Sunday, December 31, 2006

Tom Wolfe's ghost in the machine

The political philosopher Eduardo Velásquez is the author of the forthcoming book, A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse: why there is no cultural war in America and why we will perish nonetheless.

His writing first appeared here on the blog with, "Is Fight Club philosophy masquerading as a thrill ride?" Then he shared his insights into “Quantum Physics Meets Quantum Ethics," an excursion into "knowledge, ignorance and Socratic wisdom in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.”

And now I'm delighted to run an adapted essay from Velásquez's “Tom Wolfe’s Ghost in the Machine: Neuroscience, Consciousness and the Soul in I Am Charlotte Simmons,” in Shenandoah (forthcoming):
Tom Wolfe is a seer with powers to make his prophecies come true. Such is the nature of the literary mind. In 1996 Forbes magazine published an essay of Wolfe’s entitled “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died” (reissued and edited for Hooking Up). If we are fascinated by the digital web that links us all in cyberspace, says Wolfe, just wait. Within “ten years, by 2006 (2010 in Hooking Up), the entire digital universe is going to be seem like pretty mundane stuff compared to a new technology that right now is but a mere glow radiating from a tiny number of American and Cuban (yes, Cuban) hospitals and laboratories” (pp. 89-90). The revolutionary technology is “called brain imaging, and anyone who cares to get up early and catch a truly blinding twenty-first-century dawn will want to keep an eye on it” (p. 90). The dawn came and went. It is a new day and a new world. We now bask in the noonday sun.

Brain imaging “refers to techniques for watching the human brain as it functions, in real time,” Wolfe tells us. Invented for medical diagnoses, of “far greater importance is that it may very well confirm, in ways too precise to be disputed, certain theories about ‘the mind,’ ‘the self,’ ‘the soul,’ and ‘free will.’” This developing science of the brain and nervous system, says Wolfe, “is on the threshold of a unified theory that will have an impact as powerful as that of Darwinism a hundred years ago” (p. 90). Speaking of a “soul” will soon sound as absurd as speaking of witches and warlocks.

The neuroscientific view emerges in concert with (and may even draw sustenance from) the “most statement in all of modern philosophy: Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead.’” According to Wolfe, Nietzsche’s is not a statement of atheism, though an atheist he was. Nietzsche’s simply brings “news of an event.” The news is that “educated people no longer believed in God, as a result of the rise of rationalism and scientific thought, including Darwinism, over the preceding 250 years” (p. 98). Nietzsche is by no means sanguine about this fact. In his autobiographical Ecce Homo he predicts, Wolfe says, “that the twentieth century would be a century of ‘wars such as have never happened on earth,’ wars catastrophic beyond all imagining.” Unable to surrender our guilt to God, we turn our revenge on one another. This is Hobbes’s “war of all against all.” The age of total war coincides with the “’total eclipse of all values.’” If we doubt Nietzsche’s predictive powers, Wolfe invites us to consider the “world wars of the twentieth century and the barbaric brotherhoods of Nazism and Communism. Ecce vattes! Ecce vates! Behold the prophet! How much more proof can one demand of a man’s powers of prediction?” (p. 99).

And thus we come to Wolfe's own prophesy:

Thereupon, in the year 2010 or 2030 (2006 or 2026, Forbes), some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: ‘The self is dead’ – except that being prone to the poetic, like the Nietzsche I, he will probably say: ‘The soul is dead.’ He will say that he is merely bringing the news, the news of the greatest event of the millennium: ‘The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe that it exists (p. 107).

I wonder if the poetic prophet is Wolfe himself. Roughly ten years removed from the Forbes essay, Wolfe delivers a bold and daring book that depicts the consequences of the death of the soul and God, I Am Charlotte Simmons. Wolfe tells the story of a young teenage high school graduate from Sparta, North Carolina. The novel chronicles Charlotte Simmons’ journey from a small Southern town where the old virtues of religion, patriotism, austerity and self-command reign to one of America’s elite universities, a place like most elite universities in America that conservatives say are steeped in “political correctness.” The emphasis Wolfe places on “educated persons” points us to the modern university as the novel’s proper setting. This is the arena where intellectual movements take root and are disseminated among rising generations. Intellectual movements do not emerge or take hold in a vacuum. The university is the arena where the young put their newly acquired lessons into practice. Charlotte may have arrived at the fictitious Dupont University with a soul. But after less than a year, the stifling social and intellectual atmosphere asphyxiates that original breath of life that is the source of moral integrity and emancipates her latent lawlessness. Her nascent moral and intellectual longings crushed, Charlotte emerges at the end of the novel animated by little more than a Nietzschean “will to power,” courting recognition for its own sake, appearance taking the place of moral substance.

It would be reasonable to conclude that I Am Charlotte Simmons is no more than a translation of the essay into novel form. Wolfe himself gives evidence of this. Within the first hundred pages (what counts for an introduction in Wolfe’s terms), we learn that Charlotte is enrolled in a course taught by Dr. Lewin entitled “Modern French Novel: From Flaubert to Houellebecq.” Lewin assigned Madame Bovary for this day’s discussion. Flaubert’s novel is arguably among the first Modern novels, a depiction of a nascent Modernity that ends in suicide. Recourse to Flaubert is no accident. Nor to Houellebecq. Let us listen in.

“’For a moment,’” Lewin begins, “’let’s consider the very pages of Madame Bovary. We’re in a school for boys . . . The very first sentence says’ – he pushed the glasses back up on his forehead and brought the book back under his chin, close to his myopic eyes – ‘We were at preparation, when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy dressed in “civvies” and a school servant carrying a big desk.’ And so forth and so on . . . uhmmmm, uhmmmm – and then it says, ‘In the corner behind the door, only just visible, stood a country lad of about fifteen, taller than any of us – ‘” Lewin notes that Flaubert begins the book with “’We were in preparation,’” and “’taller than us’” referring to Charles Bovary’s schoolmates. But then Flaubert, Lewin continues, “’never tells the story in the first person plural again, and after a few pages we never see any of the boys again. Now, can anybody tell me why Flaubert uses this device?’” (p. 99). Charlotte raises her hand and answers:

Well, I think he does it that way because what the first chapter really is, is Charles Bovary’s background up to the time he meets Emma Bovary, which is when the story really begins. The last two-thirds of the chapter are written like a plain-long biography, but Flaubert didn’t want to start the book that way . . . because he believed you should get your point across by writing a real vivid scene with just the right details. The point of the first chapter is to show that Charles is a country bumpkin and always has been and always will be, even though he becomes a doctor and everything . . . “Une de ces pauvre chose, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d’expression . . . comme le visage d’un imbecile.” So you start the book seeing Charles the way we – the other boys – saw him, and the way we saw him is so vivid that all the way through the book, you never forget that what Charles is, is a hopeless fool, an idiot (pp. 100-01).

Lewin is aghast. Wolfe makes it known that these are not responses professors at elite universities expect. “Thank you . . . That’s precisely why. Flaubert never simply explained a key point if he could show it instead, and to show it he needed a point of view” (p. 101).

It would seem that Wolfe’s novel is a demonstration of the lessons of “Sorry, but your Soul Just Died.” But appearances are deceiving. Conservatives flocked to I Am Charlotte Simmons as a fitting testimony to the failures of American higher education to provide a moral setting for young teenagers. Liberals vilified Wolfe for the puerile imagination of a man now in his seventies, who by virtue of age cannot possibly understand the ins and outs of a rising generation. Attempts to eulogize or vilify Wolfe miss several essential key features of the novel that give it a subtle and not readily perceptible complexity. When considering the “self” as envisioned and propagated by neuroscientists, Wolfe raises some vexed questions that call into question the soundness of scientific reductionism and materialism. In this respect, I Am Charlotte Simmons goes well beyond “Sorry, but your Soul just Died.” His response to materialism and reductionism is not, as some might expect, disembodied idealism. Neither does Wolfe’s counter by taking refuge in religion. There is evidence to suggest that Wolfe takes issue with the Protestant assault on the Medieval or Catholic synthesis of faith and reason. By placing religious sensibilities out of the reach of reason, early Protestant theology makes a curious and unwitting alliance with strains of Modern anti-rationalism. This essay suggests that Wolfe’s book is curiously Socratic, infused with faint but audible suggestions about the importance of the Classical Greek heritage in higher education, understood as distinct from the effort by Christians to baptize Greek philosophy. On this occasion Wolfe is less Stoic than he is Greek (cf. A Man in Full).
Many thanks to Eduardo for sharing his essay.

Look for A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse in the summer of 2007.

--Marshal Zeringue