[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.]
[L.Q. cover and art from L.Q. Spring 2017: Discovery. Photos are mine.]
[Click photos to enlarge.]
Discovery. Finding something. The aha moment.
The topic struck me as somehow different for Lapham’s Quarterly. It seemed insubstantial compared to previous topics like Food, Crimes and Punishments, The City, Religion, Fashion, Celebrity, States of War, Sports and Games, Travel, Time, Celebrity. By the time I finished reading the issue I had changed my mind. (The Summer 2017 issue topic is Fear. Get a grip on that one.)
Heard-of contributors in Discovery include Seneca, Galileo, Nietzsche, Eve Curie (Madam’s daughter) Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Einstein, Darwin, Pliny the Elder, Raymond Chandler (!), Aristotle, Jorge Luis Borges, and Thomas Pynchon.
L.Q. editor Lewis Lapham’s preamble is titled Homo Faber. According to Wikipedia this is Latin for “Man the Maker”, the concept of human beings able to control their fate and their environment through tools. But the topic is discovery, not control, fate, or tools. Many authors allude to the combination of persistence and chance, not control. Hmm.
On theme, Mr. Lapham relates Alexander von Humboldt’s appreciation of beauty of the landscape. He says Humboldt doesn’t dwell on the “unbelievable difficulties” in his Personal Narrative, but still Alexander doesn’t fail to note the considerable tediousness and hard work involved:
“Our progress was often held up by having to drag after us for five or six months at a time from twelve to twenty loaded mules, change these mules every eight to ten days, and oversee the Indians employed on these caravans.” (p. 82)
Discovery isn’t easy. As noted in Wikipedia, Humboldt and his discoveries on his 1799-1804 tour in Latin America were a great influence on Charles Darwin. The Wikipedia entry is very lengthy.
Autobiographically, as usual, Mr. Lapham somehow segues into his own discovery of the love of reading, a love I personally applaud. He notes that Humboldt climbed Chimborazo in 1802. (He didn’t summit, as I didn’t summit Cotopaxi during my climb around 1992. My Wiki-ing tells me GuaGua Pichincha exploded in 1999, gratefully not during my sleepless night laying by that Ecuadorean caldera in ’92. I digress while boasting of my failures.) He quotes Coleridge and Wordsworth:
“…the knowledge both of the poet and the man of science is pleasure… poetry is the first and last of all knowledge–it is as immortal as the heart of man…” (p. 15 and 37)
The Coler-Words extract is available online as Pleasure Principle – Somerset. I found it difficult reading, as I almost always struggle to decipher poets or poetry.
Back to Lewis and reading:
“By the time I was six I had discovered the pleasure in reading, finding in books the peace and security of membership in realities other than those confined to my experience at home and school…” (p. 16)
“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 distinction…” “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…” (p. 17)
“Usually I read four or five books at the same time, preferably in the company of authors on the front lines of different centuries…” (p. 17)
Lapham segues from reading to writing, noting that at age forty-five “…I began to explore the uses of the essay, borrowing the approach from Michel de Montaigne, sixteenth-century French scholar… who looked to escape the “tedious idleness” and “disagreeable company” in the narrow whirlpool of his personal experience with the verb essayer, to try, to attempt, to embark upon.” (p. 18)
Aha! The discovery of essays! As we readers of L.Q. have learned, Montaigne is “known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre” (Wikipedia). And Lapham’s Quarterly is known to we fortunate few as presenting essays and extracts as a way to broaden our exposure and experience of great minds. There is definitely method with no madness aforethought here. (Montaigne also has a lengthy Wikipedia entry, but these are shorter than full biographies. Will all books someday be immediately converted to a Readers Digest version for quick consumption? I hope we aren’t heading down an ever abbreviating path.) Lapham continues:
“To bury the humanities in tombs of precious marble is to deny ourselves the pleasure that is the love of learning and the play of the imagination…” “Machine-made consciousness, man content to serve as an obliging cog, is unable to connect the past to the present, the present to the past. The failure to do so breeds delusions of omniscience and omnipotence, which lead in turn to the factories at Auschwitz and the emptiness of president Donald Trump.” (p. 20)
Eloquent and thought-provoking. And a dig at Donald Trump at last. Mr. Lapham has been somewhat subdued about The Donald since before his election last autumn, though not entirely silent. “…or from Donald Trump’s gloriously defecating mouth.” (L.Q. Fall 2016, p. 20) At the drop of a quill he had no qualms about laying into G.W. Bush during his reign. Is he kinder and gentler as he ages? Is he transferring editorship to someone that is (kinder and gentler), for the sake of less controversy with the L.Q. readers? I can only guess.
“…in the nation’s schools, the curriculum known as STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) sweeps the classrooms clean of improvised literary devices, downgrades the study of history and the humanities because they don’t get along well with tests administered by computers.” (p. 19)
He has a point. Well and good that the jobs are in the STEM environment and an art history major has fewer prospects. We still should not ignore the value of being able to conceptually read, write, and think for ourselves.
“Machines don’t do metaphor. They process words as lifeless objects, not as living subjects, and so they don’t know what the words mean. Not knowing what the words mean, they can’t hack into the civilizing heap of human consciousness (of myth and memory and emotion) that is the making of ourselves as human beings.” (p. 20)
“Google can bring the news that E=mc² but Google doesn’t know what E is. Doesn’t know that in the first of its many meanings, E is the mind of man (nature looking creatively back on itself) embarking on the voyages of discovery… giving voice to the joy of learning that wonders never cease.” (p. 21)
There is an interesting concept that hadn’t occurred to me. Man as Nature, looking back on itself. The only being that has evolved to create the complexities of language, communication, and thought. Looking back on itself, observing the HISTORY of everything, and contemplating existence.
The only being that can consciously interfere with ‘natural order’ by sweeping a lady bug from the patio table and putting it on a plant. Cataclysms will surely ensue.
Mr. Lapham is insightful as ever. There is quite a bit of gold here but you have to dig for it, like ‘Australian miners’, and read it ‘syllable by syllable, nay- letter by letter’. (Ruskin)
The preamble is free online.
To be continued…
My mentor, peer, best friend, high school buddy, and introducer to Lapham’s Quarterly passed away recently. His exchange of thoughts and ideas will be greatly missed. R.I.P. Leighton Bromiley Dorey III, 12 Oct. 1945 – 30 May 2017.
Read, enjoy, learn, think, act.
Stop the madness.