Saturday, December 29, 2007

More from the Sydney twanger

Returning on the train yesterday, I sat next to a chatty elderly lady. The journey had been uncomfortable for everyone on board, so we exchanged stories. She said she is an "art guide" in various locations in Sussex. Her favourite was Charleston, the country seat of the Bloomsbury set. It's also where they have a literary festival which, over the years, has enabled her to meet a few famous writers. She had liked Andrew Marr, she said, and Ian McEwan, all of whose books she has since bought and read. I nodded and smiled unconvincingly. But she didn't like that Clive James. This time my smile was more convincing! He was interested only in selling his awful book, she said. It reminded me of the interest stirred the day before when I read the Village Voice's books of the year feature in which Allen Barra recommends the book my neighbour scorned. He tells us that in it "Walter Benjamin, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Leon Trotsky take hits from which their reputations will never recover." What on earth, I wondered, had Benjamin done, said or written that could ruin his reputation as one of the greatest critics of the 20th Century? Garth Risk Hallberg of The Millions Blog helps to explain in part five of his long review. Of course, it's political. "How terrifying it is to see a fine mind in the grip of ideological fervor" Hallberg remarks, "I mean James', of course."
Apart from being a thinker whose sensibility - which can in no way be construed as ideological - has changed my life, Benjamin should be enrolled among James' angels. He was a victim of totalitarianism, killing himself in the Pyrenees when it seemed he wouldn't be able to escape the Reich. But because Benjamin practiced a syncretic version of Marxism, and would become popular, posthumously, with leftist academics, James can't let him die with dignity.
I am tempted to respond further but Praxis blog is more comprehensive than ever I could hope to be. It also reveals James' thoughts on Paul Celan's poetry: apparently he says it is "marred by its difficulty – a difficulty produced by Celan's need to find a refuge from harsh reality." Can there be a more insensitive reading? But James doesn't stop there: "Number me among the almonds Celan says. James responds: At the time I noted this instruction down, I couldn’t resist the unwritten addition: And call me a nut."

I shall have to resist writing anymore as I have two new year resolutions ready: one is to write fewer fire-fighting or abusive blogs and the other is to read as many of the four volumes of Benjamin's Selected Writings as possible. The latter should encourage the former.

PS: As I chatted about Charleston on the train, the cultural equilibrium was maintained when Geoffrey of Rainbow walked up the aisle. I'm not sure Clive would approve: George is obviously a pinko.


  1. Anonymous8:26 pm

    I reckon that the only valid criticism 'Cultural Amnesia' makes about Benners is that he has been somewhat totemised. (At least this is arguable.)

    What annoys me:

    1. The often cheesy prose style! (Not going to give an example here).

    2. I disagree with the theory that the Benzinator only killed himself because he felt that Fascism was inescapable as much as I am annoyed that CJ basically announces his suicide as an intellectual retreat. Bullshit. I don't know what was going on in the man's head. CJ really loses the plot here.

    3. That CJ compulsively deploys the testimony of the Holocaust/Stalin (almost an either/or thing going on with this) as proof that he's in the Right (what wit!). Does God exist: 'where was God when the snow was falling on the foreheads of the little kids in Auschwitz?' What about the intellectual achievement of Marx: 'Gulags?' Bloody hell.

    Basically, I agree with you Mr. Blog, sir.

  2. Ooh: Thanks for linking to that Praxis post. Great stuff. Explosions going off in my mind, etc...

  3. Best of luck with hanging off from the firefighting, Stephen. It's the Google reader and the 'to read' pile that defeats me. As another Australian once said, 'show me some discipline, and I'll show you mine.' Happy New Year.

  4. I agree with everything you've said about James and Benjamin . . . yet I still find myself finding some stuff of value in Cultural Amnesia. I don't think I'd want to have a drink with James, nor would I find myself in agreement with him on all that much . . . but on the occasions when he is able to shed his weirdly doctrinaire anti-the-left faith (reminiscent as it often is of Christopher Hitchens's reflexive contrarianism), he can write some masterly sentences that really do help me understand some writers whom I've already been deeply engaged with.

    But anyone who claims to be capable of getting into and understanding another person's suicide is always going to be suspect in my book--excpeting, maybe, Tolstoy.

  5. Anonymous12:53 am


    I'm anonymous from above (Ha! call me the Angel of Truth). Funny, I'd much prefer to have a few drinks with Mr. James than read 'Cultural Amnesia' through. There is some sound stuff in there of course, but I 'm not really hooked so far!

    Tring to make *sense* of a suicide (is it not?) is ridiculous.



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