Sunday, October 14, 2007

Cultural amnesia anyone, part 2

There's more to Clive James' review of Exit Ghost than gossipy prurience. Actually, that "more" means it's still less than a proper review because, apart from the gossip, there's also chat about such pressing cultural matters as the "preponderance" over the years of US writers. This, James says, has drawbacks "in culture as in military strength":
The big guns get a sense of mission, and their very confidence invites questions about their vision, even about their ability to gaze within. Just as Bellow, in his factual writings, never asked himself the awkward question about divisions within Israel, so in his fictional writings he stifled a question that would have multiplied his range: he never made a subject out of his succession of discarded wives, when you would have thought — must have thought — that for a writer otherwise so brilliantly introspective, there lay the essence of his subject. Similarly, Mailer, unceasingly writing advertisements for himself, never delved far enough into his own psyche to make a subject out of his complicity in the death of Jack Abbott's victim: the great writer could face every embarrassment except the one that pierced to the center of his responsibility as a public writer. [...] It is only Roth who takes himself entirely to pieces. Has he been cruel to leave recognizable the outlines of discarded loved ones? Yes. Has he made a subject of that? Yes again.
One of the drawbacks, it would seem, is that writers like Bellow and Mailer haven't provided enough fodder for the prurient, attention-seeking literary critic. Everything here is slanted toward James' self-service: the writers' brilliance lies in "introspection"; Bellow's ex-wives were all "discarded"; Mailer avoids his "complicity" out of "embarrassment". We're being directed to think along with the writer in a way that Bellow, for one, avoids in his novels. His brilliance lies precisely in this ability to disrupt the controlling introspection of the writerly central figure - usually by souls less doubtful than themselves, but also by events such as the aftermath of an accident that haunts Rexler in By the St Lawrence.
The lungs in the roadbed as pink as a rubber eraser and the other organs, the baldness of them, the foolish oddity of the shapes, almost clownish, almost a denial or refutation of the high-ranking desires and subtleties. How finite they looked.
That is his essential subject; the dynamic intermingling of soul and world, mental life and bodily death. This is more than introspection. And it's not as if Bellow's novels are bereft of troubled relationships. James, in comparison to Bellow's subtleties, is a bald intellectual organ.

I'll leave defence of Mailer to those more interested in his work, but then there's that peculiar reference to the big guns' responsibilities as public writers. What on earth are they? It seems to mean taking oneself to pieces. Of the American big guns, James has a problem with Gore Vidal for keeping himself in one piece.
Vidal has never admitted, let alone explored, the question of whether his criticisms of the American power elite might not be compromised by his membership in it. Does he really think, when he argues that F.D.R. tricked Japan into World War II, that the Japanese right wing, currently making a comeback, will not take this as an endorsement of its views?
So Vidal's responsibility is not toward telling it like it is (as he sees it) but to how truth might be used by others? What about any praise he might have for the same power elite; is that compromised? Should he worry that Bush might use it to bomb more civilians? The only option, it seems, is silence. However, James evidently isn't worried by how his own criticisms of Vidal might be used. The form of defence he employs has disturbing consequences. It means any criticism of one's own side is immediately out of order. How dare anyone criticise the system under which they flourish! This was popular opinion in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. But where they had dungeons, we have media gate-keepers writing at length about others' private lives.

James spends much time defending the joys of this relativism: "In effect, Stalin dropped an atomic bomb on his own citizens once a month for as long as he was in power. Mao Zedong staged a My Lai massacre every fifteen minutes." We shouldn't worry, he's saying, because our crimes aren't as bad as our enemies! But again, this is self-serving. One might replace the examples here with Suharto's massacre of a million "Communists" in Indonesia, or his East Timor bloodbath, or with the millions more in Vietnam, or with Reagan's 30,000 dead in Nicaragua, or the death squads in El Salvador, or Pinochet's Chile, or Saddam's Iraq or the million dead in post-invasion Iraq, or even the poverty-stricken millions dying each year in "the developing nations" - dying right now, not just in history books. I wonder how many of these feature in the index to Cultural Amnesia? Once this is done, Vidal's criticisms can be seen as precisely a product of cultural rememberance, of exploring one's membership of the human race rather than arming oneself to the teeth with Received Opinion.

That final phrase is Vidal characterising James' style of argument. It comes from an exchange of letters between the two seven years ago in the TLS over Vidal's "revisionist" take on Japan's entry into World War II. (The phrase then was that FDR "provoked" rather than "tricked" Japan into war - another example of James' spin). James says "the international craze for revisionism ... has essentially been a strenuous effort to offset disappointment at Communism's failure". After a series of lengthy letters, Vidal is finally lost for words. "Surely at the heart of revisionism" he asks "is Socrates' injunction that the unexamined life is not worth living." Oh dear, where's the hemlock?


  1. Excellent. I'm almost wholly ignorant of all teh American writers mentioned with the exception of Naked & the Dead, but your criticisms of James seem to be well-judged and to hit the target. James has always seemed to me quite a petty unattractive soul, not possessed of the necessary inner truth to have a clear perception of anything. Thus his ridiculous take on arguing Vidal should stay quiet for fear of truth being used by the false. And the weighing scales of infamy you point out...vile.
    Also, just to mention the work of Anthony Sutton, in the form of books such as Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution,
    Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler and The Best Enemy Money Can Buy, which if in the very doubtful eventuality of James reading might begin to clarify the very blurred picture of official history. Isn't it wonderful how there's always an enemy out to destroy the free-world? Though of course, such truths might be used by some of our enemies somewhere, possibly even those bearded ones hiding in caves somewhere.

  2. I've been writing about the Exit Ghst reviews for a while now, and had a long one on James' review. It is interesting to hear that not only is he a terrible critic, but he is one that fails to live up to his own standards as well.

  3. Andrew, don't remain ignorant of Bellow for long.

    And thanks for the reminder about your blog Daniel. You won't know being young and American but James used to present TV shows over here; one of the few well-read voices allowed. He once had a discussion show that had Christopher Ricks as a guest! But he seems unable to shake off what the Aussies call Cultural Cringe and has transferred his deference to American potency.

  4. Augie Marsh a good one to start with? I've nearly bought it a couple of times.

  5. Andrew -- No I would start with *Herzog* or *Mr. Sammler's Planet*.

    This was a great post. What are Bellow's books about but every one of those discarded wives! I would like to think that if you knew nothing about Bellow's life and your read some of his novels, you would know he had women trouble. Maybe that's just wishful thinking.

    On the topic of received opinions in the Roth reviews: I'm so sick of every list and chart and review of *Exit Ghost* "reminding" everyone that *The Dying Animal* was not a good novel. To me, it was the most powerful book Roth had managed since *Sabbath* and his most feminist since... well, ever. There's incredible insight in that slight (why is slight a bad word?) novel about what 'sexual freedom' means. But it gets no respect from any critic I've read.

  6. Thanks Fairest. I'll seek out "The Dying Animal". I'm immediately sympathetic toward it because "Sailing to Byzantium" ("fastened to a dying animal ...") is one of my favourite poems. I gave up with Roth at "Operation Shylock" having loved "The Counterlife", so it will be interesting to catch up a little.



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