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?