Lapham’s Quarterly Spring 2016: Disaster

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]
[All pictures are from L.Q. Spring  2016.]

A review, or a preview perhaps.  Reader’s choice.  I get a lot of value from every issue of Lapham’s.  This issue was no exception.  I was very absorbed with it and read it in a good time for me without rushing.  After nearly 30 L.Q. reviews I must be repeating myself at times.  Apologies.

What is not to like about Disaster.  Whether it is fictional or not it is what absorbs us all in print, television, or movies.  Valery nails it:



“If a great catastrophe is not announced in the morning, we feel a certain void: “There is nothing in the papers today,” we sigh.” –Paul Valery, c. 1930 (p. 16)

Side quotes are liberally distributed throughout every issue, of which these are a few:

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe” –H. G. Wells, 1920 (p. 26) [Don’t get me started on the result of thousands of years of ‘civilization’. –JH]

“The industrial world destroys nature not because it doesn’t love it but because it is not afraid of it.” –Mary Ruefle, 2012 (p. 58)

“The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” –Horace Walpole, 1776 (p. 68)

“There’s nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people to start doing something.” –Charles, Prince of Wales, 2014 (p. 118)
[In his defense he was referring to flooding in the Somerset region of England. –JH]

“When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat left for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.” –Chinua Achebe, 1964 (p. 189)


“Our sympathy is cold to the relation of distant misery.” –Edward Gibbon, 1788 (p. 198)

This last quote describes the theme of the first part of founder/editor Lewis H. Lapham’s Preamble: Shock and Awe.  He quotes Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations) from Smith’s essay Theory of Moral Sentiments (extracted p. 136 this issue and online at, Rebecca Solnit, and William James.  They concur that closeness to a calamity prompts people to work together to overcome it, distance from it results more in sorrow and sympathy but little action to assist.

Lapham faults the Industrial Revolution with mechanizing more massive destruction. Who could argue with that but should we be bitter and wish technology had remained primitive?  He says:

“But the twentieth century was born blessed with the creatively annihilating energies of free-market capitalism, capable of yielding not only the wealth of nations but also the means of their utter destruction…”  (p. 16)

Is capitalism a bad thing now?  Should we all turn communist?  Income equality for all starting at $15 an hour?

“The century opened with warfare upgraded from sport to industry, [when was warfare ever sport? –JH] the manufacture of death setting new records by employing an efficient division of labor–the killing done with machines, the dying by human beings.” (p. 16-17)

Don’t make me resort to the ‘guns don’t kill people, people do’ argument but something I ponder often is ‘civilized’ man’s propensity for killing his fellow man for oh, say, the last 3 or 4 thousand years or so of civilization. (Oops, did I say don’t get me started?)  I don’t think banning all the spears and clubs gets to the heart of the problem.  Perhaps ‘thou shalt not kill’ doesn’t need to be a religious commandment but instead a fundamental principle each individual holds dear to himself. OMG!  Principles without religion?! Blasphemous!  How about some solutions Lewis. Like ‘education’, as H. G. Wells says above.  I know I’m digressing but at least Lapham has me thinking.

Typhoon Haiyan approaching Vietnam, 2013
Typhoon Haiyan approaching Vietnam, 2013

He faults Presidents Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, and Clinton for their petty wars played out in the media but George W. Bush and his cohorts Cheney and Rumsfeld remain his favorite whipping boys.  He opines that the two leading Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential race don’t hold any better promise for world peace.

This fairly dark and foreboding preamble, packed with food for thought and rumination that I’ve barely addressed, rails against the state of the world.  It seems all his preambles rail against something.  One might think Mr. Lapham is an unhappy person in addition to his insightful and eloquent critiques.

The preamble is available for your detailed scrutiny online at, speaking of which if you choose not to find a copy for yourself there is a substantial wealth of issue extracts at the website.  The site is newly formatted and beautiful to behold and read.  I just discovered new tricks to aid in finding info:
1. Go to
2. At the top click ‘Magazine’ and select ‘Current Issue’ or ‘All Issues’, even though the current issue is displayed.
3. At the issue page you want to read click ‘Preview’ on the right side and select the category of info you want.
4. Click back and forth on the left side between ‘Grid’ and ‘List’ to see a better summary for that page.  Do the same for other categories.
5. Enjoy.


Next we enter the 3 main sections of L.Q. this issue: Premonition, Survival, and Aftermath. The first few extracts I’ve read are thankfully less dark than the preamble.

Despite the preamble’s dwelling on war and conquest we must not forget pestilence and global warming.  (Do I hear the clip-clop of four horsemen in the background?  From the looks of this issue we’re gonna’ need more horses.) Premonition starts with a noteworthy scientific account of a research station in Greenland measuring ice and ice melt.  A bit later famous Little House author Wilder reminds us of grasshopper infestations on the prairie. Jonathan Schell does a speculative piece on the effects of a modern nuclear weapon exploding over New York City.  It isn’t pretty.

This is followed by Sigmund Freud positing on Man’s animal instincts.  My curiosity was particularly piqued here due to my pondering ‘civilization’.

“Homo homini lupus [Man is a wolf to man].” (p. 44)
“…the meaning of the evolution of civilization is no longer obscure to us.  It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species.  This struggle is what all life essentially consists off and the evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species.” (p. 46)  Check this one.  The extract is interspersed with a photo of Hitler shaking hands with Chamberlain in September 1938.  A coincidence I’m sure.  Freud died a year later in September 1939.


Tornados, tiles on the space shuttle Challenger (they were warned), asteroids, comets, disasters natural and natural disasters now man-made proliferate.  Anthropogenic global climate change is far from ignored and not only worthy of thought but of action, yet what action?

In the Survival section an eyewitness account of the Hiroshima bombing earned my coveted double-asterisk notation, as did a first-person accounts of the sinking of the Titanic and the sarin gas release in a Tokyo subway in 1995.

Many extracts in this exceptional issue led me as usual to stray into extensive Wikipedia reading.  Ibn al-Athir’s account of the Mongol invasion of Muslim Khwarezm around 1220 was one example.  How many of you non-Muslims, or even Muslims, have heard of Khwarezm?  See what I mean?

Speaking of which, there is an extract from a November 2015 manifesto from ISIS.  A brief quote at the end from a July 2015 manifesto is more summarizing perhaps:

“”Accept the fact that this caliphate will survive and prosper until it takes over the entire world and beheads every last person that rebels against Allah,” reads the document.  “This is the bitter truth, swallow it.””

The third and final section Aftermath starts with an entertaining (?!) plausibleness of future sand dunes and sand seas covering vast swaths of California (no great loss there (wink)) and the western U.S.  Who knows?

William James’ factual account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake talks about the theme touched on several times through this issue, which is that disaster brings people together to work in their common interest.  Rebecca Solnit expounds on this more emphatically in her extract this section.


Siegfried Sassoon notes in his WWI observations that sacrificial altruism is not necessarily the highest standard:

“…the fact that it was everybody’s business to be prepared to die for his country did not alter the inward and entirely personal grievance one had against being obliged to do it. The instinct of self-preservation automatically sank below all arguments put forward by one’s “higher self.” “I don’t want to die,” it insisted.” (p. 132)

Soooo many great extracts.  There is a, unintended I think, competition for poignancy between a woman’s account of her husband’s sickness and death due to the Chernobyl disaster and Robert Falcon Scott’s final letters to team member’s families and his wife before he freezes to death on his ill-fated quest to the South Pole.  Scott sent me on another sojourn through Wikipedia.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Frankenstein) provides early-19th century sci-fi food for thought in an extract from The Last Man:
“Farewell to the patriotic scene, to the love of liberty and well-earned meed of virtuous aspiration!”
“Farewell to the desire of rule, and the hope of victory; to high vaulting ambition, to the appetite for praise, and the craving for the suffrage of their fellows!”
“Farewell to the arts–to eloquence, which is to the human mind as the winds to the sea, stirring and than allaying it.”
“Farewell to sculpture, where the pure marble mocks human flesh…”
“Farewell to music, and the sound of song, to the marriage of instruments, where the concord of soft and harsh unites in sweet harmony…” (pp.165-166)

Elias Canetti’s piece is like Eric Hoffer for crowds.  The Aftermath section concludes with Solnit’s reinforcement of the theme ‘disaster brings us together’.  Unfortunately her point of view is far too altruistic and communal for my taste.  She denigrates individualism and capitalism:
“…we are instead encouraged by media and advertising to fear each other and regard public life as a danger and a nuisance…”
“…this economic privatization is impossible without the privatization of desire and imagination that tells us we are not each other’s keeper.”  (pp. 184-185)
Shame on us for having selves.


As I reach the extended essays at the back of the issue it’s at this point in most L.Q. reviews that I say I feel like I’m writing a book.

I feel like I’m writing a book.

You’re saved, however.  The essays are excellent but my favorite is online at  The Anomaly of Barbarism by John Gray.  It’s ISIS again, a thoughtful and intelligent analysis in my opinion.  We have many disasters everyday. Certainly this is one of the most despicable.  Get busy people.  Between earthquakes (Japan and Ecuador as I write), global warming, and religious fanaticism, we have much to do.


I almost forgot!  What about LAW?!  I haven’t seen a Lapham’s Quarterly that specifically addresses this.  This is a terrible oversight on their part.  At times we seem suffocated with over-regulation, other times some men’s ignoring of fundamental principles of human life (where did I leave that list) wreaks havoc on his fellow man. Maybe L.Q. will enlighten us someday, or will it next address the disaster of the forthcoming U.S. presidential election? What would be the title?  Regardless, as the last essay in this issue puts it, ‘Katastrofa’.

10 thoughts on “Lapham’s Quarterly Spring 2016: Disaster

  1. Interesting and lots of fodder for comment. I shall restrain myself to one: Gibbons, Adam Smith et al (distance from misery) never had the chance to be with the Red Cross on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina — or indeed at almost any U.S. disaster including the current flooding — where volunteers come from all over the country. People are better than they think.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was thinking yesterday, in Swiftian terms, about the contest between Trump & Cruz and Hilary & Bernie.
    If it came down to violent opposition between these two opposing factions, the BernHils would lose to the TrumCruz, because the TC supporters love weaponry and stock so much of it, and are just waiting for a chance to use it, while BH’s are intellectuals, who don’t own lots of guns, and the only fight they like are verbal ethical ones.
    I never could have imagined the venerable republican party being so eviscerated by fascists in their midst.
    Now I am on the move again, using the German computer, hence my difficulty typing and finding signal

    When I get back home, I am subscribing to Laphmans and I have you to thank


    1. Thank you for your comments. Man’s capability for violence is what saddens me most about we humans. For yet another breath of fresh air I was a few minutes ago watching Eric Sevareid interview Eric Hoffer, via YouTube, Parts 1 thru 5. Hoffer was a flash of brilliance I’ve rarely seen.


  3. monty python what was that about hats


    I digress

    I will keep your notes in front of me when opening the latest addition.

    On Wed, Apr 20, 2016 at 2:10 PM, Johns Space ….. wrote:

    > JohnRH posted: “[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book > Review] [Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s > Quarterly.] [Some of LQ’s contents are available free.] [All pictures are > from L.Q. Spring 2016.] A review, or a preview perh” >


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