The humanities are everywhere, but humanism is at a premium. So observes British writer and television personality James (As of This Writing, 2003, etc.) in this collection, mixing amateurish delight and scholarly immersion in books and ideas.
It is an uncomfortable fact that a Nazi concentration-camp commander could murder the day away and then, on returning home, weep at a Brahms recording. A mere liking for books, art and music doesn’t make a person good; even Adolf Hitler thought of himself as a humanist, though, James writes, “his connection with the civilized traditions was parodic at best and neurotic always.” James adds elsewhere that the connection was more genuine than Stalin’s and Mao’s, if bested by Hitler’s comrade Goebbels, who kept a massive library and even read the books in it. Most of James’s subjects in this sprawling, sometimes impressionistic gathering of appreciations are the real deal, though. One is the largely forgotten Viennese cabaret performer Egon Friedell, who wrote a strange and centrifugal book and then committed suicide when German troops marched into Austria. Other of James’s quite diverse heroes include Albert Camus, Stefan Zweig, Ernst Robert Curtius, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Dick Cavett, figures who run the range of European humanism, British traditionalism and, well, Nebraskan autodidacticism. James is keen on exploring influences; his essay on Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, draws in the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, who admired Borges’s “world citizenship” and refusal to belong to any club that would have him as a member. (Cioran’s affiliations included the fascist Iron Guard.) James inclines to conservatism, but definitely not reaction; he admires thinkers such as the anticommunist stalwart Jean-François Revel, who “has a lively appreciation of how people can get stuck with a view because it has become their identity,” and he urges the view, quite humane, that humanism is closely bound up with ideals of freedom.
Exemplary cogitations without a trace of jargon or better-read-than-thou condescension.