Bango! Tom Wolfe Surfs the Net

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Tom Wolfe’s 16th book, The Kingdom of Speech, begins with the author “surfing the net” (he was born in 1931) and discovering a highly unusual article in which the world’s experts on the study of language evolution announce that they don’t really understand language evolution at all. This small book is written in Wolfe’s trademark New Journalism style, which has lost none of its lip-smacking pep, its wild associative leaps, or its fondness for exclamation points. But this time, the author never leaves his chair. Anyone with a Wi-Fi connection could have conducted all of the research in The Kingdom of Speech. If you want close encounters with Merry Pranksters and Black Panthers and daredevil astronauts, you’ll have to try Wolfe’s other 15 books. The Kingdom of Speech is a dual portrait of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, with special attention paid to the two little Davids who (in Wolfe’s telling) felled those Goliaths. If you don’t already have a strong opinion of Darwin, Wolfe will happily give you his. Wolfe thinks Darwin was a fraud, a snob, a cheater, and an asshole. And he doesn’t like Chomsky much better. The trouble starts when Darwin (in Wolfe’s telling) steals the idea of natural selection from another man, Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin can do this is because he is a proper English gentleman, with an impressive education and wealthy friends, whereas Alfred Russel Wallace is a mere naturalist, a “flycatcher” spotting bugs and taking notes in the Malaysian jungle. Darwin and his wealthy friends are “in a position” to take Wallace’s research and give all the credit to Darwin. So they do. What a bunch of snobby cheaters, right? Wolfe certainly thinks so. Even their blandest comments piped out UPPER CLASS! UPPER CLASS! without bringing up the subject of class at all. According to Wolfe, Darwin was not so much a scientist as a religious figure, preaching his own personal “cosmogony.” A cosmogony is a Theory of Everything that unlocks the secrets of the universe, like the Navajo creation myth, or string theory. Although his ideas captivate London’s upper crust and storm the ivory tower (thanks to his influential friends), Darwin basically pulled the evidence for evolution out of his ass. When his students ask him to explain where the first “cells” came from, Darwin pauses for a long time before giving his feeble, tautological response: “probably from four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere.” In this respect, Darwinism was typical of the more primitive cosmogonies. They avoided the question of how the world developed ex nihilo. Darwin often thought about it, but it made his head hurt. The world was just…here. Are you wondering how Wolfe is able to report that Darwin’s head was hurting during this particular historical moment? You should try not to wonder about such things when you read The Kingdom of Speech, because Wolfe makes a habit of turning all the “great men” of history into straw men. Here’s how he depicts Sir Charles Lyell conspiring with “Charlie” Darwin to steal the glory from Alfred Russel Wallace: Oh, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie…said Lyell, shaking his head. Who was it who warned you two years ago about this fellow Wallace? Who was it who told you you’d better get busy and publish this pet theory of yours?...So why should I even bother, this late in the game? But…we are Gentlemen and old pals, after all…and I think I know of a way to get you out of this predicament. It so happens there is a meeting of the Linnean Society, postponed from last month in deference to the death of one of our beloved former Linnean presidents, coming up thirteen days from now, July 1. Unfortunately, we don’t have any way to notify Wallace in time, do we. But that’s not our fault. We didn’t schedule the meeting. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. We’ll bring our good friend Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, the botanist, in on this. All three of us are on the society’s council. We can make the whole thing seem like the most routine scholarly meeting in the world. Am I the only person who pictures Lyell, in this scene, as Gargamel, the villain from The Smurfs, rubbing his hands together in a dark forest while he plots his next evil scheme? It seems profoundly inappropriate for Wolfe to write a book about scientific research in which most of his arguments are based on invented scenes, biased characterizations, and witty insults. New Journalism was about the author asserting himself in the story by becoming a part of it. But when Wolfe stays in his chair, he becomes just another elderly man shouting at his computer. This is not entirely a bad thing -- nobody shouts at his computer quite like Tom Wolfe. By the time Noam Chomsky appears, The Kingdom of Speech has established its pattern. Chomsky is Darwin -- the brash, beloved intellectual whose singular epiphany lights up the intellectual world. Daniel Everett is Alfred Russel Wallace -- the lowly “flycatcher,” hunting for linguistic evidence among isolated Amazon tribes. Before he turned into the grandpa of the American left, Chomsky rose to fame for his pioneering work as a linguist. His boldest and most influential claim was that all humans are born with the ability to learn language encoded in their brains. It’s biological. Decades of linguistic research took Chomsky’s assertion as truth, and countless careers were built upon exploring it. Then Daniel Everett, the “flycatcher,” found a tribe in the Amazon whose language didn’t match any of Chomsky’s predictions about the shared structure of language in our brains, and all hell broke loose. Now it seems that the ability to learn language is not biological; instead it is cultural, a tool that humans create together, like a broom or a toaster oven. Decades of linguistic research are going down the drain. If you’re interested in this story -- and you should be, because it’s fascinating -- you should check out John Colapinto’s New Yorker article and Daniel Everett’s book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. That’s what Wolfe did -- long passages of The Kingdom of Speech are mostly summaries of those two sources. The publishing company behind The Kingdom of Speech describes it as “a captivating, paradigm-shifting argument that speech -- not evolution -- is responsible for humanity’s complex societies and achievements.” That’s bullshit. Wolfe doesn’t even begin to make an argument about the role of speech in human society until page 163 of this 169-page book. Bango! One bright night it dawned on me -- not as a profound revelation, not as any sort of analysis at all, but as something so perfectly obvious, I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before. There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech. Bango! What’s insane about Wolfe’s climactic epiphany is how hypocritical it is. For the past 163 pages he has accused Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky of being frauds because their grand scientific breakthroughs were (in Wolfe’s telling) just a hunch. Wolfe compares Darwin’s writing, unfavorably, to Rudyard Kipling’s stories of the jungle -- but at least Kipling had the decency to call his work fiction. As for Darwin’s theory of evolution, “it was still a story. It was not evidence. In short, it was sincere, but sheer, literature.” When Wolfe calls Darwin’s The Descent of Man “a real tour de force of literary imagination,” he means it as an insult. And yet here is Wolfe, at the conclusion of his own book, announcing his own grand scientific breakthrough with nothing but Bango! as evidence. What the hell is going on here? Is Wolfe aware of the irony that he, a noted literary figure, is faulting Darwin and Chomsky for being literary figures? Does he really believe that science has no place for personal epiphanies and leaps of faith? Has he ever heard of a “hypothesis?” Will he refuse to believe in black holes until some intrepid writer gets sucked into one and returns to Earth with a cosmic shard of New Journalism? Honestly, I don’t know. The Kingdom of Speech never blinks, never reveals a coherent motive. It’s either a clever, two-faced provocation, or the dumbest thing Wolfe has ever written. If he were so inclined, Wolfe could have used The Kingdom of Speech to ask colossally interesting questions like, “What does Everett’s claim that language is cultural, not biological, say about our understanding of humanity?” Or, “Even if Chomsky is wrong in saying that language evolved in our bodies, what other, valid discoveries did his theory inspire?” The Kingdom of Speech pretends to be a treatise on language evolution, but it’s really just an old-fashioned underdog story. Wolfe puts intellectual giants in a boxing ring with hard-working little guys, and then he cheers like crazy for the little guys. [Everett] was an old-fashioned flycatcher inexplicably here in the midst of modern air-conditioned armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts. Bizarrely, that’s not the only time Wolfe mocks Chomsky for having air conditioning, as if it’s the source of all weakness and corruption. From its wildest accusations to its smallest details, The Kingdom of Speech turns “the intellectual status battle” between entrenched theories and upstart discoveries into a wild spectator sport. And I loved it! I loved reading it. Where else can find a whole paragraph of pyrotechnic prose about how Darwin was such a lazy writer that he based all his metaphors on the family dog? Maybe I wasn’t born in 1931, but I’m pretty sure The Kingdom of Speech is what used to be known as “a hoot.” Never have I been so entertained by such a shoddy argument. And somehow, that effect feels brilliant. Whether it was Wolfe’s intention or not, The Kingdom of Speech offers strong evidence that fiction and sheer personality always win in the end.

Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’

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1. My friend and I have created this running joke about a blockbuster movie in which the hero -- a slothful young man with a mysteriously absent father -- spends every day at a Starbucks, dutifully banging out a few sentences of his unfinished novel. One day the barista spells his name wrong on a cup, but it’s actually a cryptic message, and soon a wall in the bathroom is sliding open to reveal a hidden passageway. Our hero descends beneath the Starbucks into a bustling, technologically sophisticated control room where, for centuries, a secret cabal of the greatest writers on Earth has been using its literary chops to save humanity from all sorts of apocalyptic threats. Of course the hero’s father belonged to this cabal, and of course there’s an alien tyrant determined to invade Earth and muck up its entire public library system or whatever, and of course our hero wipes the muffin crumbs off his t-shirt and ends up saving us all from annihilation -- but most importantly he learns a lot about the craft of writing. In a way, that story has already been done. Have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? It’s about gifted college students who become so passionately intellectual that they have no choice but to start killing each other, and it captivated me when I first read it. Or maybe you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in which a painfully brilliant student solves an elaborate murder mystery using her exceptional skills in the humanities? Or The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, which bravely explores how tragic and meaningful life can be when you’re a terribly erudite chimp? Or the warehouse of knowledge porn known as Wittgenstein’s Mistress? And then we have The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt. I’ll tell you right now that I love this book, but I feel helpless to love it, and I wonder if loving it makes me a bad person. 2. This is what happens in The Last Samurai. Sibylla, a devastatingly smart and preternaturally rational young woman from America, goes to a party in London and meets a famous writer whose style she abhors, comparing it to Liberace’s. Disappointingly, she sleeps with him. (“I was still drunk, and I was still trying to think of things I could do without being unpardonably rude. Well, I thought, I could sleep with him without being rude.”) She ends up raising a child, Ludo, who can memorize The Iliad and teach himself foreign languages at age five. Ludo would be the crowning achievement of any comfortably situated Park Slope mom, but Sibylla, who struggles to pay the bills by transcribing old issues of magazines, can barely feed Ludo’s appetite for knowledge. She often resorts to playing an old tape of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, hoping it will provide Ludo with some admirable male role models. Ludo begs to know his father’s identity. Sibylla won’t tell him. After his 11th birthday, Ludo finds a clue that leads him -- secretly, without Sibylla’s help -- to “Liberace.” But when he sees that Liberace is a hack, and that telling him the truth won’t do any good, Ludo keeps the big revelation about his parentage to himself. “If we fought with real swords I would kill him,” he thinks, quoting one of his favorite lines from Seven Samurai. Instead, Ludo takes off on other journeys throughout London, searching for surrogate father figures -- a brilliant linguist who traveled the world, a charismatic physicist with a popular TV show, a reclusive millionaire painter. When Ludo finds them, he lies and says he’s their son. “A good samurai will parry the blow.” Hilariously, most of them believe it -- it seems that “great men” have a tendency to sleep around. As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life. 3. What worries me about The Last Samurai is how exceptional Sibylla and Ludo are, and how quickly I find myself identifying with them. Sibylla’s work as an underpaid transcriber sounds backbreaking. She sits at a typewriter in a small London flat (which is so poorly heated that in winter she and Ludo ride the tube to stay warm) and labors for 36 hours at a stretch to preserve garbage publications like Advanced Angling, British Home Decorator and The Poodle Breeder for posterity. Meanwhile she has to ignore the emotional development of her absolute prodigy of a son because she’s too busy earning money to keep them alive. But when I read this, I’m happy! Because I feel like I’ve been there. Haven’t we all -- especially those of us with a passion for language and typing -- felt like a wage slave at some point, like an unheralded maestro, and doesn’t that memory lodge itself in our identities and become a part of who we are? So I read this heartbreaking passage about a single mother suffering in her cold London flat and I feel a vicarious joy, as if Helen DeWitt “gets” me. And when Ludo takes his magnificent brain to public school for the first time, and discovers the exquisite agony of being misunderstood by a world of simpletons, I feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me. And when The Last Samurai jokes about the nobility of linguistics and the dreariness of Oxford University Press, then I really feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me, because I used to be the linguistics editor at Oxford University Press. The jacket copy for the new edition of The Last Samurai makes a big fuss about how, when the book was originally released in 2000, the publisher declared it was “destined to become a cult classic.” To which Garth Risk Hallberg replied, “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” By releasing this new edition, New Directions seems to be signaling that we’re ready to erase the word “cult” from the book’s reputation. But I’m not so sure. I feel helpless to love The Last Samurai because it “gets” me. But how many other people can say that? How many linguistics editors are there at Oxford University Press? How many people, when they read about a devastatingly smart and coldly rational white woman who tells her tragically brilliant son that she would have committed suicide by now if not for the fact that she feels obligated to raise him, will smile and quietly rejoice because this is exactly the type of misfit they fancy themselves to be? Who is foolish enough to admit that they fantasize about being oppressed by their own superior intellect? I think there’s something shameful about loving The Last Samurai. The novel gratifies the individual egos of a very specific type of reader. And isn’t that what a cult classic is -- a book that people love, but only for themselves? 4. “A good samurai will parry the blow.” 5. What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise! Here is a paragraph from Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint. For years, I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now: June Bugs (see “Figeater Beetle,” Ordinary Insects, Vol. 24). So we have a lamestream analogy about pants gathering lint, followed by a completely invented bit of “scholarship” that leads the reader nowhere but is meant to indicate that the narrator is actually brilliant. This is not what a smart person sounds like. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius. (Remind me to yell at you about the magician-heist movie Now You See Me and its ridiculously named sequel, Now You See Me 2, which commit the same infuriating error on a massive Hollywood scale.) Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it. As a stylist, too, DeWitt stands above most peddlers of knowledge porn. Both Sibylla and Ludo, as narrators, pour forth in a primly accurate voice that often gives way to sardonic or slapstick humor. Sibylla marvels at the cheesiness of a western movie that rips off Seven Samuai: “Not ONE but SEVEN tall men in tights -- it’s simply MAGNIFICENT.” Unsure of what to say in the note she leaves for Liberace after sleeping with him, she writes several pages analyzing the The Iliad in the original Greek, and then realizes, “I still did not have something on the page that could be concluded with an airy Ciao." At one point Ludo mentions that Sibylla dressed him up like a hunchback so they could sneak into an age-restricted screening of The Crying Game. It’s a frequently delightful book, zany in the same way that Nell Zink is zany, as we watch the narrator’s extraordinary intelligence run out from under her and trip against the common things in life. During the five pages when Ludo confronts his father Liberace, I underlined everything they said because DeWitt’s use of dialogue -- with innovative elisions and subtle shifts in POV -- is masterful. Structurally the novel grows up and out, just like Ludo, grasping at new relationships and open-ended questions even as the story is ending. So if The Last Samurai belongs to a genre of books that perpetuate a seductive fantasy about the nature of intelligence, then it’s the best example of that genre I’ve ever seen. 6. And let me tell you another thing I love about The Last Samurai. It blurs the line between biological kinship and intellectual mentorship in a way that feels strangely mature and matter-of-fact. From Sibylla’s perspective, raising Ludo seems an awful lot like a horror movie. She gives birth to this accidental child whose rapid intellectual development suddenly takes priority over her own (just like her being born ruined her mother’s goal of developing as a musician). But the child prodigy is basically a sociopath until he grows up, and in the meantime she is still responsible for feeding him, cleaning him, and providing him with the raw materials that his life’s work -- whatever it may be -- will be built upon. This is the horror that all mothers experience, just ratcheted up a notch because this particular child is smarter than Isaac Newton and Noam Chomsky combined. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is how easily Sibylla might fail, how easily Ludo could become a monster, how easily she might fall into despair and lash out at her son: “A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes.” When your child is not just smart, but freakishly smart -- as Ludo putzes around like a child, Sibylla refers to him drily as “The Phenomenon” -- you have a moral and social imperative to raise him well. Throughout the novel, Sibylla suffers from boredom and heartache and poverty and suicidal thoughts, but she never stops trying to raise Ludo responsibly. She forces Ludo to read a film critic’s take on a lesser Kurosawa film about a judo champion, hoping to teach him that there is no terminal state of contentment at the end of the hero’s journey; that “a hero who actually becomes is tantamount to a villain.” As Ludo’s fiendishly pedestrian schoolteacher puts it, Ludo “has got to understand that there is more to life than how much you know.” The dramatic tension at the heart of The Last Samurai is this question of whether Ludo will ever learn that there is more to life than knowledge porn. And whether we will, too.