Posts Tagged 'cultural amnesia'

Crossing over: Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Recently, over breakfast, my girlfriend and I chatted about some of the TV programs that she, having come to consciousness only in the mid-’90s, never had a chance to experience. She’s seen enough Cheers reruns to get the gist, but Family Ties, Night Court, and Newhart, among others, she knows only by reputation.

I told her how, in the final scene of the final episode of Newhart, it was revealed that the whole series had been dreamed by Bob Newhart’s character from his earlier The Bob Newhart Show. This reminded me of St. Elsewhere, and I summarized for her the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis: In outline, since all the events of St. Elsewhere were revealed in that show’s final episode to be the daydreams of a snowglobe-clutching autistic child named Tommy Westphall, and since characters from St. Elsewhere crossed over to a number of other TV shows, including Mash, Cheers, and Homicide: Life on the Street, implying that those shows took place in the same fictional reality, and since characters from those overcrossing shows in turn crossed over to a whole bunch of other shows, it can be argued that the events of all these other shows were also daydreamed by Tommy Westphall. The Tommy Westphall Universe turns out to encompass everything from Mission: Impossible to Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.

Somehow this got me thinking of the connections among some of the books I’ve been reading lately. For instance, Christopher Hitchens in his memoir Hitch-22 crosses over with his old friend Martin Amis in his memoir Experience, providing complementary versions of the evening when Hitchens was introduced to Amis’s “literary father” Saul Bellow. [1]

christopher hitchens hitch 22

As Hitch tells it:

Martin offers a slightly oblique and esoteric account of a trip on which he took me in 1989, to visit Saul Bellow in Vermont. On our buddy-movie drive up there from Cape Cod – he’s almost word-perfect about this bit – he made it clear that I wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel. (“No sinister balls,” which was our colloquialism for a certain kind of too-easy leftism.) I knew I was being greatly honored by the invitation, not just because it was a huge distinction to meet Bellow but because, second only to an introduction to his father, it was the highest such gift that Martin could bestow. I needed no telling that I should seize the opportunity to do more listening than talking.

And yet it’s true, as he reports, that by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and his own foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.

We learn that Bellow had provoked Hitchens by calumniating his friend, the erudite Palestinian radical and literary critic Edward Said (who was later to fall out with Hitchens as they drifted to ever more irreconcilable positions on the morality of Western intervention in the Arab world, and violent Arab reactions thereto). Hitchens’s defense of his friend had inevitably veered into a lengthy diatribe – “a blue streak of sinister balls”, Amis says – about the misdeeds of Bellow’s beloved Israel. Afterward, Hitchens regretted embarrassing his friend, but:

[Amis] suffered more agony than he needed to, because Bellow as an old former Trotskyist and Chicago streetfighter was used to much warmer work and hardly took offense at all. He later sent me a warm letter about my introduction to a new edition of Augie March.

martin amis experience

Bellow makes several other appearances, besides that awkward dinner party, in Amis’s memoir. We hear for instance how Bellow nearly died of a rare neurological infection he picked up dining on a red snapper on a visit to the Caribbean, a story that appears in slightly fictionalized form in Bellow’s Ravelstein.

That novel is about the death of Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom, the professor, philosopher, and author of The Closing of the American Mind. As Amis says,

I know Bellow’s novel far, far better than I ever knew Bellow’s friend. Yet Ravelstein comes close to persuading me otherwise. This book is numinous. It constitutes an act of resuscitation, and in its pages Bloom lives.

saul bellow ravelstein

In the novel, Bloom-as-Ravelstein importunes the narrator, the Bellow stand-in, to write about him after his death.

“I’m laying this on you as an obligation. Do it in your after-supper-reminiscence manner, when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and you’re laid back and making remarks. I love listening when you are freewheeling about Edmund Wilson or John Berryman or Whittaker Chambers when you were hired at Time in the morning and fired by him before lunch.”

We learn in Hitch-22 that Hitchens, in real life, heard the Whittaker Chambers story from Bellow, on the evening of the awkwardness over Edward Said:

Offered a job as book critic for Time magazine as a young man, Bellow had been interviewed by Chambers and asked to give his opinion about William Wordsworth. Replying perhaps too quickly that Wordsworth had been a Romantic poet, he had been brusquely informed by Chambers that there was no place for him at the magazine. Bellow had often wondered, he told us, what he ought to have said. I suggested that he might have got the job if he’d replied that Wordsworth was a once-revolutionary poet who later became a conservative and was denounced by Browning and others as a turncoat. This seemed to Bellow to be probably right.

Speaking of the “after-supper-reminiscence manner”: both Ravelstein in Ravelstein and his model Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind refer to Plato’s Symposium, that famous gathering of Athenian intellects where Socrates, Alcibiades, and Aristophanes and their friends got drunk and declaimed on the nature of love. Taking a poke at modern critical theory, Bloom writes (paraphrasing Nietzche):

[A]fter the ministrations of modern scholarship the Symposium is so far away that it can no longer seduce us; its immediate charm has utterly vanished.

But for non-scholars, the Symposium will always be seductive because it shows us our heroes just as we want to imagine them – hanging out forever in a Valhalla of the intellect, joshing and quipping and making each other spray wine through their noses.

Which brings us to the Friday lunch. Hitch-22 devotes a few pages (and Experience a passing mention) to the boisterous weekly get-together that Hitchens and Amis shared through the 1970s and ’80s with Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Clive James, and illustrious others. Hitchens identifies James as the “chief whip” of the gatherings: “He needed an audience and damn well deserved one.”

clive james north face of soho

It’s James who gives us the vividest picture of the Friday lunch, in his memoir North Face of Soho, showing us how Amis could improvise a tall story, sustaining the massed laughter with “the economical stroke of the whip that did just enough to keep the top spinning”, while Hitchens’s specialty was the interjection of sarcastic asides:

[I]f someone was being straightforward, he could make them funny, and if someone was being funny, he could make them funnier.

The actual content of the proceedings, as repeated by James and Hitchens, isn’t quite the stuff of a modern Symposium­. Hitchens gives a few examples of the wordplay and concedes that there were “long interludes of puerility”; James credits, or blames, the illustrator Mark Boxer for “discouraging the anecdote as form – he wanted the flash of wit. … Nobody was allowed to take his time …” It sounds like a riot, in the sense that it must have been obnoxious and nerve-jangling, each man contending to make the biggest smash. [2]

Speaking of that lunch, which Hitchens says has “become the potential stuff of a new ‘Bloomsbury’ legend” – the legend would gain momentum more quickly if it had a catchier name than “the Friday lunch”, which is what Clive James also calls it in his memoir. James reports that when he kickstarted the gathering, he liked to refer to it mock-conspiratorially as the “Modish London Literary World”, a dig at the Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, who apparently believed such a conspiracy explained why his favoured authors kept getting bad reviews. Unfortunately the Modish brand never caught on. Before they all shuffle off to trade zingers with Aristophanes and Allan Bloom, can we agree on a name for this cohort of legendary British wits? (As with Bloomsbury, MacSpaunday, and the Algonquin Round Table, it’ll help future generations to keep them sorted.) In its heyday the group convened at the Bursa Kebab House; occasionally James calls it the Kebab House lunch. How about the Kebab House Group?

allan bloom the closing of the american mind

In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom mentions a student who fretted to him, after reading the Symposium, that “it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced” in his own place and time. Bloom disputes this: “such experiences are always accessible”; his student “had brains, friends, and a country happily free enough to let them gather and speak as they will”. Most of us will never enjoy after-dinner discussions quite as stirring as the Symposium, or as riotous as the Kebab House lunches. But as Bloom consolingly reflects,

This student did not have Socrates, but he had Plato’s book about him, which might even be better.


1. Amis says of Bellow, “I am not his son, of course. What I am is his ideal reader. I am not my father [Kingsley]’s ideal reader, however. His ideal reader, funnily enough, is Christopher Hitchens.”

James mentions in passing, in his essay collection Cultural Amnesia,

On the whole, writers find other writers hard to be enthusiastic about, even when the other writers are safely dead. It takes security in one’s talent on top of generosity of soul. … Martin Amis’s praise of Saul Bellow is especially valuable because the younger writer is continually faced, when reading the older one, with things he himself would like to have said.

2. Hitchens and James both note the absence of a restraining female presence at the Friday lunch: “It was a very competitive scene, though,” James writes, “and therefore very male.” This naturally brings to mind Hitchens’s famously shit-stirring Vanity Fair article on why women aren’t funny. His argument boils down to: because they don’t have to be.


In previous entries I’ve discussed Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia and Martin Amis’s relationship with his father.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

People who write in the margins of books.

Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia carries the subtitle Notes In The Margin Of My Time. Scribbling in the margins is a metaphor that recurs throughout the book, and I’m not sure metaphor is the right word because it seems to be literally true that James has built these essays around passages he has marked, and comments he has pencilled into the margins, of his prodigious library over a half century of reading. [1]

clives james cultural amnesia

For instance, in his essay on Egon Friedell he writes:

I own three copies of the handsome, single-volume post-war edition put out by Beck. My intention was to use one of them as a workbench, and put into its endpapers the notes that have gone into this book. But I ended up defacing my beautiful Phaidon edition, perhaps guessing in advance that my graffiti would be labours of love.

I have just received a vivid lesson in the benefits of writing in the margins, as I spent most of an evening hunting through the 851 pages of Cultural Amnesia for a half-remembered line about (to paraphrase) a lengthy book made still longer by all the notes the reader inevitably finds himself making in the endpapers. I couldn’t find it.

I never write in books, and I detest those who do. In another essay – I won’t try and search for it – James attempts to extrapolate, from notes in the margins, the politics of the previous owner of a certain German-language book he has acquired secondhand. The only thing I’ve ever gleaned from a marginal note is that the previous owner was too lazy to reach for a bookmark. But perhaps James frequents used bookshops with a more erudite clientele.

If you must write in the margins, you might as well do all your note-taking there; once the text has been violated, no amount of gentlemanly self-restraint can restore it to innocence. The lowest form of book-defacer is the one who marks a single passage in a book, then stops; this mark can easily be missed by the future browser as he riffles the pages prior to purchasing.

evelyn waugh a handful of dust

I own two books like this. One is Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful Of Dust. In an otherwise virgin copy, some fool has used a pen to bracket this paragraph, in which a character passes the time with a game of solitaire – “patience”, as the Brits call it:

Mrs. Rattery sat intent over her game, moving little groups of cards adroitly backwards and forwards about the table like shuttles across a loom; under her fingers order grew out of chaos; she established sequence and precedence; the symbols before her became coherent, interrelated.

I assume the defacer was an English student; this passage is pregnant with symbolic possibilities, containing as it does the actual word “symbols”. But its significance to the larger story is obscure. Mrs. Rattery is a minor character, a bluff American aviatrix who wanders in at a vital juncture in the plot, then soon wanders out again. Her elaborate game of patience has no bearing on her relationship to the other characters; she’s not a schemer or an organizer. Nor is “order [growing] out of chaos” a theme of A Handful Of Dust – quite the opposite; like most of Waugh’s novels, it’s about the breakdown of the old social hierarchies. Perhaps my hypothetical English student intended to use Mrs. Rattery and her game of patience as a metaphor for Waugh-as-writer, although that would make for a rather generic essay; all writers, except the bad ones, establish “sequence and precedence”. [2]

graham greene the ministry of fear

I also have a copy of Graham Greene’s The Ministry Of Fear in which someone has singled out this observation:

A police photograph is like a passport photograph: the intelligence which casts a veil over the crude common shape is never recorded by the cheap lens. No one can deny the contours of the flesh, the shape of the nose and mouth, and yet we protest: This isn’t me…

The mark was made in pencil, so I might attempt to erase it, though I’m sure a shadow will remain. Oddly enough, half-erased marginal jottings play a part in the story of The Ministry Of Fear. The hero, who stumbles into a Nazi espionage plot, spends some time in an asylum run by a pacifist doctor. On a bookshelf the hero finds a book of Tolstoy’s, and notices some rubbed-out pencil marks beside the following sentiment:

Remembering all I have done, suffered, and seen, resulting from the enmity of nations, it is clear to me that the cause of it all lay in the gross fraud called patriotism and love of one’s country…

The “ignoble” attempt to erase his approving checkmarks is enough to make the doctor a suspect: “This was an opinion to be held openly if at all,” thinks the hero. I wonder if some future owner of my copy of The Ministry Of Fear will think I’ve ignobly repudiated my opinion on the inaccuracy of police photographs?


1. This is an awkwardly constructed sentence which I’ve chosen not to rewrite. Let it serve as an inside joke for those who’ve enjoyed James’ riff on Edward Gibbon, where he excoriates that learned figure for sentences even more awkward than this one.

2. Update, February 8 2018: Gene D. Philips, in his 1975 critical study Evelyn Waugh’s Officers, Gentlemen, and Rogues: The Facts Behind His Fiction, highlights the Mrs. Rattery passage in his discussion of A Handful of Dust:

[The hero’s] yearning for order is reflected in his accepting Mrs. Rattery’s invitation to play cards, for “under her fingers order grew out of chaos…” etc.

As you can see, I would’ve made a poor student of literature.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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