Notes & Comments December 2007
Lapham’s latest folly
On the inaugural issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.
The notebooks of the English aesthete Geoffrey Madan (1895–1947) are a trove of amusing aperçus, anecdotes, and apothegms. Among the many memorable gems Madan collected was the description of one now-forgotten character as “an intellectual without an intellect.” We thought of that observation while contemplating the inaugural issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, which rolled off the press last month. It’s been a few years since we’ve had occasion to notice Lewis H. Lapham in this space. In October 2004, we reported on “Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill.” This 7,500-word philippic appeared in the September 2004 issue of Harper’s, the magazine Mr. Lapham edited, with a brief hiatus in the early 1980s, from 1976 to 2006. What recommended “Tentacles of Rage” to the public’s attention was not the heat of its invective—shrill and irresponsible though that was—but its mendacity. As we pointed out at the time, the piece was littered with falsehoods, the most notorious of which was his “account” of some speeches at the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden. “While listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin,” Mr. Lapham intoned, “I remembered …” Listened? Remembered? Alas, Mr. Lapham neglected to take the elementary precaution of publishing his piece after the event he was reporting on, so his fabrication was not only obvious but irrefutable. Confronted with his dereliction, Mr. Lapham waxed petulant: OK, so he made it up: he didn’t actually have to listen to what was said because he already knew the kinds of things Republicans always say.
Given Mr. Lapham’s cavalier disregard for historical fact, it is ironical (not to say contemptibly risible) that he should embark in his twilight years on a new magazine ostensibly dedicated to history, a discipline that requires a disinterested respect for the truth, for what was actually said and done, not what one wishes had been. To judge from the inaugural issue, Lapham’s Quarterly will be a curious (and, we predict, a short-lived) adventure. It is lavishly produced—lots of color illustrations and the like—but overdesigned and almost unreadable. The 224 pages of Volume 1, Number 1—entitled “States of War”—contain a handful of original essays, but the journal consists mostly of promiscuous gleanings from the past. The “among the contributors” page includes Winston Churchill, Sultan Selim I, Herodotus, Homer, Mark Twain. Elizabeth I, Sun Tzu, Joseph Goebbels, George S. Patton, and William Shakespeare—helpfully identified as “poet, dramatist, magister ludi of the English language.” (The sophomoric identifications provide a good index of the sensibility behind Lapham’s Quarterly: St. Augustine, for example, is identified as “a Roman magistrate transformed into a bishop of the early Church, [who] formulated his notion of Christian morality as a response to his having been sorely tempted by a peach.”)
The pretentiousness adumbrated in that list emerges with febrile ostentation in “The Gulf of Time,” Mr. Lapham’s lengthy “Preamble.” Consider the first two sentences:
During my years as editor of Harper’s Magazine, I could rely on the post office to mark the degree to which I was living in what Goethe surely would have regarded as straitened circumstances. Every morning at ten o’clock, I sat down to a desk occupied by five newspapers and seven periodicals (four of them embroiled in politics, the others concerned with socio-economic theory or scientific discovery), three volumes of ancient or modern history (the War of 1812, the death of Christopher Marlowe, the life of Suleiman the Magnificent), a public opinion poll sifting America’s attitude toward family values and assault weapons, and at least fifteen manuscripts, solicited and unsolicited, whose authors assured me in their cover letters that they had unearthed, among other items of interest, the true reason for the Kennedy assassinations and the secret of the universe.
And so it goes for 3,500 words.
Writing about the playwright Harold Pinter, Mark Steyn once described the “Pinteresque” as “a pause, followed by a non sequitur.” Mr. Lapham never pauses. His command of inconsequentiality has elicited comment for years. Along with his patrician drawing-room leftism, it is his trademark as a journalist. “When I complicate the proceedings with a superimposition of marginalia reaching across a distance of fifty years and written while traveling in cities as unlike one another as Chicago and Havana, I can begin to guess at what the physicists have in mind when they talk about the continuum of space and time.” What can we say? Mr. Lapham has mastered the art of transforming sentences into little semantic train wrecks: They begin on track, but then swerve unpredictably. Well, not quite unpredictably. Mr. Lapham’s logic is errant, but his ideology is as disciplined as it is predictable. “About the methods of pacifying cities bloodied by civil war, I learn more from Machiavelli’s Discourses or the Memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman than from the testimony of General David Petraeus or the commentary on Fox News.” Do you really?
The pretentiousness of Lapham’s Quarterly is irritating; Mr. Lapham’s incontinent logic is disorienting; but perhaps what is most disturbing about this journalistic spectacle is the way it stymies forthright discussion of an important, if widely recognized, issue. Mr. Lapham is certainly right that our culture’s addiction to the present, to the ephemeral, bequeaths us an intellectual poverty that is at the same time a recipe for moral and political folly. But by swaddling that important commonplace with his baroque, politically tendentious verbiage, Mr. Lapham makes it vastly more difficult to acknowledge, let alone address, the disaster of historical nescience. It is also worth noting that Mr. Lapham eagerly aided and abetted the addiction to the present when he was editor of Harper’s through such monuments to triviality as the Harper’s index. Lapham’s Quarterly is not so much a response to as a symptom of the cultural cataclysm it pretends to diagnose.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 4, on page 1
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