From the Barbaric Heart: A Story About Me and Lewis and the Late Great Island Nation of Japan

In the April, 2011, issue of Harper’s, Lewis Lapham has written an essay on Mark Twain’s Autobiography, Volume 1 of which appeared in the fall of 2010. It is, as usual, a gorgeous essay, written with an unapologetic richness of historical allusion, and the sort of energy of perception–a keeness of phrasing, a genius for metaphor–that makes human beings something more than a “sarcasm,” as Twain put it.

Lapham, like Twain, and like Twain’s German counterpart, Nietzsche, is a practitioner of the “gay science.” That science has two parts: honesty and play.  Lapham is indignantly honest because he knows that so much less than honesty is expected of him, and he is gay because the intelligence and playfulness that make honesty possible are such intense human joys. Regarding these joys of the mind, Lapham quotes Twain:

“Narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy Woodlands… a book that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around and at the end of this circuit flowing within a yard [of] the path that it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law.”

Twain’s formulation has a Zen-like clarity: the law of no-law.  This is appropriate because it is not just a law for art, it is the law of life. As Shunryu Suzuki put it in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”

Watch them go. Life, especially that life form we call art, is the “play of energy in the void.”

Tragic though our world may be, you would be mistaken if you thought that this “play” had been defeated by the world as it stands, by the great villainous lies of nation, faith, family, and, especially, the monstrous lies of market economics. Play cannot be defeated because it’s not trying to win.  Play acknowledges the inevitability of the reign of masters and slaves, of suffering and change, and of what I have called the world of the Barbaric Heart. Narrative play only “wins” in the sense that it seeks to become more human than what passes here among us for humanity. It wins only by knowing what it is and then being it. It wins simply by claiming and living its freedom.  It says, “Life is this way: follow.”

As it happens, I knew that Lapham was thinking about Twain and thinking about the disgraceful treatment the Autobiography had received from cartoon critics like Garrison Keillor (in, predictably, the New York Times). Just three weeks before the April issue of Harper’s found my door, I appeared with Lapham and Barbara Ehrenreich on a panel (“The Future of Liberalism”) sponsored by the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The night before the panel, Lewis and I had dinner with our hosts (the writer Richard Wiley and Dean of Arts and Sciences Chris Hudgins). Among other things, Lewis talked about Twain and his unhappiness with the critical reception the Autobiography had received, but we didn’t stay on that topic for long because we needed to talk about what all writers talk about when gathered round a table: writing and other writers.  Finally, we headed over to the Bellagio just because you’re s’posed to, I suppose. Lewis learned how to lose money quickly at roulette (the game seems to have something to do with the croupier swooshing great piles of chips off the betting table and into a profitable hole by her side). I tried to win the Lapham Quarterly an endowment on a one-dollar slot machine (a machine that was, by the way, so complicated that I had to ask a woman at the next seat for help). I won 50 cents. “It’s a start,” I said.

At the end of the evening, we agreed to meet the next morning and drive out to Red Rock Canyon for a short walk. Richard Wiley and I arrived to pick up Lewis and, to our astonishment, he was waiting at the entrance to his hotel wearing a dark blue pinstriped suit and dress shoes. His only concession to the occasion was that he was not wearing a tie.

Once at the canyon, it was clear that Lewis wasn’t going far in that citified get up. So, Richard and I excused ourselves for a short jaunt down to some of the nearer boulders. Lewis came along until he slipped in the loose rock path, and so said he’d wait for us. We went only a short way, maybe 100 yards, and climbed up on a boulder. Then we looked back to the trailhead and saw Lewis still standing there in his blue suit, blown about some by a dry wind, in incongruous silhouette against a mountainous and, as advertised, very red desert horizon.

He stood there, hands in pockets, childlike, vulnerable, but incorruptibly and incorrigibly himself.

On the evening of the day that I read Lapham’s essay on Twain, I watched CNN and its reporting on the six catastrophically disabled Japanese nuclear reactors, destroyed by a tsunami the Thursday before. The news was, as you will know, utterly depressing. What was worse was having to listen to it coming from the paid squab, the lubricious mollusk, Eliot Spitzer. It seemed to me that the profitable carnage of the international energy industry—an industry that, in Japan, had used nuclear power to light up all the infantilizing (kawai, the cult of cute) neon gewgaws of Tokyo—was only possible in a world where a malignant dwarf like Spitzer could be the “authority” to evaluate and pass judgment on a reality so severe that it made mere cruelty seem therapeutic.

Twain and Lapham understand the truth of Japan’s nuclear horror. It is not a “tragic accident” of nature or technology, as Spitzer would have it. It is the inevitable result, brought to 21st century scale, of the barbaric willingness to profit from violence. It is really, finally, the expression of a moral indifference so large that it engulfs the planet as if it were the proverbial bean in the mouth of a lion. It is, as Suzuki put it, the “worst policy”: it ignores not only people, but, I would say, Being as such. But who is left to say so? Spitzer?!

Lapham concludes:

“The heavy calibers of Twain’s humor have gone missing from our news and entertainment media because the audiences made for television don’t look with favor upon the kind of jokes that cast doubt on the guarantee of happiness and the promise of redemption… they preferred the safer forms of satire fit for privileged and frightened children. Twain was an adult.”

March 16, 2011

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2 thoughts on “From the Barbaric Heart: A Story About Me and Lewis and the Late Great Island Nation of Japan

  1. What a delightful essay! I especially savored the notion of three of my favorite American critical writers came together for this piece. I could only ask for a nod to E. Wilson and Mencken to improve upon it. The anecdote of Lapham in a pin-striped suit windblown in the cruel Nevada desert rings with all my visions of him and of the best that liberalism can be, i.e. an old money intellectual with a finely honed wit and an even sharper conscience. I say this, even as a proponent of dialectical materialism, with the most reverent appreciation for Lapham, one of the true gentlemen of modernity. It’s such a pity that his kind are fading from an ideological landscape that has no room for complex ideas in an echo chamber full of the boorishness and brutishness of the Limbaughs, Becks, Mathewses, and Spitzers.

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