The critic Clive James, who is now experiencing a personal fragmentation that parallels that of the twentieth-century Europe he has written about for so long, is a master of what Aristotle called the artistic proof: the advancement of an argument by means of logic and imagination, rather than by recourse to forensic evidence. In our information-steeped culture, reference to a recorded fact often seems to carry the weight of proof, but James’s writing proves that a well-spun argument is more memorable, and ultimately more convincing. His sprawling masterpiece Cultural Amnesia is an alphabetically-arranged collection of biographical essays nearly nine hundred pages strong, which covers as many subjects as his subjects themselves studied. It is no coincidence that many of his heroes were Jewish intelligentsia working under the exile and oppression inflicted by the rise of Nazism in Europe. Taken as a whole, Cultural Amnesia is a document about the imagination surviving oppression, and to those of us who still want to make a career by the lights of our creativity—that is, in the humanities—his writing is a reminder that, as Bendetto Croce asserts in quotation on James’s title page, “all history is contemporary history.”
An unqualified comparison between the state of modern Western academia and the holocaust would be more than grandiloquent—it would be maniac in its insensitivity. But my own experience as a vocation-seeking graduate of a major Western university (in my case, the University of Edinburgh) has been comforted by James’s opening chapter, “Overture: Vienna.” There is a parallel to be found between the fin de siècle Austria James idealizes in that chapter and the experience of the academic generation that is currently at a wholesale loss for work in Europe and the U.S., though it is not a parallel of degree. My story is common enough to read as a modern parable: deeply in debt after a non-terminal graduate degree abroad, I moved with my wife to New England, where for four years, I have learned through dozens of applications and hundreds of hours and dollars wasted that those without personal connections, perfect GPA’s, or limitless time need not apply to funded doctoral programs. The opposite tactic — to seek work as an adjunct professor slogging through stacks of freshman composition papers — is successful enough, but upward mobility for part-time faculty is the first thing to disappear in moments of financial strain, and what four-year colleges face now is far deeper in its implications than a season of economic recession. Tenure is disappearing. Retention is low. The Western university is becoming financially untenable as the cultures so long fed by it invest more and more deeply in communications infrastructures that are basically dehumanizing. As the campus evaporates, where will the human element in the humanities reside? James’s writing offers a comforting answer.
“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” he writes, “Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus. More broad, and in many ways more fun.”
Fun is a nearly forgotten word among modern academics. Those of us living now ought to be humbled by the reminder that the perennially sidelined Austrian Jews of the early twentieth century, who had been blackballed by the universities for years and who could see their political doom gathering like winter rain just over the border, still saw the fun implicit in the pursuit of the humanities, and luxuriated in it. Even more humbling and liberating is the notion that being barred from the traditional path to an academic career could ultimately be a blessing. No one remembers the academicians who were tenured in Austrian universities at the time of the invasion, but the Jewish scholars they relegated to the cafes are still among the most celebrated writers and thinkers of their time, as James is quick to remind us:
“Whole generations of Jewish literati were denied the opportunity of wasting their energies compiling abstruse doctoral theses. They were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation and the necessity to entertain. The necessity to entertain could sometimes be the enemy of learning, but not as often as the deadly freedom to write as if nobody would ever read the results except a faculty supervisor who owed his post to the same exemption.”
For James, pre-occupation Vienna doesn’t represent an intellectual alternative but an intellectual ideal. The oppressive atmosphere that sent the Jews to the cafes also inadvertently liberated them from intellectual brown-nosing, and swept them into a more holistic vision of the educated life; one which found its validation and its subject matter on the ground rather than in the ivory tower. We owe writers like Peter Altenberg, Egon Friedell, and Manes Sperber not only for pioneering writing styles that balanced accessibility with depth, but for predicting the tribal bent of Nazism and its genocidal consequences. It is not too much to assume that these scholars saw the political landscape most clearly because their attention had been directed away from the insulating concerns of traditional academic careers.
Pitting the necessity to entertain against the luxury of collegiate obscurity is partly unfair, because neither atmosphere can guarantee good writing or preclude it. But James’s assertions remind us that writing has long been, and still should be, the measure of useful thinking, and that those who think and write well do not need a diploma to earn their bread, or the respect of their peers. “Reading about Vienna now,” he reflects, “you are taken back to a time that should come again: a time when education was a lifelong process. You didn’t complete your education and then start your career. Your education was your career, and it was never completed.”
Vienna was, of course, invaded, and there the contemporary parallel mercifully ends. But the consequences of that invasion are also hopeful in their familiarity. James concludes his overture by observing that the intellectual diaspora brought on by the occupation, as it dashed a unique cultural milieu to pieces, effectively scattered the seeds of that milieu across the West. He writes: “In each case, the suppression of liberalism worked like a shell-burst, with the Jews as the fragments of the shell’s casing, the fragments that travelled furthest. These local disasters added up to a benefit for the world, so we need to change the metaphor, and think of an exploding seed-pod.” The outcast Viennese intelligentsia, which included more than only Jewish refugees, re-penetrated Western society at every level, in the primary school system, the newspapers, the publishing houses, the shipping industry, military, the gardens and the cafes. Every one of these vocations was dignified by thinkers whose sense of imagination had survived the most extreme censorship imaginable, which went beyond ideas and attempted to bodily eliminate human beings.
Our own situation is a far more hopeful one, and if all history is contemporary, then aimless students of the humanities can still claim citizenship in the Vienna that James’s Cultural Amnesia celebrates. If trends continue as it seems they must, a hefty percentage of four-year university campuses will be gated within the next ten years. For the humanities, this isn’t exile, but an opportunity to take the thinking fostered by advanced degrees and practiced writing out into the apparently mundane fields that need them most urgently, to re-humanize the West. James tells us that when a woman blamed Peter Altenberg for only being interested in her body, he replied “Was ist so nur?”—”What is so only?” In a more respectful but equally irreverent spirit, thinkers and writers employed outside the academy must remove the only from only a job. History has already proved that the imagination cannot be gated up, and that its importance only increases the less it is valued. Liberation from the campus and the exam room will leave the best of our generation free to bring the intellect into the cafes of our time: the ephemeral spaces of online communities, yes, but also the places of work and leisure that will only be mundane if we are unequal to the task of edifying them.