Tom Wolfe and Optimism: He Blew It
June 20, 1977
My deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect. In college and for some time afterward, my education was dominated by modernist thinkers and artists who taught me that the supreme imperative was courage to face the awful truth, to scorn the soft-minded optimism of religious and secular romantics as well as the corrupt optimism of governments, advertisers, and mechanistic or manipulative revolutionaries. I learned that lesson well (though it came too late to wholly supplant certain critical opposing influences, like comic books and rock and roll).
Yet the modernists’ once-subversive refusal to be gulled or lulled has long since degenerated into a ritual despair at least as corrupt, soft-minded, and cowardly — not to say smug — as the false cheer it replaced. The terms of the dialectic have reversed: now the subversive task is to affirm an authentic post-modernist optimism that gives full weight to existent horror and possible (or probable) apocalyptic disaster, yet insists — credibly — that we can, well, overcome. The catch is that you have to be an optimist (an American?) in the first place not to dismiss such a project as insane.
A subtheme of ’60s utopianism was the attempt — often muddled, at times self-negating — to arrive at some sort of honest optimism. This concern was also implicit in the anti-utopian sensibility first self-consciously articulated by the pop artists. Pop sensibility — loosely defined as the selective appreciation of whatever is vital and expressive in mass culture — did more than simply suggest that life in a rich, capitalist, consumption-obsessed society had its pleasures; the crucial claim was that those pleasures had some connection with genuine human feelings, needs, and values and were not — as both conservative and radical modernists assumed — mere alienated distraction. Pessimists like Herbert Marcuse argued that advanced capitalism destroyed the autonomous self and with it the possibility of authentic pleasure, let alone happiness; pop implied a more sanguine view of the self as guerrilla, forever infiltrating territory officially controlled by the enemy, continually finding new ways to evade and even exploit the material and psychic obstacles that the social system continually erected. I shared this view; I doubted that either Marx or Freud would quarrel with the proposition that a human being who had the urge to build a castle, and found that the only material available was shit, would soon learn how to build shit castles — and how to use the unique properties of shit to advantage. Pop was about the ways in which the spirit of the people invaded the man’s technology: restrict us to three chords, a backbeat, and two minutes of air time, and we’ll give you — rock and roll.
The pop stance was honest up to a point. But its commitment to making the most of the existing reality excluded painful or dangerous questions about systemic change. Not that pop optimism was devoid of political content: it was by definition populist (while modernist pessimism was, at least in part, an aristocratic vote of no-confidence in the lower orders), and it gleefully offended upper bourgeois pieties about art, taste, and the evils of consumerism. Nor did the pop sensibility deny or defend the various forms of oppression that at once hedged our pleasures and made them possible; its very celebration of human resilience implied an awareness of such barriers to fulfillment. But it took that tension for granted. The price of pop optimism was a deeper fatalism; in a way Andy Warhol’s silk-screened electric chair was more chilling than anything in One Dimensional Man. Those of us who were unwilling to pay that price looked for ways to integrate the pop impulse with political and cultural radicals and with the parallel experience of the immanence of the spirit — best described as religious — that had become a mass phenomenon because of a technological achievement called LSD. Yet pop remained central, if only because mass culture was the bloodstream in which other influences had to circulate if they were to have much effect.
I had no more than an inkling of the importance of all this when, in the fermenting mid-’60s, I first came across The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The book — particularly the title piece and the one on Las Vegas, neither of which I’d read in their original Esquire incarnations — made a strong impression on me. Tom Wolfe had pulled off the remarkable feat of not only describing but embodying pop consciousness — an essentially aliterate phenomenon — in print. The baroque extravagance of his prose mirrored the cultural styles he was writing about; his narrative voice captured the single-minded vision, the manic enthusiasm, the confident, idiosyncratic genius of their inventors. He even played around with his own mass art, journalism, borrowing not only from fiction but from advertising and pulp jargon. His introduction laid out assumptions that had already begun to affect my view of the world: “Here was this incredible combination of form plus money in a place nobody ever thought about finding it… Suddenly classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monuments to their own styles… Stock car racing, custom cars and, for that matter, the jerk, the monkey, rock music — still seem beneath serious consideration, still the preserve of ratty people with ratty hair and dermatitis… Yet all these rancid people are creating new styles all the time and changing the life of the whole country in ways that nobody even bothers to record, much less analyze… The new sensibility — Baby baby baby where did our love go? — the new world, submerged so long, invisible and now arising, slippy, shitty, electric — Super, Scuba-man! — out of the vinyl deeps.”
In comparison, Wolfe’s second collection, The Pump House Gang, fell curiously flat. It was full of repetitious variations on the proliferation-of-styles theme, which in 1968 was no longer either new or neglected, and Wolfe’s enthusiasm seemed forced, his rhetorical devices mechanical, as if he himself were bored with it all. Most of the pieces had been written two or three years earlier, and the gap showed. A lot had happened to overshadow, or at least complicate, all that churning of the vinyl deeps — the Vietnam escalation, black power, the burgeoning of radical and bohemian dissidence. Wolfe was not unaware of those events; on the contrary, he devoted a page of introduction to defensive ridicule of intellectuals’ avidity for disaster: “War! Poverty! Insurrection! Alienation! O Four Horsemen, you have not deserted us entirely. The game can go on.” He recalled that during a symposium on the ’60s, a few years ago, the other panelists had been so obsessed with gloomy maunderings that he had been moved to protest. “ ‘What are you talking about?’ I said. ‘We’re in the middle of a… Happiness Explosion!’ ” Elsewhere in the introduction Wolfe announced the imminent spontaneous demise of the class structure, already accomplished in New York.
Though I did not expect incisive radical analysis from Tom Wolfe, any more than I expected it from Mick Jagger, I did think a touch of the Stones’ — or even the Beatles’ — irony was in order. By indulging in mindless yea-saying, Wolfe betrayed the tension at the core of pop, converting it to a more sophisticated version of the traditional American booster mentality, whose purpose was, as it had always been, cosmetic. It was this betrayal, I suspected, that made The Pump House Gang so lifeless. There was some truth in Wolfe’s complaint; intellectuals did have an emotional investment in apocalypse, for reasons that rightly offended his populism. But it was hard to take seriously a populism that willfully ignored certain discomfiting facts. Such as that the ratty-haired, dermatitic kids whose creativity Wolfe so admired, and who populated the lower ranks of the class structure he so jauntily pronounced dead, were providing most of the bodies for the war.
Still, the book contained one piece that confounded all these judgments — “The Pump House Gang,” Wolfe’s account of the La Jolla surfers who hung out and hung loose on the beach, creating a hedonistic subculture based on physical perfection, daring, contempt for the straight life, mystical rapport with the ocean, above all youth and a horror of age. The story paid Wolfe’s usual loving attention to surface minutiae, but it also had an underside. There was the mysterioso Pacific, which had somehow drowned this fantastic surfer, who should have been… immune; there was the ineluctable aging process, which would sooner or later consign the Pump House Gang to the cruel obsolescence they themselves had decreed. The piece made me shiver; it hovered on the edge of a metaphorical wave that suggested both the danger and the lure of the American ride. It also suggested that Wolfe was basically too talented and too honest to practice the complacency he preached.
That suggestion was justified, and then some, by The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I think Acid Test is a great book, certainly the best to come out of the ’60s. Again Wolfe uses his reportorial gifts to get down a sensibility based largely on a revolt against the supremacy of worlds. But there is something more: Acid Test is about the whole sticky problem of optimism, of how to pursue the elusive synthesis. What makes the book so powerful — and so brave — is the way Wolfe allowed the Pranksters’ vision to challenge and stretch his own. Ken Kesey and his friends created a wondrous new style, rooted in American history, myth, technology, and popular culture, but their aim was not only aesthetic — it was messianic. If Wolfe’s pop sympathies were engaged by the style, his anti-utopianism must have been equally offended by the aim. Yet the two could not be separated, for they were complementary aspects of a central unifying impulse to live out and spread the psychedelic experience. If Wolfe was really to do his job — report accurately on what the Pranksters’ trip was about — he could not take them seriously on one level, dismiss them as silly hippies on another. Like everyone else, he had in some sense to choose: was he on the bus or off?
For Wolfe, getting on did not mean taking acid — apparently he did not — or abdicating his particular role in the Pranksters’ movie, which was to be a reporter. Acid Test always keeps the proper critical distance; it carefully documents the Pranksters’ confusions, fuck-ups, and ultimate failure. But Wolfe does not hold himself aloof from the pain of that failure. From his first meeting with Kesey at the beginning of the book to the “WE BLEW IT!” litany at the end, he never shirks the recognition that there was a real chance to blow.
Wolfe has never risked or achieved so much since; in the ’70s his writing has increasingly reflected and served the decade’s characteristic failures of imagination and will. On its own terms, Wolfe’s first ’70s book, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers, is successful, even brilliant; his demolition of rich liberals and of the charades that so often pass for left-wing politics in this country is maliciously accurate and irresistibly funny. Yet the terms themselves represent a retreat from the complex blend of identification and objectivity that informs the best of his earlier work to a more conventional stance as critic of manners and mores. And the pieces are a moral retreat as well. Like the Pump House Gang introduction, they offer specific truths in the service of a larger lie. Their underlying assumption is that political action is inherently ridiculous and irrelevant, nothing more than a ritual designed — like, say, a demolition derby — to meet the psychological needs of its participants. But while Wolfe has always regarded demolition derbies and most other American rituals with tolerance if not positive fondness, the very idea of social conscience pisses him off, and he takes a mean-spirited pleasure in discrediting it.
In his most recent work, Wolfe’s wit has declined as his crankiness has increased. The Painted Word parlays a slight and dubious thesis into a long and boring polemic. And Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, Wolfe’s latest and weakest anthology, hits a note of asperity that suggests nothing so much as the curmudgeonly irritation of an old Tory. The title piece is a heavy-handed, son-of-radical-chic exposé of that ungrateful wretch, the rich West Side writer who finances his rich West Side existence with jeremiads about repression and recession. “The Intelligent Co-Ed’s Guide to America,” a frankly conservative attack on radical intellectuals cum defense of American democracy, could have been lifted, minus a few exclamation points, from the pages of Commentary.
Then there is “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” in which Wolfe attempts to graft his standard happiness-is-postwar-prosperity number to a report on the popularity of various therapeutic/sexual/religious invitations to self-fulfillment. The result has an oddly schizophrenic quality. On the one hand, the current preoccupation with “me” is a product of leisure and money, hence to be applauded as further evidence against the disaster mongers. On the other hand, it is not lower-class kids who show up at Esalen and EST but West Side writers who are bored with Martha’s Vineyard, and anyway, all that silly self-absorption all that psychic muckraking what is it, really, but a form of internal disaster mongering? Wolfe does not try to reconcile these opposing trains of thought; he just scatters cheap shots in all directions and ends up saying less about middle-class narcissism than any random Feiffer cartoon.
The one memorable piece in Mauve Gloves is “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” a day-in-the-life account of Navy bomber pilots flying missions over North Vietnam. Wolfe’s greatest strength is his ability to write from inside his subjects, even when they are inarticulate, and since that skill requires empathy rather than spleen he has always written best about people he admires. He admires the bomber pilots. They are prototypical American heroes not eccentric offshoots of the genre, like Kesey, but the real thing: men who do much and say little, who master rather than submit to machines, who test their skills to the limit, keep their cool in the face of death, and enjoy a mystical confrontation with the universe denied ordinary mortals.
A few years ago, Wolfe wrote about the same brand of heroism in his Rolling Stone series on the Apollo 17 astronauts. But astronauts are one thing, bomber pilots quite another. The real suspense of “The Truest Sport” is not whether Dowd and Flint will make it back from their deadly trip over Haiphong harbor, but whether Wolfe can compel his readers — most of whom, he knows, are inclined to regard Vietnam bomber pilots as war criminals — to see these men as complex human beings who are in certain ways admirable, more admirable perhaps than you or I. Improbably, he succeeds, at least with me. “The Truest Sport” is an impressive tour de force. It has, however, one rather disturbing flaw: the Vietnamese are as invisible to Wolfe as they were to the pilots.
What bothers me is not that Wolfe didn’t write an antiwar tract but that the issue of whether the war was right or wrong, the bombings necessary or criminal, is not even an implicit issue in the piece. What matters to Wolfe is that he prefers the pilots’ stoic style to that of whiny, bad-sport peaceniks who never put their lives on the line but whose influence on the conduct of the war — particularly the restrictions placed on bombing raids made the pilots’ task more difficult and dangerous. I wish I could believe that Wolfe’s use of the sporting metaphor (it is one of the pilots who compares the bombing missions to jousting) is at least a bit ironic. But I’m afraid the truth is that Wolfe simply refuses to entertain the possibility that there are times when style is beside the point.
The continuing inability of someone as intelligent and perceptive as Tom Wolfe to confront unpleasant political realities in any serious way — even to admit that, like it or not, they exist — strikes me as not just obtuse but neurotic. It comes, I think, from Wolfe’s failure to resolve the contradiction between his populist faith in human possibility and his essentially conservative political instincts. The cultural excitement of the ’60s allowed Wolfe to avoid facing that conflict; it was possible then to nourish the illusion that politics didn’t matter, that the real action was elsewhere. For all the prominence of political movements, it was the idea of cultural revolution — whether in its right-wing (pop) or left-wing (psychedelic) versions — that dominated the ’60s imagination; Kesey was anti-political, in his way a classic American individualist, and Wolfe loved the way the Pranksters’ anarchism befuddled the straight left. But the times changed, abruptly and rudely exposing the fragility of that idea — and of the prosperity on which it had depended. Cultural revolution had been a side-effect of expanding American empire; thanks to the Vietnamese, the expansive days were over. The vaunted post-scarcity economy, which would make all that nasty conflict between classes academic, had failed to arrive; if you believed the projections of ecologists, it never would. And in the absence of a political spark, the happiness explosion was fizzling out.
Deprived of cultural fireworks to celebrate, Wolfe diverted his energy to attacking the left — to, as it were, killing the bearer of bad news. But the repressed always returns. At this point Wolfe’s optimism, such as it is, denies rather than affirms; the voice he raises against his archenemies, the disaster mongers, is the strident, defensive, I’m-all-right-Jack voice of official rationalization. It is, in fact, a negative voice worthy of the archenemies themselves. It is, one might say, the sound of the… old sensibility… once again having the last whine. For the time being.