Clive James on humanism

Clive JamesThe Guardian has a great interview today with Clive James, in which James describes the “blurred image” he has, as entertainer/celebrity and serious man of letters. His latest attempt to “square the circle” is a verse translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy; an earlier attempt was his 2006 book Cultural Amnesia – a cultural history of the twentieth century, which James portrays as an age in which a thin and fragile line of liberal humanism found itself caught between crushing, anti-human ideologies of both left and right. (The Kindle edition is great value at £3.95, and is easier to read than the massive, 912-page hardback which I also own.)

In the introduction to Cultural Amnesia, James describes how this humanism has survived, just, but now faces a new threat from the consumerism of “the arts”: 

…somewhere within the total field of human knowledge, humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all.

That beckoning, however, grows increasingly feeble. The arts and their attendant scholarship are everywhere – imperishable consumer goods which a self-selecting elite can possess while priding itself on being beyond materialism; they have a glamour unprecedented in history – but humanism is hard to find.

In an age of almost unchallenged consumer capitalism, value is increasingly understood only in terms of market exchange. See, for example, how student tuition fees were proposed using arguments which appealed to the “return on investment” that an individual student could expect from their degree – and often opposed in the same terms. In such an environment:

The idea that humanism has no immediately ascertainable use at all, and is valuable for precisely that reason, is a hard sell … If the humanism that makes civilisation civilised is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates. Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.

What does James mean by “humanism”? He doesn’t define the word explicitly – you could say that defining humanism is what he spends all 912 pages of the book attempting, and indeed that it is essential to his conception of humanism that it can only be described by such a project, rather than defined in a sentence. It is worth making clear, however, that he is using the word in its “Renaissance” sense rather than in the more recent sense of “secular humanism” as a form of “civilised atheism”.

More precisely, James – a man often criticised “for talking about the construction of a poem and of a Grand Prix racing car in the same breath, of treating gymnasts and high divers … as if they were practising the art of sculpture” – sees this humanism as a product of the eclecticism to which he has devoted his life:

Humanism wasn’t in the separate activities: humanism was the connection between them. Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it.

Such a concern is not narrowly “cultural”. As the twentieth century made only too clear, to stand for such a humanism will often become a political act, above all an act of opposition to prevailing ideologies:

In the connection between all the outlets of the creative impulse in mankind, humanism made itself manifest, and to be concerned with understanding and maintaining that intricate linkage necessarily entailed an opposition to any political order that worked to weaken it.

Hence James’s implacable opposition to both fascism and Communism, and to the fellow travellers and useful idiots in the penumbra around each ideology. And hence his attempt, by writing Cultural Amnesia, to encourage others to take up the same task. Not that he presents this as a glorious path:

I am not urging young people to follow me on the path to a success. I am showing them the way to a necessary failure: the grim but edifying realisation that a complete picture of reality is not to be had.

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