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Tom Wolfe Hunts the Biggest of Prey in The Kingdom of Speech

Speech is 95 percent plus of what lifts man above animal! Physically, man is a sad case. His teeth, including his incisors, which he calls eyeteeth, are baby-size and can barely penetrate the skin of a too-green apple. His claws can’t do anything but scratch him where he itches. His stringy-ligament body makes him a weakling compared to all the animals his size. Animals his size? In hand-to-paw, hand-to-claw, or hand-to-incisor combat, any animal his size would have him for lunch. Yet man owns or controls them all, every animal that exists, thanks to his superpower: speech.

What is the story? What is it that has left endless generations of academics, certified geniuses, utterly baffled when it comes to speech? For half that time, as we will see, they formally and officially pronounced the question unsolvable and stopped trying. What is it they still don’t get after a veritable eternity?

—Tom Wolfe, in the introduction to his latest book, The Kingdom of Speech, his first piece of non-fiction since his 2000 anthology, Hooking Up.

Nobody can say Tom Wolfe doesn’t enjoy hunting big game. Leonard Bernstein, a giant figure in classical music, looked awfully silly after Wolfe mocked him for fundraising for the Black Panthers in 1970’s "Radical Chic." As Wolfe later admitted, “I just thought it was a scream, because it was so illogical by all ordinary thinking. To think that somebody living in an absolutely stunning duplex on Park Avenue could be having in all these guys who were saying, 'We will take everything away from you if we get the chance,' which is what their program spelled out, was the funniest thing I had ever witnessed.”

In the following years, Wolfe would similarly take down the reputation of Jackson Pollock and his champion, art critic Clement Greenberg, and the pioneers of modern architecture, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, not to mention the entire freeze-dried aesthetic of modernism itself.

The Kingdom of Speech generally follows the outline of The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House. Here, at age 85, Wolfe is still hunting the biggest of big game—the Bernstein-esque  (or even god-like) figures of Noam Chomsky and Charles Darwin himself.

A Virtue Signaler in Wolfe’s Clothing

Making a documentary on intelligent design in 2008 slammed many doors shut on economist/pundit Ben Stein’s part-time Hollywood career as a deadpan commercial pitchman and TV guest star. Perhaps as a result, given what sacred cows Darwin and Chomsky are in the intertwined worlds of leftwing academia and pop culture intellectualism, Wolfe knows he needs to walk a fine line.

Or as Wolfe writes in The Kingdom of Speech after comparing Darwin’s The Descent of Man to Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, after noticing both men certainly did a lot of anthropomorphizing of primitive animals, “Kipling’s intention from the outset was to entertain children. Darwin’s intention, on the other hand, was dead serious and absolutely sincere in the name of science and his cosmogony. Neither had any evidence to back up his tale. Kipling, of course, never pretended to. But Darwin did. The first person to refer to Darwin’s tales as Just So Stories was a Harvard paleontologist and evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, in 1978. Orthodox neo-Darwinists never forgave him. Gould was not a heretic and not even an apostate. He was a simple profane sinner. He had called attention to the fact that Darwin’s Just So Stories required a feat of fiction writing Kipling couldn’t compete with. Darwin’s storytelling power soared in The Descent of Man precisely where it had to, i.e., in accounting for this perplexing business of language.”

A man of the center-right, Wolfe has been residing in the elite leftwing New York intellectual world for over 50 years. So while he knows that The Kingdom of Speech will be catnip to the conservative Intelligent Design community, he not-so-subtly declares that deep down, he’s no intellectual apostate and not part of the controversial ID movement himself, with his virtue signaling references to ancient dates as “BCE.” That of course is “Before Common Era,” the arch, politically correct designation for what, until a decade ago, was universally known as “Before Christ.” This also reminds his readers that, as Wolfe has admitted in the past, he is an atheist who has long been fascinated by Nietzsche’s cryptic “God is Dead” forecasts and how Nietzsche seemingly accurately predicted the two World Wars to come. Not to mention neuroscience, which Wolfe profiled in a Forbes article back in 1996 not so subtly titled “Sorry, Your Soul Just Died.”

Or as Mickey Craig and Jon Fennell wrote in “Love in the Age of Neuroscience,” their review of Wolfe’s 2004 novel about college life, I am Charlotte Simmons, in The New Atlantis:

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.

Of White Gods and Bearded God-Killers

With Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud having served as what historian Martin E. Marty dubbed the “Bearded God-Killers” of the late 19th century, and en route to Wolfe’s own big game hunting, another theme that runs through much of Wolfe’s work is modern man’s quest for a substitute religion. That theme was all over his best-selling 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, where, as Wolfe said, “It was quite easy for an LSD experience to take the form of a religious vision, particularly if one were among people already so inclined.” The following decade—the Me Decade, as it was dubbed in 1976 by Wolfe himself—he wrote, “It is entirely possible that in the long run historians will regard the entire New Left experience as not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk,” which also neatly encapsulates the politics as religion theme he witnessed in Leonard Bernstein’s Park Ave. duplex.

The search for a substitute religion is similarly reflected in The Kingdom of Speech, when Wolfe writes:

 At the higher altitudes of society, as well as in academia, people began to judge one another socially according to their belief, or not, in Darwin’s great discovery. Practically all Church of England clergymen were well educated and well connected socially, and by 1859 the demystification of the world had extinguished whatever fire and brimstone they might have had left. The sheerly social lure of the theory, the status urge to be fashionable, was too much for them. Subscribing to Darwinism showed that one was part of a bright, enlightened minority who shone far above the mooing herd down below. There were plenty of clerical attacks on The Origin of Species, but they were so civil and rhetorically well mannered that the new agnostics didn’t cringe in fear of an angry God, much less a vengeful one. The theory and the atheistic bias that came with it spread quickly to Germany, Italy, Spain, and to self-professed intellectual elites in the United States, even though the great mass of the population kept on mooing and made sure America remained the most religious country on earth outside of the nations of Islam (and it remains so today).

Once a theory or style is codified into religious orthodoxy by the academy, there is a tendency to view its creators as gods themselves, far above reproach. As Wolfe said in a 1980 Rolling Stone interview defending The Painted Word, “All I ever did was write about the world we inhabit, the world of culture, with a capital C, and journalism and the arts and so on, with exactly the same tone that I wrote about everything else. With exactly the same reverence that the people who screamed the most would have written about life in a small American town or in the business world or in professional sports, which is to say with no reverence at all, which is how it should be.”

This was a technique he would later, in From Bauhaus to Our House, extend to Bauhauslers Mies and Gropius who, as Wolfe famously wrote, were viewed, as “The White Gods! Come from the Skies at Last!”, once they arrived in Depression-era America in the 1930s. Mies in particular had quite the cult of personality surrounding him at Illinois Institute of Technology and his own private Chicago architectural practice, which he did little to discourage. Far more so than Mies worshippers of the 1950s, the modern academy, which views any questioning of Darwin’s theories as heresy worthy of excommunication from the secular priesthood, will not enjoy passages such as this:

The power of the human brain was so far beyond the boundaries of natural selection that the term became meaningless in explaining the origins of man.

No, said Wallace, “the agency of some other power” was required. He calls it “a superior intelligence,” “a controlling intelligence.” Only such a power, “a new power of definite character,” can account for “ever-advancing” man. Whatever that power is, it is infinitely more important than mere natural selection.

Now, that hurt. Once again, this little flycatcher Wallace had…freaked out Charles Darwin. In a regular frenzy Charlie began scrawling NO!— NO!— NO!— NO! in the margins of his copy and then hurling spears in the form of exclamation points. Only a few wound up immediately following the NOs. The rest of them hit the page in the form of… take that, Wallace!… right through your temporal fossa and your little fifty-cubic-inch brain cavity!… and this one!— riiiippp— right through your solar plexus!… and this one!… right through your bowels!… and this one!… a regular crotch crusher!… and this one… straight through your ungrateful heart!!!!!! And to think that I went to the trouble of building up your reputation. True, it was out of guilt, but I built it up for you all the same. And don’t think that pathetic little disclaimer on page 39 absolves you of any treachery, either.

The Forgotten Sociologist  

In an article reprinted in his 2000 anthology Hooking Up, Wolfe describes sculptor Frederick Hart, who created the three realistic looking soldiers who humanized Maya Lin’s otherwise dark, abstract stillborn Miesian Vietnam War Memorial as “The Invisible Artist.”  Similarly, in the last third of The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe profiles Daniel L. Everett, the anti-Chomsky, who went from dropping LSD in a Methodist Church—Ken Kesey call your office!—to falling in love with the daughter of evangelical missionaries and then eventually the two of them heading out to document "the Pirahã, a tribe that lived in isolation way up one of the Amazon’s nearly fifteen thousand tributaries, the Maici River. Other missionaries had tried to convert the Pirahã but could never really learn their language, thanks to highly esoteric constructions in grammar, including meaningful glottal stops and shifts in tone, plus a version consisting solely of bird sounds and whistles… to fool their prey while out hunting.”

As Everett documented, this primitive tribe, with its remarkably limited language and concomitant worldview, served as the CTL-ALT-DLT key on Chomsky’s theories of linguistics. With Everett’s introduction in The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe’s latest book seems to accelerate a gear or two in interest from a scholarly tome to genuine excitement, as Wolfe describes both the harrowing trek the Everetts made, and its aftermath.

Just as Wolfe brings Darwin down a few pegs, dedicated Chomsky-ites won’t enjoy passages such as this:

The New Yorker piece [on Everett, the Pirahã, and their primitive language] made Chomsky furious. It threw him and his followers into full combat mode. He had turned down Colapinto’s request for an interview, apparently to position himself as aloof from his challenger. He and Everett were not on the same plane. But now the whole accursèd world was reading the New Yorker. Dan Everett, the New Yorker called him, Dan, not Daniel L. Everett… in the magazine’s eyes he was an instant folk hero… Little Dan standing up to daunting Dictator Chomsky.

Naturally, Everett having gone out to document the primitive Pirahã and utterly faced Chomsky and his linguist theories, the Chomsky truth squad began to circle the wagons to protect their substitute Godhead, ultimately throwing the R-word—racist—at Everett.

This technique should be familiar to anyone who is familiar with the left’s infamous “Journolist” email list serve of leftwing journalists (read: Democratic operatives with bylines) propping up Obama during his 2008 campaign, on which Spencer Ackerman, then with the Washington Independent, later with Conde Nast's Wired magazine , would casually, chillingly write, "take one of them—Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares—and call them racists. Ask: why do they have such a deep-seated problem with a black politician who unites the country?" In the 1990s, this was dubbed the politics of personal destruction by Bill Clinton (a master of its techniques himself).

Fortunately, Everett was able to rise above the usual leftwing smear tactics, Wolfe writes, by quickly writing an autobiographical account of his experience among the Pirahã that makes Indiana Jones look like a cub scout camping out in his father’s backyard for the night.

So where does the study of man’s use of language currently stand? Near the conclusion of The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe writes:

By now, 2014, Evolution was more than a theory. It had become embedded in the very anatomy, the very central nervous system, of all modern people. Every part, every tendency, of every living creature had evolved from some earlier form— even if you had to go all the way back to Darwin’s “four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere” to find it. A title like “The Mystery of Language Evolution” was instinctive. It went without saying that any “trait” as important as speech had evolved… from something. Everett’s notion that speech had not evolved from anything— it was a “cultural tool” man had made for himself— was unthinkable to the vast majority of modern people. They had all been so deep-steeped in the Theory that anyone casting doubt upon it obviously had the mentality of a Flat Earther or a Methodist. With the very title of his book itself—Language: The Cultural Tool—Everett was drawing the same line Max Müller had drawn in 1861: “Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it.”

And what sort of power does language give man? As Wolfe writes, “‘Speech,’ I said to myself, ‘gave the human beast far more than an ingenious tool for communication. Speech was a veritable nuclear weapon!’” As far as Wolfe is concerned, Kubrick and McLuhan had it all wrong. Speech was the first tool, the tool that shaped us, and allowed man to build all the rest of his tools.

Science is all about the continual testing of theories to ensure they are still valid, which is why the global warming cult’s tut-tutting reply “The science is settled” is a non-sequitur.  Similarly, those wedded to unquestioning obedience to the cult of Darwin will gnash their teeth at the mere thought of a household name like Wolfe tackling this topic. (See also: the art world’s response to The Painted Word and the architectural clerisy hissing at From Bauhaus to Our House.) But for everyone else, this is a thought-provoking look at how speech made man the superior creature he is, and how its creation remains a mystery after a century and a half of study. Why, it’s almost as if…