Tom Wolfe tries to throw Noam Chomsky on the bonfire

Wolfe, the acclaimed New Journalist, and Chomsky, the most influential living linguist, tussle over Wolfe’s slim new volume about the origins of language and Chomsky’s long-standing political activism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 6:01pm

After satirising everything from “radical chic” to 20th century architecture, Tom Wolfe is now mining the mystery of language and the reputation of the most influential linguist of our time, Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky, in turn, has some thoughts about Wolfe, the celebrated New Journalist and author of such classics as The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff.

Book review: from cronuts to the Kardashians, Mythomania looks at the significance of everything

In his new book, The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe examines how scholars have attempted to discern the roots of verbal communication. He reviews the debates between Charles Darwin, who likened speech to the “sounds uttered by birds”, and other 19th century evolutionists. He notes how modern understanding centres on Chomsky’s revolutionary theory that humans have an innate knowledge of language.

Wolfe duly acknowledges Chomsky’s breakthrough, but sees a man so used to dominance in his field that he scorns or evades those who challenge his research. He also suggests his stature as a linguist is tied to his years as an activist and left-wing thinker. He cites Chomsky’s 1967 publication “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, a landmark essay in The New York Review of Books that assailed the Vietnam war and accused intellectuals of failing “to speak the truth and to expose lies”.

The timing was absolutely perfect, according to Wolfe.

“Chomsky’s audacity and his Old World, Eastern European slant on life were things most intellectuals found charming, since by then, 1967, opposition to the war in Vietnam had become something stronger than a passion … namely, a fashion, a certification that one had risen above the herd,” he writes.

“Chomsky’s politics enhanced his reputation as a great linguist, and his reputation as a great linguist enhanced his reputation as a political solon, and his reputation as a political solon inflated his reputation from great linguist to an all-around genius, and the genius inflated the solon into a veritable Voltaire, and the veritable Voltaire inflated the genius of geniuses into a philosophical giant … Noam Chomsky.”

Chomsky, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he read an excerpt of the book in Harper’s magazine and found “egregious errors”.

He dismissed Wolfe’s portrait of himself and other MIT faculty members as captives of air-conditioned campus buildings, uninterested in fieldwork or new ideas. He strongly questioned Wolfe’s grasp of linguistics. And he objected to Wolfe’s suggestion that he was an activist who “arranges to get arrested in the morning so that he can get out in time to make it to New York nightspots to show off his bravery”, Chomsky says.

“I’m sure Wolfe would very much enjoy a few days in the Washington cell block or facing a likely long prison sentence, not to speak of constant demonstrations, half a dozen or more talks a day to all sorts of groups, meetings to plan serious resistance activities, extensive travel for talks and demonstrations, enjoying the pleasures of tear-gassing and mace, organising national tax resistance, and a lot more that constitutes real activism,” Chomsky says.

Wolfe, who interviewed Chomsky by phone for his book, declined to respond. He did say that Chomsky’s opposition to the war was “very sincere”.

Winner of the National Book Award and numerous other honours, Wolfe has angered his subjects before. His mockery of avant-garde art in The Painted Word hit the “the art world like a really bad, MSG-headache-producing, Chinese lunch”, critic Rosalind E. Krauss wrote at the time. His book on architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, led Time reviewer Robert Hughes to conclude that Wolfe held “a kind of supercilious rancour and a free-floating hostility toward the intelligentsia”.

Book review: on the secret life of our wandering hands

During a recent interview in his spacious apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he wore his customary white suit, the 85-year-old Wolfe says he wrote Kingdom of Speech out of “real curiosity” because no one “has ever been able to explain language”. Wolfe himself doesn’t have the answer, but calls speech the greatest gift of civilisation.

“Bango!” he writes in the book. “There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.”

Speech is the book’s primary subject, but status has been the running theme of Wolfe’s work from the astronauts in The Right Stuff to campus life in I Am Charlotte Simmons, and it’s a subplot for Kingdom of Speech. He doesn’t only take on Chomsky, but portrays Darwin as a competitive, would-be aristocrat striving for “honour as a gentleman and a scholar”.

Kingdom of Speech is a short work, under 200 pages, more on par with The Painted Word than the 19th-century scale of The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. His books have sold millions of copies, but Wolfe reasons that “if you write more than 150 pages about anything that says ‘evolution’, you’re in for it. Nobody’s going to stick with you.”