How to write the sentence Lewis Lapham has been redrafting for 40 years.

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Nov. 13 2007 6:58 PM

Lewis Lapham Mad Libs!

How to write the sentence he has been redrafting for 40 years.

Lewis Lapham. Click image to expand.
Lewis Lapham

In Albert Camus' novel The Plague, an aspiring novelist named Joseph Grand can't progress beyond writing and rewriting ad infinitum a single sentence: "One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne." Lewis Lapham suffers from a similar affliction. Eight years ago in this space ("The Impenetrable Mr. Lapham"), I quoted and attempted to parse the signature Lapham sentence, which appeared in the following form in the May 1999 issue of Harper's:

The swarm of cameras following Monica Lewinsky on her progress through a Washington airport or a New York restaurant wouldn't have surprised the Roman mob familiar with the expensive claques traipsing after the magnificence of the Emperor Nero, their eager and well-fed sycophancy presumably equivalent to the breathless enthusiasms of Barbara Walters.


In essence, Lapham was rephrasing Ecclesiastes: All is vanity. There is nothing new under the sun. Western civilization to contemporary news cycle: Been there, done that. It's not a particularly penetrating thought, which is why it always needs to be dressed up with windy invocations from Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" and the like. Anyway, Lapham has a new magazine called Lapham's Quarterly, comprising nothing but writings ancient, contemporary, and in-between, juxtaposed for maximum "all is vanity" impact and arranged under thematic headings like "Calls to Arms" and "Post-Mortems." (The first issue is about war.) Under Lapham, Harper's wasn't a bad magazine (if you sped past his "Notebook" and "Easy Chair" columns), but this new venture is so thoroughly Laphamized that none but a pompous bore would seem qualified to subscribe.

At the center of Lapham's three-ring circus of human folly down the ages stands Lapham himself, who, true to form, writes in an introductory essay titled "The Gulf of Time,"

When I see Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani being bundled around the country in a flutter of media consultants fitting words into their mouths, I think of the makeup artists adjusting the ribbons in Emperor Nero's hair before sending him into an amphitheater to sing with a choir of prostitutes.

How many times can a man write the same sentence? Lapham puts Camus' Grand to shame. Here's the sentence again on Page 183 of Lapham's 2006 book, Pretensions to Empire (paperback edition):

The train from Paris to Brussels passes through fields sown for 2,000 years with the seed of war, and on the way north last February 1 to the opening sessions of this year's European Parliament, I was reminded of the brightly beribboned armies—Saxon, Roman, Norman, English, French, Spanish, Austrian, German, and American—that had enriched the soil with the compost of human glory.

Here it is again—OK, this time it's two sentences—in a Lapham column in the September 2006 Harper's:

When King Richard the Lionheart joined the Third Crusade at Acre in 1191 and there failed to find the treasure promised by God, he insisted that the infidels had swallowed their jewels and gold coins in order to deny him the reward owing to his royal majesty and Christian virtue. His companions, less discreet than the ones currently for rent in Basra and Tikrit, cut open the stomachs of 3,000 Muslims in the search for truth, which, in the event, proved as determined, if eventually as disappointing, as the Bush Administration's quest for the thermonuclear genie in Saddam Hussein's magic lamp.

Here are those two sentences again in the October 2004 Forbes Global. Lapham's piece is supposed to be about golfing in Scotland: