There are two Clive Jameses, and no, this isn’t leading into a fat joke. Reading through this latest selection of essays, speeches and general musings one is confronted by two authors: the first a man whose hand I would like to tremblingly shake, a critic of style and wit with a breadth of knowledge and depth of insight that can only instil admiration; the other a complacent, self-centred git at whom one can’t help yelling, “Shut up Clive James. Shut up!”
Let us deal with the latter Clive first. Ostensibly, The Meaning of Recognition covers a fairly wide range of subjects - the products of high and low culture, politics, fame, history - but at base James has only three real topics, of which all else are mere facets: art, contemporary society, and himself. Unfortunately that list is in ascending order of importance to the author.
James would no doubt insist differently – does so regularly, in fact. We are either told or it is implied to us time and again that art and its creators are paramount, and to be fair, their significance to him is beyond doubt. Artists are, for James, colossal, Promethean figures, whose place in the universal taxonomy is undeniably higher than the common man. Such hierarchies are frequent: James implicitly places literature highest among the humanities, and poetry highest among the literary arts. As a result, James the poet stands shoulder to shoulder with past and present geniuses, whose talent and worthiness James the critic is able to judge. Which is of course a load of cock vomit.
Clive James is not a good poet. He is often an exceptional critic, but equally often an execrable bard. And the blind spot to this lack of talent caused by his own ego can sometimes be detrimental to his criticism. Genius, he seems to feel, is drawn from a single wellspring, a font which he has no doubt that he shares in. Moreover he insists that genius, like murder, will always out, and therefore one only needs a close reading of the work of art in question to plumb the depth of its meaning. There is a lot to be said for this method, and indeed, returning to the work is a trope that is happily making a comeback in modern criticism. It can, however, be limiting; to use one of James’ own examples, one doesn’t need to know about Maud Gonne to understand Yeats… yes, but it damn well helps. Sure, it’s easy to fall prey to the biographic fallacy, but it’s also far too simplistic to say that the author of the work operates in a creative vacuum, and attribute everything in his work to the products of genius. And how are we to approach the likes of Eliot and co. without examining things like intertextuality? Using the work as a primary resource is one thing, using it as the sole resource is another, and yet James repeatedly insists that this is the only method of criticism that counts. It’s all very romantic, and perhaps a little pathetic. He is in love with art, and in love with his own contributions to the world of art, and tends to be blinded by this adoration.
The James-as-genius complex creates other problems, too. Practitioners and initiates into the mysteries of art are treated with due respect, but other critics are often not. The word ‘intelligensia’ frequently pops up in The Meaning of Recognition, and there is ever a tangible sneer attached to the word, especially when used in connection to the term 'left-wing'. This never more true when talking about Australian cultural commentators (and in fact, the word ‘Australian’ is never really free of the sneer-factor, either). James will, of course, always qualify this, and say that he is a pundit, an intellectual, a member of the left-wing, an Australian – and the insinuation is always there that everyone else in the same category could therefore be doing much better. They’re not Clive James yet, after all.
These dogged assertions that he adheres to left-wing liberalism run contrary to the temperament of his essays on terrorism and the current political climate. James rightly deplores the activities at Abu Ghraib, and condemns Rumsfeld for his part in them, but applauds Bush’s just war in Iraq, which is free of ulterior motives and self-serving agendas. Terrorists really are just opportunistic religious zealots, just plain old-fashioned evil guys. Anyone who suggests that their motivation may be driven by what they at least see as just causes is at best a panderer or at worst a sympathiser (and here the liberal left-wing Australian intelligentsia are treated to the full lip curl). In many ways it appears James is slipping into a conservative, fuddy-duddy sort of mentality in his old age. One can only hope he doesn’t slip the whole way into outright craziness (cough Germain Greer cough).
I’ve listed at length what I didn’t like about The Meaning of Recognition, proving that it’s easier to write a negative review than a positive. I have been graceless, perhaps, if not downright unfair. There are, to be sure, plenty of positive reviews in this book, and if they were harder to write, it surely doesn’t show: James is an excellent essayist, and he makes the task seem simple. He has an easy familiarity with words and charming, exciting turns of phrase. For all that I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, I admire the way he says it, I am in awe of the scope of his knowledge, and I can not fail to appreciate his incisive, bitter-as-coffee wit and cruel humour. While not his best work, this is an intelligent, entertaining read: worthy of the argument you're sure to have with it.