Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

Who was the person that opened your eyes and helped you realize that there was so much more out there for you to know, so much that until then you never even knew existed?

Mine were opened in my third semester of college, listening to hour-long lectures twice a week in English Literature. Professor James Soderholm was the sort of intellect that up until that point I had never encountered before. He seemed to know everything about everything, and he was the standard that my roommate and I held ourselves to, aspiring to one day become professors ourselves.

Professor Soderholm discussed knowledge as an inverted pyramid: the more you learned and moved up the
pyramid, the more there was to know. However, I think this analogy is somewhat flawed, and I would offer another as a substitute. Personal knowledge is like a circle. Everything inside that circle is what you know, and as you learn the circle grows in area. However, what’s outside the circle is what you don’t know, and as the circumference of your knowledge grows, the greater the amount of unknown material is in contact with it.

The more you know, the more you are forced to realize you don’t. And in a corollary, the people who think they know just about everything only think that because their circle is s small; it doesn’t border all that much of the unknown.

Reading Clive James’s mammoth book of essays, Cultural Amnesia, I was again struck by how much knowledge I don’t have. He selected one hundred individuals that are deserving of our attention as students of the culture in which we live, and presented an essay (or sometimes two or three) on each. Why should we care? James cites Nirad C. Ch
audhuri, who says ‘civilization continues through the humane examination of its history.’

I consider myself a reasonably informed person, someone who might do quite well on Jeopardy one day, but I had only passing familiarity with maybe a third of the people James selected. I’d never heard of Egon Friedell, Miguel de Unamuno, or Alexandra Kollontai. And many of the ones I had heard of, like Raymond Aron, I knew nothing more than a name.

But these chapters aren’t biographies. They are essays that use their subjects as launching pads for greater issues and associations. The entry on Michael Mann discusses the difference between stage acting and acting for the screen, the necessity that narration work in a particular art form, and when movie stars become actors. The essay on Chaplin is really about Einstein.

It can be a bit of a mystery as to why James opted for the people he did. For example, why of all the Hollywood directors that have impacted the cinema and our greater art scene, does he only select Michael Mann? No John Ford
, or Orson Welles, or even David Lynch? But then one remembers the title: Cultural Amnesia. James is trying to insure that we don’t forget certain lessons that may be best exemplified by these people. There is little chance that we will forget Steven Spielberg, but I would imagine that we likely will forget Michael Mann.

James ends the book by saying, ‘What I tried to do was keep some [of what I’ve read] with me and draw lessons from it.’ And perhaps this is the most important reason to read a book that weighs in at just under 900 pages. There is no way for us to remember everything that we read, see, or hear, but we can try to keep with us what we can, learning all the while.

After finishing the book this evening, I sat down with a book of Joan Didion’s essays and read an account of a debate over the pro/anti-racist nature of The Confessions of Nat Turner between author William Styron and Ossie Davis. It took place at the house of Sammy Davis, Jr., and James Baldwin played the mediator role. How perfect a scene like this would be in James’s book, informing the reader of not just the careers of the people included, but getting a sense of who they were as people.

My circle is much bigger than it was ten months ago when I started this book. I hope it grows even bigger in the next ten.

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