A Speech In Full

May 11, 2006

What do LSD, Sigmund Freud, college freshmen and tuna fishing have in common?

Linking such subjects might put most thinkers in bizarre and dangerous waters. But the writer Tom Wolfe found a place for them all under the umbrella of human culture when he gave the National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities Wednesday in Washington.

Much of Wolfe’s talk, which drew a packed house of 1,800 and lasted more than an hour, discussed the micro-cultures that humans form to make themselves unique, and the various status symbols that arise in those cultures.

Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,  knows a thing or two about uniqueness and status symbols. He strode to the podium in his trademark white suit to give the lecture, which is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Wolfe argued that, though neo-Darwinists believe genes are the puppeteers responsible for pulling all human strings, mankind must be studied not only as Homo sapiens, but as Homo loquax, he said --  “man talking.”

“Human speech,” Wolfe said, “ended the evolution of man.” Because speech removed humans from the state of nature once and for all, Wolfe implied, it is only through the study of the humanities that we can reach to the core of modern humans.

Rather than natural selection, Wolfe said, humans are now governed by “artificial selection,” and even impose artificial selection on other animals. “We’re sentimental about the dolphins because they’re smart,” he said. “What about the tuna? It’s okay to kill tunas by the ton because they’re dimwits?”

With a few people in front cradling copies of his books -- perhaps hoping for him to pass them some status in the form of an autograph -- Wolfe embarked on a tour of the “statusphere,” a term, like “radical chic,” and “good ol’ boy,” that he is credited with introducing.

Compared to the voluminous jeans and do-rags of hip hop culture, Wolfe said, “the hippies’s clothes of yore look like no more than clown costumes.” But hip hop and hippies are linked, Wolfe said, in that both are bohemian rejections of bourgeois culture. “One of my favorite sights in New York is that of a 14- or 15-year-old boy who just descended from his family’s $10 or $12 million dollar apartment, emerging onto the sidewalks of Park Ave. dressed hip hop head to crotch, walking through a brass-filigreed door held open by a doorman dressed like an Austrian army colonel from 1870.”

After tackling other lightweight subjects, like gun control and the masculinity of drug dealers, Wolfe moved on to what the NEH chairman who introduced him, Bruce Cole, in an obvious allusion to the Duke University lacrosse controversy, had called “a timely subject” earlier in the night, namely: American cultural mores on campus.

Wolfe, who has a Ph.D. from Yale in American studies, related a story from his time working on I Am Charlotte Simmons, his 2004 novel about the sexual experience of a female college freshman. For research, the 76-year-old spent time on campuses, including Duke’s. (In the book, Charlotte is a freshman at DuPont University, from North Carolina, and her roommate lusts after lacrosse players.)

“One night I was in a college lounge,” he said. “All at once a voice from the sofa behind me, a boy’s voice, was saying, ‘What are you talking about? How could I? We’ve known each other since before Choate! It would be like incest!’ And then I heard the girl say, ‘Please. Come on. I can’t stand the thought of having to do it with somebody I don’t trust and don’t know.' ”

Wolfe said that, in a sign of the times, the girl was begging her old Platonic friend “to please relieve her of her virginity. That way she could honestly maintain the proper social stance as an experienced young woman in college.”

Wolfe added that such sentiment from young women “toward their own sexual activity, as well as the impression others have of it, has turned 180 degrees in one generation. There was a time when the worst … slut … for want of a better term … maintained a virginal façade. Today the most virginal and chaste undergraduate wants to create a façade of sexual experience.”

Wolfe said that he “kept coming upon situations in which I thought surely emotions would rule. Love. If not love, passion. If not passion, at least lust.” But what he found was governance by “status considerations.”

In the climactic scene of Charlotte Simmons, Charlotte has sex for the first time while wondering what people would think of her if she decided not to go through with it.

Wolfe ended on a note of inspiration for humanities scholars.

“Princeton anthropologist Clifford Geertz has written, ‘There is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture. Men without culture would not even be the clever savages of Lord of the Flies.’ ” Wolfe proposed “we go on from this … and continue the proper study of man, the study of Homo loquax.

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