Wolfeburg

The Painted Word

by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 121 pp., $5.95

In the spring of 1965, Tom Wolfe, a young writer with a growing reputation for a flamboyant wardrobe and an equally flamboyant prose style, met Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian professor with an idea whose time had come. Normally condescending, Wolfe found much to admire in McLuhan’s ideas about audio-visual-tactile synesthesia and in his instant celebrity. Comparing McLuhan with Freud in “What If He Is Right?” an essay commemorating his momentous Lutèce luncheon with the super-guru of the Sixties, Wolfe characterizes both as great prophets: Freud of sex and McLuhan of TV. If this sounds simplistic, it is fairly typical of Wolfe’s thinking about issues, as opposed to his skill as an observer of social manners. For all his talent in capturing the nuances of fashion, decor, and ambiance, Wolfe has consistently had difficulty in dealing with ideas. Consider, for example, this insight into the likeness of Freud and McLuhan:

Both men electrified—outraged!—the intellectuals of their time by explaining the most vital, complex, cosmic phases of the human experience in terms of such lowlife stuff: e.g. the anus; the damnable TV set.

The advantage of such condensation is to permit readers who have heard of psychoanalysis and communications theory to feel that they are somehow au courant with the urgent issues of the moment, in fact superior to them, without ever having to go through the difficult, time-consuming experience of engaging directly with the substance of either subject.

Tom Wolfe is an attractive writer because he makes hard things easy. He equips one for intellectual name-dropping, the very discourse of the upwardly mobile cocktail-party society of arrivistes for whom Wolfe reserves the greatest measure of his contempt. This is a paradox we can begin to understand if we follow Wolfe’s career, from his early hero-worshiping idealizations of pop culture heroes like Phil Spector and Junior Johnson to his subsequent attacks on the moldy, crumbling remains of the literary and art establishments.

When he deals with pop culture, Wolfe’s inability to grapple with ideas of any complexity is no disadvantage; the pop world can indeed be plumbed to its depth by scratching the surface. Thus a description of Baby Jane Holzer’s or Ethel Scull’s clothes may suffice to communicate their meaning as nouveau-riche celebrities. It could even be argued that a description of the haircuts of the guests and the canapés at Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers described in Radical Chic, Wolfe’s nasty indictment of the romance of New York Jewish liberals with Third World revolutionaries, gives us important insights into the social life of New York in the Sixties. However, when we come to a subject that is beyond entertaining social satire, Wolfe is obviously over his head. In no way can a description of the wardrobe of Théophile Gautier, elaborated on in some detail in Wolfe’s latest book, The Painted Word, put us in touch with the ideas that launched modern art and criticism.

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