Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Charlotte Simmons

Here’s an interesting review. S.T. Karnick’s main argument is that Wolfe’s attempt to show, by means of his exposition of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, that we are inevitably products of our environment, that here is no "self," "soul," or "free will," is (thankfully) unsuccessful.

"There is," Karnick argues,

a much simpler explanation for all of this, and it is right there in the events of the book. What is really happening in the story is something that theists have always known: that we choose to think the things we think, and that what we think will largely determine what we do.

That is precisely what happens to Charlotte and to all the other characters in the book. After all, it is only when Charlotte finally changes her simple, down-home, Christian way of thinking about what a human being is, and what choice means, that she descends into the personal miasma that is the inevitable consequence of the bad choices she makes. These latter, in turn, are the direct result of the bad ideas she chooses to hold. If she had kept to her old assumptions, her behavior would have been completely different. Of that, there can no doubt whatever.

Despite Wolfe’s extremely skillful and detailed efforts to show exactly how relentlessly events push Charlotte toward doing the things she does, he cannot conclusively establish that she could not have acted otherwise. Such a thing would be utterly impossible to prove, of course. One can only accept or reject it inductively. And that leaves freedom of choice as a possibility, and indeed the more likely explanation for her actions—the one that in fact best fits the facts of the story.

Read the whole thing. And appreciate the book, despite its flaws.

And, lest I forget, a colleague who almost couldn’t finish the book found this Book TV program on Wolfe somewhat redeeming. My friend, a sociologist (but the good kind), reported that Wolfe claimed a heavy debt to Max Weber in his latest novel.

Discussions - 1 Comment

I am currently reading "Charlotte Simmons" and think it an excellent novel. I’ve also read much criticism of it ranging from its similarity to Dickens, its focus on neuro-science, its accurate/false portrayal of college life, etc., its Weberian undertones, and I think all of it misses the mark and the essence of the book.

Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons is written in the classical tradition. She is, like characters of old, smitten with self-love of her boundless abilities as she frowns upon her inferiors at the university. Her hubris, consistent with a free will and corrupted nature, ultimately leads to her downfall. It is the stuff of tragedy and the human condition of the Greeks and Shakespeare who had their pulse on human nature.

I can see why Updike, Roth, Irving & crowd might be dumping on this novel -
theirs is the den of masturbating while watching your sister shower. Wolfe’s filth exposes the nasty underbelly of humanity and its fall.

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