Learning by Heart

I’m reading Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, picked-up along with his much acclaimed new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. More on the latter later.

The title resonated with a recent quote from Eagleton in Culture and the Death of God:

Like most avant-gardists,
[… when it comes to Christian culture …]
Nietzsche is a devout amnesiac.

Tend to forget, brought up on James’s quick fire TV and Magazine pieces, that he’s a seriously polyglot, well-read poet and cultural historian, pulling in references he’s clearly read in the original French, German, Russian and Italian, not to mention Spanish / Portuguese and classical Greek and Latin. You can hear his voice in the rhythmic prose delivery, but the content is both wide and deep.

I’m only up to the C’s but already loving it. It’s a series of essays, loosely-based on named individuals, triggered by contemporary marginal notes from his 20th century readings, then arranged (arbitrarily) in alphabetical order. Many recurring themes; popular culture naturally, the Jews, world-wars I & II, American cultural dominance from his antipodean perspective – but the common thread is the poetry, with Dante leading the field. The expression of culture in well crafted phrasing of the day, often borrowed, evolved by judicious selection (or typesetter’s error) and re-purposed from another day.

So many people and references new to me, but so far all excellent, absolutely wonderful. Exemplary piece on Gianfranco Contini analysing poetic criticism on “rules” of rhyme and rhythm, and the concept of “learning  by heart”. The latter we may pejoratively translate as almost robotic or mechanical – uh oh – don’t forget the heart. It’s a kind of imperfect recall compression skill that comes from real learning and near-perfect appreciation. Fascinating.

Another from Contini: You heard the idea of no such thing as problems, only opportunities ? Well try this

The departure point for inspiration is the obstacle.
[Varianti – essays 1938-68]

A cheaper, less inspiring idea for a book it’s hard to imagine, which means James’ imaginative content stands by itself. An immense and unexpected pleasure, and being in essay form, an easy piecemeal read, no rush.

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