Remembering Tom Wolfe, Prescient Percy, and Tim Cook’s Banal Commencement Speech


Tom Wolfe has died. He was 88. Kyle Smith remembers when he first read Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (“To this day, no book has ever hit me harder.”). Tina Brown laments that he died at a time when we need him most: “He loved to stir it up. He loved to skewer political correctness. I’d love to have the 60-year-old Wolfe working now in what is such an intellectually inhospitable time.” There will be other remembrances to follow, no doubt, but until then, re-read Andrew Ferguson’s review of The Bonfire of the Vanities or Joseph Bottum’s take on I Am Charlotte Simmons. Or watch William F. Buckley’s interview of the writer on Firing Line (Wolfe on Radical Chic: “It turned out, I was the man who laughed in church. You know, the man who laughs in church—nobody ever asks him what’s funny. They always say ‘How dare you?’ That’s the only question you get.”) In the interview with Buckley, Wolfe is not wearing his famous white suit. Why did he eventually decide to wear white year-round? Guy Trebay explains: “Just by wearing white after Labor Day, he became the talk of any room he entered, and getting dressed each morning evolved for him into ‘a harmless form of assault.’ Unexpectedly, this became a boon for Mr. Wolfe’s reporting, according to Lynn Nesbit, the writer’s longtime literary agent. ‘It was counterintuitive, but he sort of knew that if he dressed like that, his subjects would learn to trust him,’’ she said.” Last, check out these words for which Wolfe is the earliest known source.

Ralph Wood considers the prescience of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins: “William F. Buckley Jr. wryly suggested that all future presidents should be required to swear a double oath of office: not only to uphold and defend the Constitution but also to have read, marked, learned, and digested Percy’s Love in the Ruins. ‘It’s all there in that one book,’ said Buckley, ‘what’s happening to us and why.’ Indeed, Percy’s novel reads as if it were written in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election.”

Sam Leith dissects Tim Cook’s banal commencement speech: “‘I’ve learnt the greatest challenge of life is knowing when to break with conventional wisdom,’ he affirmed, conventionally.”

Henry Kissinger is worried about artificial intelligence. He writes in The Atlantic: “Heretofore, the technological advance that most altered the course of modern history was the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which allowed the search for empirical knowledge to supplant liturgical doctrine, and the Age of Reason to gradually supersede the Age of Religion. Individual insight and scientific knowledge replaced faith as the principal criterion of human consciousness. Information was stored and systematized in expanding libraries. The Age of Reason originated the thoughts and actions that shaped the contemporary world order. But that order is now in upheaval amid a new, even more sweeping technological revolution whose consequences we have failed to fully reckon with, and whose culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.”

The myth of the mad genius: “The Romantic stereotype that creativity is enhanced by a mood disorder is dangerous, and dissolves under scrutiny.”

“In sixteenth-century Italy, flamboyant men wrote spectacular autobiographies,” but none as spectacular as Leon Battista Alberti’s Autobiography, which “is a wild text, swarming with contradictions.”

Essay of the Day:

In The New York Review of Books, Álvaro Enrigue explains how Cortés justified the permanent occupation of Mexico in a review of Matthew Restall’s When Montezuma Met Cortés:

“That to Cervantes, Cortés should be like Julius Caesar, and that Tenochtitlan—the original name for Mexico City—was a fright (espanto), gives a clear sense of seventeenth-century imperial Spain’s perception of the Conquest of Mexico. Cortés was a figure with the stature of a classical hero, and the city of Tenochtitlan an abomination that was subjugated and occupied by Spain, with Providence guiding Cortés’s arm.

“This perception has changed. Any military occupation that directly or indirectly caused the deaths, in less than a century, of 90 percent of the population is hardly one to celebrate. It is true that Aztec civilization continues to be seen as a particularly bloodthirsty one, but the general assessment of it has also become more sophisticated. If Cervantes—a knowledgeable dissident in his time—lived today, he would recognize Cortés as a genocidal killer and would not define Tenochtitlan as a “fright” but as a triumph of environmentally sound engineering whose inhabitants suffered from a worrying tendency to make violent death into a performance.

“In When Montezuma Met Cortés, the American historian Matthew Restall examines documents concerning the military conflict that set the Aztecs in opposition to the Spanish empire in 1520. His aim is to reassess the process of simplification by which Cortés, in his letters to King Carlos I (also Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire), justified the permanent occupation of Mexico and gave it a moral basis. Cortés’s vaguenesses and generalizations were extraordinarily effective—you might accuse him of many things, but not of being unable to tell a convincing story—and implied, according to Restall, that Emperor Montezuma and Cortés had more important parts in the conflict than was actually the case. Restall argues that the Spaniard’s account would come to distort our understanding of what was in fact a messy and confusing war, one that involved several armies and leaders from several nations, all in alliances with or opposition to one another for a variety of reasons.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Klyuchevskaya Sopka

Poem: John Linstrom, “Sweet Potato Elegy”

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