YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 8, 2011

Getting Down with Tom Wolfe

Time lauds A Man In Full

I found an old talk, “Getting Down,” that I gave on Pacifica radio (KPFK-FM, Oct. 1, 1990), now updated because I have been reading Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novels and collected essays. I view Wolfe as primarily a bohemian, a primitivist, who, after “getting down” comes home to classicism and a really nice apartment on the Upper East Side of  NYC, cluttered, like much of his prose. (For a tour, see http://www.theselby.com/2007TomWolfe/index.html.)  It is the mark of the true gentleman, adventuring into “New Journalism” with its literary oomph, its Zola-like passion for naturalism, realism and the organically-connected big picture, that he may saunter through the lower depths of society, sliding into their particular argot; only to retreat to his natural milieu without stains to his own sense of moral purity, his character; hence the signature white suit and the shrill rejection of modern art and architecture (the modernism so favored by Wall Street types?), with a vengeance. Tom Wolfe wants us to see him as a dandy, and yet not a dandy; as an agrarian, but also the knowing and sophisticated cosmopolitan, not so very unlike (like?) a Southern gentleman of old Virginia where he was born.

What is the problem with such Wolfian wandering, perhaps nostalgie pour la boue? Bohemianism or primitivism may be the primary type of social criticism that is tolerated in a pluralist society that has banished class analysis and class politics in favor of multiple and overlapping “interest groups.”  What is class analysis?*  What it is not, is the description of the culture of classes as if they were strata, or layers, or rungs on a ladder–or tribes to be dissected by the excavating archaeologist/anthropologist (the Wolfian gesture) As many radicals in the nineteenth century conceived them, classes were described in terms of their relations to other classes, specifically the ways in which workers were exploited and coerced; lacking land or tools or capital, they were at the mercy of their employers.  This led to political organization along class lines and the rise of socialist parties, culminating in the revolutionary period that preceded and followed the first world war: this kind of social analysis that focused on structural antagonisms between capital and labor was associated by conservatives and reactionaries with the myth of Prometheus, demagoguery, jacobin purity, and Jews spewing hate and plotting to destroy Christian order. Organic conservatives in England and America were terrified in 1919, and urged each other to move sharply to the left to map, thence to co-opt, dissent, and to propose a different conception of class, one that “integrated” them into an “organic” polity. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/.)

Decor in Wolfe’s NYC apartment

In 1919 the populist anticapitalists of The Nation were indulging in a form of primitivism, like Lewis Mumford, looking backward to a golden age of little towns in a cultivated pastoral, where the economy seemed to follow the communitarian ethos of artisans and small producers, with a strong dollop of Anglo-Saxonism.  But there were other forms of primitivism in the 1920s (and earlier), with which we are all familiar: the upper-class vogue for Harlem and jazz, the romance of the South Seas, the primitive masks and artifacts which inspired Picasso and other cubists; the art of the insane which fascinated the expressionists.  These were not only forms of escape; they enabled a critique of uptight war-engendering “bourgeois culture.”  By identifying with the victims of imperialism, with honest dirt, the bohemians had a safe launching pad from which to criticize their zealously perfectionist, super-clean, hard-driving parents, the parents you could never please, because they wanted you both to be independent and choose their way of life, pretending that you were “free” to choose. (I am thinking of Melville here, especially in his first book, Typee.)

But the protest could never have matured into a politics of transformation, that is, rational politics addressing the structural causes of suffering; for after the carnival was over, the bohemians feared and (covertly) despised the lower orders, who were loved primarily as foils to their parents.  If the entertainers stopped singing and dancing and copulating, if they wanted to modernize, i.e., to participate in politics as educated equals or leaders, the spell was broken.  They had to be one’s “negative identity” for the ritual rebellion to work: the walls between self and the exotic never tumbled down. In the case of Tom Wolfe, it is notable that his most lubricious female characters have wildly arranged jet black hair; they could be whitened slave women, Lulus, who lure white men to their destruction, to the pollution of their blue blood. (For instance the irresistible femmes fatales in Bonfire of the Vanities or in A Man in Full.)

In the writings of the American Studies movement (Wolfe has a Yale Ph.D, in this field), in the counter-culture and in many New Leftists, the same bohemianism obtained.  I suspect that many New Left lovers of black people or Third World victims were seduced by the qualities imputed to them: superhuman strength, savagery, happy-go-lucky child-like qualities, sexual freedom and other forms of expressiveness, like the blues.  Or because, as peasants, they were close to the soil, rooted, and one could imagine an idyllic society where individuals did not have to make hard, ambiguous choices, in which morality was not so clear-cut and regulated, in which kindly patriarchal figures did not arouse parricidal feelings of resentment in the children: this may be the fantasy in the counter-culture embrace of organicism or Confucius or Zen, or in Wolfe’s case, of Epictetus’s Stoicism.  In this scenario, empiricism, science and rationalism were treated solely as the deceptions foisted upon their victims by capitalists; similarly, capitalist advertising terminally corrupted the lower orders with sex-obsessed media, materialism and consumerism.  What were the consequences for relations between blacks and white civil rights workers, or between workers and the counter-culture, or between opponents of government-supported shocking art and the artists who shock the public?

It is one of the myths of the upper-classes that poor people are irrational and cannot grasp their interests without the intervention of middle-class or upper-class radicals.  Many black people knew that their cultures were being misread and appropriated by these latter-day minstrel show fans.  Many workers knew that technology had made life more bearable, and that rational politics advanced their interests; they also knew how to gauge the balance of forces, and what tactics would win. Workers are correct to resent the hippie radicals who profit from our system, without, in their view, making the blood sacrifices that workers do, then, from a position of moral superiority, upbraid them, or, in Wolfe’s case, appropriate them as surrogates for masculine honor and endurance in the face of overwhelming odds (see the character Conrad in A Man In Full).**

However, we also need to understand that primitivism, although the first stage of revolt in upper-class radicalism, may not necessarily stop with the identification with “the Other”; like all carnivals, it has the potential to get out of hand.  A certain amount of understanding and even forgiveness may be in order, when the primitivists show signs of growing up.  When we work with and interact with “the Other” as real people, as unique individuals, not as figments or masks, we may correct our distortions.  With insight, we may develop a more rational political culture.  But that will mean a commitment to self-education, self-scrutiny, and a sincere, not dilettantish,  interest in the problems of all Americans, not just the faraway.  As feminists, or black nationalists, or artists, or environmentalists, or civil libertarians, we may rail at white males, or Jews who we think control the media, or small-town/red state Republicans, or rednecks, or fascists, but these labels only build higher walls between us, they do not accurately describe the forces that have created our public health emergencies, and if we persist in these constructions of the demonic, our worst nightmares may come true.  If we want people to take a higher moral position, we must envision a society and a set of working relationships that make goodness possible.

*I am not suggesting a crude Marxism as adequate to historical analysis, but a careful account of competing economic interests and perceptions of one’s own self-interest. At times, Wolfe writes like a 1930s radical, such as John Dos Passos in the U.S.A. trilogy, which he admires. But whereas the 1930s Left was generally optimistic, TW is a cultural pessimist. See second footnote.

**One theme that I have not developed in this blog is Wolfe as chronicler of decadence, the calamity inevitable in industrial, urbanized societies that breed discontented, mobbish proletarians. Ann Coulter would seem to be sharing in this dim, ultimately pessimistic view, reminiscent of Vico and Volney, and more recently Hannah Arendt’s  “mob society.” In a recent talk given in Los Angeles, Coulter leaned on Gustave Le Bon’s influential book, The Crowd (1895) while promoting her new book, Demonic. Here are Le Bon’s concluding remarks: ” After having exerted its creative action, time begins that work of destruction from which neither gods nor men escape. Having reached a certain level of strength and complexity a civilisation ceases to grow, and having ceased to grow it is condemned to a speedy decline. [Its populace becomes a crowd, i.e. a mob]…With the progressive perishing of its ideal the race loses more and more the qualities that lent it its cohesion, its unity, its strength. The personality and intelligence of the individual may increase, but at the same time this collective egoism of the race is replaced by an excessive development of the egoism of the individual, accompanied by a weakening of character and a lessening of the capacity for action. …It is at this stage that men, divided by their interests and aspirations, and incapable any longer of self-government, require directing in their pettiest acts, and that the State exerts an absorbing influence…To pass in pursuit of an ideal from the barbarous to the civilised state, and then when this ideal has lost its virtue, to decline and die, such is the cycle of the life of a people.” Such doomsday views are the staple of ultra-organic conservatives, conflating the life cycles of animals and plants with forms of human organization. (For more on this topic see http://clarespark.com/2011/04/03/progressives-the-luxury-debate-and-decadence/.)

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4 Comments »

  1. Interesting, and I’ll have to read your thoughtful essay more than once. I’m not sure I’m reading you correctly, but I always thought his self-awareness and irony-awareness was the point… for example, the droll passage in “The Painted Word” where the wealthy art patron climbs the stairs to the artist’s loft, filled with hope and excitement at his/her pending transformative ‘brush’ with Art.

    Comment by Brenda Cox Giguere — March 22, 2012 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

    • I was more interested in the flaneur phenomenon, putting a primitivist spin on Wolfe’s writing and philosophy. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fl%C3%A2neur. As for the Painted Word, Wolfe took a swipe at Leo Steinberg without understanding the first thing about his work or even reading it, from what I could gather. That put me off too, but mostly this blog was written in response to Bonfire of the Vanities and Man in Full.

      Comment by clarespark — March 22, 2012 @ 5:57 pm | Reply

  2. [...] http://clarespark.com/2011/09/08/getting-down-with-tom-wolfe/. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Comments (1) [...]

    Pingback by Index to multiculturalism blogs « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 22, 2012 @ 3:52 pm | Reply


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