INTERVIEWS | Lewis Lapham

  January 27, 2000
    "Waiting For The Barbarians"


Lewis Lapham On Civic Discourse, Intellectual Life And Cultural Asphyxiation In A TV Nation.

Lewis Lapham is well known as editor of Harper's Magazine and author of "Notebook," a monthly essay in Harper's which won the National Magazine Award in 1995 for an "exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity." A collection of essays, Fortune's Child, earned him comparison to H.L. Mencken and Montaigne. Other books include Money and Class in America (1988), Imperial Masquerade (1990), The Wish for Kings (1993), and Hotel America: Scenes in the Lobby of the Fin-de-Siecle (1995). His most recent collection of essays is Waiting for the Barbarians (1997).

Educated at the Hotchkiss School, Yale University and Cambridge University, Lapham worked first as a journalist for the San Francisco Examiner (1957-59), and for the New York Herald Tribune (1960-62). He is widely published in newspapers and journals such as Life, Commentary, National Review, The London Observer, American Spectator, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He hosted and authored a six-part documentary series, "America's Century," first broadcast on public television and overseas in 1989. Lapham was also the host and executive editor of "Bookmark," a television series seen on 150 stations between 1989-1991.

The following interview between Lewis Lapham and journalist/publisher Casey Walker took place in December 1998.

CASEY WALKER: Many readers view Harper's Magazine as one of the very few national magazines still holding intellectual ground. Talk about the media as you see them, per se, and what role do you intend the magazine to play?

LEWIS LAPHAM: I see Harper's as a journal for people who still read, who like to read, and who look upon reading as a pleasure, not as an acquisition of data. I assume the presence of intelligent readers, and so the magazine becomes a joint venture that depends on the participation of both writer and reader. The encounter requires imagination on each side of the page: the courage of the writer to try to tell the truth as he or she has seen it—or heard it, or felt it, or guessed at it—and the will of the reader to take seriously, to try to grasp imaginatively, what is being said. It's an active exchange, and Harper's addresses itself to people willing to do the work. To the best of my knowledge, the audience is not large, or maybe it is large but so difficult to locate that it becomes a fugitive audience. The readers don't conform to a standard demographic—age, income, zip code, years in graduate school, etc. Most of our subscribers live west of the Hudson River, many of them in California. A random assortment of individuals, all of whom like to read.

Advertisers, of course, have in mind a different set of measurements—buying power—and it's difficult to sell advertising in the magazine because our readers tend to distrust the consumer economy. Smart trout, not about to hit the flashy Rolex watch dangled over the four-color river. As the media become increasingly incoherent and omnipresent, in your face 24 hours a day, Harper's becomes a refuge for people who wish to experience reading as a pleasure.

How do you view civic discourse today? Would you say it has devolved or evolved over the last half-century?

I think it is evolving. Several years ago I wrote an essay, "The Spanish Armadillo," in which I tried to guess at the kind of language likely to evolve. I made an analogy to the symbolic language that Herman Hesse describes in The Bead Game—a set of intellectual icons similar to the Nike swoosh and the Polo emblem but expressing the philosophy of Plotinus or the music of Mozart. We have yet to make sophisticated use of the electronic media, at least as art forms. The vocabulary at the moment is extremely crude.

And yet, many people see imagery-based language as generated by corporate advertising. If so, where's the language of the free mind or the public mind?

I don't know. Maybe on the Internet, but I don't surf the Internet. I know of too many books in print that I very much want to read, and so I'm not interested in getting lost in the infinite ocean of digital code. Maybe the free mind exists somewhere in cyberspace. People can flash messages across the entire world at the speed of light, but I don't know what they're saying to each other. Very little of interest happens on television, unless you look at C-span. Television is not only an extension of advertising, it also possesses a very small vocabulary. A poor language, at least as it exists at the moment, because the medium doesn't allow enough time to capture a subtle or sophisticated thought. I've written for television—a six-part series on American foreign policy across the span of the 20th century—and I found I had to write simple, declarative sentences. Subject, verb, object, and nothing else. No dependent clauses, no parentheses, no irony, none of the rhetorical devices that shape a nuanced, inflected prose. Words of more than two syllables qualify as enemies of the state. Writing for television is like trying to make a story out of children's blocks. The medium is the message; it doesn't like ideas, doesn't have the patience for ideas.

If we critique television on that basis and, by contrast, acknowledge the somewhat lost arts of writing and speaking as discursive mediums closer to thinking coherently, arguing persuasively, and responding to one another by testing our ideas, I wonder what the cost to us has been in civil competence?

A heavy cost. McLuhan makes the points effectively in Understanding Media. He says that we shape our tools and then our tools shape us. Print allows for narrative and continuity, for a beginning, a middle and an end, for cause and effect, straight lines, the novels of Jane Austen, etc. The electronic media dote on the emotions, on discontinuity, impressions, improvisations and pattern recognitions. Different means of communication encourage different structures of meaning and thought.

Television is about emotion, not argument. About magic, not science. About wandering around in circles, not building cities or walls. Wish, not will. Dream, not art. Legend, not history. The medium dictates the terms.

I once fronted a half-hour television show called "Bookmark," which appeared for three years on PBS. Every week I would talk to the author of a new book, the conversation taking place with one or two other writers present in the studio. For the first 40 shows, I thoroughly studied the book under review, trying to understand it so that I could discuss it in the same way that I would discuss it in a college seminar. But I didn't have enough time for that kind of discussion. I learned that it was better not to read the book because what was wanted, in order to make the program work, was a show of enthusiasm and energy. The camera demands excitement, not a display of civility or reason. The show wasn't a seminar—it couldn't be a seminar.

The discussions presented on C-span serve as means of understanding because the camera acts as a witness to an event independent of its own agenda; the scene isn't broken up for commercials, for rising and falling moments, for artful melodrama and surefire sensation. The viewer watching C-span must bring to the screen his or her own knowledge of the issues as well as a critical intelligence, a prior interest in the subject, the capacity to fit the discussion into a meaningful context. C-span doesn't deal in entertainment, and it addresses its audience as adults. The commercial media treat their audience as children, hoping they will buy the toy or, at least, want the toy.

In Apocalypse Postponed, Umberto Eco points out that the camera has shaped even that which once occurred independently of the camera, such as sports games. In soccer, the ball went from hard-to-see brown leather to black and white, team uniforms went to camera-bright colors, ads were placed strategically in view around the field. Before Charles and Di's Royal Wedding, the carriage horses were fed dyes so the horse manure would match the wedding's pastel color scheme and look fine on television.

Very good. Well done!

It behooves us to wonder how the camera, the point of view of a camera, has shaped all of our sensibilities, doesn't it? I have to wonder at what goes on in our minds now, how mainstream culture sees "life" today.

The camera has shaped all of our sensibilities. Sympathetic to a pagan rather than a Christian appreciation of the world, the camera sees but doesn't think; it cares only for the sensation of the moment, for any tide of emotion strong enough to draw a paying crowd. A plane crash in the mountains of Peru commands the same slack-jawed respect as Mick Jagger in a divorce court, Monica Lewinsky eating Belgian chocolate, cruise missiles falling on Baghdad, Cameron Diaz in gold lame. Because the camera doesn't know how to make distinctions—between treason and fellatio, between the moral and the amoral, between an important senator and an important ape—its insouciance works against the operative principle of a democratic republic. Such a government requires of both its politicians and its citizens a high degree of literacy, also a sense of history, and, at least in the American context, an ethics derived from the syllabus of the Bible. None of those requirements carry any weight in the Kingdom of the Eternal Now governed by the rule of images. Bring narrative to Jay Leno or hierarchy to Howard Stern, and you might as well be speaking Homeric Greek.

However, I fear that active minds are becoming more and more of a minority and less present in a public sense because of the constraints of media on active thinking and because the passivity and hyperactivity that media promotes is increasingly common. If so, where are we all going?

We'll give up the premise of democracy and return to a variation on the theme of monarchy, some form of government that does not require or expect much participation on the part of the people. The people who continue to read will arrange the bread and circuses for the proletariat. A number of years ago, when I still thought something could be done with television news, I approached Larry Tisch, then the president of CBS, with what I thought was an intelligent proposal for a public affairs program that brought an historical perspective to the day's events. He listened politely to the pitch and then waved it off by asking whether I ever watched television, or whether anyone I knew ever watched television. Not often, I said, not when I could avoid it. Neither do I, said Tisch; neither does anybody else with anything better to do. Television, he said, was for people who were too poor, too lazy or depressed, to do anything else. Tisch at the time was chairman of New York University, a man who raised enormous amounts of money for higher education. Apparently he also knew about the several studies showing that people who spend a lot of time watching television suffer a physical sense of ill-being.

It seems to me that if we abandon television, we abandon the "public," or am I wrong? It's one thing to abandon television as an insufficient medium to communicate complex ideas, and it's another thing to abandon it when we know the public mind is largely shaped by it.

The corporations that own and operate the television syndicates (Disney, Time Warner, Fox) think of the public mind as a market in which to sell automobiles and beer. Why confuse people with complex ideas.? Complex ideas put spokes in the wheels of commerce.

Still, some people continue to try to use television as a means of education. As has been said, C-span succeeds. So do quite a few of the documentaries that show up on PBS, on Discovery, Bravo and the History Channel. It's not easy to use the forms well. I mentioned a series that I wrote about American foreign policy, which took up six hours. Six hours on television is a very long time. Even so, I had only 72 seconds and 43 words in which to explain the origins of World War II and at the same time to move from photographs of Munich in 1938 to photographs of Poland in 1939. It's that kind of medium. It's like a third-grade primer or maybe a painting by George Seurat—a form of pointillism. Half the picture isn't there. You also can think of television as pageant similar to a medieval morality play—painted posters of the resurrected Christ or the infidel Turk coming down the street on a wagon. People whose knowledge of the world consists mostly of what they see on television might as well be living in Rome in the first century A.D., amazed by the gladiatorial shows in the Colosseum. Entertainment, not education.

And yet a great many people in the country continue to read, think, and write well. The bookstores report impressive sales. At Harper's, I keep coming across young writers who bring with them extraordinary talent. It turns out that an active mind is more fun than a passive mind. Reading and writing and thinking prove to be a good deal more interesting than watching Dan Rather or David Letterman.

Maybe we will develop a class of literate people, like the scribes in medieval Europe, who maintain the memory of a civilization erected on the lesson plans of print.

It's not true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Quite the opposite. A complicated thought, or even a single line from one of Shakespeare's plays, can need as many as a 150 to mount on film. Television moves extremely slowly when compared to the speed of thought or poetry, or even a well-written prose sentence. My own children were fascinated by television until they reached the age of 14, when they found other things to do. I assume that when and if they reach the age of retirement, they will return to television. Television is for the very young or the very old—child minds—much to the dismay of the advertising people, who have begun to see the network audiences diminish and drift away.

If crises in disintegrating cultural and natural systems are self-reinforcing, where are the tools for evaluating that disintegration best found? In humanism or in a new integration toward a biocentric world view? Should we intellectually look to a shift in world view?

While reading David Quammen's "Planet of Weeds," in the October issue of Harper's, I kept making analogies between the natural and cultural environments. Television is itself a planet of weeds. Truly. Leave culture to Disney and Fox, and it must of necessity become a mess of weeds. Almost everything that Quammen says about nature also can be said about culture. The question, of course, is what do you do about it?

Right. Given the forces at work now, the mise-en-cene for life in the next century is nothing less than horrific. It seems to me that unmitigated discourse that integrates these problems should be taking place. Yet there appears to be a great divide between those speaking on behalf of civilization and those speaking on behalf of nature.

Maybe the two constituencies don't know how to speak each other's language. In 19th Century England Disraeli, Dickens and Darwin read each other's books. It's not easy to imagine Madeleine Albright reading Norman Mailer, or Norman Mailer reading David Quammen. The great mass of available data (on the Internet, in the bookstores and the research laboratories) works against the will to know. People abandon the project and turn on the television. Or maybe they get lost in the maze of their specialties and professional jargons—weapons analyst speaking to weapons analyst, the novelist to his fellow novelist, lawyers to other lawyers.

But if you take too many ideas away, forget the purpose of civilization, sooner or later, people begin killing one another. So also with the natural environment—too much toxic waste, not enough air or water—and species die. First birds and insects, then people. We die a different and slower kind of death at the hand of "Entertainment Tonight" or "ABC News." Asphyxiation, but not as sudden or dramatic.

I believe that our cultural environment—which is to say, our history, the entire sum of our knowledge and experience acquired since men first learned to build cities in Mesopotamia—is also a "living system." You can compare a library or a museum to a river or a forest. An ecosystem, made of words and ideas instead of ferns and water beetles. A landscape of living organisms, not a collection of dead artifacts.

Which can be life-changing through potential conversation and revelation.

No question.

Yet, there's a contentious rub between the goals and values of humanism and those who are claiming a bio-centric world view.

You wouldn't have noticed the contradiction if you lived in 15th Century Florence or 16th Century London. In contemporary usage the humanities tend to be mistaken for church candles burning with the wax of sanctimony. The Renaissance poets and scholars who coined the word (many of them cruel, sardonic and all too willingly corrupted by the pleasures of the flesh) used it to connote strength, skepticism, irony and wisdom—a character played by Humphrey Bogart, not by William Bennett.

In The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson says she misses civilization, the arts of philosophy, politics, theology, the questions and ideas of existence. How do you characterize us intellectually, at the brink of the 21st century? If the same crises are apparent in all systems, cultural and natural, aren't we out of alignment in some gross, conceptual manner? Are we in an interregnum, between an old way of relating to life and a new?

Probably we've come to the end of the Enlightenment and we haven't yet come up with a new system of ideas that satisfactorily explains the relation between matter and mind. The electronic media are still very new; they've been around for less than 100 years. Gutenberg invented moveable type at the end of the 15th Century, but it isn't until the end of the 16th Century that we get to Shakespeare and Montaigne. The people who discover the technology aren't usually the people who know how to use it to artistic or philosophical advantage.

We'll look to an adeptness at conserving the terms for vitality?

Yes, the things that matter, whether they're in the natural world or the intellectual world. "Make it new," said Ezra Pound, "Literature is the news that stays news." We've been getting by for the last 30 years without the right kind of news. Assuming America safely arrived on the sunny heights of a complete and perfect civilization, we figured that all we had to do was play with the gadgets. All the lines on all the graphs pointed straight up, and nothing remained to be done except spend the intellectual inheritance. Which is why we have produced so many critics and so few major figures in the arts. Lately we've begun to understand that we badly need a new idea.

Where is the pulse out there?

Alive and well and poking its way into the future. Because I'm the editor of Harper's, I have the chance every day to talk to people a good deal more intelligent than myself. Either talk to them or read their writing. T. H. White in The Once and Future King makes a point similar to Ezra Pound's. The wizard, Merlin, comes across the young King Arthur, sitting on a river bank and gazing sadly into the mist. Merlin tells him that the "best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. . .the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting."

At the end of your essay, "Waiting for the Barbarians," you write: "The trend of the times favors the rule of force (more laws restricting the liberty of persons, fewer laws restraining the rights of property), and the locus of the hope for a brighter future or a better life shifts from the politics of here and now to the lotteries of there and then."

A fine peroration but too dismal. The future is full of possibility, ripe with the always infinite promise of making something new.

- Casey Walker is the founding editor and publisher of Wild Duck Review (P.O.Box 388, Nevada City, CA 95959; 530-478-0134), a journal featuring essays, poetry, book reviews and memoirs, with over 70 interviews with writers, poets, ecologists, cultural critics, and politicians to date.

This interview first appeared in Wild Duck Review; reprinted by permission. Copyright Wild Duck Review, 2000.

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