Holiday hathos from Lapham & Huffington

laphamCoverI’ve spent a few weeks now pondering what it is in the temperament of Lewis Lapham, the soon-retiring editor of Harper’s, that prompts him to devote the December issue’s cover to an essay celebrating “Jesus without the Miracles.”

In a recent feature for New York magazine, Kurt Andersen helps explain Lapham’s influence on Harper’s for much of the past 30 years:

It’s often a good magazine; it just hasn’t been a “hot” magazine for a long time. Its bigger glossy-intellectual rivals, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, have managed to achieve moments of heat during the last decade, in part by getting youngish new editors-in-chief.

And also, maybe, because they’ve seemed less single-mindedly partisan and smug. In fact, most of Harper’s is not fusty and Euro-lefty, Lapham’s “Notebook” column notwithstanding. But because his 2,500-word essays lead each issue, they tend to color one’s sense of the whole magazine. And they all amount to pretty much the same contemptuous, Olympian jeremiad: The powers-that-be are craven and monstrous, American culture is vulgar and depraved, the U.S. is like imperial Rome, our democracy is dying or dead. All of which is arguably true. But, jeez, sometime tell me something I didn’t know, show a shred of uncertainty and maybe some struggle to suss out fresh truth. “Everything I’ve written,” he says, “is a chronicle of the twilight of the American idea.” He seems so committed to the decline-and-fall critique, and so supremely uninterested in the novelties and nuances of everyday life and culture, it’s hard to take his gloom altogether seriously.

AriannaHuffington2Remember the days when people worried about Ted Turner buying out CBS News because of his excessive right-wing sympathies? Like Turner, Arianna Huffington is a celebrity whose ideological about-face is enough to induce vertigo.

In the December Vanity Fair, Suzanna Andrews helps explain Huffington’s political (and theological) identities. Andrews spends more time on Huffington’s politics than on her religious beliefs, but the details she does report are as high-energy as one of Huffington’s appearances on a talk show:

• There were, to be sure, aspects of the new HuffPost [blog] that invited ridicule: incoherent blogs from celebrities including Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Deepak Chopra’s cryptic admonition that death was not to be feared, because “you are dead already”; and Huffington’s own post on the female orgasm, which she declared to be “so complex and strange it could only have come from God.” Wouldn’t it be “delicious,” she wrote, “if the female orgasm were the thing that tips the scales in favor of the Intelligent Design crowd?”

• Success at such an early age, she recalls, brought on feelings of anxiety and emptiness. “Certain there was something else,” Arianna embarked on a period of spiritual searching. She read the writings of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and of Yogi Sri Aurobindo and various mystical philosophers. She did dream analysis, explored the New Age programs est and Lifespring, walked on hot coals with the life coach Tony Robbins, and got involved with a mystic who claimed to be channeling a 3,000-year-old man. “I began to see,” Huffington says, “how basically for people to find themselves spiritually there had to be an element of service, a dedication to something more than ourselves.” The result of this was her second book, After Reason, a densely written treatise that argued for the need to integrate spirituality into modern politics. Attacking the “bankruptcy of Western political leadership,” and describing politics as “our hypnotized acquiescence in this organized sham,” the book called for a “spiritual revolution” in Western democracies. Nothing less, she wrote, could save “individual freedom” in a culture where “the ‘pursuit of happiness’ has been reduced today to the pursuit of comfort.”

• And then there was John-Roger. The press went wild with the allegation that Arianna had been, since the late 1970s, a minister in the guru’s Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA). A New Age spiritualist whose seminars and books advance a regimen of therapy, positive thinking, and rigorous self-improvement, John-Roger was also believed by his followers to embody the “Mystical Traveler Consciousness,” which inhabits God’s chosen one on earth. It was never clear whether Arianna believed, as many of John-Roger’s adherents did, that he was the personification of God and that he could read her mind, heal her illnesses, and even endow her with the power to change the weather. Over and over, she obfuscated as the press dogged her with questions about John-Roger, whom ex-followers accused in the press of mind control, electronic eavesdropping, and sexually coercing his male acolytes. Several former adherents also said that John-Roger had almost completely controlled Arianna, financing her lavish lifestyle in New York in return for introductions to her powerful friends, guiding her through her courtship with Huffington (she allegedly called him after each date “to see what God would do next”), and instructing her to marry Huffington for his money. When asked about John-Roger, Arianna denied these allegations and claimed that he was just a friend, and that she knew very little about his teachings. “I have not spent many years in his training,” she told Vanity Fair in 1994. “Nobody’s been a guru to me.”

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  • http://www.newpantagruel.com DK

    After Bush II was elected the first time, Lapham started to get unreadable. After the Iraq morass commenced and the re-election, I completely quit reading the Notebook. Andersen is right though; the rest of the magazine holds together pretty well, otherwise I’d have quit my subscription. It’s still worth the price just for the “Readings.”

  • Eric Phillips

    My brother gave me a year’s subscription last yuear. Unfortunately, that means I started getting it right after Bush’s _second_ election. It had always been a great magazine–the one I would ask for whenever the telemarketers selling magazine subscriptions would call (they never have it–great way to get out of buying anything)–but now that I had an actual subscription, it wasn’t so great anymore.

    I agree, there’s still lots of good stuff in it, but I didn’t renew my subscription. The issue from earlier this year (with the Crusaders on the cover) that was dedicated from start to finish to bashing Christianity was the one that put it over the top for me, but the incessant sneering in the other issues didn’t let me forget that one, either.

    Lapham’s doing his best to turn a fascinating and worthwhile journal into a leftist, secular-humanist rag.

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com ark

    Nah, he’s not making it that bad yet, but the addition of a similar superficial rant from Stanley Fish on ID is a bad sign if more is to come in that vein. Secular humanist–yes, but leftist–not really. Lapham’s mental breakdown has to do with his cognitive dissonance at the breakdown of enlightenment liberalism. He doesn’t know how to cope. He’d be more interesting if he was into true leftist thinking, which is utterly antiliberal.


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