Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Blue guitar

by Lewis H. Lapham

Harper's Magazine (May 2006)

They said, "You have a blue guitar, You do not play things as they are". The man replied, "Things as they are Are changed upon the blue guitar".
- Wallace Stevens

With this issue of Harper's Magazine I come to the end of my second term as its editor, and when I look at the bound volumes on the shelves of the magazine's library, I hear the voices of writers and readers with whom I've been acquainted for a very long time, still loud in their passion to get at the truth. I know of no task more difficult, but then neither can I think of one that makes for better conversation or brings with it as many changes on the poet's blue guitar. The tables of contents I regard as still current, and on reading down the lists of familiar names, I can imagine an orchestra tuning its instruments, restless with the promise of multiple themes and variations, which, heard separately or in concert, argue that the world of men and events eventually can be understood. Not yet, perhaps, not in time for tomorrow's deadline or next month's cover illustration, but sooner or later, when enough people with access to a new idea or a more accurate choice of word have had the chance to extend the reach of the human imagination and enlarge the realm of human possibility.

Writing some years ago in Harper's Magazine about the uses of the novel, the late Walker Percy put the proposition as follows: "The point is that all fiction can be used as an instrument of exploration and discovery ... to discover, or rediscover, how it is with man himself, who he is, and how it is between him and other men". Percy's observation pertains to all writing, whether discursive essay or investigative report, comic memoir or angry letter to the editor, that seeks to tell a true story. True in the sense that the authors root their discoveries in the ground of their own being - what they themselves think, know, have seen, can find language to express.

The telling of a true story usually puts the writer at odds with some sort of wisdom in office - a New York publisher's belief that literature died with Ernest Hemingway on a mountain in Idaho, the government's faith in its own propaganda, Hollywood's preference for fairy tales. I don't imagine that it was ever easy or profitable to conduct explorations unauthorized by a finance committee or unsupported by the judgment of a Mr Pecksniff or an Oprah Winfrey, but over the last few decades in the United States we've been learning the dead languages fitted out for television and better business management, and our newfound gifts for the art of saying nothing make it difficult to hear voices that haven't been swept clean of improvised literary devices, downsized into data points, reduced to an industrial waste product.

The achievement has been duly noted by numerous bystanders, most of whom applaud it as the wonder of the age. Never has so much information been so instantly at hand, not only on a cell phone and the Internet but also in department-store windows, on supermarket walls, behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. The promoters of the brave new world like to say that the "key outputs" and "innovative delivery strategies" broaden our horizons and brighten our lives with better-looking celebrities, more books available at, quicker access to "valued customers", a finer class of politician capable of distinguishing between "core" and non-core promises.

Maybe I miss the "key performance indicators" or misinterpret the "risk assessments", but I don't know how a language that's meant to be disposable enriches anybody's life, whether that of an American citizen "deriving synergies" from well-placed "knowledge entities" or that of an Iraqi national introduced to the joys of "Operation Enduring Freedom". I can understand why words emptied of meaning serve the interests of the corporation and the state, but they don't "enhance" or "empower" people who would find in their freedoms of thought and expression a voice, and therefore a life, that they can recognize as their own. Although it's frequently said that the truth shall make men free, the commandment is almost as frequently misunderstood. What is meant by the truth as a synonym for liberty doesn't emerge from a collection of facts or an assimilation of doctrine, nor does it come with a declaration of war or the blessing of Christ; it's synonymous with the courage that individuals derive from not running a con game on the unique character and specific temper of their own minds, finding a story that settles the wilderness of their experience with the fence posts of a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Which is why as the magazine's editor for twenty-eight years (from 1976 into 1981, then again from 1983 to the present), I've been drawn to writers unafraid of the first-person singular, willing to think out loud, to experiment with narrative and cadence, bet the pot on a metaphor, take a chance with an argument or a line of inquiry that in other periodicals might be deemed ill-advised, un-kempt, overly complex. Whether or not I agreed with what was being said didn't matter as much as the author's saying it in a way that couldn't be confused with the mission statement "What We Stand for: Our Core Beliefs and Values" produced by the CIA - "Objectivity is the substance of intelligence, a deep commitment to the customer in its forms and timing".

Often I have been asked, by Washington policy intellectuals and California environmental activists, why Harper's Magazine doesn't publish program notes for a brighter American future or blueprints for the building of a better tomorrow. All well and good, they say, to point to the flaws in the system, or to suggest that the leading cast members of the Bush Administration be sent to sea in open boats, but why so many jokes, and to what end the impractical criticism? Where are the helpful suggestions and the tools for forward-looking reform?

If I had ready answers to the questions, I'd stand for elective office; as an editor I've been more interested in the play of mind than in its harnessing to a political bandwagon. Some of the notions put forward by the magazine's contributors have been taken up by presidential candidates looking for something to say to the voters in Iowa or New Hampshire (single-payer health insurance, decriminalization of drugs); others have drifted into the backwaters of academic regret (an end to the two-party system); a few of them, much modified by circumstance and the available campaign money (less pollution in the oceans and the air) have made the passage into law. But no matter what the results, the impetus toward social or political change stems from language that also induces a change of heart. George Orwell made the point as long ago as 1946, in his essay "Politics and the English Language". The slovenly use of words, he said, "makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts ... If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political re-generation". Or, more simply, how do we expect to find our way to the brighter future unless we can imagine it as something other than a Las Vegas resort hotel, or build a better tomorrow unless we have the words with which to construct it?

The decay of the public language in the mouths of the society's official sponsors (politicians, publicists, marketing directors, real estate salesmen) often has been remarked upon over the last few decades by people who know, as did Orwell, that a ceaseless burbling of lies, no matter how "context-sensitive" or "prioritized", cannot long sustain either the hope of individual liberty or the practice of democratic government. Don Watson, a once-upon-a-time speechwriter for a prime minister of Australia, makes the argument as well as it can be made in Death Sentences, a book published last spring in the United States by the Gotham Press and one to which I am indebted for the CIA's mission statement as well as for many of the phrases that I've borrowed as examples of the vocabulary administered as soporific.

Although Watson bears witness to our exodus into the neon deserts of audible silence, he doesn't mention the collateral damage - this is, the increasingly hostile attitudes toward any use of language that fails to conform to the standard of television. Twenty years ago it was generally understood, not only by readers of Harper's Magazine but also by admirers of Johnny Carson, that the attempt to tell a true story sometimes entailed the writing of loose and periodic sentences, incorporated the tone of irony, employed words of more than one syllable, encompassed the turning of the occasionally artful phrase. To the degree that steadily larger numbers of people have been suckled at the machine-made breast of corporate entertainment - on the tone, substance, sense, and feel of the thing, the aesthetic of the beer commercials indistinguishable from that of the docudrama news show and the authentic soap opera - so also they become irritated by anything that is not television. Subordinate clauses they view with suspicion, parentheses they regard as elitist and therefore condescending; messages must be delivered deodorized and free of ambiguity, which is disturbing and therefore wicked.

Similar attitudes of entitlement invaded the country's universities in the 1980s under the banners of political correctness, but again, as with the industrial language of business and government, the laziness of mind necessary to its acceptance has come to be seen as a consumer benefit. During the same week that I was reading Watson's book I came across Eric Larsen's equally fine A Nation Gone Blind: America in an Age of Simplification and Deceit, which approaches its topic from the perspective of a college English teacher alarmed by the progress that the last two generations of his students have made toward the notion of the classroom as petting zoo. The young inheritors of the world's supreme military and economic power apparently take it as an insult if anybody invites them to think. Why should they? Thinking isn't advertised on television. This is America, where everything good is easy, anything difficult is bad, and the customer is always right.

Read as telltales in the prevailing wind of our multitasking systems of global communication, the books by Watson and Larsen point toward a world in which, as Simone Weil once noticed, "It is the thing that thinks, and the man who is reduced to the state of the thing". It's conceivable that her premonition will prove well founded - as marker buoys in the data stream we have the rusting hulk of the Bush Administration, Harvard University floating on the rafts of grade inflation, the wreckage on the beach of prime-time television - but among the last people to lose consciousness I would expect to find the readers of Harper's Magazine. The writers whose investigations I've had the chance to aid and abet I admire not only for their talent but also for their courage and pride of mind; the readers I can count upon to know the difference between the hard coin of their own thought and the counterfeit currency of a White House press release.

Over the years I've exchanged letters with a great many correspondents whom I've never met nor do I expect to meet, most of their return addresses in cities and towns west of the Hudson River. The zip codes never matched a demographic profile that measured real estate values or the consumption of golf balls and Sonoma County white wine, but if I couldn't guess at the size and weight of an individual's stock portfolio, I knew that I was talking to people bound together by their faith in the meaning of words. It occurred to none of them that they were being condescended to by a writer exploring the distant shores of sense and sensibility; instead of assuming that somehow they were being snubbed, they received the text as compliment, a sign of respect for their intelligence in line with J M Keynes's suggestion that "Words ought to be a little wild for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking".

When the readers found something amiss in one of my own essays (published under the rubric "The Easy Chair" prior to 1981, and as "Notebook" after the magazine's redesign in 1984), they took the trouble to correct a mistake - a wrong fact, a paragraph badly crippled with adjectives, my utter ignorance of the historical circumstances, et cetera - instead of spewing forth a diatribe on my political, sexual, or religious orientation.

None of their voices could be mistaken for prerecorded announcements, and their remarks were free of the pretensions that tend to accompany the dramas of self played out in the Washington think tanks. No matter what the subject under discussion - the authorship of the Shakespearean plays, the moral bankruptcies of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, strange birds seen wading in the Platte River, the trouble with New York literary critics, a son's illness or a mother's new novel, the forgotten reasons for the fall of the Roman republic - the care taken with the composition of the letters (some of them printed out to a length of twelve typewritten pages) testified to the importance that their authors attached to the telling of a truer story. In other words, a long if desultory conversation with people whom I wouldn't recognize in a bookstore or a police lineup, but from whom I've learned that it is the joint venture entered into by writer and reader - the writer's labor turned to the wheel of the reader's imagination - that produces the energies of mind on which a society depends for its freedoms and from which it gathers the common store of its hope for a future that doesn't look like an early Mel Gibson movie.

I'll continue to write "Notebook", six times a year instead of twelve, because I can rely on the readers of Harper's Magazine to further my continuing education. Otherwise unburdened of the work on the editor's desk, I expect to undertake one or more of the ventures that over the last few years I've too often postponed. Together with notes for three books already long past their due dates with a New York publisher, I have in hand the preliminary design of a new journal, Lapham's Quarterly, intended to strengthen the knowledge and sense of history among people apt to forget that we have nothing else with which to build a future except the lumber of the past.

As the readers of this column know by now, I like to place the topic of the week or month in some sort of an historical frame, that absent at least a passing acquaintance with the prior record, I wouldn't know how to make sense of the newspapers, much less question the wisdom of what G K Chesterton once called "the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about". Conjugate Walker Percy's dictum into the past tense, and the world in time becomes as good a place as any other, probably better than most, to discover or rediscover "how it is with man himself, who he is, and how it is between him and other men". I look forward to the exploration. If from the wreckage of modern-day Baghdad I can follow the lines of imperial conquest backward in time to Lord Kitchener and the Treaty of Versailles, through the centuries of somnolent despotism imposed on the Valley of the Euphrates by the Ottoman sultans of the Sublime Porte, to Caesar's legions governing what they knew as the province of Mesopotamia, at last to Hammurabi and the hanging gardens of Babylon, maybe I'll find reasons, better than the ones handed out at the Pentagon, that explain President George Bush's dream of Christian empire.

Bill Totten


  • Thank you, Bill, for posting this Notebook essay of Lapham's - was able to forward it to a couple of editor friends - appreciate your having it on-line!

    Jude DeLorca
    Denver, CO

    By Anonymous Judith DeLorca, at 5:51 AM, May 30, 2006  

  • Thank you for posting this. I really wanted a copy to share.

    By Blogger SLJanzen, at 1:27 AM, December 10, 2015  

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