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More on Tom Wolfe

By April 26, 2024Commentary

I wrote earlier about a biography of Tom Wolfe which I read.  That biography sparked me to re-read several of his shorter works during a recent trip.  Wolfe is noted for his understated takedown of elitist and clueless behavior and several of his books were skewerings of that behavior in particular areas.  One was the art world, where both painters and high-end buyers pursued an almost ideological dead-end of abstract and “modern” art.  I suspect most of us have little appreciation of such art, because it is neither aesthetically pleasing, nor does it really convey any particular message, other than the dilettantism of the painter.  Fortunately that trend has largely dissipated.  Many painters may still do weird stuff but no one pays much for it.

Then he took down the architecture business from the 20s and 30s on through when the book was written in the 2000s.  Architecture was captured by Marxism early in that period and starting making the ugliest buildings you can imagine, along with unfunctional furniture and furnishing design.  Blockhouses, narrow hallways, small, severe rooms, just plain ugly.  They started a steel and glass skin office building with open floors and small cubicles.  The soul-destroying nature of these offices is what most workers contend with today.  You can still see some of the blockhouse buildings on college campuses and in some cities.  Eventually people just got tired of this and wanted something that had a little more appeal, something more akin to classic architecture.

My favorite, however, was a book called The Kingdom of Speech, in which Wolfe explored both the history of evolution theory and how that theory tried to deal with the development of human speech.  Here Wolfe, I think, exaggerates the importance of speech and ultimately misconcludes on the nature of speech.  Speech is the oral counterpart to written language.  It is pretty clear to me that using sounds to represent things, qualities of things or actions was a pretty obvious track of evolution.  The value of being able to communicate in a common way for survival is pretty obvious, whether it was avoiding a danger, helping find food and water and shelter or for other purposes.  Wolfe says speech is basically a mnemonic, but mnemonic is a memory aid, like HOMES for the names of the Great Lakes.  Speech and language are abstractions, using one thing to represent another, in this case, sounds or written shapes.  And as we often see in evolution, the development of a capability occurs in a feedback loop–the more it gets used, our physical nature actually changes in the selected direction–so whole sections of the brain evolve to get better at abstraction and language in particular.  For a long time early in this debate, there was argument about whether language and speech were innate capabilities in infants, and how detailed that capability was.  Early in the evolutionary track toward humans, there probably wasn’t much of an innate ability, but as that capability had more value in survival, brains clearly evolved it and today human infants pick up speech very quickly.  In any event, well worth a read, as are all of Wolfe’s books.

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