It’s been ten years since the first issue of Lapham’s Quarterly appeared on newsstands. In that decade, Lewis H. Lapham has written forty-one essays to introduce readers to forty-one different topics, connecting his own life and the current moment to thousands of years of writing abut current moments and lives past. Below are excerpts from his preambles to all of our back issues, on everything from magic shows to the sea, as well as links so you can go back in time and revisit them all. You can read the preamble from our tenth-anniversary issue here.
As a college student, I acquired the habit of reading with a pencil in my hand, and, in books that I’ve encountered more than once, I discover marginalia ten or forty years out of date, most of it amended or revised to match a change in attitude or plan. In a worn copy of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in what I take to be my handwriting at age nineteen, I find a series of exclamation points subsequently crossed out and accompanied by the remark, in my handwriting circa the age of thirty, “Too romantic.” In a biography of Aaron Burr, I come across a note, “Too cynical,” corrected at a later date and with a different pen, by the further note, “Maybe not.” Reading the work of authors reporting from the front lines of different centuries, it sometimes happens that I find myself at different periods in the history of the same map coordinates—Herodotus and T.E. Lawrence exploring the deserts of Arabia; George Orwell, Martin Amis, and Samuel Johnson tempted by the seductions of London. 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.
Apparently we have a genius for holding in mind innumerable sets of incompatible beliefs, at ease with the assumption that America is most itself when most at odds with itself, when passions of more or less equal weight and intensity balance one another in a unified field of mutual suspicion. Money in the American imagination comes in so many colors, shapes, and hat sizes that it would need a library of Christmas catalogues to list them in alphabetical or preferential order.
Whitman’s willingness to see the beauty in a city street runs counter to the sermons of our own more zealous preachers of the environmental gospel. Appalled by the immense damage done to God’s green earth by mankind’s invasions of its privacy, they draw so severe a distinction between what is “natural” (the good, the true, and the beautiful) and what is “artificial” (wicked, man-made, false) that when inflamed by sentiments of a match with those of Robinson Jeffers and George Marsh, they equate humanity with vermin, civilization with disease. Fond thoughts of the purifying fire soon to descend from heaven blind them to the only hope of saving Tuvalu and the whales. Attribute to mankind the sins of pride, envy, gluttony, and sloth, as well as limitless reserves of farm-fresh stupidity and virgin greed, and it’s no trouble to make a long list of horrific consequences both intended and unintended—carbon dioxide degrading the atmosphere, mercury in the rivers, acid in the rain, disintegrating coral reefs and drowning polar bears. All true and not so beautiful, but how do we come to count the costs, much less learn to correct the mistakes, if not by means both man-made and corruptible?
To conceive of an education as a commodity (as if it were a polo pony or an Armani suit) is to construe the idea of democracy as the freedom of a market instead of a freedom of the mind. I can understand why the mistake is both easy and convenient to make, but unless we stop telling ourselves that America is best understood as the sum of its gross domestic product, we stand little chance of reimagining our history or reengineering our schools. The businessmen concerned about the quality of the domestic help might as well be talking about the operation of a fried chicken franchise or the manufacture of automobile tires—impose uniform rules and procedures, cut costs, teach the kitchen staff to speak English, upgrade the dress code, simplify the standardized tests, fry the chicken in whale oil instead of recycled bacon grease. In the uplands of the higher learning the custodians of Western civilization speak of moving Aristotle to the night shift and reconfiguring the library as a day care center. The recommendations don’t hold much promise of finding a phoenix in the ashes.
Having come of age in the late forties, I’d been reliably informed, on the authority of Rudyard Kipling and in accordance with the wisdom of the Anglican church, that body and soul didn’t go to the same dancing classes. What I could see of the American way of life at the time confirmed the ruling. At the movies husbands and wives couldn’t be seen occupying the same bed, and children were brought into the world by storks. Booksellers banned the sale of novels depicting either the hero or the heroine in a state of wanton undress; to publish a picture of a pubic hair was a criminal offense; a woman’s place was in the home; and sex was something that happened in France.
At a New England boarding school and college in the mid-fifties it was disclosed that sex had also been known to occur in eighteenth-century England and in imperial Rome.
For whatever the reasons, I no longer can look at the Hollywood staging of crime scenes, whether on the old American frontier or in the new Miami Beach hotels, without thinking of them as lullabies meant to comfort an audience believing itself surrounded by enemies of infinite number—by Arab terrorists and cutthroat California mortgage salesmen, by Colombian drug lords, Mexican immigrants, cigarette smoke, and microbes in the peanut butter. Strong measures clearly being called for, the producers of the cinematic palliative over the last twenty years have upgraded the synthetic violence and strengthened the bloody anodynes, the American bald eagles armed with supernatural powers and semiautomatic rifles, sometimes with antitank weapons, setting off bigger explosions, inflicting uglier wounds, producing more generous flows of make-believe blood. John Ford had it right. Replace the story with the myth, and the jig is not yet up. Safe behind popcorn boxes and fortified with Raisinets, the movie-going public, increasingly hard-pressed to cling to its perch in the increasingly precarious American Eden, can let go of its fear of the world outside the cineplex and drift quietly off to sleep knowing that somewhere in the city Batman is gunning down the panic in the streets.
Although nobody handed me a sheet of instructions before boarding the plane to Lisbon with my younger brother in the summer of 1954, I understood that I was setting forth on the pilgrim road to an uplifted soul. Twenty years old and safely through my sophomore year at college, I’d paid close enough attention to the surveys of Western Civilization to know that the route map of “The Grand Tour” had been clearly marked both by the sons of eighteenth-century British dukes and the wives of nineteenth-century American railroad barons. The accommodations weren’t as gracious as in the days when Henry James sailed for England with steamer trunks and a silver tea service, or as richly appointed as when Horace Walpole at Rome in 1740 could say to a friend, “I would buy the Colosseum if I could,” but the itinerary hadn’t been much changed over the distance of two hundred years, and neither had its self-improving purpose. The sights were still there to be seen, and one was expected to take notes.
I know that dying is un-American and nowhere mentioned in our contractual agreement with Providence, but absent some sort of renegotiation of the country’s arms-control treaty with death, I don’t know how we avoid dismembering the American body politic with the electromagnetic scalpels of our computer-generated fear. Any system that construes medical care as profit-bearing merchandise is by definition dysfunctional. The attempt to mark down the gifts of the human spirit to the measure of their weight in gold is an idiocy along the lines of the nineteenth-century attempt to cure tuberculosis by removing one lobe of an infected lung and filling the vacancy with ping-pong balls.
God is the greatest of man’s inventions, and we are an inventive people, shaping the tools that in turn shape us, and we have at hand the technology to tell a new story congruent with the picture of the earth as seen from space instead of the one drawn on the maps available to the prophets wandering the roads of the early Roman Empire.
Both at home and at school in the 1940s, I kept company with authors in whose writing I could hear the music in the words, in the novels of Joseph Conrad, Edward Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire, the poems of Coleridge and Kipling. I’m still subject to the predisposition. On first opening a book that I’m not obliged to read for professional reasons, I’m content to let it pass by unless I can hear some sort of melodic line, even if the author offers to name the man who shot Jack Kennedy. With authors of great reputation, I blame myself for whatever fault can be found, and after a decent interval of years I return to the book in question in the hope that I’ve learned to hear what is being said. When I was twenty I didn’t know how to read Ford Madox Ford or George Eliot. By the time I was fifty I no longer could read J.D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway. I’ve yet to learn how to read Finnegans Wake.
Born into the generation taking the field before World War II and raised in a family strongly Anglophile in sentiment, my idea of sport as play complied with the rules in force on the lawns of Victorian England. Prior to the Civil War, the Americans made do with horse racing, cards, boxing, cockfighting, and the early experiments with baseball; from Britain during the second half of the century we imported tennis, golf, soccer, badminton, football, and croquet, the arrival of the games accompanied in the early going by a sense of their proper use that Caroline Alexander attributes to the social graces of the British empire, the correct attitudes borrowed in their turn from Baldassare Castiglione’s Renaissance notion of the perfect gentleman and the amateur sportsman. Sport as a proof of character and a play of mind, rather than a show of strength.
Both my father and my grandfather taught the lesson on the golf course and at the card table. Golf they construed as a trying of the spirit and a searching of the soul. Scornful of what they called “the card-and-pencil point of view,” they looked askance at adding up the mundane trifle of a paltry score. How one plays the game more to the point than whether the game is won or lost. Play the shot and accept the consequences, play the shot and know thyself for a bragging scoundrel or a Christian gentleman. So fundamental was my grandfather’s disdain for mere numbers that at the bridge table he deemed it ungentlemanly to look at his cards before announcing a bid. The sporting gesture sometimes presented the obstacle of recruiting a partner on the premises of San Francisco’s Pacific Union Club, but it never failed to win him a game played for what he regarded as a truly sporting stake.
By the time I read White’s essay “Here Is New York” I was a city-side reporter for the New York Herald Tribune and beginning to suspect what he meant by the city’s capacity to bestow “queer prizes,” among them “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy” that place the inhabitant in “the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.” The meaning of the remark came clear on a cloudy afternoon in Central Park when I came across two men seated on a bench, each with a fanciful parrot resting on his shoulder, engaged in intense discussion accompanied by decisive gestures and rapid changes of expression. The parrots were identical; the two men were as unlike one another as a ferret and a panda—on the near end of the bench a small and heavily damaged white man in a threadbare raincoat, early seventies, not many teeth, sunken chest, furtive demeanor; at the far end of the bench a handsome and handsomely tailored black man, gold jewelry, stylish hat and brocade vest, broad-gauged grin, majestic presence.
In answer to my questions, I was told that the parrots were the only two of their particular species ever to have made it north of the Panama Canal, that the two men had met by accident while out walking their birds on 125th Street, that each had come to regard the other as the only man in America with whom it was possible to hold an important conversation. E.B. White had attributed New York’s “poetical deportment” to the fortunate meeting of minds among people come to town in search of “some greater or lesser grail.” Here then, seated with parrots on a bench in Central Park, was the transfer of energy that is the source of the city light. “The metropolis,” as per the observation of Ezra Pound, as “that which accepts all gifts and all heights of excellence, usually the excellence that is tabu in its own village.” What suburban opinion deplores as abomination (traffic, crime, noise, confiscatory taxes, extortionate rents), the urban disposition regards as the price of escape from the tyranny of the small-town majority, as the cost of the blank canvas (i.e., the gifts of loneliness and privacy) on which to discover the portrait of oneself.
The less that it is understood what politicians do, the more compelling the need to clothe them in an aura like Andy Warhol’s, one that “you can only see…on people you don’t know very well or don’t know at all.” In congressional committee rooms, as on Hollywood banquettes and Wall Street tip sheets, names take precedence over things, the private story over the public act. On air and online, the news from Washington for the most part consists of gossip, suggesting that politics is largely a matter of who said what to whom on the way out of a summit conference or into a men’s room.
Americans with jobs imagine they now work longer and harder hours than did their forebears on Mark Twain’s Missouri frontier; if so, their labor serves a purpose other than the one in hand. Finance accounted for 47 percent of total U.S. corporate profits in 2007; 58 percent of Harvard University’s male graduates in that same year (the heirs and assigns of Woodrow Wilson’s small class of persons deserving of a liberal education) took up careers as high-end traffickers in the drug of debt. It’s a lucrative trade, up to the standard of the cotton export from the dear old antebellum South. That it doesn’t add to the sum of human happiness or meaning is probably why the gentry on the lawns of Connecticut, together with their upper servants in Washington and the news media, talk about the lost battalion of America’s unemployed as a set of conveniently invisible numbers rather than as a body of fellow citizens.
Accustomed to the restrictions imposed on the country’s appetite by the Second World War’s ration books, and raised in a Protestant household that didn’t give much thought to fine dining (one ate to live, one didn’t live to eat), I acquired a laissez-faire attitude toward food that I learn from Michael Pollan resembles that of the Australian koala. The koala contents itself with the eating of eucalyptus leaves, choosing to ignore whatever else shows up in or around its tree. Similarly, the few primitive tastes met with before my tenth birthday—peanut butter and jelly, creamed chicken and rice, the Fig Newton—have remained securely in place for the last sixty-six years, faith-based and conservative, apt to be viewed with suspicion at trendsetting New York restaurants, in one of which last winter my asking about the chance of seeing a baked or mashed potato prompted the waiter to remove the menu from my hand, gently but firmly retrieving the pearl from a swine.
The last-named beneficiary accounts for the media’s preoccupation with what some of our less well-informed critics still insist on deploring as “the bad news.” They miss the point. The bad news is the carnival-barking spiel that sells the good news, which are the advertisements. First, at the top of the network hour, the admonitory row of corpses being loaded into ambulances in Brooklyn or cleared from the streets of Islamabad; second, an inferno of fires burning in California, of bombs exploding in Libya; third, a muster of criminals, political, financial, and sexual, shuffling offstage in chains. The fear of a deadly tomorrow having thus been firmly established, the camera makes its happy return to the always-smiling anchorwoman, and so, with a gracious waving of her snow-white hand, to the previews of salvation sponsored by Jet Blue, Pfizer, and Mercedes-Benz. The lesson is as plain as a medieval morality play. Obey the law, pay your taxes, speak politely to the police officer, and you go to the Virgin Islands on the American Express card. Disobey the law, neglect your mortgage payments, speak rudely to the police, and you go to Kings County Hospital in a body bag.
I don’t discount the news value of a tornado in Missouri or a war in Afghanistan, but neither do I regard them as harbingers of Kingdom Come. It is the business of the future to be dangerous, as it is also the condition of the present, but the manifestations of its ill-will invariably come as a surprise.
I was born into a family derived from ancestors who had settled in New England in the 1630s, brought up listening to stories told about the risings and reversals of its fortunes with the passing of the generations—of honor won at Bunker Hill and Saratoga, reputation lost in the War of 1812; of ship captains in the early China trade, some of whom died safe and rich at home in Maine, others reported missing at sea somewhere west of Hawaii and east of Borneo. The great-grandfather for whom I was named in 1935 had been a founder of what became the Texas Oil Company, which supplied him with a store of wealth that his eldest son, a gambler and a sportsman, managed to utterly destroy. During my grandfather’s term as mayor of San Francisco in the 1940s, various members of the extended family (never-before-seen in-laws, near and distant cousins) gathered for Christmas at his house on Jackson Street to play cards and talk about City Hall politics and the war. Instead of saying grace, my grandfather was given to declaiming “The Wreck of the Hesperus” or “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”; the younger children were expected to know, and if called upon to stand on their chairs and recite, the verses of Rudyard Kipling or Lewis Carroll. Runs of bad luck were to be expected, as it was to be expected that the Walrus and the Carpenter would dine on oysters, or that at least one of the grandchildren would topple face down into the fruit bowl or the soup. To my limited understanding at the age of ten, family was simply the way things were, all present hostages to fortune, value measured out in the uneven distribution of power rather than in a scale of justice or by the degrees of sentiment.
The strength of language doesn’t consist in its capacity to pin things down or sort things out. “Word work,” Toni Morrison said in Stockholm, “is sublime because it is generative,” its felicity in its reach toward the ineffable. “We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Shakespeare shaped the same thought as a sonnet, comparing his beloved to a summer’s day, offering his rhymes as surety on the bond of immortality—“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
As between the natural and the supernatural, I’ve never been much good at drawing firm distinctions. I know myself to be orbiting the sun at the speed of 65,000 miles per hour, but I can’t shake free of the impression shared by Pope Urban VIII, who in 1633 informed Galileo that the earth doesn’t move. So also the desk over which I bend to write, seemingly a solid mass of wood but in point of fact a restless flux of atoms bubbling in a cauldron equivalent to the one attended by the witches in Macbeth. Nor do I separate the reality from the virtual reality when conversing with the airy spirits in a cell phone, or while gazing into the wizard’s mirror of a television screen. What once was sorcery maybe now is science, but the wonders technological of which I find myself in full possession, among them indoor plumbing and electric light, I incline to regard as demonstrations magical.
The inclination apparently is what constitutes a proof of being human, a faculty like the possession of language that distinguishes man from insect, guinea hen, and ape.
Good intentions, like mother’s milk, are a perishable commodity. As wealth accumulates, men decay, and sooner or later an aristocracy that once might have aspired to an ideal of wisdom and virtue goes rancid in the sun, becomes an oligarchy distinguished by a character that Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool”—its members so besotted by their faith in money that “they therefore imagine there is nothing that it cannot buy.”
By no means certain who I was at the age of twenty-four, I was prepared to make adjustments, but my one experiment with psychedelics in 1959 was a rub that promptly gave me pause. Employed at the time as a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner, I was assigned to go with the poet Allen Ginsberg to the Stanford Research Institute there to take a trip on LSD. Social scientists opening the doors of perception at the behest of Aldous Huxley wished to compare the flight patterns of a Bohemian artist and a bourgeois philistine, and they had asked the paper’s literary editor to furnish one of each. We were placed in adjacent soundproofed rooms, both of us under the observation of men in white coats equipped with clipboards, the idea being that we would relay messages from the higher consciousness to the air-traffic controllers on the ground. Liftoff was a blue pill taken on an empty stomach at 9 a.m., the trajectory a bell curve plotted over a distance of seven hours. By way of traveling companions we had been encouraged to bring music, in those days on vinyl LPs, of whatever kind moved us while on earth to register emotions approaching the sublime.
Together with Johann Sebastian Bach and the Modern Jazz Quartet, I attained what I’d been informed would be cruising altitude at noon. I neglected to bring a willing suspension of disbelief, and because I stubbornly resisted the sales pitch for the drug—if you, O Wizard, can work wonders, prove to me the where and when and how and why—I encountered heavy turbulence. Images inchoate and nonsensical, my arms and legs seemingly elongated and embalmed in grease, the sense of utter isolation while being gnawed by rats. To the men in white I had nothing to report, not one word on either the going up and out or the coming back and down. I never learned what Ginsberg had to say. Whatever it was, I wasn’t interested, and I left the building before he had returned from what by then I knew to be a dead-end sleep.
The koala was supposed to be affectionate, comforting, and cute. Of this I was certain because it was the creature of my own invention that for two weeks in the spring of 1959 I’d been presenting to readers of the San Francisco Examiner prior to its release by the Australian government into the custody of the Fleishacker Zoo.
The Examiner was a Hearst newspaper, the features editor not a man to ignore a chance for sure-fire sentiment, my task that of the reporter assigned to provide the advance billing. Knowing little or nothing about animals other than what I’d read in children’s books or seen in Walt Disney cartoons, I cribbed from the Encyclopedia Britannica (Phascolarctos cinereus, ash-colored fur, nocturnal, fond of eucalyptus leaves), but for the most part I relied on A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, the tales of Brer Rabbit, and archival images of President Teddy Roosevelt, the namesake for whom the teddy bear had been created and stuffed, in 1903 by a toy manufacturer in Brooklyn.
Stouthearted, benevolent, and wise, the koala incoming from the Antipodes was the little friend of all the world, and on the day of its arrival at the airport, I was carrying roses wrapped in a cone of newsprint. The features editor had learned his trade in Hollywood in the 1940s, and he had in mind a camera shot of my enfolding a teddy bear in a warm and welcoming embrace. “Lost child found in the wilderness,” he had said. “Lassie comes home.” The koala didn’t follow script. Annoyed by the flashbulbs, clawing furiously at my head and shoulders, it bloodied my shirt and tie, shredded the roses, urinated on my suit and shoes.
Floor-to-ceiling windows in my parents’ house on Fillmore Street faced the broad expanse of San Francisco Bay, as instructive a sight in sun or fog as any that exists in nature, but it was in the room without a view, in my father’s library among the stories told in books, that I learned to look upon the enchantment of the sea. By the time the Ohioan had been reduced to a fragment of the bow in the summer of 1938, it had become a fading memory, and I was on the lookout for pirates on the Spanish Main, for typhoons in the Sunda Strait. Almost as soon as I could read I began with Ishmael’s setting foot aboard the Pequod and with the searching in an atlas for the track of the great white whale. My father patiently untied the knots of metaphor in Melville’s prose, discussed the virtues of Queequeg and Tashtego, appended footnotes about ill-fated ancestors lost in their attempts to round Cape Horn, steered my further reading toward Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to the voyages of Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. Meanwhile, at grammar school in grades five, six, and seven, I was moving up from the Greek gods and heroes, among them Odysseus and his wide-wandering on the wine-dark sea, to the various discoveries of America by Viking seafarers, Christopher Columbus, and the Mayflower, in eighth grade to the battles of Actium and Trafalgar.
A history teacher trained in the philosophies of classical antiquity, Mr. Mulholland was fond of posting on his blackboard long lists of noteworthy last words, among them those of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas More, and Stonewall Jackson. The messages furnished need-to-know background on the news bulletins from Guadalcanal and Omaha Beach, and they made a greater impression on me than probably was expected or intended. By the age of ten, raised in a family unincorporated into the body of Christ, it never once had occurred to me to entertain the prospect of an afterlife. Eternal life may have been granted to the Christian martyrs delivered to the lions in the Roman Colosseum, possibly also to the Muslim faithful butchered in Jerusalem by Richard the Lionheart, but without the favor of Allah or early admission to a Calvinist state of grace, how was one to formulate a closing remark worthy of Mr. Mulholland’s blackboard?
The question came up in the winter of 1953 during my freshman year at Yale College, when I contracted a rare and particularly virulent form of meningitis. The doctors in the emergency room at Grace-New Haven Hospital rated the odds of my survival at no better than a hundred to one. To the surprise of all present, I responded to the infusion of several new drugs never before tested in combination. For two days, drifting in and out of consciousness in a ward reserved for patients without hope of recovery, I had ample chance to think a great thought or turn a noble phrase, possibly to dream of the wizard Merlin in an oak tree or behold a vision of the Virgin Mary. Nothing came to mind.
With Groucho Marx I share the opinion that comedians “are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world,” but the assaying of that commodity—of what does it consist in its coats of many colors, among them cock-sure pink, shit-house brown and dead-end black—is a question that I gladly leave to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Twain’s contemporary who in 1900, took note of its primary components:
The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human...Laughter has no greater foe than emotion.... Its appeal is to the intelligence, pure and simple. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group...must answer to certain requirements of life in common.
Which is to say that all jokes are inside jokes and the butts of them are us, the only animal that laughs but also the only one that is laughed at. The weather isn’t amusing, neither is the sea. Wombats don’t do metaphor or stand-up.
Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.
The days of my youth I remember as nearly always in need of explanation, and not as much fun as advertised in the promotions for board games and breakfast cereal. At prep school I was told, not once, but nearly every week in chapel, to heed the instruction of Shakespeare’s Polonius: above all to my own self be true. Which was all well and good if one knew who or where that self was. I didn’t, but the record shows that it was well wide of the goalposts set up by Colonel Roosevelt for the striving of the good American boy. My application to Yale College in the winter of 1952 required an introductory interview with the authorities in New Haven, and the subsequent letter from Arthur Howe Jr., assistant dean of freshmen, to the assistant headmaster at the Hotchkiss School doesn’t spare the rod at the risk of spoiling the child:
Lapham made a very poor impression on Mr. Noyes and myself, the poorest of any of the fifty-odd boys we interviewed. He appeared with his shirt unbuttoned, ragged tie, torn trousers, sloppy shoes, coat half-way up to the elbows and tousled hair. His manner was casual to the point of being rude at times. His indifference leads me to believe that he is liable to be a very poor candidate for Yale. For his own good I felt this should be brought to his attention.
The consensus currently in vogue apparently holds that the separation between past, present, and future is probably an illusion, certainly a fiction, possibly a steady state in which everything that ever was or is yet to be is contained in a vast universe of eternity that swells but doesn’t move.
For my own part I need no length of measurement or metaphor to know that the past is up and doing in the present, born again in memory or dream at every hour of the day and night, awakening and reawakening itself in the compost heap of human thought that is the history of mankind’s traveling across the frontiers of the millennia.
The American hedge fund princess or prince avoids fraternizing with the local rustics who don’t travel by private plane, can’t afford a private security detail, private school, or personal trainer. The downmarket American becomes as foreign and frightful as a wandering Arab or an African disease—thus providing the command and control centers of American power with monsters both at home and abroad, and therefore (think of it!) with an all-inclusive, equal opportunity Them.
No different from any other loyal American who loves to be fooled, I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t drawn, mothlike, to the candles flickering in the wind of imaginary puissance. As a boy in San Francisco in the 1940s I found the American hero as noble knave and knight errant in comic books and Hollywood-movie palaces, in hard- and soft-boiled detective stories, with the troupe of confidence men performing in books by Mark Twain—Sawyer and Finn, but also the Duke and the Dauphin, the Yankee in King Arthur’s court, the jumping frog of Calaveras County. At boarding school I was introduced to Homer’s Odysseus, “man of twists and turns,” well schooled in the arts of dissimulation by the goddess of wisdom. In the years since I’ve yet to come across a confidence game as satisfactorily played as the heroic exile’s return to Ithaca—the setup in the disguise of feeble old age, the con protracted with the stringing of the great bow, the sting as unerring as the feathered death that did affright the air at Agincourt.
I was employed that year as a writer for the Saturday Evening Post when the publicist called to ask if I would consider traveling with John III to Asia for three months with a view to writing an article about his various projects underway in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, India, East and West Pakistan. I would have access to any and all meetings and negotiations with government officials, bankers, scientists, politicians, and I was to be paid a per diem, with John D. Rockefeller III reserving the right to review the completed manuscript and, if so inclined, to forestall its publication.
I had no objection. I didn’t care whether the article was published or not; I was being given a chance to see the world from a high elevation of wealth and power, as it might have looked to Prometheus from the heights of Olympus.
The coming in and going out of fashion across the millennia doesn’t lend itself to comprehensive history or academic theory. Possibly because fashion possesses what the German philosopher Georg Simmel notices in 1905 as “the quite remarkable quality that each individual fashion to a certain extent makes its appearance as though it wished to live forever...the fact that change itself does not change endows each of the objects which it affects with a psychological shimmer of permanency.” Mortality thinly veiled in immortality, the now briefly glimpsed in its passing on the road to the then.
Prepared for nothing less, I had spent the days prior to the interview reading about Lenin’s train and Stalin’s prisons, the width of the Fulda Gap, the depth of the Black Sea. None of the study was called for. Instead of being asked about the treaties of Brest-Litovsk or the October Revolution, I was asked three questions bearing on my social qualifications for admission into what the young men at the far end of the table clearly regarded as the best fraternity on the campus of the free world:
1. When standing on the thirteenth tee at the National Golf Links in Southampton, which club does one take from the bag?
2. On final approach under sail into Hay Harbor on Fishers Island, what is the direction (at dusk in late August) of the prevailing wind?
3. Does Muffy Hamilton wear a slip?
The first and second questions I answered correctly, but Muffy Hamilton I knew only at a distance. In the middle 1950s she was a glamorous figure on the Ivy League weekend circuit, very beautiful and very rich, much admired for the indiscriminate fervor of her sexual enthusiasms. At the Fence Club in New Haven I had handed her a glass of brandy and milk (known to be her preferred drink by college football captains in five states) but about the mysteries of her underwear my sources were unreliable, my information limited to rumors of Belgian lace.
The three questions, however, put an end to my interest in the CIA.
The spectacle of disaster—real and imagined, past, present, and imminent—is blockbuster box office, its magnitude measured by the number of dead and square miles of devastation, the cost of property, rates of insurance, long-term consequences, short-form shock and awe.
Ground zero in all instances is the eye of both beholder and storm, some disasters therefore more disastrous than others—my first lesson learned as an apprentice reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in the autumn of 1957, posted to the press room in Oakland to stand watch for blood in the streets. First thing of a morning I telephoned every police station and emergency room in Contra Costa and Alameda counties to ask if anything of interest had turned up overnight—multiple homicide, heavy-metal highway accident, five-alarm fire. The worth of the story was graded by color: banner headline on page one if the victims were white; if not, three paragraphs on page twenty-eight.
At the age of eighty-one I still can’t say whether the vessel of my life is on or off course, but I do know that its design was none of my own doing. Born in San Francisco of sound mind and body to loving parents in a neighborhood under the protection of money, I understood before I was ten that I’d been dealt favorable cards; I also knew that the playing of them was another game of chance. The realization I count as a stroke of fortune (the happiest of the lot) because when and if I can bear it in mind it allows me to live in the freedom of the present and hold at bay the fear of death.
Looking for a how or where or why I came up with the idea, I see my grandfather at a card table constituted as he was in 1943, a Falstaffian figure then in his sixties, white-haired, round-bellied, and boisterous, fond of quoting the wise fools in Shakespeare’s forests. A captain of infantry in World War I, Roger D. Lapham had gone missing in the battle of Château-Thierry, after five days given up for lost and presumed dead, his family so notified and his personal effects shipped home to New York. Six weeks later he was found in a barn drinking calvados with the French peasant who had dragged him, unconscious and half-buried in mud, from the womb of a shell hole. Grandfather’s leg being broken, he was unable to walk, but he had emerged from the shadow of the valley of death believing it was better to be lucky than good. Before the war he conducted himself in the manner of a sober, self-denying Calvinist; he returned from France as a practicing pagan, reckless in pursuit of pleasure, ardent in his passion for gambling. At the bridge table he liked to bid his hand without looking at his cards, and between the ages of eight and ten I was often drawn into the game as his partner because nobody else in the family would play with him unless favorably situated as his opponent. His trusting to luck the family deemed immoral; I thought it deserved a medal.
The sources of information were many and venerable—my father, my German nurse, my professors of Western civilization, my grandmother’s Bible, my fourth-grade baseball coach, the president of the United States, the first girl I tried and failed to kiss. Circumstances differed, but on the metaphors all the authorities agreed: the flesh is food for worms, chamber of horrors, foul instrument of forbidden pleasure, cauldron of shameful impulse and disgusting sin.
A high percentage of the nation’s net worth and good fortune stems from the buying and selling of home as both fiction and fact, but the emotion of being American emerges from discernible signs of a self-improving future throughout the whole of the society. Not that all present draw the same pay, but that they all share a sense of the commonwealth moving in the direction of when all will be well.
Let the proofs of prosperity appear in only one neck of the woods, the tide coming in for the rich, going out for everybody else, and the notion of home acquires first- and second-class meanings: habitation for human beings and housing for money. The advertising of the nation’s ideal shifts from the little house on the prairie to the brochure selling apartments in Donald Trump’s Fifth Avenue tower of glass—“Elegant. Sophisticated. Strictly beau monde…Your diamond in the sky. It seems a fantasy.”
Books I regard as voyages of discovery, and with an author whom I admire, I gladly book passage to any and all points of view or destination—Philadelphia in 1776, Rome during the lives of the Caesars, Berlin and Hollywood in the 1920s. I don’t go in search of the lost gold mines of imperishable truth; I look instead for where I might learn what it is to be a human being, as flesh made word and word made flesh, as man, as woman, as both, or none of the above.
Usually I read four or five books at the same time, preferably in the company of authors on the front lines of different centuries (with John Donne and John le Carré in London, with Molière and Balzac in Paris), and in books I’ve read more than once, I encounter marginalia reaching back ten or twenty or fifty years and written while traveling in cities as unlike one another as Chicago and Havana. I live in all the pasts present on the page, and I begin to understand what the physicists have in mind when they talk about the continuum of time and space.
As a street-side reporter for the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1960s, I could count on meeting real fear at the scenes of subway accident and building collapse, neurotic fear on a rewrite desk bent to the task of manufacturing evil omens and terrible possibilities. Briefly assigned to the Trib’s UN bureau in the spring of 1961, I was there with the first news of American marines wading ashore on the beaches of Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba. The intel was a premature garbling of the bungled invasion twenty-four hours later in the Bay of Pigs. The story appeared in the early edition sold on the street before midnight; it was corrected in time for final home delivery, and I was excused my enthusiasm because it followed at the direction of the paper’s senior UN correspondent, who in turn had been reliably informed by sources well below deck at the CIA and the Pentagon.
Reassigned to the rewrite desk in the city room on West Forty-First Street, I took calls from the paper’s foreign correspondents, and on an otherwise slow afternoon in 1962 our man in Moscow dictated a press release issued by the Russians announcing a significant advance in Soviet weapons technology. The dispatch deserved maybe four paragraphs on page seventeen, but John Denson, editor of the paper, happened to be passing by the desk as I was extracting the copy from the typewriter. Glancing briefly at the story in my hand, he tapped it lightly with the tip of his pencil.
“What you see there,” he said, “is the beginning of World War III.”
I said I didn’t doubt the fact, but I wasn’t sure I saw it clearly.
Monk didn’t mess with preliminaries. Not bothering to remove his hat (that evening a fine English bowler), he pointed to the piano, opened and closed the wooden door of the bathroom directly behind it, seated himself on the toilet to listen to whatever came next. Nellie and the baroness sat upright and attentive on the small blue sofa they shared with a rag doll and a rocking horse. I played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27 in two movements (the first in E minor, the second in E major), run time fourteen minutes if taken at the indicated tempos. I don’t say I played it as well as Lipsky might have played it, but I’d been practicing it six days out of seven for two months, and to the best of my knowledge and recollection, I didn’t miss many notes, never once felt ill at ease or afraid. Monk stepped out of the bathroom, looked me square in the face, said simply, straight, no chaser, “I heard you.”
By then I knew enough to dig what he was saying. It wasn’t the personality of Lewis H. Lapham he heard playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27. He didn’t care who or what I was, clubfooted and white or blue-eyed and black. It wasn’t me or my interpretation, it was the music itself, off the charts beyond good and evil that somehow and if only for the time being I’d managed to reach.
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