By Mike Dorf
[Warning, Spoiler Alert: This post discusses the new Tom Wolfe novel Back to Blood. If you haven't read the novel but plan to do so, I won't be spoiling the whole experience for you, but I do discuss one aspect of one of the plot lines.]
As a longtime fan of Tom Wolfe's fiction, I nonetheless readily acknowledge the shortcomings in his work, including what I regard as the three most serious: (1) Wolfe trades in crude stereotyping in painting all of his characters; (2) his female characters ring false, as though written by an adolescent boy who has had little contact with actual adult women, rather than a man of letters now in his eighties; and (3) his reactionary sensibility enables him to astutely highlight the naivete about human nature of a certain brand of progressivism without ever coming to grips with the noble instincts that underlie it. But as a reader I have also tended to overlook these flaws because Wolfe is such a wonderful writer. He paints vivid, memorable scenes that ring true in broad outline, even as they exaggerate and distort numerous details. Wolfe's latest book, Back to Blood, displays his virtues and vices every bit as fully as his other major works over the last three decades: Bonfire of the Vanities; A Man in Full; and I Am Charlotte Simmons.
Thomas Mallon's review in the NY Times nicely captures my own view of Wolfe in general and Back to Blood in particular--displaying a warts-and-all admiration for Wolfe's panoramic novels. At the same time, I don't really disagree with most of the criticism leveled by James Wood in his much-more-critical review in The New Yorker. No doubt, those of my readers who read fiction will have their own views and I don't feel any need here to explain why I end up closer to Mallon than to Wood. It's ultimately just a matter of taste, I suppose.
I do want to explore a theme that Mallon's review opens up. Near the end of his review, Mallon argues that even as Wolfe draws an unsympathetic portrait of the status-obsession of one of his characters, Wolfe himself, in writing book after book about the ways in which Americans compete over status, displays that very status-obsession. Mallon strikes me as clearly right here, as verified by Wolfe's unfortunate and public tiff with Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving over their respective places in the pantheon of contemporary American fiction writers a little over a decade ago. And just as Wolfe celebrates status obsession in the guise of criticizing status obsession, so Back to Blood celebrates the pornographication of American culture in the guise of criticizing it.
Actually, there is another layer of irony. The Back to Blood character Dr. Norman Lewis is a psychiatrist who treats patients suffering from "pornography addiction," a condition that Lewis says is not in fact an addiction. Lewis's own behavior, along with the internal musings of his girlfriend, make clear that Lewis's ostensible fascination with his patients' pathological obsession with pornography is in fact a mask for Lewis's own pathological obsession with pornography itself. In the guise of condemning nonstop porn consumption by others (including but not limited to his patients), Lewis engages in nonstop porn consumption (except when he's trying to impress people). But of course Back to Blood itself describes--in great detail--the pornography that Lewis consumes under cover of studying its consumption by others. And so as a result, Wolfe and readers of Back to Blood end up consuming porn under the guise of condemning Lewis for consuming porn under the guise of condemning his patients and others for their consumption of porn.
Lest the reader think that I'm now engaging in the same thing, only at one further remove, I want to be clear that I'm not. I won't describe any of what appears in the book. But with that disclaimer out of the way, I do want to raise the question of whether it is possible to condemn an observatory practice without participating in it. By an "observatory" practice I mean some act of watching/listening to/reading about/etc. rather than directly doing. Thus, viewing pornographic or violent movies is an observatory practice.
Something like this problem confronted the Supreme Court in the days before Miller v. California. Under the pre-Miller case law, the question of whether material was obscene--and therefore constitutionally proscribable--could only be determined by a fact-intensive inquiry. As a consequence, in those days the Justices regularly watched allegedly obscene movies in the Court basement to determine whether they were legally obscene. But this put them in a bind. Unlike child pornography--which is criminalized mostly based on concerns for the children exploited in its production--or feminist efforts to regulate pornography--which are premised on the notion that pornography degrades women--the premise of obscenity regulation is that viewing obscenity is immoral (or at least degrading) in itself. Thus, in the cases in which the Court found that the film it had watched was legally obscene, the Justices who reached that conclusion were, ipso facto, admitting that they had debased themselves.
Hence, according to a widely told story, one basis for incorporation of "community standards" into the Miller test was a wish by the Justices to cancel "dirty movie night." If the question of whether a film is obscene depends on community standards, then it has to be decided by local juries, not by the nine Justices in Washington. But Miller didn't make the problem of participation in obscenity go away. It simply relocated it from the Supreme Court in Washington to juries around the country.
Is there a way out of this bind? The Court could have adopted the view of Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas. As (more or less) free speech absolutists, they did not think that the government had any power to ban obscenity, and thus they never went to dirty movie night at the Court--instead simply voting to reverse obscenity convictions. If obscenity were to disappear as a proscribable category, then the government would never put a juror in the position of having to decide that the viewing of some film he or she had just been made to view is immoral. But until that happens, jurors will be placed in an awkward position whenever the government attempts to prove obscenity in a criminal case (and despite the abolition of the federal Obscenity Prosecution Task Force last year, obscenity prosecutions still occur).