How Clive James said obvious things

Or, making the self-evident shine, dance, and catch the light

The key to a good compliment is originality. Clive James was, according to The New Yorker, “a brilliant bunch of guys.” That’s so much better than calling him a Renaissance man, a fact James knew in his/their bones.

The critic, poet, novelist, Australian, and TV host died last week at 80. In his lifetime, I knew that he’d:

  1. Said Arnold Schwarzenegger looked like “a brown condom full of walnuts.”

  2. Written The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered, the perfect poem of literary schadenfreude. 

  3. Defined a sense of humour as “common sense, dancing.”

There was much more where that came from. He wrote about Japanese game shows and Hamlet and Orwell and Fellini, and he thought it was all old news. With this, he went out of his way to say it in the most novel way he could.

Or as he put it:

“All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light. There was a time when I got hot under the collar if the critics said I had nothing new to say. Now I realise that they had a point. My field is the self-evident. Everything I say is obvious, although I like to think that some of the obvious things I have said were not so obvious until I said them.”

Let me put a fresh coat of paint on it: Everything you have to say is obvious — so at least say it with a twist. On that note, here’s something obvious: When people die, we say all manner of nice things about them just because we should. Then we promptly forget them.

Is Clive James worth remembering? Will a leisurely flip through his pages cause one to dive deeper based solely on the sparkle of a few good sentences? Based on an enjoyable hour with Cultural Cohesion: The Essential Essays, the answer is yes.

Here’s a passing line about the Library of America series:

“Its volumes begged irresistibly to be picked up, like brilliant children.” 

And here’s his riff on the great apocryphal line wherein Michelangelo says he sculpted David by simply chipping away all the marble that didn’t look like David:

“[Robert] Lowell thinks that he is chipping away the marble to get at the statue. It’s more likely that he is trying to build a statue out of marble chips.”

Of course, an insult is often where the wit burns hottest, and so it’s a pleasure to see how James backs into this one about a shoddy edition of a great book:

“Required Writing would be a treasure house even if every second page were printed upside down. Lacking the technology to accomplish this, the publishers have issued the book in paperback only, with no index, as if to prove that no matter how self-effacing its author might be, they can be even more so on his behalf.”

James was terminally ill for the last decade, the upside of which is he confronted his own mortality at length and with wit. Is there anything original to say about the final subject of them all? Sure, you can use it as an excuse to dunk on Microsoft:

“[W]hen it comes to the last word, I will multi-punch the laptop’s keyboard with my face, my fingers only halfway through the sequence that activates the most sadly beautiful of all modern rubrics, Windows Is Shutting Down. And English grammar are checking out.”


Quick quips; lightning

“Landscape painting is the obvious resource of misanthropy.”
— William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

One of those lines that comes to mind every time you wander through an art gallery.

Among the smaller duties of life I hardly know any one more important than that of not praising where praise is not due.” — Sydney Smith (1771-1845)

By this logic, some of the best criticism is stony silence. 🤐

“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.” — Henry, in The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard (1937-)

Sentimental, but just this once we’ll allow it.


This ends the 23th issue of Get Wit Quick, where common sense does the Macarena each week. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was rarely remaindered, so my enemies can stuff it. Share Clive’s best lines by tapping the ❤️ below.

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