Character Study

Cultural Cohesionby Clive James

W. W. Norton & Company. 640p $21.95

The night before this review was being tortured into near-coherence, a musical group called the Postal Service appeared on “The Colbert Report,” promoting its new release, “Give Up”—which was actually recorded 10 years earlier, and was being re-released. The history of the music and its resurrection is irrelevant to matters here, except to say that the performance on “The Colbert Report” caused a great amount of consternation in my living room.

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On one hand, here was some really engaging music, to which I had spent 10 years being oblivious. O.K., c’est la vie. More important, though—especially in light of my immersion in a new release by the critic Clive James, Cultural Cohesion—was my favorable reaction to the Postal Service’s decade-old, post-avant-emo-alt-rock stylings. It rattled my critical cage.

Wasn’t pop music, and pop culture at large, intended to be of the moment, ephemeral, ultimately disposable? Wasn’t 10 years a bit past any pop CD’s freshness date? Wasn’t my favorable reaction, in a way, almost unseemly? Or worse—dated!? The Beatles will always be with us, as surely as Justin Bieber’s gaggle of Beliebers will be mortified well into their dotage. But, generally speaking, that which makes up the “culture,” as we commonly refer to it, evaporates by definition.

Which brings us to James, the esteemed Australia-born, London-dwelling essayist and critic, who usually concerns himself with work that promises lasting value. This elusive value does, in fact, seem to be the principal criterion for what he allows to arrest his scrutinizing eye: Auden, Hamlet, Primo Levi; criticism itself; literature broadly defined. And the vagaries of cultural journalism, whose problematic nature he addresses immediately in Cultural Cohesion, his latest—so to speak—collection.

“As a form in the English language, the essay had its true beginnings in the London coffee houses,” James writes, “where it depended for its energy on a seeming paradox: Contributing to a periodical meant to be thrown away, the essayist composed his piece as if it were meant to be kept.

The hard fact, he continues, is that the subject matter addressed was, more often than not, unworthy of the effort being made to assess it. And yet, if the essayist “failed in his aim of bringing permanence to ephemerality, he could always congratulate himself on having respected his disrespectable work by devoting his best efforts to it.”

Ergo, it is a perversely Sisyphian enterprise on which the cultural critic embarks, and in acknowledging the transient nature of his trade, James achieves an earthy nobility…and then sort of doubles back around and crosses paths with the Postal Service.

That’s because the governing conceit of Cultural Cohesion—a collection of pieces published by James between 1968 and 2002—involves the writer revisiting himself (so much for transience). It’s a very specific kind of self-examination to which he subjects himself, not tampering with the original text, but instead critiquing the criticism with postscripts attached to each article. “If you start updating a piece in the light of subsequent developments,” he writes, “the result is a tacit claim of a congenital infallibility of judgment: an attribute which, were one to possess it, would remove the whole point of critical journalism at a blow.” Thus, he leaves the originals alone, and attaches to each an assessment of how well he did.

The problem is, those assessments are, like the Postal Service album, 10 years old. The original Cultural Cohesion came out in 2003. We are looking back at a writer looking back at himself looking back at art he’d experienced sometime in the past. What the reader does not quite get is a sense of immediacy.

What he or she does get is James’s often rhapsodic prose, which is especially rich when he is in pursuit of something he truly loves and to which he is trying to do justice (and, in the case of “On Auden’s Death,” even begins to subconsciously echo his subject’s poetry). James does get a little verbose at times, although it’s part of his M.O.: Wax flowery, shift into the idiomatic and bring the point home with an uppercut: “Mrs. Krantz, having dined at Mark’s Club, insists that it is exclusive,” James writes of the novelatrix Judith Krantz. “An even bigger snob than she might point out that the best reason for not dining at Mark’s Club is the chance of finding Mrs. Krantz there.” The occasional swipe of cattiness maintains the readability of James’s takedowns, even when they concern a foregone conclusion like Judith Krantz, or a book like Princess Daisy—which many people would recognize as bad, though not as clearly as they do with the help of James’s evisceration of its prose and pretensions.

Though Ms. Krantz earned James a certain surgical celebrity (the essay, “A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses,” found a wide readership), he admits in his 2003 postscript that he committed overkill, if not toward an unwarranted victim. His point, he recalls, had been to counter the creeping notion that just because a book earned gargantuan sales figures it somehow assumed a larger role in the culture than it either deserved or enjoyed. What he says throughout the book is that a well-executed mugging occasionally protects us all.

Cultural Cohesion is as valuable for the questions it asks and settles as for what it says about the Western world’s cultural character. Amid the din of the Internet, can the likes of James, with all his erudition, wit, analytical abilities and—most important—enlightened sympathies, be heard above the noise? Does anyone care? Yes, someone always will, but even in a now-10-year-old note, the writer portrays the dangers of being a cultural voice and the courage it takes to remain an independent one. The instance involves the one example in Cultural Cohesion where he has actually changed his original text, and he explains why.

In his essay “Hitler’s Unwitting Exculpator,” about Daniel Goldhagen’s still-notorious Hitler’s Willing Executioners, James takes apart the author’s contention that it was the German national character that led to the Holocaust, abetting the criminal work of a select group of psychopaths. Certainly there was, and is, plenty of guilt to go around about the Final Solution, but James dismantles Goldhagen’s thesis, stone by stone.

The problem was, he wrote the piece for The New Yorker magazine as it existed under Tina Brown, and the nuance of his argument, it seems, was much too nuanced for a celebrity editor. “There is a fine line between being asked to say something differently and being required to say something different,” he writes, “but it is a clear one. When they do ask you to say something different, of course, it is time to take the kill fee and quit.” Brown wanted things differently; the piece ran; and James makes things right, to his mind, in the reissuing.

For all his jaundiced attitude, James’s honesty is gentle when it should be: His piece on Peter Bogdanovich for the New Yorker was sweetly evasive, and James admits as much in his postscript. An essay on Gore Vidal is steeped in dignified worship. A posthumous piece on the Italian wild man Pier Paolo Pasolini (“Pier Paolo Pain in the Neck”) is raw like grappa. He lays into Lillian Hellman as if he were Mary McCarthy.

In introducing his work, James again explains his book’s methodology. “Aspiring to permanence only by the measure with which it illuminates the ephemeral, such writing can be pertinent or not, but either way it has to be contingent: If it tries to cut itself free from time and chance, it removes itself from life.” He tries to have it both ways, of course, but there’s no lack of life in Cultural Cohesion. Just an amorphous sense of time.

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