Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Clive James on Rilke gets things wrong.

[Update below.]

Who is Clive James? I don’t know. He writes for Slate; or, rather, Slate is paying him to adapt chapters from his book Cultural Amnesia, which I haven’t read; nor have I read the excerpts before, but I’m interested in Rilke and Brecht -- this week’s topic.

What James gets wrong may not be a big deal, but it’s so lazy, it’s embarrassing.

He says that Rilke wrote the Duino Elegies in Schloss Duino in 1923.


Rilke began the Duino Elegies in Schloss Duino in 1912. And he worked on them intermittently for 10 years and finished them elsewhere, in 1922. He calls 1923 Rilke’s “year of wonders” for having written the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus in their entirety, but the truth is more amazing. In one month, February 1922 (not ’23), Rilke wrote the entirety of the Sonnets and he finished the Elegies -- and wrote about half of them -- after having worried over them for a decade. He considered the Elegies his life’s great work and finishing them one of his life’s great events, and the 55 Sonnets came as a bonus. In a month.

If you know Clive James, would you tell him, please?

He mentions owning a 5-foot shelf of Rilke books. I almost said he “boasts” of it, but it’s not a literary boast; he brags about how they look, not about their wonderfulness:

By now I have a 5-foot shelf of books just by Rilke himself, let alone of books about him; and still there is no end in sight. I could never throw the stuff away. It looks too good.

Culture as acquisition: bragging about the books he owns but doesn’t necessarily read. It seems to me that such a vision of culture is not unrelated to amnesia -- or maybe his title should be Cultural Sleepwalking.

This quote is straight out of the dumb-assiest American political blah blah blah circa Y2K:

Rilke had too much civilization, just as Brecht had too little: Their matching deviations from normality make both of them toxic company. Take the two together and you barely end up with one man you would want to have a drink with.

Now, I wouldn’t trust Brecht, and I’m not sure I would trust Rilke either, but the question isn’t whether I would choose them as friends, it is whether I would want to converse with them for an evening. They were both brilliant minds and extremely accomplished artists. But Clive James wouldn’t want to talk with them. Why? They’re too deviant. Conversation is not a site for intellectual challenge or play. Evidently it is a place to have one’s prejudices confirmed. Artists are valuable for marking the limits of the norm; they’re exotic, toxic specimens, to be kept at a distance.

His view of what he is obviously touting as “high culture” is: It’s that stuff they taught at college that you should know just well enough to banter condescendingly about over a drink; nothing to try to engage with on its own terms, nothing to pay the respect of trying to understand or remember, nothing to wrestle with, nothing to worry about.

Like the kids used to say, whatever, dude. As Rilke said . . .
You must change your life.

* * * *

UPDATE, next day. Via Kevin Cryan, I find that Clive James on Ellington and Coltrane is even worse than he is on Rilke and Brecht. I won't rehearse James's pabulum about how Ellington peaked in the '30s and early '40s, the standard cliche opinion (he did peak then, and he did again from the mid-'50s until about his death, with much longer compositions than James's fetishized 78-rpm record allowed); and I won't go into a defense of the manifold beauties and intensities of post-bop. If James doesn't like it, that's fine. But it's simply false to enlist Ellington in rhetorical war against free jazz. The fabulous albums Money Jungle, Piano in the Foreground, Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane all show Ellington being influenced by free jazz, not to mention his composition from the 1940s, "The Clothed Woman," some of whose features anticipate free jazz.

James uses Ellington to beat up on Coltrane, without ever mentioning that they recorded together. He claims that Ellington thought bop a fraud. Here's Ellington on both topics, from his wondrous autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, p. 244:

The only time I had the privilege of working John Coltrane was a record date. It was a very interesting session. We recorded some of his tunes with his rhythm section, and some of mine with my rhythm section. [Actually, they only recorded one Coltrane tune, and they mixed the rhythm sections on different numbers, to beautiful effect -- ed.] No hassle, no sweat -- John Coltrane was a beautiful cat. The date flowed so smoothly we did the whole album in one session, and that is rare. I loved every minute of it.

I always liked the bop, and I am proud to say that the fabulous, flamboyant John Birks Gillespie worked in our band once, for four weeks. . . . Of course, I'd known him for quite a while before that, because I was an avid visitor on Fifty-second Street.

Evidently James is staking out an anti-elitist position. But he's doing it falsely and dishonestly and lazily. There's really no argument about sensibility. He doesn't like Ornette Coleman -- fine. Some free jazzers don't like pop music -- fine. Some classical heads don't like anything else -- fine. You're even free to annoy everybody who doesn't agree with you by arguing why the stuff you happen to like is the only good stuff. But if you do it dishonestly or lazily . . . well, Cultural Amnesia really does appear to be a self-diagnosis, doesn't it?

I know, I know, this is excessive -- I wasn't even going to post on any of this, but just leave a quick comment on Slate's comment section, letting Mr. James know that he got his dates wrong on Rilke; but Slate requires commenters to register, and I'm sick of registering everywhere. So, here it is.

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