Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review: The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe (2016)

Cover of The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe, 2016. Taken, of course, on my Tom Wolfe bookshelf. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Tom Wolfe is still rocking those white suits!
Yes! Tom Wolfe is back!!! The sharply-dressed wordsmith returns with The Kingdom of Speech, his first non-fiction work since his 2000 collection of essays, Hooking Up. But you have to go back to 1981 and From Bauhaus to Our House to find Wolfe’s last extended, book-length piece of non-fiction. That seems fitting, because The Kingdom of Speech fits in well with From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe’s scathing critique of modern architecture, and The Painted Word, his 1975 lambasting of the modern art scene.

Wolfe is an enemy of conformity, and while some interpret his critiques of art and architecture and conclude that he’s really a conservative figure, I would argue that what he’s really saying is to question orthodoxy and authority. Wolfe might actually be more radical than people think. Wolfe has often come under fire from liberals because he attacks liberal orthodoxies, and as a liberal, I think I can say that liberals generally don’t like it when their reality gets questioned. As William F. Buckley once said, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” We tend to see things in black and white, as a dichotomy. If you’re against modern architecture, then, ipso facto, you must be a conservative! If you’re against modern art, then you’re not part of the vanguard! You’re not on the cutting edge! Wolfe is always interested in how certain ideas or theories become entrenched-the way styles of art and architecture became entrenched, and how once they become the orthodoxy, how anyone who questions them is quickly branded a heretic.

In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe sets his sights on Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky. Specifically, Wolfe is interested in how speech evolved in human beings. According to Wolfe, no one has been able to truly explain this-which as Wolfe says, is what really made man able to dominate all of the other species on the planet. Wolfe goes back to Charles Darwin as he traces Darwin’s writing of On the Origin of Species, which was partially published to beat Alfred Russel Wallace into print, as Wallace had independently developed the same theory. Wolfe then examines Darwin’s theories about how language developed…which leads into Wolfe taking on Chomsky, who has long been the reigning linguistic theorist. Wolfe sums up some of the research of Daniel Everett, who found a lost tribe in the Amazon whose language seems to contradict some of Chomsky’s key theories.

I am not enough of an expert on language or linguistic theory to definitively say that Wolfe is right or wrong, but The Kingdom of Speech is an entertaining read. Wolfe’s style is his usual, love it or hate it, stream of consciousness ramble. I’ve seen some reviewers who have mocked Wolfe’s flights of fancy, asking “How does he go from this to that?” but in asking that question it seems clear that they don’t understand how stream of consciousness works. Unlike some other Wolfe books, the first exclamation point doesn’t appear until the bottom of the second page! But have no fear; Wolfe’s trademark wit and sarcasm are still fully intact. Oh, and this time, unlike The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, there are footnotes!

As with Wolfe’s other books, The Kingdom of Speech has been controversial, and debates have raged over how accurately Wolfe has summarized the thoughts and ideas of Chomsky and Everett. I am sure that delights Wolfe, who has never shied away from criticism or controversy during his long career. The criticism over the book follows exactly the pattern that Wolfe describes when he writes about people protecting their orthodoxies-the outsider is invariably attacked for not being “one of us.” The experts shriek and howl: But he’s not a linguist! He hasn’t studied linguistics and evolution for thirty years! How many books about language has he read? He doesn’t know the territory! Well, sometimes an outsider can provide a fresh perspective. I don’t think Wolfe is saying that his book will be the final word on this subject. What Wolfe is really doing is popularizing the ideas and theories he presents in The Kingdom of Speech. Because he’s a famous writer, they will invariably get more attention. It’s fitting that Wolfe would choose to write a book about language, since he is such a terrific writer. Wolfe has always held a high place in the kingdom of speech.

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