Lamentations, Poor Lingua Franca, An Orphan of the Academic Storm

It was a wake, yes, but it looked like a terrific party as well: a gathering of scores of writers and editors whose work I’d admired. Still, I was feeling so sad and guilty, I had to leave. I felt something had to be done.

It was a wake for Lingua Franca, an informal farewell organized by Rick Perlstein and Robin Hutson a few days after the Oct. 17 announcement that this unique and brilliant-perhaps irreplaceable-magazine was suspending publication.

When I say I was feeling sad and guilty, let me count the ways. I felt sad for literary and intellectual culture. Lingua Franca had been an absolutely invaluable and highly influential resource, searching out the genuinely important controversies over ideas emerging from the academic world. Searching through the vast torrents of jargon-addled dross to find and convey the rare excitement of real thinkers grappling with original ideas. And exposing the sad comedy of pre-tentious sophists confecting academic simulacra of real thinking.

And I felt sad for myself, because I was one of Lingua Franca‘s most extreme fans. It was one of those few publications I’d eagerly check magazine-store racks for in hopes of finding a new issue. It was a magazine I felt was written for me-a grad-school dropout with a love-hate thing for the academy-when it was originally edited by Judith Shulevitz and Margaret Talbot, one I continued to relish during the reign of current editor Alex Star and colleagues such as Emily Eakin, Matthew Price, Laura Secor, Caleb Crain and everyone else in the current crew.

It was a magazine that invented a new way of writing about ideas-a new kind of journalism, really-and one that often provided a kind of there-but-for-fortune frisson of horror and fascination at the culture within the walls of academia I’d left behind. Lingua Franca also had something rare inside the academy: a sense of humor and a discerning pop-culture sensibility, as evidenced by its Mystery Science Theater cover line on the Sokal Hoax (the delicious send up of postmodernism that put the magazine on the front page of The Times -which soon inaugurated its own Arts and Ideas section as a kind of internal Lingua Franca).

O.K., so that’s the sadness. Then there’s the guilt, which comes in two forms. First, maybe I should have known this was coming and done more to support Lingua Franca, although God knows I’ve given praise to the magazine, and to some of my favorite stories and writers therein, almost incessantly since I began writing this column. I’ve promoted it as one of the few bright new hopes for the future of literary culture when I taught at Columbia Journalism School (demonstrating what a great prognosticator I am). I had Judith, Emily and Alex as guest speakers in my “literary journalism” seminar. And I plugged Lingua Franca in the introduction to my most recent book, The Secret Parts of Fortune (this could qualify as a meta-plug), when I wrote: ” I think it’s important that journalists investigate ideas as thoroughly as they do politics and crime …. Another way of saying this is that ideas are too important to be left to intellectuals alone. The watchword of post-Watergate journalism, ‘follow the money,’ while still invaluable, needs to be supplemented these days by ‘follow the ideas’ … [investigate] the more subtle forms of intellectual and ideological corruption …. An example: the smart, skeptical investigation of ideas one can find in Lingua Franca. “

So I guess I did my part, but I feel that there’s more to be done, that the situation can and should be reversed. It seems to me not out of the question, from talking to Alex Star, that some smart patron of the arts who wants to achieve instant culture-hero status, or some foundation that wants to make a real contribution to the culture, could step forward and resurrect the magazine (which seemed to have a solid base of academic-world subscribers and academic-publishing advertising, in addition to its “high-art literary” audience-as a noted novelist has so felicitously phrased it). I would encourage such a person or foundation with the means to get Lingua Franca back in print to contact publisher Jeffrey Kittay at Academic Partners, 684-9884. It doesn’t seem hopeless, or too late. I feel it’s a cause much like the one waged by many obsessed and devoted book lovers who sought to save the much-loved and valued bookstore, Books & Co. We didn’t succeed, but it revealed a passionate constituency for a Lingua Franca–type sensibility. What made Books & Co. unique-one of the things, anyway-was the shrewd eye of its staff for discerning, from the vast slurry of copycat jargonizing in the academic press, the few works of thoughtful scholarship you didn’t want to miss. Lingua Franca writers did that and more, and someone can earn much honor for stepping forward to rescue it. Hey, maybe that’s what a certain highly conflicted “high-art literary” writer can do with those middlebrow Oprah bucks he’s so strenuously embarrassed to keep in his own bank account: invest a million or so to get the campaign to save Lingua Franca underway.

But meanwhile, I haven’t exhausted the inventory of my own personal guilt. There were these stories that I had kind of agreed to write for Lingua Franca and hadn’t quite gotten as far as I would have wanted to. (I think Alex Star probably thinks that should read “assignments that I failed to deliver.”) Stories that I wanted to write, but-this was how I excused myself-because of my respect for Lingua Franca, they were stories that would take months, years, to do justice to; they were books in themselves . Of course, that was only partly true, because one of them could have been done in much less time: The Story of the Night I Left Grad School.

This was a story I’d been telling for years; it was a turning point (one of the rare really good ones) in my life. I’d told Alex Star about conversations I’d been having with a number of writer friends in which it developed that their lives, too, had been changed-often in one turnaround moment-when they decided to drop out of grad school and become writers. It was part of the love/hate affair many of us still had with the academy: the way some of us were drawn back to write about scholars and scholarly controversies (for me, Hitler explainers and Shakespeare scholars)-but from the outside in. Which is the way Lingua Franca looked at things, recruiting smart academic dropouts to write about intellectual controversies inside the academy. Among those I’d spoken to about this pattern were David Samuels, Tony Scott, Judith Shulevitz, Larissa MacFarquhar and Emily Eakin-the latter four, no coincidence, all former editors at Lingua Franca.

I thought there was a Lingua Franca compilation of such stories to be done, or maybe an entertaining panel, but Alex-ever so tolerantly forbearing to mention my previous story-assignment lapses-encouraged me to write up my own Night I Left Grad School story.

Anyway, just as I was really ready to get to it (I swear), the magazine folded. And so, in the spirit of sadness and guilt (and hope that some hero will step forward to save Lingua Franca), I offer a brief version of my Night I Left Grad School story.

I blame it on “The Parliament of Fowls.” Or maybe I should say I give credit to “The Parliament of Fowls,” for jolting me out of the parliament of fools. But in any case, it was a special little seminar on “The Parliament of Fowls” and Chaucer’s other lesser-known “love vision” poems at Yale Graduate School that crystallized my decision to drop out. Actually, it was a forbidden question I asked-I dared to ask a question about love in the love-vision poems-that tore it.

I mean, I loved “The Parliament of Fowls” and the other love-vision poems, especially “The House of Fame,” the dream vision in which Chaucer’s narrator is carried off by a giant eagle, a talkative bird who takes him on a tour of the heavenly abode of mythic celebs. The poem ends abruptly and incompletely- poeta interruptus -but not before you really get to like the Talking Eagle. And, of course, the bumbling, bookish but likable Chaucerian narrator who lives life through his books but longs to learn about-perhaps even experience-Love. Hmmm. Sounds like most graduate students, including myself, at the time. But I’m going to interrupt my own story here-a meta-interruption. I suddenly realized it would make me feel even sadder and guiltier to finally publish an overdue Lingua Franca story assignment here, in however fragmentary a form, just because Lingua Franca ‘s no longer around. (Not this week, anyway).

I can’t promise I can hold out forever in this poeta interruptus mode, but I thought it more appropriate to devote what space I have left to pay tribute to some of the writers for Lingua Franca who did complete their assignments and turned in brilliant work. So I asked Alex Star to send me a list of Lingua Franca ‘s Greatest Hits, “from the beginning.”

Mr. Star sent me a voluminous, annotated, roughly chronological list that was relentlessly impressive, but which required me, for space reasons, to make some arbitrary editing decisions not based on merit so much as diversity of subject. So if your piece isn’t here, it probably was on Alex’s original list.

It’s a list that demonstrates what Lingua Franca brought to the culture, and what will be missing without it. It will, I hope, prompt someone to come forward and rescue it:

“Larissa MacFarquhar on the British semioticians who work for advertising firms;

“Adam Begley [The Observer's books editor] on the Moi critics: Professors Tompkins, Lentricchia, Torgovnick et al. get personal;

“Margaret Talbot on Jane Gallop, the feminist accused of sexual harassment;

“‘The Call of Stories': David Samuels asks if the new narrative historians know how to write;

“Colin McGinn on why he’s a Mysterian … that is, why he believes that there may be a solution to the mind/body problem, but we’ll never know what it is;

“‘Whose Idea Is It, Anyway?': Jim Holt’s philosophical investigation into Saul Kripke’s theory of reference, and the battle over who came up with it first;

“‘Tenured Conservatives': Emily Eakin on Hillsdale College, where the children of the Bible Belt meet the disciples of Ayn Rand;

“‘Who Owns the Sixties? The Opening of a Scholarly Generation Gap': Rick Perlstein wonders if those who lived through the 60’s are doomed to misinterpret it;

“‘A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies': Alan Sokal comes clean (on the famous Sokal Hoax sendup of Social Text postmodernists);

“‘The Stand': Daniel Mendelsohn on the accusation that Martha Nussbaum perjured herself by mistranslating an ancient Greek word during a gay-rights trial in Colorado;

“‘Genovese’s March':James Surowiecki on Eugene Genovese’s journey from radical agitator to Old South sympathizer;

“‘Pleasure Principles': Caleb Crain on how queer theorists and gay journalists are wrestling over the politics of sex;

“‘The Bernaliad': Robert Boynton on Martin Bernal’s Black Athena and its enemies;

“‘In the Franklin Factory': Jack Hitt on editing the Ben Franklin papers, one day at a time. Slow-motion scholarship in an age of scholarly obsolescence;

“‘Browning’s Version': Adam Shatz profiles Christopher Browning, the man who studied the same police battalion as Daniel Goldhagen, but reached the opposite conclusions;

“‘Does Man Eat Man?': Lawrence Osborne on the man who believes cannibalism is a myth;

“‘Getting Their Hands Dirty?': John Dorfman on how archaeologists love, and hate, the looting trade;

“‘International Man of Mystery': Matthew Steinglass on the case of Mikhail Bakhtin’s secret manuscripts and divergent admirers;

“‘The Federalist Capers': Jonathan Mahler on the Federalist Society, the cabal that created a judicial counterrevolution (and Ken Starr);

“‘Brainwashed!': Charlotte Allen on how religion scholars debate the dangers of cults and the existence of brainwashing;

“‘My First Intellectual': Mark Edmundson remembers the teacher who changed his life;

“‘Lost Tribes': Peter Beinart on the anthropologists who get to decide on what’s a real Indian tribe;

“‘The Sex That Dare Not Speak Its Name':Emily Nussbaumon the intersexual-rights movement and its efforts to stop doctors from “correcting” the ambiguous genitalia of infants;

“A.O. Scott on Norman Podhoretz and his ex-friends;

“‘Testaments Betrayed': Laura Secor on how a revered group of Yugoslavian intellectuals betrayed their principles and hastened their country’s demise;

“‘The Heirs of Ayn Rand': Was Ayn Rand really a Russian revolutionary? Scott McLemee on the schisms and heresies of the Objectivist movement;

“‘Murder by the Book': Rachel Donadio on Italy’s Nietzsche-and-Lacan-laced murder scandal;

“‘The Spy Who Loved Hegel': Matthew Price on whether the master Hegelian, Alexandre Kojève, was a K.G.B. agent;

“‘Shattered': Johanna Berkman on a young French professor who battled the senior Baudelairean in her department and ruined her career;

“‘The Myth of Fingerprints': Simon Cole on his one-man campaign to question the smudged science of fingerprints;

“‘The Ex-Cons: Corey Robin on how the Thatcherite John Gray and the Reaganite Edward Luttwak defected to the left; and

“‘The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician': James Ryerson hunts for an anonymous author who gave philosophers thousands of dollars to review his manuscript.”

One thing I couldn’t help noticing as I scrutinized this list was how it represented some of the best and brightest writers and editors of a generation, and how much Lingua Franca‘s writers and Lingua Franca‘s sensibility and approach to writing about ideas have influenced, in an important way, so many other magazines. It’s gone, but it lives on. Still, I hope it gets another life in a more literal sense. The time to act is now.