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If you like Tom Wolfe's story, you might also like:
Nora Ephron,
Henry R. Kravis,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Norman Mailer,
James Michener,
John Updike,
Edward O. Wilson
and Chuck Yeager

Related Links:
Tom Wolfe.com
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The New York Times: Wolfe's Southern Roots

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Tom Wolfe
 
Tom Wolfe
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Tom Wolfe Interview (page: 3 / 4)

America's Master Novelist

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  Tom Wolfe

The "fiction absolute," as you call it, is that a sort of mythology of contemporary life?

Tom Wolfe Interview Photo
Tom Wolfe: No, I think it's probably been here forever. I've swallowed it all very easily: "Well, writing is really important!" But you can get split by a career. On the one hand, I'm thinking that, "Jeez, there's probably not much else in the world that you can do that's more important than writing." At the same time, I am protective of my Southern upbringing. And this leads to something I call "championism," which is a kind of irrational attachment to certain figures, or certain cultural directions, because somehow that group, that person, in your mind is a champion of what you believe in to maintain your fiction absolute.

So many people's votes are irrationally determined by championism. I remember, a Samuel Lubbell wrote a book called The Future of American Politics. He was a sociologist. He was trying to figure out why Truman had upset Dewey in 1948 -- a huge upset. So he went around the country and did a sort of sociological survey. And he entered a town, I think it was in Wisconsin. It was a German town. It had been founded by German Catholics, and it still maintained its German majority. And they, in that election, were voting Republican by an enormous margin. It turned out the reason was Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had declared war on Germany in 1917, which in turn brought a lot of opprobrium on Germans who were in the United States. And they had never forgotten that that's what the Democrats had done. It really had nothing to do with the 1948 election. It had to do with something that had happened in 1917. And I think everybody does that. I'll give you an example in my own case.


Right after 9/11, both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, independently -- I don't think they got together -- and came out almost the day after it and said the depravity and sinfulness of the American people, and their lack of contact with God, is what brought this on, that's why it happened. And of course, it was around the bend. But this tirade of disparagement was directed against these two men: Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. And I found myself saying, "Hey, wait a minute! I know those people!" Pat Robertson, incidentally, went to Washington and Lee, the same place I went. His father had been a U.S. Senator. And, you know, he's far from being stupid. I couldn't agree for a second with what he was saying, but I found myself defending him. Jerry Falwell was just maybe 75 miles down the road from Washington and Lee, in Lynchburg, Virginia. And he was one of my people. "You don't go around saying that these people are idiots, or morons!" It was totally irrational. I couldn't agree with a thing they said, but it's championism. And it's all part of the fiction absolute that I'm talking about. And I can sit here and call it a fiction absolute, and yet my life operates by it. I think everybody's does. That's what has gotten me interested in neuroscience.


Tom Wolfe Interview Photo
Another example, when I was working at the Springfield Union, in Massachusetts, I came across the names of Italian American women, all from the Third Ward in Springfield, who were getting naturalized at age 61, 62, maybe 63. I couldn't understand this. And so I went to the Third Ward, and it turned out that part of the Third Ward was like a preserved, authentic Italian village. And the people in that small part of the ward didn't want to change a thing. I mean, they were quite happy to live in the old ways, and were not at all corrupted by the world around them. They didn't want to be American citizens, or it wasn't important to them, unless you wanted Social Security. At that point, you get naturalized. But I thought it was such a good example of status, in the sense of wanting to maintain exactly what you've got.

I should throw this in, another great example of championism. There's a documentary movie you may have seen, called When We Were Kings. It's deservedly become very popular, as documentaries go. It concerned the fight that Muhammad Ali had against George Foreman in Zaire, the so-called "Rumble in the Jungle." Nobody in print picked up the fact that to Africans -- at least certainly in Zaire -- Ali was their champion. Not just a boxing champion, he was their champion. And they presumed that his fight against George Foreman was Armageddon. It was black against white. And when Foreman stepped off the plane and he was black, they couldn't believe it. That all comes out in the movie. It's just a marvelous touch. Ali goes touring around Zaire, and they'll go, "Ali Boom-ba-bay!" Apparently this meant, "Long live Ali!" He loved all that. And they wanted to love him.

How did this lead you to neuroscience?

Tom Wolfe: When I hit upon the whole concept of status and status absolute and all that, I was convinced that there is a part of the brain that controls this. For example, you can tell when you're humiliated before you could put it into words. Something goes off. And you haven't reasoned it all out. It's just happened. And this has to be neurological in some way. Well, I must confess, I've never found this area, although I'm an avid neuroscience buff now. I subscribe to two newsletters, they give you week-by-week developments in neuroscience in language that I can understand. I go to neuroscience conferences. And the field has just become enormous. The annual meetings of the American Society for Neuroscience are among the biggest in the country now.

In your most recent novel there's a description of a science experiment. At first it seems like non-fiction. It takes the reader a while to realize it's fictional.

Tom Wolfe Interview Photo
Tom Wolfe: That's right, and it's one that I think metaphorically is quite accurate. Only I gave my man the Nobel Prize for it. I don't expect to get that one. I made it an integral part of that novel. I'll give you very quickly the premise of neuroscience. There are two quick examples. Edward O. Wilson is probably the dominant theorist in neuroscience today. He once said in an interview -- he probably would never write this as clearly -- he said every human brain is born, not as a blank slate waiting to be filled in by experience, but as a negative -- as in the film, negative in a camera -- that is waiting to be dipped into developer fluid. And the idea is, it can be developed well, it can be developed badly, according to the environment. But no matter how it's developed, you're not going to get any more than is on that negative at birth. Which, of course, gets into the whole theory of genetics and things like hard-wiring of the brain and so on.

Is Wilson active today?

Tom Wolfe: Yes, he's at Harvard. His field is actually zoology. He's the great expert on ants. He invented the term "sociobiology," which is a combination of the social factors, whether it's among ants, or macaque monkeys. As we know, there's lots pecking order among animals, the pecking order among chickens. There is this interaction of status and genetics.

Before it hops out of my mind again, I'll give you the other example from neuroscience. I do not know who first said this, but one of the principles of neuroscience is that if you took a rock and you threw it, and in mid-flight of that rock you gave it consciousness and the power to reason, that rock would give you, until the day it hit the earth, the most cogent and absolutely ironclad logic as to why he's going in this direction, and why he hasn't chosen another direction, and why he's happy with his choice. Young neuroscientists in particular believe we're machines, and according to which other machines we run into, we act in a predictable way. And they feel if they had enough computer power -- so-called "parallel computers" -- that they could predict what you're going to do five seconds from now. They could predict that you're going to suddenly hit your forehead with the tips of your fingers five seconds from now. That's how sure they are about this kind of determination that goes on.

That's a little bleak, isn't it?

Tom Wolfe Interview Photo
Tom Wolfe: It is. It actually is bleak. I already see people believing in what I call "the lurking force." The whole 20th century has trained us to think that things happen because of "the lurking force." For example, Marxism, which had a huge influence on the 20th century. The theory says that the class you're born into is your destiny. In other words, you were born into this certain class, and the forces that come from that have shaped your life. You don't have any choice. Freudianism, which was so powerful as a way of thinking about human behavior in the 20th century, holds that your destiny is an Oedipal battle that took place in your family when you were between the ages of three and six and were totally unaware of anything that was going on in any large sense. So these are both external theories.

Then there are many other theories, that were never quite individually as powerful, that say society shapes you in a certain way. Theodore Dalrymple, the prison psychiatrist, tells of how he was questioning a prisoner for psychiatric treatment, and asked him -- he was in for 18 years for aggravated manslaughter -- "How did this come about that you killed this man?" And the prisoner says, "Well, we were at this table. We were having a few drinks. We got into an argument. And the next thing I know, he's standing up and he's got his fists clenched, and I think he's gonna hit me. So I stood up and I pulled out my knife. And then we yelled at each other some more, and things got worse. And I don't know, and then the knife went in." Believing, of course he'd read it, that if you had a chaotic childhood, and you were in the wrong end of society, these forces impel you to stick knives in people's midsections. This is part of it.

And now neuroscience has made the threat seem even worse. If your genetic makeup at birth is determining so many things, I think it causes people to kind of give up on their children. "He wasn't born a student. Why knock my brains out trying to make him into something he isn't?" When most people just need a counselor who'll kick him in the slats every now and then when the motivation drops. But I think it's enervating to be constantly told that there's a lurking force that is determining your life.

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