Satire punctures U.S. absurdities

Special to The Times

30 Satires

Lewis H. Lapham

The New Press: 264 pp., $23.95


Each stage of a nation's life has its appropriate literary form. Epics are good for heralding its glorious beginnings; odes, for celebrating its ardent, hopeful youth. Satire is reserved for puncturing the follies of its rich and dissipated maturity. Juvenal did the job for the Roman Empire.

For 20 years Lewis H. Lapham, the editor of Harper's, one of America's essential (and money-losing) magazines, has employed the form to expose the absurdities of the American empire at the zenith of its power and pretension. "30 Satires" presents a collection of his pieces.

Some of them are just about perfect. "Curtain Calls" says all there is to say about the television coverage of the disappearance of the Kennedy scion's airplane off Nantucket. After 28 hours of continuous attention, Lapham writes, "The death and transfiguration of John F. Kennedy Jr. was already old news.... No angle had been ignored, no cliche left unexamined or unexpressed, nobody who hadn't said goodbye to America's Prince. Aviation experts had been consulted, Barbara Walters had rummaged through the closet of the Kennedy family's sexual confusion and Dan Rather had wiped away his tears; gossip columnists had placed wreathes of brave remembrance on the altar of departed glory and historians had recalled the kingdom that once was Camelot.

"Everything had been done that could be done, but the plane was still missing, and the anchorpersons did not know what else to say. The time had come to talk of other things, preferably one's self, and for the next four days, while the flags were being lowered to half-staff at Hyannis Port and the teddy bears propped up on the sidewalk in Tribeca, the conversation turned to the happier memories of those still present -- old college acquaintances, once-upon-a-time kayaking companions, doe-eyed journalists -- who had known John Kennedy (or if not John Kennedy, then his sister or his dog) in the dear old days when everybody was young and beautiful and pleased to be counted among the friends and guests, the very important friends and guests, on the sailboat or the lawn."

Observing that the news media "define death as a competitive consumer good," Lapham asks why an enterprising undertaker should not do the same. He envisions a brochure, tastefully printed, with glamorous illustrations, offering various brands of self-flattering farewells, like the "Socrates: A quiet leave-taking for serene and philosophical individuals ... " or "The Titanic: A romantic aloha, offered only once a year, in early April...."

In "Asset Management," Lapham considers American capitalism's enduring affection for the procedure known as "trimming out the fat."

"The chairman's $50 million," he observes, "weighs practically nothing -- a row of numbers on a computer screen, a handful of credit cards, maybe a gold watch as thin as the wings of a moth. The 20,000 employees, on the other hand, require heavy maintenance and take up too much storage space, also too much light and air. They stand in the way of progress and block the view of the future."

Likewise he proposes slicing the redundancy from the traditional Christian view of the world by chucking the seven cardinal virtues (which have a certain "old-world charm" but don't meet the requirements of the global market) in favor of the seven deadly sins, "which are very good for business." "Leave vanity out of the equation and who would run the government or the Walt Disney Company?" he asks. Covetousness? "The collapse of Soviet Communism," he responds, "can be read as a parable about what happens to a society that seeks to banish the sin of covetousness."

Being a satirist is a hazardous profession, and not all Lapham's sallies find their marks. His take on the defenders of contemporary art that conflates elephant dung and the Virgin Mary seems obvious, and his thrusts against President Clinton and his sex scandal look, even after so short a time, dated.

But most of his pieces are deft and revealing, some replying to the common canard that Americans have always had a "longing for the ineffable and the unseen." "More often than not," he says, "the material acquisitions serve as tickets of admission to the desired states of immateriality." The taste of a truffle matters less than "what the eating of the truffle represents -- i.e., induction into the company of the elect and a place at the table of self-esteem."

No doubt Juvenal's contemporaries thought they were living at the peak of empire. It may be instructive to note that we now believe his satires presaged the beginning of the end.

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