'It is time to recall what we have lost and to make sure that our children are not deprived of the civilisation that our ancestors fought to preserve'
With the death of John Gross in January, there departed from this world the last of a line. At the outset of his career, he had written the obituary in advance: The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. Now the species seemed finally to be extinct. On a bleak January morning, a small gathering of family and friends said their farewells at Golders Green crematorium. Last month a broad cross section of London and New York literati gave the great critic his final review at a memorial celebration at the Royal Institute of British Architects. The transatlantic flavour of the occasion was underlined by the fact that it was hosted by News International, a token of the esteem in which John’s long service as editor of the Times Literary Supplement and independent director of The Times was held by Rupert Murdoch himself.
The works that John Gross had chosen gave an inkling of his frame of reference. There was poetry by Tennyson, Auden, Hardy, Frost, Larkin, Blake and Swinburne; the readers included Barry Humphries, Claire Tomalin, Victoria Glendinning, Eric Ormsby, Anthony Thwaite and Christopher Ricks. The recorded music was no less richly varied: Robert Lloyd sang a song from Schubert’s Winterreise, Ella Fitzgerald sang Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love”, Kathleen Ferrier sang “The Keel Row”, John McCormack sang “Oft In The Stilly Night”, Ira Pilgrim sang “Der Rebbe Elimelech” in Yiddish, and Paul Robeson sang “Shenandoah”. Though this selection represented only an infinitesimal smattering of Gross’s vast and eclectic erudition, it was enough to conjure up his presence.
So too did the addresses by Lord Weidenfeld, David Pryce-Jones and Martin Amis. The latter told one or two stories against himself, explaining what a good TLS editor Gross had been: correcting him for beginning successive paragraphs with the same word (“careful writers don’t do it; careless writers do”), or telling him that he could not possibly mean to describe his subject (The Picture of Dorian Gray) as “scatological”. “How about eschatological?” Amis replied. “Not that either,” said Gross. “Then what do I mean?” “Mythopoeic?” “Ah, that’s exactly what I mean!” Barry Humphries read Stevie Smith’s “On the Death of a German Philosopher” with due solemnity, then brought the house down by adding: “Can anyone here tell me what it means?” The assembled lords, ladies and laureates were reminded of their mortality by Robert Frost: “Too many fall from great and good/For you to doubt the likelihood.” Copious quantities of champagne were not enough to drown our sorrow at the loss, not only of a great man, but of the intellectual life that he lived and that future generations may live no more.
The heirs of Western civilisation had gathered together to honour the last man of letters. It was a unique gesture. But was it futile? They could not resurrect a vanished way of life. What kind of civilisation, then, do we have? And is it worth living and dying for? Books are still written and some are read, even if most are gathering dust as readers migrate to instant forms of cultural gratification. Music and drama are still performed; art is still exhibited. History, philosophy, science and religion are still debated; universities are more universal than ever. Humanity is flourishing and so are the humanities. At least, so we are assured by, for example, David Willetts, the universities minister, who told the British Academy last month: “Quite simply, the humanities and social sciences are essential to a civilised country.” Do we care any longer, though, about whether Britain is a civilised country? If so, how do we know?
In his book-length poem, The Age of Anxiety, W.H. Auden tried to capture the zeitgeist of his era. Well, we long ago entered a different period: the age of amnesia. It is an age in which everything is stored, but nothing is remembered. It is not only the men and women of letters who are passing away. It is also the men and women who would once have read their books and magazines. Is amnesia an improvement on anxiety?
In a grim mood, Larkin wrote “Wants”, which begins: “Beyond all this, the wish to be alone”, and concludes: “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.” We have all been through such dark times. But does Larkin’s line apply to our civilisation as a whole? No, not if Standpoint can help it. The age of amnesia has lasted long enough. It is time to usher in the age of remembrance, the remembrance of things past. It is time to recall what we have lost and to make sure that our children are not deprived of the civilisation that our ancestors fought to preserve. As Clive James says in his great critique of our age, Cultural Amnesia, “There never was a time like now to be a lover of the arts[…]One can plausibly aspire to seeing, hearing and reading everything that matters.” Indeed one can — but how many do so? Intellectual ambition should be valued, not despised. That is why the example that John Gross leaves us is so precious. Polymaths of the world, unite: you have nothing to lose but your modesty.