Pound vaunted his ability to form explanatory relationships, but it was the very thing he could never truly do, even though, like any other paranoid psychotic, he tried to all the time. Nevertheless he had the talent to demonstrate that to go mad for detail might yield something, whereas to go mad for generalization leads nowhere... he thought that he could judge an empire by the metallic composition of its small change, just as he thought he could extract the meaning of a Chinese ideogram by the way it looked. In both cases he was too far from the mark for sanity. But if he didn't get the picture, he could at least see it...When he likes his subjects James is even better: "Montesquieu can delay his judgement on Tiberius: a forebearance that not even Tacitus can show... Tacitus, as much fascinated as repelled, had his sense of irony exhausted by a satanically gifted individual. Montesquieu, less emotionally involved, saw a point about Tiberius that extended to all mankind." If you can't get with this sort of material, he also writes elegantly about Dick Cavett and Tony Curtis.
The book isn't all about art, though. James' 20th Century is a slaughterhouse, so by his lights Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, Mao, Pinochet and other such like must be considered, as well as artists who either opposed or collabrated with them, or were their victims. On these subjects, too, James can be forceful and even subtle: Goebbels, for example, "was the preeminent Nazi advocate of Total War... but he was also a realist in a surreal world, the madhouse he had helped create." On Nadezhda Mandelstam, whose husband was executed by Stalin, James is even poetic:
Akhmatova encapsulated the anguish of millions of devastated women when she wrote: "Husband dead, son in jail: pray for me." But a romantic she remained, still believing in the imaginative validity of a love affair beyond time. In Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda was able to say firmly that her friend was mistaken. Love affairs beyond time were impossible to take seriously when violent separations are the stuff of reality. With real life so disturbed, the nature of romanticism had been changed. In the new reality, all love affairs were beyond time.James is so good at finding such aesthetic kernels in the tragedies that came with totalitarianism that I was prepared and even eager to hear a lot more of them. Alas, I did, and the kernels lost their savor soon enough. Part of it perhaps could not be helped; the horrors of the century may have been unprecedented, but they certainly begin to resemble one another over long stretches of description, and after the thirtieth or fortieth outrage I wished an editor had gently told James that we get it already. When Dante went to Hell he took Virgil, and you need a guide at that level to keep the infernal circles from closing into a blind spiral on you.
James' solution is to place the artists -- or, when they won't serve, polemicists -- in the context of relevant totalitarianisms. Did they perform admirably? Ernst Junger, despite being "incomparably the most gifted writer to remain on the scene" -- that is, in the Reich, though never quite a collaborator -- "no amount of horrifying truth could induce him fully to admit that he made a mistake. His way out of such an admission was to blame the style of the times; i.e., to console himself that everyone was at it..." If you think that's harsh, see what European Reds like Saramago get:
When Democracy finally arrived in 1974, Saramago didn't trust it. Saramago had good reason to suspect that justice would never come by reasonable means. But when it showed signs of doing so, he did nothing in his discursive writings to justify his position the only way it could have been justified... but it was wholly untrue to go on claiming that the far left offered an alternative in itself. The price of sticking to such a proposition was to restrict his own frame of reference to the size of his study. There was a world elsewhere in which the common people, all over the planet, had been massacred by the millions...You soon see there is no Third Way with James. Authors who don't get the message are failures on that basis, despite the merit of their prose. James does not quite descend to the sort of Konservetkult nonsense we regularly lampoon here because he is a true critic with a rigorous standard: as with Pound, the ability to see the object is some recompense, but to get the picture is what art should be doing, particularly when the picture is of an oncoming holocaust. This is an arguable point, and certainly not the same thing as the blind weighing and sorting of the propagandist, but weighing and sorting is done and sometimes to an absurd degree:
In the long view of history, Brecht's fame as a creep will prevail, as it ought to. An unblushing apologist for organized frightfulness against the common people whose welfare he claimed to prize above his own, he was really no better than Oswald Mosley and a lot more dangerous. Brecht's fame as a poet will depend upon a wide appreciation of what he could do with language, and there lies the drawback: because the more you appreciate what he could do with language, the more you realize how clearly he could see, and so the more you are faced with how he left things out. You are faced, that is, with what he did not do with language.What Brecht did do with language James never addresses, but you can pick up his plays and poems and enjoy them, I would say, even if you are not an apologist for Stalin.
This sort of hectoring eventually wore me down, but I am still getting some pleasure out of riffling it, because now I can desultorily enjoy James' lovely anecdotes, textual analyses, appreciations, and even some history lessons, without having to fidget in anticipation of another session of his grim tribunal.