Skip to comments.'Moral Suicide,' à la Wolfe
Posted on 11/16/2004 4:19:45 PM PST by neverdem
It's easy to write a negative review of a Tom Wolfe novel; hundreds of people do it every few years. First, out of the thousands of sociological details Wolfe gets right, you pick out some he gets wrong (thus establishing your superior hipness). You mention that he obsesses over the superficial details of life while you ignore his moral intent (thus hinting at your own superior depth). Then you graciously allow that many of Wolfe's scenes are hilarious, while lamenting that his characters are not fully developed. Then you call it a day.
But since Wolfe takes risks in his novels to describe the moral climate of the age, it seems only fair that we at least take the chance his books offer to debate the more serious things he's trying to get at.
His latest, "I Am Charlotte Simmons," is about a young woman who leaves Sparta, a small town in North Carolina, and enters an elite university. She finds all the rules of life there are dissolved: the rules of courtship, the rules of decorum and polite conversation.
The social rules have dissolved because the morality that used to undergird them dissolved long ago. Wolfe sprinkles his book with observations about how the word "immoral" now seems obsolete, about how sophisticated people now reject the idea of absolute evil, about a hypermaterialistic neuroscience professor who can use the word "soul" only when it is in quotation marks.
Wolfe describes a society in which we still have vague notions about good and bad, virtue and vice, but the moral substructure that fits all those concepts together has been washed away. Everybody is left swirling about in a chaotic rush of desire and action, without a coherent code to make sense of it all.
Charlotte, like other Wolfe-ian heroes, is caught in a maelstrom. All these anarchic social patterns are blowing about her and engulfing her - the mixed-up world of hookups, coed bathrooms and white suburban frat boys trying to act gangsta.
Within the Hobbesian war for status, Charlotte lacks some solid spot to plant her feet and get her bearings. She is unable to step outside her immediate circumstances and judge her life according to some set of firm criteria.
All her life she has been a mannequin who racks up accomplishments. In a culture that prizes young people for how they can perform certain tasks, she has been adored, at least by adults, and given prizes, scholarships and expectations.
Honed to excel in academic settings, she's unprepared to face the moral tests thrown up by her sexuality and the sheer formlessness of her new life. She has never really even thought about the question of who she is and how she should actually live, because what she's really addicted to is the admiration she gets when she achieves what others expect her to achieve. When moral judgment and courage are called for, she's unprepared.
So she goes off in the middle of the book and commits what Wolfe calls an act of "moral suicide." Something inside her lets her know that she has committed a great wrong, and she's left alone and depressed with no one and nothing to guide her.
I don't agree with all of Wolfe's depiction of campus life. He overestimates the lingering self-confidence and prestige of the prep school elite. He undervalues the independence of collegiate women, and underplays the great yearning to do good that surges out of most college students. Life on campus isn't really as nasty as Wolfe describes it. Most students are responsible and prudential and thus not as ribald as Wolfe makes them out to be.
But he's located one of the paradoxes of the age. Highly educated young people are tutored, taught and monitored in all aspects of their lives, except the most important, which is character building. When it comes to this, most universities leave them alone. And they find themselves in a world of unprecedented ambiguity, where it's not clear if you're going out with the person you're having sex with, where it's not clear if anything can be said to be absolutely true.
In other words, we have constructed this great apparatus to fill their minds - with thousands of Ph.D.'s ready to serve. But when it comes to courage, which is the pre-eminent virtue since without it nothing else lasts, we often leave them with the gnawing sense that they really should develop it, though God knows how.
Reading this book now. Tom Wolfe is one of our greatest living writers.
Hey, I used to be married to that neuroscience professor. Really.
I am going to get it
"Life on campus isn't really as nasty as Wolfe describes it."
I don't know how Brooks can assert this. Did he do the research that Wolfe did?
I don't know, but I doubt any two persons do exactly the same research on any subject. I do believe Brooks has an obsessive compulsive trait about sociological analysis.
If she really needs help, I can send her a Bible. It is Mankind's -1 Performance Manual and can take care of this adolescent confusion.
But as this is a merely a work of fiction by the incomparable Tom Wolfe, I'll just get a copy of his new book to read at my liesure and feel sorry for the poor dear over a hot cup of coffee.
Unfortunately, he has his finger on a genuine problem.
The book sounds intriguing. I certainly remember the feeling of moral disorientation when I first got to a liberal ivy league college campus and saw the sorts of things that went on.
I agree. The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test was a tour de force. The best book on the 60's counter-culture by far. Wolfe is brilliant!
Wolfe is scheduled as the guest on C-Span's "In Depth" on Sunday, December 5 from noon 'til 3:00PM EST - discusses his works and takes call-ins - can't hardly wait......
Life on the campus of most ivy league and lesser universities is indeed that bad, and worse. Just from readking here at FR for six years, I have seen countless articles that back up almost everything revealed in Wolfe's book.
It was a shocking but fascinating book to me. My kids went to college 10 to 20 years ago, and I heard enough anecdotal evidence from them that the elite colleges were going to hell in a handbasket even then.
But the sheer coarseness (far worse than "ribaldry"), the promiscuity and senselessness of "hooking up", the farce and myth of "athlete-scholars", the inanity, cruelty, and vulgarity of the "sorostitutes" (sorority girls) and the frat boys--it is ALL a hundred times worse than in the 80's and 90's.
I found Wolfe's insertion of the "f--- patois" and other undergraduate slang very revealing. I learned many new words that I will never be able to use on FR or in polite company. (Standard vocab at DU).
Wolfe is slipping, though. The book needed a surgical strike from a good editor. He gets so repetitious--of scenes, of settings, of vocabulary--that I do believe the old boy is experiencing a touch of senility. He uses words like "loins" and "tumescence" and "lubricious" over and over and over again.
I believe I could have edited it down to under 400 pages without leaving out anything important.
Anyone thinking of sending a young one away to college should read this book. (If you can stand the language, whch Wolfe is reporting, not inventing). You may want to change your mind and make the kids live at home and attend the local college.
Argh -- if I read "loamy loins" or "rutrutrut" one more time I woulda screamed!
The frat/gangsta reference reinforces my disdain for the media. We dumped some dems....now its the media, imho.
I guess Wolfe has long ago attained the status as a novelist that permits him to ignore the advice of editors. Too bad.
LOL! He did that in "The Right Stuff" years ago! It must just be a personality quirk!
Loamy loins, tumescence, rutrutrut..... yes these are typical Wolfe-isms, and I am only about half-way through the book. But I'll take the overly long as part of the trip - there will be many great passages along the way.