God and 'Man, the Conscious Little Rock' at Dupont University

In less enlightened times, colleges were quasi-religious institutions that existed with the express goal of bettering the souls* of young men of distinction. So much for that idea, when we live in an era where neuroscience tells anyone who will listen, “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died,” as Tom Wolfe chillingly wrote nearly in 1996. A decade ago in I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe’s fictional Nobel Prize-winning neurosciences professor, whom Wolfe named Victor Ransome Starling, taught his class (including a knowledgeable yet still wide-eyed Charlotte) about the latest terrifying belief harbored by his profession, that man was little more than a conscious rock:

They laugh at the notion of free will. They yawn at your belief — my belief — that each of us has a capital-letter I, as in ‘I believe,’ a ‘self,’ inside our head that makes ‘you,’ makes ‘me,’ distinct from every other member of the species Homo sapiens, no matter how many ways we might be like them. The new generation are absolutists. They — I’ll just tell you what one very interesting young neuroscientist e-mailed me last week. She said, ‘Let’s say you pick up a rock and you throw it. And in midflight you give that rock consciousness and a rational mind. That little rock will think it has free will and will give you a highly rational account of why it has decided to take the route it’s taking.’ So later on we will get to ‘the conscious little rock,’ and you will be able to decide for yourself: ‘Am I really … merely … a conscious little rock?’ The answer, incidentally, has implications of incalculable importance for the Homo sapiens’ conception of itself and for the history of the twenty-first century. We may have to change the name of our species to Homo Lapis Deiciecta Conscia — Man, the Conscious Thrown Stone — or, to make it simpler, as my correspondent did, ‘Man, the Conscious Little Rock.’”

And that passage dovetails perfectly with this excerpt from the deadpan coda in the Kindle edition of Wolfe’s book**, which explains how Starling earned his Nobel in the first place:

Victor Ransome Starling (U.S.), Laureate, Biological Sciences, 1997. A twenty-eight-year-old assistant professor of psychology at Dupont University, Starling conducted an experiment in 1983 in which he and an assistant surgically removed the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter deep within the brain that controls emotions in the higher mammals, from thirty cats. It was well known that the procedure caused animals to veer helplessly from one inappropriate affect to another, boredom where there should be fear, cringing where there should be preening, sexual arousal where there was nothing that would stimulate an intact animal. But Starling’s amygdalectomized cats had gone into a state of sexual arousal hypermanic in the extreme. Cats attempted copulation with such frenzy, a cat mounted on another cat would be in turn mounted by a third cat, and that one by yet another, and so on, creating tandems (colloq., “daisy chains”) as long as ten feet.

As Mickey Craig and Jon Fennell wrote in “Love in the Age of Neuroscience,” their review of I Am Charlotte Simmons in the New Atlantis in 2005:

The setting of I Am Charlotte Simmons is truly “postmodern” — a world dominated by Nietzsche and neuroscience, a world which has jettisoned the moral imagination of the past. Not only is God dead, but so is reason, once understood as the characteristic that distinguishes man from the rest of nature. We now understand ourselves by studying the behavior of other animals, rather than understanding the behavior of other animals in light of human reason and human difference. We learn that it is embarrassing for any educated person to be considered religious or even moral. Darwin’s key insight that man is just another animal, now updated with the tools and discoveries of modern biology, has liberated us from two Kingdoms of Darkness. Post-faith and post-reason, we can now turn to neuroscience to understand the human condition, a path that leads to or simply ratifies the governing nihilism of the students, both the ambitious and apathetic alike.

So with that genie out of the bottle, with God and free speech both dead on the modern Soviet-style campus (as Roger Kimball recently suggested, perhaps American campuses should have Checkpoint Charlie-style warnings attached to their gates) and man reduced to being the equivalent of “the Conscious Little Rock,” how are things going there in the human relations department? Two articles linked to this week by Kathy Shaidle, while attacking the argument from polar opposite worldviews, paint a grim picture. First up, Jason Morgan of the conservative Life Site News posits that "Liberalism can’t fix ‘rape culture’ because it can’t understand sex," having morphed its role from procreation to what Wolfe dubbed the endless art of mindlessly "Hooking Up:"

Sex functions precisely to break down autonomy and overcome the overweening sovereignty of the self upon which consent is ultimately based. In a liberal framework, our freedom to engage in activities assumes that all activities are equal, as long as we have obtained consent when those activities involve others. But sex is not like other activities. Sex, unlike anything else we might do with another person, transcends the self while radically reorienting it within a new, shared context with our sexual partner. Consent assumes that sex will not do this, that sex will leave two people as fully autonomous after sex as they were before. But this is precisely the one thing that sex was designed not to do. Sex, even if entered into based on a free agreement between two autonomous people, by its very nature dismantles the autonomy upon which the consensual understanding of sex had been based.

In the wake of this compromised autonomy, sexual partners, confronted with a transcended self but still working within the conceptual confines of leveling liberalism, may very rightly view this transcendence as a violation of their sexual integrity. This holds true even when the sexual encounter was freely and consensually entered into, and especially when the myriad other expectations attendant upon sex are left unfulfilled. These expectations of emotional and spiritual intimacy, including the promise of future growth as a couple and openness to new life through sex, have no place in the liberal understanding of sex. Thus, when these hopes are dashed, women, especially, see “consensual sex” as a misleading proposition. Their subsequent sense of violation feels very similar to the devastating effects of non-consensual sex. To be clear, sex without consent is rape. But the wasteland of the hook-up culture shows that merely granting and receiving consent do not safeguard against the manifold consequences of casual sex.

If we want to talk seriously about ending campus rape, we must get to the bottom of the liberalism that underpins consent discourse on campuses. By rescuing sex from liberalism, we can restore sex to its rightful place—not as bargained recreation between Lockean rights-bearers, but as the complete gift of mind, body, and soul to another person, and the reception of the complete gift of the other.

In sharp contradistinction to the above passage, I sincerely doubt that Camille Paglia who, paraphrasing Nietzsche, once said, "God is man's greatest idea," has any desire whatsoever to return Morgan's pre-Sexual Revolution, pre-"Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died" concept of the term. Nonetheless, as she recently told Reason's Nick Gillespie, she agrees that leftist college campus administrators can't fix "rape culture," either -- and shouldn't even be investigating it in today's infamous campus Star Chambers:

Paglia: When I arrived in college in 1964, in loco parentis was operative. I was in a girl's dorm. We had a sign-in at 11:00 at night. The boys could run free. They had panty raids. We threw water at them out the windows and so on. My generation of women rose up and said, "Get out of our private lives!" And the university said, "No, the world is dangerous. We must protect you against rape and attack and all those things." And we said, "Give us freedom! Give us freedom to risk rape! That is true freedom!"

reason: Isn't it as true that what they were trying to restrain was not rape, but rather your sexual appetite?

Paglia: I think that they believed they were acting for the parents, that it was their obligation to protect, and this is why I went so much against the grain of contemporary feminists, when I wrote about the date rape hysteria. I wrote this inflammatory piece for Newsday in 1991 that I'm still being persecuted about everywhere; people are still angry about it. Basically what I said was free women must take personal responsibility for their own sex lives and keep the authority figures out of your sex life. reason: And to be clear, in no way is this sanctioning sexual violence.

Paglia: Absolutely not.

reason: What you're talking about is cases where people retroactively reclassified a regrettable sexual experience that they would rather not have consented to as rape.

Paglia: I'm talking about date rape, what everyone is talking about right now, about this so-called rape culture. But that essay that I wrote begins, "Rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in any civilized society." That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about this new reclassification of people getting drunk, going on a date, going to fraternity houses, and women not taking responsibility for their own behavior. I said that gay men for thousands of years have been going out and having sex with strangers everywhere. They know they can be beaten up. They know they can be killed. What is this, where women are, "Oh, we must be protected against even our foolish choices. It's up to men to." This is ridiculous. This is an intrusion into the civil liberties of young people [to] have these vampiric parent figures and administrators hovering, watching, supervising people's sex lives.

* * * * * * * *

[W]hat Madonna did [in the 1980s MTV era] was to allow young women to flirt with men, to seduce men, to control men. She showed that you could be sexy but at the same time control the negotiations and territory between male and female, and that was really powerful. So now, we're in a period—this is what I don't understand, where women on campus, the institutionalized whining now, that's what it's turned into.

reason: Clarify what's the difference between a legitimate gripe and whining?

Paglia: Well, in my point of view, no college administration should be taking any interest whatever in the social lives of the students. None! If a crime's committed on campus, it should always be reported to the police. I absolutely do not agree with any committees investigating any charge of sexual assault. Either it's a real crime, or it's not a real crime. Get the hell out. So you get this expansion of the campus bureaucracy with this Stalinist oversight. But the students have been raised with helicopter parents. They want it.

The students of today—they're utterly unformed. Not necessarily at my school, the art school. I'm talking about the elite schools. I've encountered these graduates of Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton, I've encountered them in the media, and people in their 30s now, some of them, their minds are like Jell-O. They know nothing! They've not been trained in history. They have absolutely no structure to their minds. Their emotions are unfixed. The banality of contemporary cultural criticism, of academe, the absolute collapse of any kind of intellectual discourse in the U.S. is the result of these colleges, which should have been the best, instead having retracted into caretaking. The whole thing is about approved social positions in a kind of misty love of humanity, without any direct knowledge of history or economics or anthropology.

As National Review's John O’Sullivan noted in his perceptive review of Wolfe’s 2012 book Back to Blood, a repeated theme in Wolfe’s fiction is that in attempting to build a postmodern world, by killing God and atomizing sex and race relations, in reality, we’re building what O’Sullivan calls “A New Age of Antiquity.” In Back to Blood, the New Antiquity expresses itself in the form of a cold war among various racial tribes in an America that's no longer a melting pot. In his earlier book, it’s very likely not a coincidence that Charlotte, Wolfe’s intelligent yet hopelessly naïve waif, was born in a town called Sparta, and explains to one of the basketball jocks, who can bypass virtually all aspects of education because he’s such a stud on the basketball court, where the university makes its real money and prestige, the history of liberal arts:

“You never had to take philosophy?”

Self-pitying: “Jocks don’t take philosophy.”

Charlotte looked at him in a teacherly fashion.

“You know what ‘liberal arts’ means?”

Pause. Rumination. “ … No.”

“It’s from Latin?” Charlotte was the very picture of kind patience. “In Latin, liber means free? It also means book, but that’s just a coincidence, I think. Anyway, the Romans had slaves from all over the world, and some of the slaves were very bright, like the Greeks. The Romans would let the slaves get educated in all sorts of practical subjects, like math, like engineering so they could build things, like music so they could be entertainers? But only Roman citizens, the free people? — liber? — could take things like rhetoric and literature and history and theology and philosophy? Because they were the arts of persuasion — and they didn’t want the slaves to learn how to present arguments that might inspire them to unite and rise up or something? So the ‘liberal’ arts are the arts of persuasion, and they didn’t want anybody but free citizens knowing how to persuade people.” Jojo looked at her with arched eyebrows and a compressed smile, a smile of resignation, and began nodding nodding nodding nodding. Dawn was breaking inside that big head of his. “So that’s what we are … athletes — we’re like slaves. They don’t even want us to think. All that thinking might distract us from what we were hired for.”

But does the modern college want anyone to think? And just as the Ayatollah Khomeini once instructed the faithful, “An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious,” a sense of humor is double plusungood crimethink on campus as well, as this seasoned comedy expert instructs neophyte funny man Jerry Seinfeld.

Related: "Another Fake Rape at Amherst; Amherst Now Knows It's Fake, But Lets the Rape Finding Against the Falsely Accused Student Stand, Just Because." Did you expect anything better from the Stalinists on the other side of the Checkpoint Charlie?

And from Amy Alkon,  "'Get Off My Lawn! I Mean, Campus!': The Angry Old Man In The Body Of The Politically Correct College Student." Reading Amy's headline, I keep thinking of "Bob Hope in a Hippie Wig," Hollywood shorthand for an out of date square confused by the rapidly changing world around him -- but today's punitive young campus reactionary leftists are nothing like the well-meaning but aged Hope of the late '60s.

* To get a very minor sense of how far things have fallen for both academia and the media world for which it serves as training camp, "Author Lee Siegel Brags In NYT About Ripping Off American Taxpayers," by cheerfully defaulting on his student loans. As Kevin D. Williamson writes, somewhere, T.S. Eliot, who toiled in the basement of a bank while writing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and "The Waste-Land," weeps.

** In the hard copy first edition of I Am Charlotte Simmons, Starling's mock bio with his robotically humping train of cats is the book's prologue, where it works even better to set the scene for everything that follows. I have no idea how that passage was moved to the end, and if that change was approved by Wolfe or not.