When is Bad News Good?

Mar 05, 2001 |Sean McMeekin

Believe it or not, we may be on the verge of a moral comeback, says Tom Wolfe in his book, Hooking Up.

Among the mostly dry and overlong end-of-the-century "think" pieces pouring off the presses over the past year, Tom Wolfe’s delightful send-up of pretentious media morons in last summer’s Harper’s Monthly, "In the Land of the Rococo Marxists," stood out both for its style and in its sharp penetration of contemporary mores.

Amazingly, Wolfe marveled in the Land of the Rococo Marxists essay, the United States had in the century just past almost single-handedly vanquished "two hordes of methodical slave-hunting predators, the German Nazis and the Russian Communists." In the process, it became the richest, freest, most prosperous nation in the history of the planet. And yet instead of celebrating the American century, our academics and intellectuals were tripping over themselves in denying our triumph and excoriating their fellow citizens for purported sins of racism, sexism, classism, and (gasp) patriotism.

This and other absurdities of the cultural scene form the subject of Hooking Up, an anthology of mostly new essays by Wolfe that, with an occasional lapse, are both entertaining and intellectually provocative. The title essay, which deploys the ingenious conceit of looking back on American life "at the Turn of the Second Millennium" as if from the vantage point of the Third, might well be given an NC-17 rating, except in this case, it is those over seventeen who should proceed with caution. You may not want to know about the sexual acts being performed by young libertines as early as junior high school these days.

But then again, you just might. It’s nearly impossible to resist Wolfe as he dissects the grotesque sexual practices of pubescent America. Based, in large part, on a survey of girls’ filofax diaries (how did he pull that one off?), Wolfe brings to life a sexually precocious world that would be hysterically funny if it were not, alas, real. Teenage girls bragging about sexual conquests more shamelessly (and graphically) than boys ever did; anonymous sexual encounters ("hooking up"), where neither party cares to learn the other’s name; 13- and 14-year old girls "fellating boys in corridors and stairwells during the two-minute break between classes" — it’s all happening right around us, and there is no end in sight.

Hooking Up is shocking, and rather disturbing. It will certainly be the piece most people remember from this collection (it’s also the only one many reviewers seem to have read). It forms the nucleus, I am told, of Wolfe’s next novel, a satire which will examine the dumbed-down dating scene on most American university campuses. Watch out for that one.

I do hope, though, that readers give the rest of this book a chance. Lurking in and around Wolfe’s usual satirical bravura in this collection is a sympathetic reading of important countercurrents in American cultural life that may yet triumph over the moral decadence reigning today.

The most moving essay in Wolfe’s collection is a portrait of several of the pious men from Middle America who built Silicon Valley ("Two Young Men Who Went West"). In this piece, Wolfe picks up where he left off with his portraits of America’s astronauts in The Right Stuff. Just why was it, he asked then, "that small-town boys from the Middle West dominated the engineering frontiers?"

In "Two Young Men Who Went West," Wolfe shows where the moral and egalitarian ethos of America’s high-tech frontier — from the loose dress codes and contempt for hierarchy to the long hours and astonishing work ethic — actually originated (a hint: it’s not California). Bob Noyce, the pioneering engineer in both semiconductors and microchips who was the mastermind behind Intel, came from Grinnell, Iowa, a town named after the Congregationalist Minister, Josiah Grinnell, who founded it in 1854. Noyce’s was the last generation, writes Wolfe, "to have grown up in families where the light of Dissenting Protestantism existed in anything approaching a pure state." Noyce transplanted this moral ethos to Intel and all the other companies he worked for in Silicon Valley, where to this day wide-eyed dotcom programmers "repeat Noycisms with conviction and with relish" — "and without a clue as to where they came from."

The moral underpinning and work ethic that laid the foundation for the explosion of wealth in Silicon Valley, then, derived from an old-fashioned Christian ethos that has all but eroded. Grinnell, Iowa today, according to Wolfe, is only a shadow of its former self (its founder’s prohibition on drinking, for example, is now considered an absurd relic of a long-forgotten age). Where will the economic pioneers of the next century come from, Wolfe asks, once we have finally spent the last of the "moral capital" accumulated in the 19th century?

Ideally, of course, Americans will start building moral capital anew, even if we have to claw back from scratch after the recent descent into decadence. Wolfe sketches out one possible scenario by which this might happen in a sharp essay on the potentially disturbing implications of neuroscientific research ("Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died"). Once science’s "Ultimate Skepticism" is turned upon itself, Wolfe thinks many of the idols of our century’s reigning amoral doctrines of scientific materialism (from quantum mechanics and Big Bang theory to Ritalin and Prozac) will be questioned. And when this happens, Wolfe prophesies, millions will return to Christianity as the only possible option.

A similar logic of redemption-from-the-depths animates Wolfe’s profile of Frederick Hart, the most successful sculptor in America whom no one in New York, it seems, has heard of ("The Invisible Artist"). As Wolfe explains, the arts establishment these days exalts not "representational" sculpture like Hart’s, which depicts moral and religious themes — the kind of sculpture most people like and tend to buy for themselves — but rather "skill-proof" abstractions such as Maya Lin’s V-shaped Vietnam memorial, the coldness of which so infuriated some veterans’ groups that Hart was commissioned to add representational sculptures of several soldiers to Lin’s design, in order to give the memorial at least some moral content.

The furor over the partial re-design of the Vietnam Veterans’ memorial yielded an event tailor-made for Wolfe’s satirical eye. When Lin, offended by Hart’s "intrusion" on her work, confronted him at an arranged peace gathering between the two in Plainview, NY, she astonishingly asked Hart (according to his recollection in an interview with Wolfe) if the men used to model the three soldier figures had "complained of any pain when the plaster casts were removed from their faces and arms." She thought, that is, that Hart had used body casting, a "skill-proof" method of representational sculpture first contrived by an artist named George Segal. Thus it was that the twenty-one year old Lin, already a celebrated conceptual darling of the New York art world, was unable even to conceive of "a sculptor starting out solely with a picture in his head, a stylus, a brick of moist clay and some armature wire."

Wolfe musters up real moral outrage here, but in his telling, Hart’s story has a silver lining of hope. Even if New York art "worldlings" still prefer the amoral and abstract Maya Lin mode of "skill-proof" sculpture, Hart’s representational, reality-based acrylic castings grossed over $100 million before his death in 1999 — meaning that someone out there has taste. "Frederick Hart," Wolfe predicts, "will not have been the first major artist to have died 10 minutes before history absolved him and proved him right."

As ballast for this prediction, Wolfe (with rather less tact) further offers up the recent success of his own novel A Man In Full — and the famously hysterical denunciation of its popularity by arrogant literary elites Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving — as evidence of a coming arts "revolution" that will "soon make many prestigious artists ... appear effete and irrelevant."

W

olfe is, to be sure, egregiously biased in advocating this arts "revolution." He is plugging not only his own, reportorial, "intensely realistic" brand of fiction writing, but also the cozy, user-friendly, anti-modernistic architecture he has been promoting since publishing From Bauhaus to Our House (1981).

Still, I think he is on to something. Although most of the essays in Hooking Up could be savored individually, when you add them all up, an intriguing cultural argument emerges. Crudely summarized, it’s the reverse of the old dictum, "what goes up, must come down."

In culture, Wolfe’s book suggests, when you hit rock bottom, rapid improvement — even if only back to levels of prior achievement — becomes inevitable. He makes this argument most strongly in a short but significant essay called "The Great Relearning." The chapter opens with a "curious footnote to the hippie movement": the reappearance of diseases back in 1968 at the Haight-Ashbury clinic in San Francisco, which "no living doctor had ever encountered before," diseases so old as never to have acquired Latin names. A wave of unfortunate commune dwellers had rediscovered primitive maladies that had been conquered centuries ago.

How, according to Wolfe, did these young college-age hippies accomplish this improbable feat? Merely by forgetting the rules of civilization, i.e., that "you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets or...that you and five other people shouldn’t drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette." Writhing in pain at a medical clinic, these poor hippies were, in Wolfe’s clever explanation, now "relearning ... the laws of hygiene ... by getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot."

When you consider the implications of this story, it is easy to see why Wolfe’s new book has been so savagely attacked by moral libertines on the Left, many of whom were former Wolfe fans. In a revealingly immature review in Salon.com, Matthew Debord complains that Wolfe is no longer "cool," as Debord used to think he was. As one of the leading proponents of the so-called "New Journalism," that is, Wolfe had always distinguished himself by roving with his reporter’s eye well beyond the pale of respectable society. In Debord’s (regretful) recollection of his own seduction by Wolfe in the 1960s:

Tom Wolfe didn't write about boring crap; Tom Wolfe wrote about the Merry Pranksters and whether you were on or off the bus, and about dropping acid, and he wrote about surfers, and he wrote about cars, man, and he wrote about those superbad mofo Black Panthers and it was all so ... massively, unquestionably cool.

Debord, you see, wanted to believe that Wolfe worshipped the seductively hedonistic impulses of immoral countercultural rebels like he did, whereas in fact, Wolfe was satirizing them, because he found them at once ridiculous — and dangerous. It was precisely because the behavior of such destructive individuals had consequences that Wolfe regarded them as worthy of comment in the 1960s, when he published such New Journalism classics as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The difference today is that Wolfe is no longer merely reporting on the cultural barbarism which began to overtake America in the 1960s, but reflecting on it critically and historically in such a way as to warrant at least some hope that we may already have passed through the worst. Certainly most college students have abandoned the hygienic practices of Haight-Ashbury and the Merry Pranksters, and the mange, the grunge, the itch and the rest have thankfully, once again, been consigned to oblivion.

What proved true with hygiene, may also prove true with art. It would be impossible for architects to build anything uglier than the cold, flat-roofed, glass-wall, tiny office-cubicled Bauhaus monstrosities of the 1970s, and so Bauhaus has finally been abandoned. Following the same logic, it would seem that prose style can’t do anything but improve on the hideous jargon-ridden monographs currently coming off the academic presses. One humanities journal, Wolfe notes, has possibly initiated the revival by sending ironic congratulations to winners of an annual "Bad Writing Contest". The Hart-led revival in sculpture, meanwhile, is already well underway — Hart’s followers call themselves the "Centerists" — and has spread to painters as well.

Those with conservative tastes may still feel they inhabit a cultural universe largely devoid of taste, style and form, but if Wolfe is right, this may not last much longer. Inside the "Big Closet," a phrase coined by the artist Richard Merkin, architects are already busy "rummaging about," rediscovering many of the great ordered styles of the past, and Wolfe is confident that artists and writers will soon follow, abandoning the "facile snobbery" that has too often substituted for discipline, skill and moral content. In the process, they may also rediscover an audience.

One wishes that Wolfe would have devoted an essay here to outlining the same kind of "relearning" on the sexual front as he envisions in the art world. Has American society really turned the corner? Or is Wolfe just teasing us with these essays on America’s gradual rediscovery of moral civilization, the better to shock us in his next book with a graphic account of our culture’s descent into sexual depravity?

It is a measure of Wolfe’s talent as a writer that his readers are left with such genuine suspense. Perhaps Wolfe himself is not sure where we are going, or even what he himself believes, in his heart of hearts, beneath the flashy surface of his fiery prose.

Let us hope, though, that Wolfe continues drawing on the moral depth hinted at in Hooking Up while writing his novel on the college social scene. I, for one, am waiting with baited breath to see what he comes up with next.

Disclaimer: Wolfe's one fictional entry in this collection, "Ambush at Fort Bragg," undercuts the moral impact of what precedes it. In order to make a worthy point about the decline of much contemporary fiction writing into irrelevant navel gazing, Wolfe tackles the hot-button subject of hate crimes in this piece too ravenously, and the result isn't pretty. In his zeal to bring fiction down to earth — to capture the reality what he calls the "raw, raucous, lust-soaked rout" of contemporary America — Wolfe veers in one extended scene dangerously close to pornography. Whereas the use of graphic language in the book's title essay, "Hooking Up," is justified because Wolfe is reporting there truthfully on the shameful state of American sexual mores, in the fictional "Ambush at Fort Bragg" it seems gratuitous and unnecessary. This is unfortunate, because the book's nonfiction pieces are almost uniformly strong, showing a moral depth that fails Wolfe in "Ambush at Fort Bragg."

Copyright 2001 Sean McMeekin. All rights reserved.

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