Sunday, September 4, 2016

Wolfe at the Gate

One weekend in 1968, probably while ignoring my school reading assignments, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe about the adventures of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their 1964 cross-country tour in the psychedelic bus Further. The book reads like good fiction, but it is not. Wolfe’s exuberant writing style notwithstanding, it is journalism – and good journalism. The reviewer for The New York Times in 1968 wrote, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is not simply the best book on the hippies, it is the essential book.” It was and is. Ever since that weekend, the output from Tom Wolfe’s keyboard has been among my essential reads.

Not until age 54 did Wolfe turn his hand to fiction. Among his novels are Bonfire of the Vanities, which eerily presaged the Bernie Goetz affair, and I am Charlotte Simmons, which eerily presaged the Duke Lacrosse team scandal. Yet he never gave up on nonfiction and never respected sacred cows, especially in the arts. From Bauhaus to Our House skewered modern architecture, and his The Painted Word made abstract expressionism seem more understandable and less important to me than anything I’ve read before or since. Wolfe is now 85 and still busy. Released this month, his most recent book The Kingdom of Speech pokes the ribs of none other than that most "eminent of eminati" (a Wolfe-ism) Noam Chomsky.

While little more than a youth in the 1950s, Chomsky devised a theory of language that still dominates the field. He argued that all human languages follow similar rules and structures – so much so that a putative Martian arriving on earth would conclude that there is only one earth language, albeit with a multitude of dialects. There is, in essence, a Universal Grammar. This, he inferred, is evidence of hardwiring in the human brain. Human capacity for language, being hardwired, is therefore biological and therefore a product of evolution. Somewhere in the brain is the wiring for language – that uniquely human tool. Oh, other animals communicate, but none in the same nuanced way that allows planning for the future or discoursing on the meaning of life. Small problem: though general regions of the brain are involved in language (plus a myriad other things), no hardwiring specifically for language yet can be identified.

Wolfe introduces us to David L. Everett, a former dedicated Chomskyite who once had an office across the hall from Chomsky. Everett in the course of his field studies in Brazil encountered an Amazonian tribe called the Piraha whose structurally (though not phonetically) simple language does not follow the “hardwired” rules laid down by Chomsky. Before he takes us there though, Wolfe recaps the history of the theory of evolution starting with the Wallace/Darwin affair and the ever so “gentlemanly” scramble for credit.

I think this is part of what provoked the furious reaction in some circles to Tom Wolfe’s book – the other part may have to do with Chomsky’s politics, which endear him to much of the intellectual population. See Jerry Coyne in the Washington Post who writes, “Wolfe is basically an evolution denialist.” He is not. He so is not. I read the book and did not come away with that. And I don’t care about Chomsky’s politics when discussing the origin of language. Tom Wolfe, a self-avowed atheist, simply says that language is a problem when viewed in evolutionary terms. Darwin had a problem with it. Everyone since (including, recently, Chomsky) has acknowledged difficulties with it.

Speech, Wolfe suggests, is an artifact. At bottom it is no different than a stone axe or a scraper or a bow and arrow. It is a tool. It doesn’t need a hardwired region of its own. It just needs a brain with a high enough general intelligence to create artifacts. Please note that generalized brainpower is a product of evolution.

Is Wolfe right? I have no idea. I find Wolfe and Chomsky equally convincing – whomever I read last. What I do believe is that “authorities that be” (in this case Chomsky) ought not be taken on faith alone. No one ought to be taken on faith – except perhaps in those rare circumstances when there is no time to consider the matter at hand thoughtfully. Tom Wolfe provides a valuable service by asking if the emperor is wearing any clothes. Without rancor, let’s talk about it.

Linda Ronstadt – People Gonna Talk


  1. Yeah, I think the Electric Kool-Aid book was one of the popular books back then in college. That and Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels, The Hobbit/ LotRs, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, On the Road by Kerouac, Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the Carlos Castaneda books, Vonnegut, and several other, which is fun to remember. I like both Chomsky and Wolfe.

    It's hard at times to believe those Merry Pranksters & Kesey got a jump start on the hippy thing before everyone else. Pretty heady times. There's a movie on (probably Youtube or they made a legit movie, I forget) about him volunteering for those controlled, govt. acid test.

    But yeah, I'll watch some of Chomsky's videos and he's like a liberal William Buckley Jr. in some ways (smart). It's a bit hard to grasp where he stands (well, you did with Buckley) because he doesn't strongly take a side, he just lays it out there for the most part, and let one take away what they will. But he's interesting to listen too if a bit somber at times.

    1. An uncle of mine in the military was part of an LSD test in the late 1940s but he said that they either gave him a minuscule dose or a placebo because he had no reaction at all.

      I guess someone has to be in the first wave when a tide is coming in, and Ken Kesey was surfing it.

      Chomsky has gravitas and Wolfe has flair, but, like you, I can enjoy them both. It's always useful to question received wisdom though, even if in the end we don't reject it.