Tag Archives: Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe — an appreciation

Tom Wolfe’s writing style and the genre he created have been part of the intellectual wallpaper for so long, that it’s easy to forget how badly he was needed. The following is quite autobiographical, but it does put his emergence in context.

Intellectually isolated adolescents in the early 50s read books, lots of them (minimal TV of any intellectual content, no internet etc. etc.) I had plenty of time in high school, with two 16 mile rides on the school bus each day. So I managed to read a book a day my senior year in high school. I particularly loved Balzac and Dickens for the way they wrote about all levels of society.

So although I was fairly well read on entry into Princeton in the fall of 1956, I was a geographic naif, never really having travelled west of Philly. I was a social naif as well, with only 6/24 boys in my high school class going on to collage. The ones that didn’t went into the military, law enforcement or the trades. None of the 24 girls got further education, initially at least. This was not a high or wealthy social background. I was the first member of my family not to go to Rutgers (the state school of New Jersey).

The Princeton Triangle Club put on a rather sophomoric show each year which toured the east coast and midwest on Christmas break. Earlier famous members included Jimmy Stewart and Josh Logan. Later, after women were admitted, Brooke Shields. I was good enough to make pianist in the pit band for the show and did this for two years.  The incredibly creative guy writing the shows was Clark Gesner, who soon after wrote “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” and essentially retired in his late 20s.

The class of 1959 was the first at Princeton to have more High School graduates than preppies. To the alums that put us up in their homes after the show, it was assumed that we were to the manor born (as many of them were).

Seeing upper class society was quite an education. After each show the performers (and band) were invited to debutante parties. I’d never seen anything like it, and none of the American novels I’d read dealt with it. The musicians in the band would listen to the society orchestras playing (Lester Lanin, Peter Duchin, Meyer Davis) and dance with the debs. In Chicago, I even was the male presenting one debutante, rather than a local — probably because she was Jewish and none of the locals would do it. In Grosse Point Michigan the following exchange occurred with a deb who seemed intelligent. Where do you go to school? Oh someplace back East. How do you like the party? Enough for me to decide not to attempt to become part of that world (not that it was ever possible).

Then in grad school at Harvard, I met extremely intelligent guys from the West Coast (Caltech, Berkeley, Brigham Young) who were reading “Road and Track” in all seriousness (camp hadn’t been invented yet). Road and track was for the guys back home who went to work in garages, and dragraced with each other.

No one in the 50s and early 60s was writing about this stuff — here’s a link to the best-sellers of the 50s — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publishers_Weekly_list_of_bestselling_novels_in_the_United_States_in_the_1950s
if you don’t believe me. Some were good (To Kill a Mockingbird). A lot were by foreigners (Dr. Zhivago, Francois Sagan, Simone de Beauvoir).

We had this fascinating diverse society, and our literature wasn’t dealing with it — that is until Tom Wolfe came along. He wrote about car customizers, astronauts, high society, low society, enjoying it all. These weren’t thought to be the stuff of serious literature until then. Some of the best sellers back then bore the same relationship to reality (Marjorie Morningstar, Not as a Stranger) as the Doris Day Rock Hudson movies of the time.

So hats off to Tom Wolfe. He’s still writing — I recommend his latest – “The Kingdom of Speech” about which I wrote 3 posts. Although the book starts in Victorian England, it winds up in the USA with Chomsky and company and the social high jinks of the left, which Wolfe has been skewering for decades. Here’s a link to one of the posts — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/book-review-the-kingdom-of-speech-part-iii/


Book Review — The Kingdom of Speech — Part III

The last half of Wolfe’s book is concerned with Chomsky and Linguistics. Neurologists still think they have something to say about how the brain produces language, something roundly ignored by the professional linguistics field. Almost at the beginning of the specialty, various types of loss of speech (aphasias) were catalogued and correlated with where in the brain the problem was. Some people could understand but not speak (motor aphasia). Most turned out to have lesions in the left frontal lobe. Others could speak but not understand what was said to them (receptive aphasia). They usually had lesions in the left temporal lobe (e.g. just behind the ear amazingly enough).

Back in the day this approach was justifiably criticized as follows — yes you can turn off a lightbulb by flicking a switch, but the switch isn’t producing the light, but is just something necessary for its production. Nowadays not so much, because we see these areas lighting up with increased blood  flow (by functional MRI) when speech is produced or listened to.

I first met Chomsky’s ideas, not about linguistics, but when I was trying to understand how a compiler of a high level computer language worked. This was so long ago that Basic and Pascal were considered high level languages. Compilers worked with formal rules, and Chomsky categorized them into a hierarchy which you can read about here — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chomsky_hierarchy

The book describes the rise of Chomsky as the enfant terrible, the adult terrible, then the eminence grise of linguistics. Wolfe has great fun skewering him, particularly for his left wing posturing (something he did at length in “Radical Chic”). I think most of the description is accurate, but if you have the time and the interest, there’s a much better book — “The Linguistics Wars” by Randy Allen Harris — although it’s old (1993), Chomsky and linguistics had enough history even then that the book contains 356 pages (including index).

Chomsky actually did use the term language organ meaning a facility of the human brain responsible for our production of language of speech. Neuroscience never uses such a term, and Chomsky never tried to localize it in the brain, but work on the aphasias made this at least plausible. If you’ve never heard of ‘universal grammar, language acquisition device, deep structure of language, the book is a reasonably accurate (and very snarky) introduction.

As the years passed, for everything that Chomsky claimed was a universal of all languages, a language was found that didn’t have it. The last universal left standing was recursion (e.g. the ability the pack phrase within phrase — the example given “He assumed that now that her bulbs had burned out, he could shine and achieve the celebrity he had always longed for” — thought within thought within thought.

Then a missionary turned linguist (Daniel Everett) found a tribe in the Amazon (the Piraha) with a language which not only lacked recursion, but tenses as well. It makes fascinating reading, including the linguist W. Tecumseh Fitch (yes Tecumseh) who travelled up the Amazon to prove that they did have recursion (especially as he had collaborated with Chomsky and the (now disgraced) Marc Hauser on an article in 2002 saying that recursion was the true essence of human language — how’s this horrible sentence for recursion ?

The book ends with a discussion of the quote Wolfe began the book with — “Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, (1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; (2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; (3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; (4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language’s origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward.”

One of the authors is Chomsky himself.

You can read the whole article at http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401/full

I think, that Wolfe is right — language is just a tool (like the wheel or the axe) which humans developed to help them. That our brain size is at least 3 times the size of our nearest evolutionary cousin (the Chimpanzee) probably had something to do with it. If language is a tool, then, like the axe, it didn’t have to evolve from anything.

All in all a fascinating and enjoyable book. There’s much more in it than I’ve had time to cover.  The prose will pick you up and carry you along.

Book Review — The Kingdom of Speech — Part II

Although Darwin held off writing up his ideas for 20 years, fearing the reaction he knew would come from the church, the criticisms that really bothered him the most were those of fellow intellectuals about the evolution of language. They began immediately after the Origin of Species came out in 1859, by linguists and later by Wallace himself. Even worse, one critic mocked him. The idea that language evolved from animal sounds was called the bow wow theory, or language arose from sounds that things made (the ding dong theory).

This is all detailed in pp. 54 – 87 of The Kingdom of Speech, about which I knew very little. If any real experts on the early history of evolutionary theory are out there and reading this and disagree, please post a comment. I am assuming that the facts as given by Wolfe are correct (I’ve already disagreed with him about his interpretation of some of them — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/book-review-the-kingdom-of-language-part-i/).

The real attack on Darwin’s ideas is that man’s mental capacities were so far above those of animals, that there was no missing link (particularly since there were lots or primates still around). By this critique man was so special, that a special act of creation (not evolution) was called for.  It’s theology getting in the back door, but of course this is essentially the claim of all theologies — special creation by a superior being(s).

In his later book “The Origin of Species and the Descent of Man” – 1871 (which I’ve not read), according to Wolfe Darwin made up all stories (many involving his beloved dog) to show the antecedents of all sorts of things in animal behavior — Darwin actually said that language originated with the songs birds sang during mating. Female protolanguage persists today in mothers cooing to their babies. Darwin spent a lot of time discussing his dog — how it recognized other dogs as a sign of intelligence. Religion came from the love of a dog for his master (Wolfe claims that Darwin said this in the book– I haven’t read the Descent of Man).

Darwin’s second book didn’t get much response. Postive reviews avoided his reasoning, and negative reviews said it was thin. In 1872 the Philological Society of London gave up on trying to find out the origin of language, and wouldn’t accept patpers about it. The Linguistic Society of Paris did this even earlier (1866).

Evolutionists basically stopped talking about language from 1872 to 1949.

As soon as Mendel’s work on genetics was discovered, evolution went into scientific eclipse. Here was something that wasn’t just armchair speculation about things happening in the remote past, something on which experiments could be done.
Mendel’s experiments with green peas took 9 years and involved 28,000 plants.

In a fascinating aside, Wolfe notes that Mendel actually sent his work to Darwin. Tragically it was found unread with its pages uncut in Darwin’s papers after his death. In all fairness to Darwin, he and his peers had no idea how heredity worked and there are parts in The Origin of Species in which Darwin appears to accept the inheritance of acquired characteristics (the blacksmith’s large muscles passed on to his son etc. etc.). I don’t think you can read the Origin without being impressed by the tremendous power of Darwin’s mind, and how much work he put in and how far he got with how little he had to go on.

Wolfe says Darwin’s ideas about the origin or language were mocked by Gould  one hundred years later (1972) as “Just So Stories”, fantastic bizarre explanations for why animals are the way they are — see http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/79/just-so-stories/. I’m not so sure, the citation for this gives an article  Sociobiology which Gould and Lewontin (see later) relentlessly attacked. Gould himself saw what he wanted to see in his book “The Mismeasure of Man” — for details see — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/hoisting-steven-j-gould-by-his-own-petard/

As you can see,The Kingdom of Speech is full of all sorts of interesting stuff, and I’m not even halfway through talking about it.

Next up, linguistics, to include Noam  Chomsky and his admission that he doesn’t understand language or where it came from.