, often simultaneously, as a TV critic, novelist, poet, literary critic, and TV host. How did you pull this off?

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CliveJames: I lacked the strategic sense to pick up something and take that as the path to success; I was always getting distracted. And I know that until my dying day, I'll be regretting that I didn't pursue my other careers as a Grand Prix driver or deep-sea diver. Some people have personalities like that. I think there is a virtue to it, but I wouldn't recommend it as a principle. The dilettante doesn't contribute much. Not that what I do is strictly dilettantism; it's actually quite serious: I'm trying to show how things tie together. What Cultural Amnesia is really saying is that there are connections between all these creative activities. But it took me a long time to realize what I was up to. I just pursued these various courses because I was passionate about them.

Slate: Do you think it is still possible to have a career like the one you have had?

James: I'm not so sure. I think it's getting harder. It always has been in the United States, because the states really works like a market: The label says what you can expect to find inside the can. America doesn't really like two labels on the can: Humor and seriousness, for example, are two separate things, and there's room for each in the supermarket, but the idea that there could be a can with those two labels on it is inimical to the culture. I've got a couple examples in Cultural Amnesia of people who suffered from that, and Dick Cavett is one of them. It is easier to do that sort of thing in England than in America, especially Britain, and Australia has got more of a British heritage than an American one. Growing up, I would listen to a lot of British radio and so on, and the idea that you could be funny about serious things is inherent in the British culture, more than in the states, where, possibly for good reasons, that idea is less current. But yes, looking at the whole of Western culture, it's probably getting harder to be a generalist. You are more and more encouraged to specialize. The irony is that, in that case, this is the very time when the actual notion that there could be a generalist should be encouraged.

Slate: How might one do that?

James: I've got a feeling the Web can encourage that. That's what I'm trying to do with the Web site, CliveJames.com. I'd like people, young people especially, when they're around college age, to come to the Web site, to get an idea of how things hang together, because they really do. They hang together through creativity. There is a general impulse in mankind towards creation, and that comes out in all kinds of fields, not just in the arts but in sports. I think it would help if the bright young were encouraged to think that way, even though they would go on to specialized careers. They should realize that they are part of something, which, when it is all added together, is worth defending. The forces that want to attack it want to simplify it. The first way that the forces inimical to civilization, the forces of totalitarianism, identify themselves, is their simplicity. That is what is so attractive about them: They can say everything is much less complicated than you thought, you just have to believe this, you just need to memorize these sacred texts. That's the tip-off that something is threatening you. I don't want to sound paranoid here. This is a long, rambling answer, and I'm afraid it is typical.

Slate: Cultural Amnesia is the product of 40 years of work. At what point did it begin to solidify into the book that it is today?

James: About five years ago. I retired from mainstream TV in 2000. I thought I'd done what I could, and I'd never spent the money, I had it in the bank—I'm a very mean man—so I thought I could afford to retire and not do it anymore. There were things that I wanted to write that I couldn't write when I was in the office every day. So I spent four years writing this thing.

Slate: You were born in Australia and are often associated with a group of fellow Australians who emigrated to England around the same time that you did and made a splash—the critic Robert Hughes, the comedian Barry Humphries, and the feminist writer Germaine Greer. How did that shape your work and the reception to your work, if it did at all?

James: The people that you're talking bout—the so-called famous four, Humphries, Hughes, Germaine Greer, and myself—we did leave Australia around the same time but not to be together; we left in order to be individuals. The last thing we were ever going to do was hang out. The names were put together subsequently by journalists because it's a good story. You can't blame them. But it's not a movement, it's a bunch of individuals. I put a strong emphasis on that—we definitely don't hang out together; I mean, Germaine can't be hung out with; she's a very volatile individual. I would say the same of Humphries and Hughes.

Slate: So you thought of the move from Australia as a move toward being able to define yourself as an individual?

James: Correctly or not, but mostly correctly, we thought Australia was a backwater in the early '60s. If you did our sort of thing, the arts and the media, you thought that the action was elsewhere. Things subsequently changed, and Australia began to have everything, and the necessity to leave was no longer thought to be an imperative. But in our day, we thought that the action was somewhere else. What we were wrong about was that the culture was already shifting, because European immigrants after World War II were already changing Australia from the bottom up, so there were more interesting things to eat, to drink—it was more interesting in every way. But we couldn't see that because we were young. The young know nothing. So we got on a ship and went abroad. The only reason I stayed abroad was I was broke and I couldn't get back again.

But that was a general thing that Australian people in the arts and media did right through the 20th century. In fact, that's one of the things that all prosperous liberal democracies do: They export talent, they colonize the world. American did it after World War I, when American writers were living in Paris.

Slate: You said once that your career as a critic started after the publication of an essay about Edmund Wilson, "The Metropolitan Critic," in the Times Literary Supplement. What happened after it?

James: This is all in my fourth book of memoirs, which is really about my early struggles—mein kampf!—but I'll try to give you a précis. The truth is very simple, and it's that I hit three or four deadlines a week in various literary magazines and newspapers until I was taken on as the Observer's TV critic in 1972, when I started drawing a regular paycheck. Until then I was a freelance critic, and I learned my craft by writing about simply everything. I was given courage by Wilson's example, I admired his range, the way his enthusiasm was genuine and universally applicable. I still recommend The Shores of Light to young people—that will get you started. But I found it very hard to do to make a living out of literary journalism, because you have to write a lot of bits and pieces to put a salary together. I'm told nowadays it is impossible. The weekly TV columns saved me. And at the end of the '70s, TV gave me a real salary: I went into it as a host and made enough to feed my family. I'm not so sure journalism would ever have done that.

Slate: TV criticism in the United States has only begun to bloom, and for a long time it was looked down upon as lowbrow—

James: Well, America had an acute shortage of television. William Shawn, in his last year as editor of TheNew Yorker, made a quiet request to me—to come to New York and be his TV critic. I had two big reasons not to: One was that my family was in Britain, and the other was that there wasn't any television in America because it was still stuck with the networks and nothing was on them. No one could foresee what would happen next: that the very paucity of the networks—their concentration of huge resources on producing practically nothing—eventually produced cable and HBO. HBO started making shows that were so good that the networks had to react to it. You couldn't have had The West Wing on NBC unless these marvelous things had happened on HBO. Now I think the main creativity in the states goes into TV rather than the movies. Band of Brothers is better than Saving Private Ryan. That's where the creativity will go from now on.

Slate: You speak in the introduction to As of This Writing about choosing not to come to New York because being here would mean that you were too much in the belly of the beast, so to speak, to have a clear perspective.

James: That was putting it rather grandly. On another level, I felt that America would also appeal too much to my sweet tooth. I'm inherently corruptible; I can feel it when I land in L.A., before I get off the aircraft. When I'm beside the pool at the Four Seasons, I can feel myself thinking, "Well, I wouldn't really want to write a script; no, I would like to be a script doctor. I've rarely seen a movie I couldn't improve by writing some extra dialogue. There must be a spare million somewhere for that." You're thinking that before you've even been in town for a few hours. So, everything about the states appeals to me too much. You can spend your whole time in New York just getting interviewed. Here, it is easier to be private.

Slate: According to the BBC, you are a "personality and a critic." What does it take to be a personality in the British literary world?

James: I've never known what it takes to be a personality. I wish they would stop calling me that! Personality is something terribly abstract and universally available. And I don't think I am one. I'm not even sure I've got one.

Slate: In all seriousness, though, how has living in London shaped your critical outlook?

James: I like the old empire. I like the complexity of British social life—the interplay of ironies and tone. London is still a fascinating city. I'm kind of stuck with it. I was a long time getting nowhere here, and then when I got somewhere I became sort of wedded to the place.

Slate: One thing that always strikes me about your criticism is how heavily it relies on metaphor. Can you talk about that?

James: The resources of poetry are resources I'd be very reluctant to throw away when I am writing critical prose. I regard critical prose as the opportunity, in fact, to use the poetic in unusual circumstances, to find a very compressed way of saying something. And the most compressed way of all of course is humor. A really successful joke is a truth. I try to use every opportunity the essay offers to make the language do far, far more work than it usually does. I haven't got a neutral style, which is the main reason I can't sit down at 10 a.m. and do my stint, though I wish I could. I have to wait for it the way I have to wait for a poem, and you know what that's like. Once it's in your head, it won't let you go, yet it doesn't want to come on Tuesday or even Wednesday, but on Thursday, when you've got other things going on. I think there is a continuity between prose and poetry; there is definitely a continuity between essays and poems. They are two versions of each other. I really don't like the poems that have no essay content. And I don't like the essays that have no poetic component. I like the two things to be continuous.

Slate: That explains why you've written so enthusiastically about poets like Auden and Larkin.

James: Yes. I was very interested in the discussion Slate has been having about Auden, by the way. You're a fan of "The Fall of Rome," I take it—what a poem: "Muscle-bound marines/ Mutiny for food and pay"! It's the poem I refer to when people, especially Larkin, say Auden wrote nothing good in the United States. Indeed, it was worth going there to write that poem. Unless you think it is worth going through a whole thing—an unhappy marriage—for one poem, you shouldn't be a writer. The effort it takes to write is disproportionate.

Slate: What attracts you to poetry?

James: I love the way the sense impressions accumulate in your head. It's not a prose logic, is it? It's a sense logic, it's a connection of intensities. For me, it is the big thrill. I think it is for every poet, really. There is a wonderful poet in Australia called Stephen Edgar—some of his poems are on my Web site. There is one called "The Man in the Moon." This guy can really do it, and he doesn't know how he does it. We often talk about where it comes from. I love asking poets about where it comes from.

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!

Slate: Who are some of the critics who have been models for you over the years?

James: Well, there is a stack of them in the book—but some are not in the books. I always wanted the tone of Wolcott Gibbs. He wrote stuff for The New Yorker that is still my model today. He just had the touch. Some of Dwight MacDonald. There are a lot of Americans. Of the big guns, Aron and Camus. And Reich-Ranicki in Germany. In addition to everything else, he is a laugh-riot. Right at the top, at the pinnacle of the book, in my estimation, is a man who will probably never be heard of: Alfred Polgar. He was an old man when he left Germany; he was in his 60s, my age now; too late for him to learn English properly. But he was the ideal. He could write the essay as a poem. Without being poeticized, it was all alive, all perception, all appreciation. Even Thomas Mann thought Polgar was the supreme writer in German. One of the advantages of reading a few languages—and that's all I can do—is that it increases the range of appreciation. These people are with me all the time—it's a sort of an invisible community; the cafe is an invisible community. They are all sitting there, just they have no outlines. That was the terrible metaphor of the cafe in Vienna that was kept open after the war in case the Jews came back. And two did, but they wouldn't speak to each other.

Slate: You have written literary journalism now for 40 years. In "The Metropolitan Critic," you write, "We need to decide whether critical work which has plainly done so much to influence its time vanishes with its time or continues. To continue, it must have done something beyond maintaining standards or correcting taste … : it must have embodied … a permanent literary value." I don't want to put you in the position of potentially being immodest, but is that something you strove for in your work?

James: I have my conceit, as you may have noticed. But I'm ready to lose everything. This book is as good as I can do. I can't write better than Cultural Amnesia. But it might vanish. If I'm lucky, it will do its work and probably vanish, like most books of its time. I'm ready for that. I do hope that a few things might survive—there are a few things in my first book of memoirs. But I'm probably like you in that I want some of my poems to survive. You do feel when you work on a poem that this is here, this is what I'm here for. And it would be very rough if an angel leaned over your shoulder and said, Sorry, this one's not going to make it, either. You live in the belief. You're lucky if you contribute a line or two lines to the heritage. Montale was very good when he wrote about that, when he talked about the second life of art. The second life of art was the fragment of the opera you hum in the street. Or the line of poetry you remember. As for the bulk of my criticism, it will probably be read if at all by those who do the same work. I am probably the only person who reads the criticism of Desmond McCarthy. There are seven volumes of it, and I have them all. But I wouldn't consider trying to persuade a publisher to republish. There's a terrible pomposity that gets into some writers, who treat themselves as if they were public monuments. I like to think I'm without that. I've got my conceit.

Slate: One of the things Cultural Amnesia deals explicitly with is how much gets lost. Does it ever sadden you to contemplate?

James: Culture works mainly—not by wastage so much, as that death contributes to it. It's like a reef. A coral reef consists mainly of dead creatures. But they build the basis for the live creatures on top of them. This book was originally called The Gaps in the Reef. That was 10 years ago. The gaps in the reef are how you see how the reef is built. From that, I got the idea that cultural breakdown was the way to study culture. Culture is much more like a reef than anything else. Creatures live and then they die, and the new creatures live on top of them, so the reef continues. But you don't say that the creatures who lived and died were useless. They were constructive. That's as close as I can come to it. If I can get that onto two lines, I might even be able to get onto television.

* Correction, March 19, 2007:This article originally identified Bob Weil as editor in chief or W.W. Norton. He is executive editor. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.