Lapham’s Quarterly Summer 2012: Magic Shows, or, Lewis Lapham gets political.

I was surprised, as reading two full issues since I subscribed to Lapham’s Quarterly last winter I had found it to be a pleasant relief that it was apolitical.  Someday the quarterly theme could be politics.  At least then we’ll know what we’re in for.

The friend who introduced me to this fine publication, which I still highly recommend as part of your lifelong reading diet, said Lewis has been political before, and equally critical of liberal as well as conservative views.  At least he is ‘fair and balanced’ and I can respect that.  However it was nice to read good literature that was absent of politics.  We already know where to find political thought and commentary when we want it.  (Anywhere!)

I’m referring of course to Lewis Lapham, founder and editor/publisher of the aforementioned publication.

Lapham writes an essay at the beginning of each issue called Preamble in which he discusses the quarterly theme.  As noted in my discussion of the previous issue, Lapham’s Quarterly Spring 2012: Means of Communication. Finished!, my email announcement says this new issue (Summer 2012: Magic Shows) “…delves into mankind’s predilection through the millennia for the marvelous, the mysterious, and the supernatural”.

Since the beginning of time mankind seems to have had a propensity for wanting to look beyond the facts at hand, or lack thereof, and believe.  One must have faith in the unknown we are told.  Perhaps that is what Magic Shows is about.

Lapham’s preamble, titled Wonders Never Cease, opens with a quote:

(p. 13)

Lapham eloquently sets the tone in the second paragraph:

“In the beginning was the word, and with it the powers of enchantment. Across the reach of many centuries this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly speaks to mankind’s predilection for the marvelous, the evidence taken from every quarter of the compass, the testimony touching on the various conjugations of the supernatural into the tenses of divination, poetry, medicine, witchcraft, philosophy, and religion.” (p. 14)

He does state:

“The issue takes its cue from Marlowe’s tragical Doctor Faustus (London, page 123) because his dreams of “profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,” are the stuff that America is made of…”  (p. 14)

Title page of a late edition of Christopher Ma...
Title page of a late edition of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, with a woodcut illustration of a devil coming up through a trapdoor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We know that Marlowe’s 16th century play The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, commonly referred to simply as Doctor Faustus, is a play… based on the Faust story, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. (Wikipedia.)

I personally take all this to mean that Magic Shows will study not only mankind’s predilection for the marvelous, mysterious, and supernatural, but also his tendency to use it for profit, delight, power, honor, and omnipotence. No problem.  Witch doctors, seers, and priests have been at the right hand of rulers since the beginning of time.

I specifically object to a portion of the essay near the end.  Let’s take a page from my college elective in Critical Reading and examine that portion. (Prime directive: read critically?)

On page 19 he continues, with my comments, marked [-JH], footnoted beneath:

“Like England in the late sixteenth century, America in the early twenty-first has in hand a vast store of new learning, much of it seemingly miraculous-the lines and letters that weave the physics
and the metaphysics into strands of DNA, Einstein’s equations, Planck’s constant [1. -JH] and the Schwarzschild radius [2.-JH], the cloned sheep and artificial heart.  [3.-JH] America’s scientists come away from Stockholm nearly every year with a well-wrought wreath of Nobel prizes, and no week goes by without the unveiling of a new medical device or weapons system. The record also suggests that the
advancement of our new and marvelous knowledge has been accompanied by a broad and popular retreat into the wilderness
of smoke and mirrors. The fear of new wonders
technological-nuclear, biochemical, and 
genetic-gives rise to what John Donne 
presumably would have recognized as the 
uneasy reawakening of a medieval belief in
magic. We find our new Atlantis within the
heavenly books of necromancy inscribed on walls of silicon and glass, the streaming data on an iPad or a television screen lending itself more readily to the traflic in spells and incantation than to the distribution of reasoned argument. The less that can be seen and understood of the genies escaping from their bottles at Goldman Sachs and MIT, the more headlong the rush into the various forms of wishful thinking that increasingly have become the stuff of which we make our politics and social networking, our news and entertainment, our foreign policy and gross domestic product. [4.-JH]

How else to classify the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq if not as an attempt at alchemy? [5.-JH]  At both the beginning and end of the effort to transform the whole of the Islamic Middle East into a democratic republic like the one pictured in the ads inviting tourists to Colonial Williamsburg, the White House and the Pentagon issued press releases in the voice of the evil angel counseling Faustus,“Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,/ Lord and commander of these elements.” Charles Krauthammer, neoconservative newspaper columnist and leading soloist in the jingo chorus [6.-JH] of the self-glorifying news media, amplified the commandment for the readers of Time magazine in March 2001, pride going before the fall six months later of the World Trade Center: “America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities.  How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”

So again four years later, after it had become apparent that Saddam
Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were made of the same stuff as Eisenheim’s projection of “The Vanishing Lady.”  The trick had been seen for what it was, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn’t emerge from the cloud of deluded expectation, unapologetic and implacable, out of which he had spoken to the groundlings at a NATO press conference in 2002: “The message is that there are no ‘knowns’. There are things we know that we know. ‘There are known unknowns. . .but there are also unknown unknowns… The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”” [7.-JH]
[1. …the proportionality constant between the energy (E) of a photon and the frequency (ν) of its associated electromagnetic wave.-JH]
[2. …the distance from the center of an object such that, if all the mass of the object were compressed within that sphere, the escape speed from the surface would equal the speed of light. An example of an object smaller than its Schwarzschild radius is a black hole. -JH]
[3. One thing I love about the Quarterly.  Ya’ have to look stuff up. -JH] 

[4. True enough, all of that.  We seem to be consulting crystals, incense, and tarot more than ever, despite ‘modern technology’. -JH]
[5. “…Ay, there’s the rub…” (Shakespeare, Hamlet.)  What does Bush (G.W.) and Iraq have to do with ANYTHING here!?  This is purely an opportunity for the author to vent his personal spleen.  “I’m Lewis Lapham and I approve this political aside.”  Here I am trying to better myself by reading quality literature and the sanctimonious so-and-so has to express HIS opinion on the Iraq War.  Thanks a lot. (In hindsight don’t we all love to criticize the PAST.) -JH]
[6. Make sure we get a stab at those sanctimonious talking-heads too.  We’ll show THEM! -JH]
[7. To belabor the point I (Lapham) will spew a few inanities from Rumsfeld. -JH] 

Being ‘fair and balanced’ Lapham makes a few cursory swipes at Obama:

“The Rumsfeldian message accounts not only for what was intended as a demonstration magical in Iraq, but also for the Obama administration’s current purpose in Afghanistan, which is to decorate a wilderness of tribal warfare with the potted plant of a civilized and law-abiding government that doesn’t exist.” (p. 19-20)

“The eight years that have passed since its [A referred report.-JH] publication have brought with them… …also the election of President Barack Obama in the belief that he would enter the White House as the embodiment of Merlin or Christ.” (p. 20)

Well, you catch my drift on all this I trust.

In closing, I’m disappointed we can’t read fine literature without having political opinions  imposed.  These opinions add nothing to the theme at hand.  Yes, it is Mr. Lapham’s football (uh, publication) and he can do whatever he wants with it.  A continuing excess of political opinion would be one of the few reasons I would stop paying him to read it.  For now I will try to be amused.

[Apologies for the various type fonts used.  A problem with text OCR conversion that I could not correct despite several attempts. -JH]

7 thoughts on “Lapham’s Quarterly Summer 2012: Magic Shows, or, Lewis Lapham gets political.

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