The Meaning of Recognition: New Essays 2001-2005 Hardcover – 21 Oct 2005
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'These insightful essays cover subjects as diverse as the
Holocaust and Bing Crosby...his brilliantly argued essay utterly
-- Sunday Times
People read James's essays because to do so is...fun.
-- Guardian --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
A dazzling new collection -- insightful, illuminating and intelligent as everSee all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
seemed, at every stride he took, to look about him as though he were saying, `Can anybody have the goodness to indicate any subject, in any direction, on which I am uninformed? I rather think not.
But CJ writes so well you forgive him his omniscience. His genius is to evoke and illuminate works from any field of human culture and, whether he delights in it or thinks it is a turkey, to dazzle you with his brilliantly realised insights and startling similes. He assigns daring and unfamiliar functions and roles to words which, as if tired of their quotidian workload, they joyfully embrace, ecstatic about being asked to broach subjects beyond their bog-standard range, and to repay the debt with a bravura performance, dancing off the page and pirouetting around the mind of the reader. You want to read the book, listen to the music, watch the film - whatever piece of work he is exploring, you needs must explore it too, with his ideas in mind. From Australian poets you've never heard of - Philip Hodgkins, David Malouf, through an obscure Pole, murdered by the Nazis, whose sole work consists of two slim volumes of short stories and up to the best (and worst) of popular entertainment - the Sopranos, Bing Crossby, Big Brother, CJ captures them all, pins them to the wall and lets us understand how they work - or do not work - their magic.
Bing Crossby for example;
was the man on the spot when the microphones got good enough to be canoodled with, as if they had hair to be stroked. .....as if the microphone could hear him think. (His voice) had a tenor top to it, conferring the precious gift of allowing him to relax into the upper register. ....Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
James combines the ability to be extremely funny with being highly intelligent. Some of the essays are gems and laugh out loud, especially the last. His essays on the television programs West Wing and the Sopranos are both insightfull and a delight to read.
The book also reflects James drift to the right. He is a person who sees himself as a social democrat but he is clearly becoming impatient with do goodist leftism or simple ideological positions. The interesting thing is his impression of Australia. James left at a time when a large number of talented people in the arts left thinking Australia a backwater. Now he thinks about it differently. Australia of course has changed in the forty or so years since he left but there is an acknowledgement of the fact that the backwater tag perhaps missed something. That is that Australia is one of the oldest and best functioning democracies around. It has a spirit of egalaterianism which perhaps characterises it. His essays on Britian suggest a gentle decay. London a city with a dreadful subway system strange functionalist white elephants like the Millenium Dome. Compared to this was Sydney at the height of its glory during the olympics. Of course this simply could be a bit of grovelling hoping to push up the Australian sales. Regardless the essays are not only the product of one of the most intelligent cultured minds going around but they are some of the funniest going around as well.
Having been enamored with James's "Cultural Amnesia" (one of the ten best books I read in 2009), I bought THE MEANING OF RECOGNITION when I stumbled across it somewhere. It is a collection of about thirty essays James wrote between 2001 and 2005. The subjects are quite diverse, including Alexander Pushkin, Bruno Schulz, Primo Levi, Isaiah Berlin, the television series "The West Wing" and "The Sopranos", Australian poetry, Bing Crosby, Sarah Raphael, and Formula One racing (I skipped that essay).
Despite that eclecticism, there are several themes that recur from time to time. One has to do with the cult of celebrity that plagues Western "culture", and its opposite, which James tabs "recognition", where you are known "for what you have done, and quite often the person who knows what you have done has no idea of what you look like." Another has to do with the fact that "the mass-psychotic passion for celebrity", at bottom, is "one of the luxurious diseases" of Western liberal democracy, where standards of taste or spiritual unity cannot be mandated.
James does have his weaknesses. First, he tends to be verbose. In almost every essay, he could have made his point(s) in half the words, but he can't resist making a point multiple times if he sees multiple clever ways of doing so. Panache trumps efficiency. Second, the book is not entirely free of claptrap or pretentious nattering. But such instances are more than offset by the plenitude of sharp, oft-idiosyncratic observations.
The epigraph to the book is "No fixed idea except to avoid fixed ideas", from Robert Musil. As James points out repeatedly, those fixed ideas are as likely to come from the "left" as from the "right". For either side, information is hard to come by, "especially if your ears [are] stopped because your mouth [is] permanently wide open."
One subject on which James's writing is fresh and stimulating is the Palestinian/Israeli quagmire. He begins an essay entitled "The University of the Holocaust" (a mythical institution at which most Arabs have never studied) as follows:
"For the Israelis, anti-Semitism is merely a nightmare. For the Palestinians, it's a catastrophe. If you believe, as I do, that the Palestinians' cause is just nothing could be more depressing than to hear them spout the very stuff that guarantees they will never get an even break."
In other words, the state of Israel is an historical fait accompli, which Arabs and, in particular, Palestinians need to recognize and accept. As long as extremists from Hezbollah and Hamas proclaim the desirability of killing any and every Jew (unlike the situation with Israel, where "no Israeli government, however keen on reprisals against terror, has yet proclaimed the desirability of killing any Arab it can reach") the Palestinians have no chance to achieve justice.
In virtually every essay James goes off-road, so to speak, and most of the time it is rewarding to follow him.