Cultural Amnesia

“But in Rome, the consuls, the Senate, the knights, rushed headlong into servitude”
~ Tacitus

What an utterly extraordinary book.

There are not many people who made me feel badly read – Clive James is one of them.

Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia is an incredible, rich, well researched provocative book. It is a collection of biographical essays about well known and less well known figures who had a significant (even if small) impact on 20th century civilisation (and its aftermath) – for better for for worse. It is clearly the work of a great thinker – and a great reader, for the richness of the sources, research, and insights drawn speak to a deep inner life and a keen sense of history, context, and foresight.

Most of the essays, although diverse and filled with anecdote, from history, literature, the arts, and the social sciences, deal with the spectre of the second world war and the immense collateral damage and human tragedy caused by the two great collectivist follies of the 20th century – fascism and communism – and the the respective guilt and/or heroism of the various protagonists introduced and dissected in the book.

The message the reader is left with is clear: history (and the future) is the results of the actions and choices of individual men and women. The decisions we take, and the people we step over in the pursuit of our personal dreams and collective utopias are our responsibility. In the end, history sorts out the villains and the victims.

In the mean time, those who have eyes and ears (like Clive) will see though the hypocrisy and the roar of the populist crowd for who and what you really are and remember how you apply your principles and keep (or break) your promises when the pressure inevitably presses in on you.

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