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Location: Montgomery Area, Alabama, United States

Former BUFF driver; self-styled military historian; paid (a lot) to write about beating plowshares into swords; NOT Foamy the Squirrel, contrary to all appearances. Wesleyan Jihadi Name: Sibling Railgun of Reasoned Discourse

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Conservative, but Not In Full

I have recently been reading I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe's newest novel and I find that my enthusiasm for his work is beginning to wane. I have devoured everything the man has written over the last forty years and used to wait for each new work with great anticipation. He remains, in many ways, our most brilliant writer and IASS is a stylistic tour de force. He is also still a political and cultural conservative of long-standing and impeccable credentials. His earlier journalistic writing very significantly influenced my own thinking and when The Right Stuff came out in –what was it? 1981? – I was ecstatic: my favorite prose stylist and cultural commentator took on the very subculture that I grew up in – and liked it! No one has ever captured the mental and emotional world of military flyers in general and of test pilots in particular better than Wolfe does in TRS. My father, a test pilot, would have seen himself refelcted in its pages had he lived long enough to read it (he was killed testing the U-2, back when it was still a black program).

As Wolfe has gotten older, though, and segued into pure fiction, he has begun to deal with issues concerning the moral nature of the universe and man's place in it. His excursions have led him from a simpler, common-sense American practical conservatism into a kind of neo-Stoic philosophy with politically conservative overtones. In A Man In Full, one of his heroes even starts a stoic cult of Zeus worship toward the end of the book.

I can understand how Wolfe wound up in this place. Everyone tries to fill the God-hole with something. For most of Wolfe’s life, fame and adulation from his striking and influential prose filled the void. Everyone quoted and imitated him, even if they didn’t agree with his political views. Now, as he gets on in years and begins to question the fabric of his universe, he tries to make coherent sense of the philosophy his works have implied for decades.

What emerges is predictable. Wolfe’s philosophy is just a well-expressed example of where the conservative philosophical impulse goes in the absence of belief in God: either to the Stoics and Ayn Randian libertarian anomie and heroic individualism, or to the Cynics and neo-Strausian critiques of liberal progressivism. Both are as much against the grain of Christian teaching as any form of leftist communitarian utopianism. George Will went down the Cynic’s road (although the lesser gods he chose were Big Gub’ment and baseball). Tom Wolfe has chosen the Stoic path. I find echoes of both in things Izmud has written for this site.

In IASS, Wolfe has Charlotte reach emotional rock-bottom in an epiphany of self-abnegation, but despite her back-country, fundamental Christian upbringing, this does not resonate in any meaningful religious way with Charlotte. She does not seek God's counsel in any form a person of her upbringing, however intellectualized, probably would. Why not? Because Charlotte Simmons is much more Tom Wolfe (or perhaps Wolfe’s now-grown daughters) than she is a real, intelligent, back-country, Red America Christian girl. And Tom Wolfe is much more a creature of the modernist, secularized, materialist Blue Parentheses he so aptly identifies than he is of the America he purports to represent.

I find Charlotte’s character implausible, but understandable from Wolfe's perspective: he has so swallowed the modern world's conception of itself that he simply cannot get his mind around how a Christian might think about the situation Charlotte gets herself into. For him, Charlotte's Christianity is just a cultural artifact, no more important than a club membership – perhaps just a vague reminder of some rule-set that no longer applies to her in her lonely role as stoic (almost Randian) heroine. Her emotional life is otherwise plausible (Wolfe, after all, is one of America's greatest observers and has two daughters of his own), but Charlotte Simmons seems far too modern (secular, intellectual, rational, materialist) a person to be from her purported background and disposition. Wolfe has lost touch with the America he so eloquently defends. I admire Wolfe’s comments about “the Blue Parentheses” and other cultural matters, but he is now a creature of the Blue Parentheses himself. Heisenberg has triumphed; the observer has merged with the observed.

IASS and Wolfe's philosophy in general is all about what she and we and they can achieve in the world, and from a Christian's perspective, there is nothing ultimately lasting that we can achieve other than helping another soul somehow find a direct relationship with God.


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