Lapham's Quarterly : Cutting-Edge Journalism From The Distant Past

At 72 Lewis Lapham is hardly in the twilight of his life, but he's certainly embarked on its happy hour. Formerly editor of Harper's, America's quintessential liberal magazine, (perhaps the only one which never grew ashamed of that venerable designation or squandered its integrity fawning over the intellectual terrorists of so-called conservatism), Mr. Lapham has a brand-new baby.

Lapham's Quarterly (its baptismal name) is as counterintuitive a launch in the shattered, tattered, scatter-brained cacophony we call a culture, as one could imagine. It doesn't change 'content' every few hours: it appears with the seasons, four times a year. Everything in it is emphatically out of date, not of the moment, on the cusp of no late-breaking trend or news-cycle. Lapham's Quarterly is pure history, every one of its scoops, exposes, celebrity profiles, in-depth interviews and zeitgeist-y round-ups emanating from that far-off country, the past. Delightedly non-digital (though there's a robust website here), sumptuously art-directed on heavy authoritative stock, the magazine has the heft of a trade paper-back, but without the usual padding of half-naked lads and lasses in their undies or nostril-puckering fragrance ads. Each issue focuses on a single Big Theme, around which a riveting miscellany of historical documents, testimonials, photos and works of art are assembled.

The debut issue is 'States of War', (dateline Winter 2008). The big-name contributors (who actually appear in its contributors' pages) include Herodotus, St. Augustine, Voltaire, Trotsky and Private Jessica Lynch. The cover-lines, with a certain patrician caprice, grace the back cover rather than the all-too-obvious front and they're sexy as hell. Top billing goes to Thucydides; in second place is one of Oprah's favorite guests, Sun Tzu.

There's nothing playful about what's inside. The publication's cut-line is: 'Finding the present in the past, the past in the present' That mild promise becomes a savage, scintillating reality in the arc-light of Lapham's editorial vision. He has a ferocious belief in the relevance of history to the present: "We have nothing else with which to build the future except the lumber of the past" he writes in his Preamble. Again and again he makes the point that our history is a natural resource as rich and valuable "as were the American forests before the arrival of Christopher Columbus."

What's to be learnt from history isn't necessarily a lesson -- Santayana's oft-quoted axiom that 'those who fail to learn from history are condemned to relive it' is a bit pat for Lapham. We can also experience the intense humanity of those who have gone before us -- or in the context of war, their intense inhumanity. The lesson if there is one, is that all too often in our smug modernity, we dismiss the past as an imperfect prelude to our own more perfect and enlightened times; we feel superior to those who lived in the past if for no other reason than that they're stupid enough to be dead.

To know history, to respond to its voices, "the signs of their passing, navigational lights flashing across the gulf of time, on scraps of papyrus and scratchings in stone, on ships' logs and bronze coins, as epic poems and totem poles and painted ceilings, in confessions voluntary and coerced...", is to be, quite simply, wise. To be ignorant of the past as well as arrogant about your ignorance, to regard history as bunk, ignore its cautions, be unaware that -- especially in the matter of war -- there is nothing that has not been perpetrated, claimed or suffered, is to guarantee that history will regard you as a fool and a failure. In Arthur Schlesinger's axiom, crisper than Santayana's: 'the four most expensive words in the English language are "This time it's different"' Words surely uttered by the sanctimonious oaf in the Oval Office when it was pointed out to him that the quagmire of defeat from which the U.S. military extricated itself in 1975, would certainly be replicated thirty years later in the ancient land of Mesopotamia.

Not all history teaches, not all history conjures the reality of the past; vast expanses of it are boring as hell, written, recorded, shot or otherwise depicted by boors, non-entities and lickspittles. That's why a master-editor is needed to guide us to the authentic voices, the telling details, the truly chilling chunks of atrocity and bombast. Not that Lapham's Quarterly grabs you by the lapels and shakes you silly with the horrors of war, until you have no choice but to run to the nearest Quaker Meeting House. Quite the contrary. There are as many war-like or pro-war elements as anti-war narratives and polemics. A striking example: General Patton addressing the Third Army in 1944 prior to the invasion of northern France. Foul-mouthed, egomaniacal, hilarious and irresistible, Patton might be everything you hate about the warrior mentality, but you understand perfectly why his men would follow him anywhere.

And of course, no lack of horrors. The banality of evil is the issue's bass continuo: the matter-of-fact way atrocities are and have been committed since time immemorial. There's Herodotus on the ingenious things the Scythians did with the bodies of their victims. There are the unspeakable cruelties inflicted on the natives of Hispaniola after the Spaniards had 'discovered' them -- one of the Christians' most amusing (they thought) methods of execution was to barbecue people so slowly that they took hours to die. There are the flat exchanges of the IDF in Gaza just three years ago, as they watch a terrified little Palestinian girl who's wandered into a 'forbidden' zone and is shot to ribbons by their guns.

Scattered throughout are gems of art and wit, making the 200-plus pages an addictive cover-to-cover read. They range from an agonizing Rwanda photo by David Turnley, which at first seems to be an exquisitely carved stone fresco, but which you slowly realize is a huge pile of dust-coated corpses; to a little-known quote from Stanley Kubrick, director of the greatest satire of military insanity ever committed to film, Dr Strangelove: "Great nations have always acted like gangsters and small nations like prostitutes" (Which brings to mind the touching liaison between the Bush administration and M. Nicolas Sarkozy).

The most compelling aspect of 'States of War' is that its several hundred wrenching, grandiloquent, murderous and duplicitous items are presented - rather like Harpers Index - without editorial comment. You're free to interpret them as you wish. It wouldn't surprise me if a Fox-News couch-commando had a very different but just as satisfying takeaway from reading 'States of War' as a lily-livered peacenik like me. Still, I'd defy anyone with half a heart not to conclude in the melancholy half-light of history that there is, in the end, no such thing as good guys or bad guys, no such thing as God blessing one nation or the other, above all no truth in that moist-eyed promise made by warmongers since men first sharpened sticks to stick in other men: it is glorious to die for God, tribe, King or country. In the words of Wilfred Owen, gunned down in 1918 at 25, just seven days before the armistice of the first war in the bloodiest century known to human history:

...If you could hear at every jolt the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile incurable sores upon innocent tongues -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest,
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(Trans: How sweet and fitting it is to die for the homeland)

Lapham's Quarterly isn't in any sense, cheap: a year's worth will set you back sixty bucks. But I suspect this is one gift subscription that will keep on giving. Its recipient will never wonder years from now, why she or he kept every issue. The great thing about great history after all, is that it never goes out of style.

(Full Disclosure: from 1994 to 2002 I published four articles in Harper's magazine)