“Money is human happiness in the abstract; he who can no longer enjoy
happiness in the concrete devotes himself entirely to money.”


The Lewis Lapham story, as recounted in his earlier books, Fortune’s Child and Money and Class in America, is that of a rich boy who, having been exposed as a reporter to the lot of the poor, renounces the “authority of wealth” and turns his trenchant wit to leveling all its pretenses and privileges. The latter book, published in 1988, carried the subtitle Notes and Observations on Our Civil Religion, his point being that in America the pursuit of money had acquired an almost sacramental character. “Never in the history of the world,” he wrote, “have so many people been so rich; never in the history of the world have so many of those same people felt themselves so poor.”

A noble observation, and no one reading his books will doubt the degree of conviction Mr. Lapham brings to the subject of wealth and poverty. Equally clear, however, is his responsibility to provide some sort of direction for those whose empty lives he is attempting to illuminate. When Mother Teresa offers similar reflections on the poverty of great wealth, we know her answer to the problem—charity, self-renunciation, poverty of spirit. But Mr. Lapham’s insistently secular answer is not quite so clear. If, as he told an interviewer, his books are “an exorcism, a necessary working-out of my own attitudes toward money,” what has supplanted those false values? With what would he replace America’s “civil religion”?

With “merely human values,” he Matthew Scully is assistant literary editor for National Review. writes in Imperial Masquerade, Mr. Lapham’s reflections on America in the 1980’s. Gathered mostly from his “Notebook” column as editor of Harper’s, the essays, he declares in the forward, “take as their common text the attitudes, suppositions and habits of mind that sustained the spirit of an age.” And the age, alas, was the height of greed as a civil religion. More than ever, America under Ronald Reagan was a society caught up “in its dream of innocence as well as its dream of power,” at the expense of the merely human values that would lead us to care for the poor and fill the “moral emptiness” of modern life. Politics became theater, a pretense, a fiction allowing us to indulge “the comforts of a vacant conscience.” Even his fellow journalists sat enthralled by the spectacle, but as for Mr. Lapham, “I could never escape the suspicion that I was asked to applaud the performance of an Imperial Masquerade.”

He never does, in the course of 70 essays, quite explain what these merely human values are, or why they conflict with the harsh “transcendental impulse” that attempts to bring the divine to bear upon human affairs—a theme of the book—or, if his own merely secular values are to stand in place of transcendent ones, what the source of their authority might be.

Those questions, though, are secondary to understanding Imperial Masquerade, for the book turns out to be something of a grand “performance” itself: marked by considerable literary skill, but marred by theatrical airs. If modern politics is a masquerade, a surreal acting-out of fantasy and self-delusion, then it is a mad spectacle from which Mr. Lapham himself has yet to find escape.

If this seems harsh—who among us is without his absurd vanities?—consider “Reagan’s Academy Award,” an essay published in Harper‘s just before inauguration day. Election Eve, 1980, he recalls, found Mr. Lapham driving near an East Harlem slum where he noticed “a neon sign flashing the message GOOD LUGK REAGAN.” The words

appeared at the base of a billboard raised up on the rubble of the East Harlem slum. Not knowing who owned the billboard, or who had thought it worthwhile to buy space on Mr. Reagan’s behalf, I couldn’t decide whether the intention was sentimental or sardonic. Depending on the inflection of the voice, I could hear the words pronounced either as a pious wish or a cynical farewell.


The ambiguity of the greeting corresponded to the irony implicit in the view to the west.

. . . meaning New York City in all its affluence. The rubble of the tenements in the foreground, set against that “resplendent” metropolis glittering in the distance, leads him in the course of his essay to resolve the subtle ambiguity with the conclusion it was, alas, a cynical farewell. If there is a fiction to be exposed here, it is not Ronald Reagan’s policies towards the poor, but the essayist’s search for the poignant detail with which to open his next commentary on conservative insensitivity.

Equally tiresome is the air of disgust with which Mr. Lapham dismisses Reagan’s “chaotic” and “incoherent” philosophy. One could be more sympathetic toward Mr. Lapham if only he himself, reflecting for a moment that Mr. Reagan and others whom he opposes are also merely human and prone to misjudgments, were less smug. Instead, just about every conservative who passes by in the Imperial Masquerade is a hypocrite or impostor, and Lewis Lapham alone notices the misery of the slums and the broken dreams and the quiet longings of his fellow men.

Mr. Reagan’s ideas, he writes in one of these indictments, were so “unsystematic,” so “incoherent,” not sophisticated and “realistic” like liberalism, “America’s generously optimistic tradition.” “The comforts of a vacant conscience,” moreover, allowed America under Mr. Reagan “not to worry itself with tiresome questions about what was right and what was wrong, or what was true and what was false.” “It was clear from the beginning that Mr. Reagan wasn’t interested in bad news,” for this might have upset his listeners and cost him votes. Making the rich richer “was the only promise Mr. Reagan kept.”

In developing these insights, Mr. Lapham overlooks some not too intricate flaws in his own thought. For one thing, it is contradictory to say that Reagan was both unconcerned about “right and wrong” yet excessively moralistic on such matters as abortion and “the Wagnerian stage set of the Evil Empire.” You can fault him for one or the other, but not both. And, too, when Reagan took the position that abortion is killing, whether one agreed or not that surely was intended as a bit of “bad news” to a society which tolerates about a million-and-a-half abortions each year—news delivered at the risk of estranging a lot of voters, notably Lewis Lapham and the entire media establishment. This raises the further contradiction that Mr. Lapham had so many angry essays to write during the 80’s precisely because Reagan in fact kept most of his promises—for instance, by acting on his anti-abortion principles and by employing all those “merchants of death” at the Pentagon.

And the odd thing is, when you pause to examine precisely what Mr. Lapham’s own merely human values amount to, they almost always have something to do with money. One admires his insight that greed can become a civic religion. What he doesn’t see, however, is that like most temptations greed can assume the form of its opposite, so that we can succumb just when it appears we are being the most noble or altruistic. The authority of wealth—how it is acquired, spent, doled out—thus remains the decisive influence in his moral thought; underlying even his most exalted sentiments one detects the merely monetary. You would expect, for instance, to find somewhere in the book a thoughtful piece on abortion—whichever side one takes, a vital index to the spirit of an age. Mr. Lapham, however, enters the great debate only when the specific question is one of payment. If the rich can have abortions, do not civilized standards demand that the poor and underprivileged should have them too?

That there might be a deeper spiritual or even merely human dimension beyond the “small sum” denied the poor for their abortions simply has not registered. Nor does he think to apply his other frequent theme—the Powerful versus the Powerless—to the treatment of unborn life, for this would require a rethinking of liberalism’s “generously optimistic tradition.” Whatever the moral issue—abortion, America’s housing problem, the doctrine of military deterrence—it always seems to turn back to those grasping, sanctimonious Republicans denying poor people their rightful share of the loot.

Only rhetorically does he ever escape the who-gets-what moral calculus. A word search on Mr. Lapham’s computer would turn up hundreds of examples of Christian imagery, advancing one or another secular or purely economic argument: “The search for the innocent investment seems to me comparable to the search for the Holy Grail. . . . [T]he worship of technology serves the cause of barbarism. The pleading of the deity in the machine makes it much easier to discard the value of the merely human. . . . By reducing words to objects, the Christian propagandists transformed language into stone, thereby forming an ecumenical union with those totalitarian states against which they buried the cliches of freedom. . . . Whether employed in the service of religion or the service of the state, the transcendental voice shouts down the objections of the merely human.” Or finally this: “Like the bones of Saint Theodosia, the arsenal of deterrence stands as both symbol and embodiment of absolute power. What was human becomes divine. The Pentagon spends a great deal of its money buying hightech weapons so delicate and fundamentally useless as to acquire the beauty of religious sculpture.”

Even forgetting the stuff about turning language into stone and ecumenical unions and Saint Theodosia, what a confused, deeply troubling outlook. Religious sculpture is nice to look at but fundamentally useless because, one assumes, it reaches beyond the merely human, deludes the poor with false hopes, and like the arsenal of deterrence probably costs too much besides. And it only reminds us of that unsettling transcendental “shout.”

No doubt from such a view the transcendental voice does seem to shout instead of beckon, as “the divine” must seem an archaic but ever-impressive bit of imagery to be tossed about like any other; so much the better if it belittles the “Christian propagandists” for whom it actually means something. That it might represent the one authentic voice in the entire masquerade, is a possibility simply not to be found in the book. 


[Imperial Masquerade: Essays by Lewis H. Lapham, by Lewis H. Lapham (New York: Grove Weidenfeld) 397 pp., $22.50]