clive james and cultural amnesia

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Mr. James’ tone ranges from confiding to bombastic, and he’s entertaining at either extreme. His conclusions are brilliantly reasoned, but his relentless focus on World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and extreme authoritarianism is enough to convince you that there were no hula hoops, no soap operas, no cupcakes in the 20th century—in fact, that intellectual seriousness demands that there be no cupcakes. His essay titled “Coco Chanel” devotes one paragraph to her achievements in fashion, the rest to the concept of small luxuries, culminating with the 70 years of deprivation suffered by ordinary Soviet citizens. But also—as with every mid-century French figure that Mr. James mentions—he points out Chanel’s degree of collaboration during the Occupation. Collaboration is more than a minor theme of Cultural Amnesia. We get examples of great bravery (the historian Marc Bloch, tortured and killed for fighting with the Resistance), good intentions (Albert Camus, who played down his modest anti-Nazi efforts) and self-serving zeal (Jean-Paul Sartre, who called for the death of collaborators when his own resistance was slight). Mr. James is even more alert to the whereabouts and political activities of German intellectuals before and during the war, and his essay on Jorge Luis Borges focuses on his tacit support for an increasingly brutal Argentine regime.

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