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Life magazine goes to another kind of party

FIFTEEN years ago this month Life magazine went to press for the last time as a weekly. After the managing editor, Ralph Graves, announced the end to the assembled staff (``There is nothing I can do to soften this sad blow''), one of the veterans disguised with a quip whatever emotions one feels at witnessing the demise of the institution to which one has attached one's life. ``That,'' said Frank Kappler, ``is the strongest rumor I've heard yet.'' Ordinarily Life specialized in celebrations, in parties (``Life goes to a party'' was a feature that eventually ran itself into parody). Christmas always brought forth the most gorgeous gestures. By a coincidence, the cover for the final Christmas issue focused on a detail from a painting by the 17th-century artist Georges de La Tour, titled ``The Newborn'' - as if Life were just beginning rather than ending its career.

Those of us who merely contributed to the magazine - connecting to it chiefly through manuscripts in the mail and the occasional phone call - were surprised to discover what a ``blow,'' in the editor's word, the closing proved to be. It is curious how ``going out of business'' can be so little a matter of business. Old institutions, when they fall, become romantic objects, bringing down bystanders and their sentimental childhood memories with them. Whenever the existence of Radio City Music Hall has been threatened, people living thousands of miles away have responded as if their old family home were about to be razed. The closing of Life magazine affected its readers (even those who were not its readers) in that fashion, making their private world seem depleted by the disappearance of this familiar public monument.

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Writers, being writers, are driven to compose epitaphs about journals that do not survive - to be published in journals that do. But why is the stopping of a press a particularly haunting loss to almost everybody else, too? - a loss, say, beyond the closing of a department store or the shutting down of another railroad line. In better times, under different circumstances, the department store can fill up with new goods and open its doors again. The railroad can wipe off the rust on its tracks, buy rolling stock, and print up a fresh schedule. A journal, on the other hand, has a life that depends on continuity. The Saturday Evening Post, the Saturday Review - other magazines, other newspapers have tried to revive only to find that some sense of habit, some sense of intimacy between writers and readers, is no longer present.

As a community of writers and editors, providing certain pleasures and certain services to a community of readers, who feel, in turn, a certain gratitude and a certain irritation, every magazine or newspaper is unique, like a family. Once it is gone, it is gone. (No matter how good Life may become in its current form as a monthly, it is destined to struggle against becoming its own replica - every issue a kind of souvenir issue.) And when a magazine or newspaper is gone - never mind if it was the most casual money-grubbing rag - one voice has been subtracted from the forum, and that sobers us. That warns us.

It is an article of faith that nothing in history marks the arrival of civilization like the written word. The written word is a contract to wrestle for the meaning of everything else in life, as Jacob wrestled with his angel.

It is hard work, for readers as well as writers. No wonder the contract gets broken every day (certainly in journalism) and words are used frivolously and cheaply because it's easier all around - and besides, something in all of us longs to return to the pictogram on the cave wall.

Still, we know better. We understand, as the saying goes, that words fail us. But without them, we might not even acknowledge the existence of what cannot be seen, heard, or touched - or finally said. For the camera allows no question marks in its grammar.

And so we celebrate, 15 years later, the silenced words of a magazine that began with pictures but went down talking. Is it too pretentious to recite on this occasion, and others like it, the observation of Wallace Stevens, a profound and matter-of-fact poet? ``Words of the world,'' Stevens said, ``are the life of the world.''

A Wednesday and Friday column

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