The Spirit of the Agenby Matthew Scullyn”Money is human happiness in the abstract; he who can no longer enjoynhappiness in the concrete devotes himself entirely to money.”n— SchopenhauernImperial Masquerade: Essays bynLewis H. Laphamnby Lewis H. LaphamnNew York: Grove Weidenfeld;n397 pp., $22.50nThe Lewis Lapham story, as recountednin his earlier books, Fortune’snChild and Money and Class innAmerica, is that of a rich boy who,nhaving been exposed as a reporter tonthe lot of the poor, renounces then”authority of wealth” and turns hisntrenchant wit to leveling all its pretensesnand privileges. The latter book,npublished in 1988, carried the subtitlenNotes and Observations on Our CivilnReligion, his point being that in Americanthe pursuit of money had acquirednan almost sacramental character.n”Never in the history of the wodd,” henwrote, “have so many people been sonrich; never in the history of the woddnhave so many of those same people feltnthemselves so poor.”nA noble observation, and no onenreading his books will doubt the degreenof conviction Mr. Lapham brings tonthe subject of wealth and poverty.nEqually clear, however, is his responsibilitynto provide some sort of directionnfor those whose empty lives he isnattempting to illuminate. When MothernTeresa offers similar reflections onnthe poverty of great wealth, we knownher answer to the problem — charity,nself-renunciation, poverty of spirit. ButnMr. Lapham’s insistently secular answernis not quite so clear. If, as he toldnan interviewer, his books are “an exorcism,na necessary working-out of mynown attitudes toward money,” whatnhas supplanted those false values?nWith what would he replace America’sn”civil religion”?nWith “merely human values,” henMatthew Scully is assistant literaryneditor for National Review.nwrites in Imperial Masquerade, Mr.nLapham’s reflections on America innthe 1980’s. Gathered mostly from hisn”Notebook” column as editor oi Harper’s,nthe essays, he declares in thenforward, “take as their common textnthe attitudes, suppositions and habits ofnmind that sustained the spirit of annage.” And the age, alas, was the heightnof greed as a civil religion. More thannever, America under Ronald Reagannwas a society caught up “in its dream ofninnocence as well as its dream ofnpower,” at the expense of the merelynhuman values that would lead us toncare for the poor and fill the “moralnemptiness” of modern life. Politics becamentheater, a pretense, a fictionnallowing us to indulge “the comforts ofnnna vacant conscience.” Even his fellownjournalists sat enthralled by the spectacle,nbut as for Mr. Lapham, “I couldnnever escape the suspicion that I wasnasked to applaud the performance ofnan imperial masquerade.”nHe never does, in the course of 70nessays, quite explain what these merelynhuman values are, or why they conflictnwith the harsh “transcendental impulse”nthat attempts to bring the divinento bear upon human affairs — a themenof the book — or, if his own merelynsecular values are to stand in place ofntranscendent ones, what the source ofntheir authority might be.nThose questions, though, are secondarynto understanding Imperial Masquerade,nfor the book turns out to bensomething of a grand “performance”nitself: marked by considerable literarynskill, but marred by theatrical airs. Ifnmodern politics is a masquerade, ansurreal acting-out of fantasy and selfdelusion,nthen it is a mad spectaclenfrom which Mr. Lapham himself hasnyet to find escape.nIf this seems harsh — who among usnis without his absurd vanities? — considei”n”Reagan’s Academy Award,” annessay published in Harper’s just beforeninauguration day. Election Eve, 1980,nhe recalls, found Mr. Lapham drivingnnear an- East Harlem slum where hennoticed “a neon sign flashing the messagenGOOD LUGK REAGAN.” Thenwordsnappeared at the base of anbillboard raised up on thenrubble of the East Harlem slum.nNot knowing who owned thenbillboard, or who had thought itnworthwhile to buy space on Mr.nReagan’s behalf, I couldn’tndecide whether the intentionnwas sentimental or sardonic.nDepending on the inflection ofnthe voice, I could hear thenwords pronounced either as anJANUARY 1992/33n