Kudos to Lapham for his many years of fine writing. I appreciated how he often made me think and for this rare gift we offer our readers his final piece from Harper’s NOTEBOOK Â Â Â By Lewis H. Lapham
Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times. â€”Gustave Flaubert
Notebook departs this monthÂ from the table of contents, its purposeÂ served and its license expiredÂ after a term of twenty-six years inÂ office. The occasion allows for aÂ fond farewell. The rubric made itsÂ first appearance in March 1984 as aÂ function of the magazineâ€™s redesignÂ that followed by two months Appleâ€™sÂ bringing forth the first of its MacintoshÂ computers. The Internet didnâ€™tÂ exist, the tweet and blog post wereÂ not yet known as forms or fi gures ofÂ speech. Three elements of the redesignÂ (Readings, Annotation, the Index)Â anticipated the sensibility soonÂ to venture forth on the wine-darkÂ sea of cyberspace. Notebook wasÂ rooted in the soils of print, a monthlyÂ reflection on the ways of theÂ world, intended to acquaint theÂ magazineâ€™s readers with the presuppositionsÂ of its editor.
To meet the requirement I undertookÂ to learn to write an essay, aÂ form of literary address at which IÂ hadnâ€™t had much practice but inÂ which, fortunately, I had encounteredÂ most of the authors in whoseÂ company I had learned to read.Â Also fortunately, my understandingÂ of what constituted an essay wasÂ sufficiently non-restrictive to accountÂ for the letters of Seneca asÂ well as Twainâ€™s sketches and Thurberâ€™sÂ fables, Flaubertâ€™s Dictionary, Poor Richardâ€™s Almanack, Gibbonâ€™sÂ notes on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, together with theÂ miscellaneous observations of Plutarch,Â Swift, Strachey, Guedalla,Â Diderot, Lincoln, Chesterton,Â Mencken, DeVoto, Bolitho, Hazlitt,Â and Voltaire. A long list that becameÂ even longer when I added theÂ names of the living authors, amongÂ them Connell, Didion, Galeano,Â Leonard, Lopez, Hoagland, Dillard,Â Karp, Rodriguez, Ehrenreich, Fairlie,Â Keizer, Hitchens, Geng, andÂ Robinson, whose essays I had theÂ chance to publish in Harperâ€™s Magazine during the administrations ofÂ five American presidents.
The names are representative,Â meant to suggest the range of expressionÂ and the wealth of possibilityÂ that I rope into a notion of theÂ essay borrowed from Michel deÂ Montaigne. The sixteenth-centuryÂ French autobiographer, a contemporaryÂ of Shakespeare and Cervantes,Â derived the approach to hisÂ topics from the meaning of theÂ word essai, from essayer (to try, toÂ embark upon, to attempt), askingÂ himself at the outset of his reflections,Â whether on cannibals or theÂ custom of wearing clothes, â€œWhatÂ do I know?â€ The question distinguishesÂ the essay from the less adventurousÂ forms of expositoryÂ proseâ€”the dissertation, the polemic,Â the article, the campaign speech,Â the tract, the op-ed, the arrest warrant,Â the hotel bill. Writers determinedÂ to render a judgment orÂ swing an election, to cast a moneylenderÂ out of a temple or deliver aÂ message to Garcia, begin the firstÂ paragraph knowing how, when,Â where, and why they intend toÂ claim the privilege of the last word.Â Not so the essayist, even if what heÂ or she is writing purports to be aÂ history or a field report. LikeÂ Twainâ€™s Huckleberry Finn, the essayistÂ lights out for the territories,Â never sure of the next sentence untilÂ the words show up on the page.Â Thus an improvisation, experimentalÂ and provisional, amenable toÂ multiple shifts of perspective,Â quickly changed, with only a slightÂ tinkering of emphasis or circumstance,Â into a sales pitch or a sermon.Â Which probably is why BenjaminÂ Franklin treated the essay asÂ the literary device best suited to theÂ restlessness of the American spiritÂ in a hurry to settle a new line ofÂ country, fi nd a fortune, assemble aÂ body politic, compose the portraitÂ of a convincing self. Daniel Boorstin,Â the historian and once-upona-Â time Librarian of Congress,Â touched on the same point whenÂ describing the makeshift characterÂ of the colonial experience:
No prudent man dared to be too certainÂ of exactly who he was or what heÂ was about; everyone had to be preparedÂ to become someone else. To beÂ ready for such perilous transmigrationsÂ was to become an American.
Carry the observation around theÂ next bend in the river or up into theÂ next stand of cottonwood trees, andÂ the essayist, like it or not, willinglyÂ or no, becomes, as per the advisoryÂ once issued by another LibrarianÂ of Congress, the poet ArchibaldÂ MacLeish, â€œthe dissenter [who] is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.â€
Easier said than done, the thinking for oneself. I was never very good at it, and an opinion I always found hard to come by. The monthly Notebook called for remarks somehow related to something visible in the newsâ€”scandal in Washington, war in Israel, moneyÂ in Hollywood, sex in Connecticut, divine revelation in Arkansasâ€”but on none of the topics was I equippedÂ with either certain knowledge or inside information. What I was apt to know about President Clinton or Michael Jackson was of a piece with what I was apt to know about Princess Diana or President Bushâ€”i.e.,Â nothing much beyond what Iâ€™d seen on television or read in the newspapers, which, as I remembered from the years in which Iâ€™d worked as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune and a contract journalist for both The Saturday Evening Post and Life, often was even less than nothing much. How then to proceed? By drawing upon the authority of Montaigne, who begins his essay â€œOf Booksâ€ with what would be regarded on both Wall Street and Capitol Hill as a careerending display of transparency:
I have no doubt that I often speak ofÂ things which are better treated by the masters of the craft, and with more truth. This is simply a trial [essai] of my natural faculties, and not of my acquired ones. If anyone catches me in ignorance, he will score no triumph over me, since I can hardly be answerable to another for my reasonings,Â when I am not answerable for them to myself, and am never satisfied with them. . . . These are my fancies, in which I make no attempt to convey information about things, only about myself. I may have some objective knowledge one day, or may perhaps have had it in the past when I happened to light on passages that explained things. But I have forgotten it all; for though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing.
My own case more or less to the letter. When I was thirty I assumed that by the time I was fifty I would know what I was talking about. The notice didnâ€™t arrive in the mail. At fifty I knew less than what I thought I knew at thirty, and so I figured that by the time I was seventy, then surely, this being America, where all the stories supposedly end in the key of C major, I would have come up with a reason to believe that I had been made wise. Now Iâ€™m seventy-five, and I see no sign of a dog with a bird in its mouth.
Iâ€™m reminded instead of a story told about Pablo Casals at the age of ninety-three, living in PuertoÂ Rico. A journalist sent forth from New York asked him why he practiced the cello every morning for four hours. Here he was, the most famous cellist in the world, no longer performing on the concert stage, at ease in the Caribbean sun. Why then the unnecessary labor? Because, so Casals is reported to have said, Iâ€™mÂ learning something.
I approach the act and art of writing with the same hope. I never know what I think about anythingâ€”the stains on Monica Lewinskyâ€™s blue dress, O. J. Simpsonâ€™s golf swing, a â€œwar on terrorâ€ declared against an unknown enemy and an abstract noun, the mystery of the Laffer Curve, the death and transfiguration of Ronald Reaganâ€”unless and until I try to set up a thought in a sentence or catch it in the butterfly net ofÂ a metaphor.
Construe the essay as a thinking out loud, and by its improvisational nature it inclines in the direction of poetry or music, the language meant to be heard, not seen. On the opening of a book or the looking into a manuscript I listen for the sound of a voice in the first-person singular, and from authors whom I read more than once I learn to value the weight of words and to delight in their meter and cadenceâ€”in Gibbonâ€™s polyphonic counterpoint and Guedallaâ€™s command of the subjunctive, in Dillardâ€™s similes, in Twainâ€™s invectives and burlesques with which he set the torch of his ferocious wit to the hospitality tents of the worldâ€™s â€œcolossal humbug.â€
The work never got easier, but neither did it lose its character as play. Notebook was a speculation on whatever was then the current market in ideas, and I was more interested in the wandering of the mind than in the harnessing of it to the bandwagons of social andÂ political reform. I welcomed revisions pursued through six or seven drafts as chances to improve a choice of word, experiment with the uses of satire, control the balance of a subordinate clause, replace the adjective with a noun.Â The best that I hoped for was a manuscript that required not only the shifting around of a few paragraphsÂ but also the abandonment of its postulates and premise.
My object was to learn, not preach, which prevented my induction into the national college of pundits but encouraged my reading of history. Again I borrowed the method of Montaigne, who measured the worth of his own observations against those that he came across in the archive of classical antiquity, most reliably in the writings of Plutarch and Seneca. I soon discovered that I had as much to learn from the counsel of the dead as I did from the advice and consent ofÂ the living. The reading of history damps down the impulse to slander the trend and tenor of the times, instills a sense of humor, lessens our fear about what might happen tomorrow.Â On listening to President Barack Obama preach the doctrine of freedom-loving military invasion to the cadets at West Point, Iâ€™m reminded of the speeches that sent the Athenian army to its destruction in Sicily in 415 b.c., and I donâ€™t have to wait for dispatches from Afghanistan to suspect that the shooting script for the Pax Americana is a tale told by an idiot. In the newsmagazines I read about the unhygienic environments imperiling theÂ health and safety of the AmericanÂ people (pesticides in the rivers, carcinogensÂ in the soup, cigaretteÂ smoke in the park), and somehow IÂ take comfort in the long life andÂ splendor of Louis XIV, who is said toÂ have bathed only once during theÂ years 1647â€“1711. Water was underÂ suspicion in seventeenth-centuryÂ Christian Europe, and except in theÂ baptismal font bathing was to beÂ avoided because it invited sin. ConfrontedÂ with the malfunction of theÂ critics handing out the nationâ€™s literaryÂ prizes I grant them the excuseÂ of an historical precedent, bearingÂ in mind President Teddy Rooseveltâ€™sÂ opinion of Henry James (â€œa miserableÂ little snobâ€), of Thomas PaineÂ (â€œfilthy little atheistâ€), of Leo TolstoyÂ (â€œa sexual and moral pervertâ€).Â On being informed by the propagandaÂ ministries of the RepublicanÂ right that money is a synonym forÂ peace on earth and good will towardÂ men, that the capitalist freeÂ market is virtue incarnate, I resistÂ the call for a standing ovation byÂ remembering that Hugo BossÂ dressed Hitlerâ€™s troops, that theÂ Ford Motor Company in the 1930sÂ outfitted the Wehrmacht with itsÂ armored trucks, that the RockefellerÂ Foundation fi nanced the prewarÂ medical research meant to confirm Nazi theories of racialÂ degeneration.
The common store of ourÂ shared history is what Goethe hadÂ in mind when he said that the inabilityÂ to â€œdraw on three thousandÂ years is living hand to mouth.â€ ItÂ isnâ€™t with symbolic icons that menÂ make their immortality. They do soÂ with what theyâ€™ve learned on theirÂ travels across the frontiers of theÂ millennia, salvaging from theÂ wreck of time what they find to beÂ useful or beautiful or true. WhatÂ preserves the voices of the greatÂ authors from one century to theÂ next is not the recording deviceÂ (the clay tablet, the scroll, the codex,Â the book, the computer, theÂ iPad) but the force of imaginationÂ and the power of expression. It isÂ the strength of the words themselves,Â not their product placement,Â that invites the play of mind andÂ induces a change of heart. AcknowledgmentÂ of the fact lightensÂ the burden of mournful prophecyÂ currently making the rounds of theÂ media trade fairs. I listen to anguishedÂ publishers tell sad storiesÂ about the disappearance of booksÂ and the death of Western civilization,Â about bookstores selling catÂ toys and teddy bears, but I donâ€™tÂ find myself moved to tears. On theÂ sorrows of Grub Street the sun neverÂ sets, but it is an agony of Mammon,Â not a hymn to Apollo. TheÂ renders of garments mistake theÂ container for the thing contained,Â the book for the words, the iPod forÂ the music. The questions in handÂ have to do with where the profit,Â not the meaning, is to be found,Â who collects what tolls from whichÂ streams of revenue or consciousness.Â
The same questions accompaniedÂ the loss of the typewriter andÂ the Linotype machine, underwroteÂ the digging of the Erie Canal andÂ the building of Commodore Vanderbiltâ€™sÂ railroads, the rigging ofÂ the nationâ€™s television networksÂ and telephone poles, and I expectÂ them to be answered by one orÂ more corporate facilitators withÂ both the wit and the bankroll toÂ float the pretense that monopoly isÂ an upgraded synonym for a freeÂ press, â€œprioritizedâ€ and â€œcontextsensitive,â€Â offering â€œquicker accessÂ to valued customers.â€
The more interesting questionsÂ are epistemological. How do weÂ know what we think we know? WhyÂ is it that the more information weÂ collect the less likely we are to graspÂ what it means? Possibly because aÂ montage is not a narrative, the earÂ is not the eye, a pattern recognitionÂ is not a figure or a form of speech.Â The surfeit of new and newer newsÂ comes so quickly to hand that withinÂ the wind tunnels of the â€œinnovativeÂ delivery strategiesâ€ the dataÂ blow away and shred. The time isÂ always now, and what gets lost is allÂ thought of what happened yesterday,Â last week, three months orÂ three years ago. Unlike moths andÂ fruit flies, human beings bereft ofÂ memory, even as poor a memory asÂ Montaigneâ€™s or my own, tend to becomeÂ disoriented and confused. IÂ know no other way out of what isÂ both the maze of the eternal presentÂ and the prison of the self exceptÂ with a string of words.