January 7, 2005


Modern, All Too Modern: Tom Wolfe's new novel, largely reviewed as a satiric report on the sexual mores of today's college students, is fundamentally about the nature of the human will.: a review of of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (S. T. Karnick, Books & Culture)

[W]olfe introduces several allusions and references to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, with Charlotte in the position of Flaubert's bright but naïve country doctor, Charles. Deeper and more organic, however, are the book's similarities to several excellent 18th-century English novels, especially those of two superficially very different writers, Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe. Both of those authors were masters of the realistic depiction of female-virginity-in-peril scenarios, with Richardson the great architect of virtue rewarded and Defoe equally brilliant at depicting fallen women.

An even closer model, however, is Henry Fielding's moving and utterly wonderful final novel, Amelia, in which the lovely, decent, truly Christian title character is brought to the brink of ruin by her profligate husband, Captain Booth.

Wolfe's story, while rather charming in its final irony (which I shall not reveal here) and sharp observations of contemporary American life, is more cynical and less hopeful than any of these, and the reason lies in Wolfe's very different ideas about what drives human behavior and indeed whether people can really be said to make free choices in any meaningful way.

To consider this theme explicitly, Wolfe introduces the concept of sociobiology and a discussion of the chemistry of the human brain, through Charlotte's attendance in a high-level neuroscience class taught by a Nobel Prize-winning research professor.

Here Charlotte and her creator explore the latest advances in neuroscience and sociobiology, which provides a scientific basis for a notion that Wolfe has long purveyed: that the fundamental motive behind most human behavior (after all of our direct survival endeavors) is the pursuit of social status. This mission is wired into our very brains, Wolfe has suggested, because of the evolutionary advantage it brings. (Social hierarchies, one might surmise, encourage people to be both orderly and ambitious.) A classroom lecture on the neuroscientist José Delgado allows Wolfe to present the following argument:

"[N]ot only emotions but also purpose and intentions are physical matters. … [Delgado's] position was that the human mind, as we conceive it—and I think all of us do—bears very little resemblance to reality. We think of the mind—we can't help but think of the mind—as something from a command center in the brain, which we call the 'self,' and that this self has free will. Delgado called that a 'useful illusion.' He said there was a whole series of neural circuits … that work in parallel to create the illusion of a self—'me,' an 'individual' with free will and a soul. He called the self nothing more than a 'transient composite of materials from the environment.' It's not a command center but a village marketplace, an arcade, or a lobby, like a hotel lobby, and other people and their ideas and their mental atmosphere and the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the age, to use Hegel's term from two hundred years ago—can come walking right on in, and you can't lock the doors, because they become you, because they are you. After Delgado, neuroscientists began to put the words self and mind and, of course, soul in quotation marks."

Hence the book's title: is there really an I in our Charlotte Simmons after all, or is she just believing a pretty lie when she says it? As it happens, Charlotte is transported by this vision of great truth, and all the lessons of her past life are obliterated by this well-meaning, Nobel Prize-winning professor. This scene occurs a little after the book's halfway point, and Wolfe spends the rest of the story exploring its insights, especially in the agonizing way Charlotte's story plays out.

Through his masterly creation of moral dilemmas and exposition of characters' internal conflicts (involving numerous highly explicit descriptions of sex, violence, bodily functions, and vulgarity), Wolfe suggests that nearly everyone at Dupont University, from administrators to professors to students, is there solely because of the social status it provides. He is probably largely correct in that surmise and in the implication that the same is true of America's other high-status universities. If a girl so obviously intelligent and gifted, with such a strong background of religion and morals, can fall into this trap, what hope do the rest of us have? Social status must be a powerful motivator indeed.

None of this, however, in any way proves a materialist conception of the human soul, or "soul," as Delgado would have it, nor does it establish a case for even the sociobiologists' more limited notion that all human behavior is ultimately traceable to the biological urge to preserve one's gene lines, nor does it even prove the still more limited idea that social status is the fundamental human urge.

No, there is a much simpler explanation for all of this, and it is right there in the events of the book. What is really happening in the story is something that theists have always known: that we choose to think the things we think, and that what we think will largely determine what we do.

That is precisely what happens to Charlotte and to all the other characters in the book. After all, it is only when Charlotte finally changes her simple, down-home, Christian way of thinking about what a human being is, and what choice means, that she descends into the personal miasma that is the inevitable consequence of the bad choices she makes. These latter, in turn, are the direct result of the bad ideas she chooses to hold. If she had kept to her old assumptions, her behavior would have been completely different. Of that, there can no doubt whatever.

In the end, what is materialism but an excuse for bad ideas?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 7, 2005 12:08 PM
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