Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Defense of the Human, The Defense of the Mind

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts 
          by Clive James

                                      In a universe more and more abstract, it is up to us to make sure
                                      that the human voice does not cease to be heard.

                                                                                                Witold Gombrowicz

If there has ever been a time in my life that called for a wholesale re-appreciation of humanism as an essential way of being in the world that time is now. Donald Trump is but the witless, leering figurehead of a supranational  groundswell of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism that is currently laying siege to many of the greatest achievements of the human mind, an embarrassment of riches, ranging from philosophy, politics, rhetoric, education, science, medicine, psychology, and law to art, literature, music, and history to agriculture, journalism, architecture, theater, and dance. Touted by religious and political zealots, and exploited daily by corporate warlords in their ruthless pursuit of wealth, this vengeful backlash is apparent nearly everywhere one turns: in our politics and laws, in our schools and universities, in our healthcare and hospitals, in our policing and our prisons, and in our homes and civic spaces. It is a backlash that threatens to erode and redefine our hard-won thinking about the natural world itself, and our relationship to it, by attacking science at large, its very authority, now openly (if mostly cynically) impugned.

At least a part of the problem lies in the fracturing and general denigration of the humanities in the U.S. as a whole since WWII, by which in particular I mean the steady corporate-governmental takeover of the sciences (and of the mathematics they employ) for their own often mercenary, often violent, often starkly anti-democratic ends. These days largely divorced from the studia Humanitatis, the time-honored disciplines of science and mathematics are increasingly now but the tools, the handmaidens, of wealth and power, faithful servants of that menacing military industrial complex that sociologist C. Wright Mills warned us about, back in 1956, in his groundbreaking study, The Power Elite. More critical to the fate of humanity than ever, these ancient fields of inquiry must be wrested from the grip of this powerful and reckless elite, and brought back into the fold, so as once again to serve the interests of peace and justice, so as once again to serve the interests of the many instead of the few.    

“Humanism,” as defined by the American Humanist Association, “is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. It advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expression of the open society, standing for human rights and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognizes human beings as a part of nature and holds that values—be they religious, ethical, social or political—have their source in human experience and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.”

Adolf Hitler believed that the mind was inherently seditious, and therefore that the body alone should be the focus of a sound education, as only the body could be loyal and true. Of course he was right: it is the very seditiousness of the mind—its capacity to question, to reason, to imagine alternatives—that makes us most truly, most defiantly human.

To that end, I strongly recommend Clive James’ richly provocative compendium of short essays, Cultural Amnesia, a light, a beacon, in these deeply dark times. Praised as “a master of eloquent distemper”, Clive James “illuminates, rescues or occasionally demolishes” the careers of many of the greatest figures of the twentieth century—and all with an erudition and a faith in the human spirit that will make you shake your head in awe.  

Sweeping back and forth through time in his treatment of such famous (sometimes infamous) figures as Leon Trotsky, Albert Einstein, Josef Goebbels, Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, Louis Armstrong, Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus, and Mao Zedong, James is equally compelling in his portraits of such brilliant, if lesser known lights as Walter Benjamin, Anna Akmatova, Nirad C. Chauduri, Robert Brassilach, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Raymond Aron, Federico Fellini, Zinka Milanov, Isoroku Yamamoto, Witold Gombrowicz, Eugenio Montale, Octavio Paz, Edward Said, Beatrix Potter, Charlie Chaplin, and Coco Chanel.

Cultural Amnesia is a stirring, eclectic, often provocative exploration of “the mental life of modern times” that is plainly reminiscent of the great essays of Montaigne. As James himself reminds us in his introduction: “It has always been a part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance.” Read these essays and marvel; read these essays and think.

Peter Adam Nash

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