Wednesday, February 22, 2017

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Note


When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro:

Spoiler-filled note:

It's highly literary and is ostensibly and subvertingly set in the frame of a typical non literary detective novel, which it partially reverses. In many less than literary detective novels, there is a tight world into which evil has anomalously intruded but is rooted out by detection and discovery that lead in turn to a closing of accounts and a return to normalcy. In When..., Banks, the main character, is a famous detective in the apparent mould of Holmes. But he fails abjectly to solve his biggest case. Then again while the world is generally hell on earth, Banks does manage to find some portion of something like normalcy.

He is famous in England and beyond for his great skills at solving cases. But when he was 10, living in the international section of Shanghai, his parents disappeared. And so on his most important case he goes back to Shanghai to solve the mystery of that, which solution seems as well, in a way never made clear, to hold the possibility of staving off a world crisis of war and international chaos. 

This coupling of the personal and the international is perplexing but it's not only Banks who puts the two together: others around him both back in England before he leaves and officials in Shanghai keep telling him that he must solve the case--the fate of the world depends on it. 

Truth to tell, in relation to that coupling and what radiates out from it as Banks starts detecting in Shanghai, I have a hard time working through what's real and what's Banks's interiority. I can understand that coupling insofar as as the world is but what he takes it to be: in that sense, the personal is the world as subjectivity. But I don't know what to make of Banks, as first person narrator, telling me of people in England telling him he must solve the case for the world's sake; and I don't know what to make of Banks telling me of high English officials in Shanghai, once he gets back there, telling him the same thing with one official talking about planning  a huge public ceremony for when he inevitably finds his parents. 

Apparently Banks knows that his parents were abducted and are being kept in a certain house and that all he need do is find the house and extract them from the kidnappers. Everyone seems to agree. But this is 25 years after the abduction. 

Is this madness? Is this reality? Is it something else? Significantly for these questions, the narration seems to be composed by Banks in his later years as he reflects back on his life;  his narrative prose generally, not always, shows a calm, understated, somewhat stiff and stuffy, even fussy, formal, Cambridge-educated, unrelentingly rational man, who appears reflective, discerning and continually making sober judgments about the events of his life.

Part of the book concerns a harrowing account of how at the last minute instead of calmly waiting to go off with Sarah Hemmings, he leaves her behind and tries to get to the house where he's sure his parents are kept. The journey to the house, amidst street to street fighting between Chinese and Japanese soldiers, and amidst Japanese shelling of Shanghai, seems a journey through and to the heart of darkness. 

At one point he picks up with a seriously wounded Japanese soldier who he recognizes as his childhood best friend Akira. Akira tells Banks he knows where the house is. And they make their way there, each helping the other along. Then Japanese soldiers, in the house, with no sign of Banks's parents anywhere, take Akira away as a prisoner who may have spilled military information to Chinese soldiers to save his own life. After that Banks admits that the soldier he was sure was Akira may not have been him at all, (although he may have been at that.)

Now this confusion over Akira makes narrative and psychological sense. In the event, the emotional strain, fatigue and existential desperation to find his parents, all almost to, or in fact to, a psychic breaking point, could well cause Banks to hallucinate this highly improbable, virtually impossible, harried, fraught encounter with his friend. As noted, Banks tells us that it may well not have been Akira. 

As to those in England and later in Shanghai, however, telling Banks the world's order rests on him solving his parents' case, and in Shanghai the planning of preparations to celebrate his inevitable solution, what to make of that? There is no indication, as there is with Akira, from Banks that he may be mistaken about being told these things. At the time of being told, he is under no apparent strain, especially when told in England. Either I'm missing something or in this the novel lapses into incomprehensibility, into incoherence. (I'd put my money on the former.)

The same lapse, incoherence, or my missing something, attends the Lin family's willingness to vacate Banks's Shanghai childhood home once Banks without doubt finds his parents. The notion that it would do that, just like that give up where it lives, is as preposterous as Banks's certainty that his parents will after 25 years be in the place they were taken, and is as preposterous as the notion that solving the case will save the world. 

Be all that as it may, When.. is thematically unified, at least as I read it. I see in it, among other ideas, the idea of the irretrievability of childhood, childhood as a country to which we can never return, even as the child is the father of the man. Everyone has their deeply burdensome built in sacks of woe stemming from their childhoods and their necessarily fraught relations with their parents. That inevitability is heightened immeasurably by orphanage. While literal orphans populate the novel, they in their numbers suggest a universal truth: that childhood, in part comprised by our relations with parents, while indelibly formative and deeply, deeply problem causing, is a home forever lost to us, that we are all orphans seeking what is lost and irretrievable. Orphanage is a literal condition to be sure, but it also a metaphoric condition of adult existence. 

Yet the title is When We Were Orphans. That suggests to me orphanage in its metaphoric sense can get gotten past, that we can come to some terms with ourselves such that we accommodate the built in burdens forged in childhood to the point that we stop intensely questing, stop detecting and discovering, to resolve them. 

So at the end, in a micro arc of the whole novel, we learn that Jennifer, 30, and unmarried, flirted with suicide, then got past her darkness, got married, had children of her own and found, presumably, some measure of contentment. Banks is released by Uncle Philip telling him the truth of things, of his parents, and is released by finding his mother, come through sheer hell to be cared for in an asylum, and her telling him, he infers, that he does not need any forgiveness and that she always loved him and still does. So released, he finds himself in his later years enjoying life in London, even as he sometimes thinks of going to live close to Jennifer and her family in a cottage in the country; so released, he has found, in his own word, some portion of "contentment." 

(As a final note, I'll just say that, to me, the idea that Banks as an adult is driven, animated and motivated by guilt over his parents' disappearance such that finding them and finding resolution in their forgiveness and love becomes his deepest, most desperate, most haunted and most impelling life's quest seems utterly unreal and contrived, as though Ishiguro was fitting a complex, sprawling story into a Procrustean bed of some half baked psychotherapeutic theory.)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Friend's Good Note On Competing Principles

...But principles are not theories; they are action guiding , and normally there are contrary principals, also action guiding, and there are no super principles for selecting principles. That is what Aristotle meant when he asserted, against Plato, that values are incommensurable (correct spelling; the computer is wrong - see OED), i.e., there is no value that is a yardstick higher than all other values that can determine which of two conflicting principles should prevail in a given situation. So, if, say, freedom/liberty are in conflict with the demand for social security in a given situation, there is no principle that can resolve the issue; a practical decision has to be made by responsible men of affairs. That is why libertarianism/free market theory is so cockeyed; it elevates individual freedom over all other social values as the yardstick by which various proposals are decided. If  the necessities of freedom are in conflict with the need for social security, freedom trumps everything, and social security loses automatically. But I reckon that Aristotle knew a thing or two more than Milton Friedman ever did, or could...

Note On Dostoyevsky's Poor Folk


Not So Small Note On Dostoyevsky's Poor Folk (With Spoilers)

(Well it started out as small.)

In Poor Folk, the relationship between Makar and Varvara as revealed by their letters, the way of the book, can be endlessly analyzed as can other themes, but through reading it one question kept bugging me: why doesn't he ask her to marry him? They are deeply committed to each other. They depend fully on each other in different ways at different times for material and emotional support. They profess their love for each other. They have terrible low points but are always right there for each other. 

It at first seems confusing what exactly Makar feels for Varvara: father figure, protector, brother, lover, soul mate, Platonic best friend. Why it seems confusing is not so much that he's confused but more that he cannot confront, and suppresses and sublimates, his passionate love for her. It's notable that she keeps asking him to visit her and he seems reluctant to. Even though they live across from each other and can look into each other's windows, he only seldom meets her. And what forms much, though certainly not all, of the content of their letters is their pasts, how and what each is doing, has done and how each has been affected by things not involving the other. 

Makar is febrile. He reeks of it. It seems the perfect word for him in its meanings of feverish, highly agitated, too excitable, intensely sensitive, overly nervous, highly emotional, imaginatively overactive. He is constantly driven to agitated extremes.  He is essentially a marginal man in his febrility, a low, weak laughing stock, albeit a few rungs up from an underground man. At times he questions his own existence in comparison to others. He lives in a portion of shabby a kitchen walled off by a screen and works as a "copyist." His whole existence takes meaning only in his letters to Varvara. He lives through her the way she doesn't live through him. He abases himself for her. He goes without in giving her money and things even as she tells him not to and that he oughtn't  impoverish himself for her sake. She sends money back to him. 

His generosity to her and even the torrent of his words in his letters to her are, among other things, ways of keeping what he truly feels for her--passionate love--abstract, sublimated and at a distance. In line with that, he praises and promotes the genius of his neighbour who writes terrible, purple prose filled romantic novels. He sends Varvara small quotes from them, but she tells him to stop being a fool and sends him better books to improve his literary education. But being an abstracted romantic, Makar demands virtuous characters and happy endings. His drinking manifests what in him makes him want to escape concrete action that would show directly the truth of his feelings. In his flights into alcohol he stops all contact with her. 

In contrast, Varvara is more down to earth and practical, almost stolid and  business-like even in her feeble health, abject gloom and constant suffering. Her letters are usually shorter and to the point. Unlike Makar, she seems to have and want a life outside her letters--as noted, she continually implores him to see her--while he wants to exist in his letters and wants to avoid her living presence. Therefore, when Bykov hunts her up, pursues her and makes her an offer (marriage) that she calculates she can't refuse, she accepts it even as that will mean the end of her relationship, such as it is, with Makar. 

Bykov is the contrasting proof of Makar's personal impotence: Bykov is a man of relative action and means; he has the vitality of the country in him; he is unpoetic and unromantic; he is direct, forceful and to the point; he does not pussy foot. What he puts to Varvara is in effect a business proposition;  he tells her it's time limited and otherwise he'll marry a certain merchant's daughter. She resolves her own instability, poverty and poor health by her pragmatic agreement to marry Bykov all the while intensely sadly aware of what will become bygone.

When Makar finds out about her decision, he at first abstractly encourages it as the right thing for her to do but then in the same letter starts urging her to not marry Bykov, who, he argues, is a better match for the merchant's daughter. Again, he cannot bring himself yet to say clearly and unambiguously how he loves her and wants her to be with him. He continues to evade his deepest feelings for her. 

In the meantime, in the hurried up pace of the wedding preparations--the wedding will take place within days, Varvara becomes increasingly materialistic and has Makar running here and there on errands to do with the proper material and style for her dress and with her jewellery. 

Only in his last letter to her, after she is married and almost enroute to Bykov's place out of the city and, therefore, out of Makar's reach, does he open more fully his heart and admit to his abstractedness. 

....Ah my darling! WHY did you come to this decision? How could you bring yourself to take such a step? What have you done, have you done, have you done? Soon they will be carrying you away to the tomb; soon your beauty will have become defiled, my angel. Ah, dearest one, you are as weak as a feather. And where have I been all this time? What have I been thinking of? I have treated you merely as a forward child whose head was aching. Fool that I was, I neither saw nor understood. I have behaved as though, right or wrong, the matter was in no way my concern. Yes, I have been running about after fripperies!...

....Dearest, I could throw myself under the wheels of a passing vehicle rather than that you should go like this. By what right is it being done?... I will go with you; I will run behind your carriage if you will not take me—yes, I will run, and run so long as the power is in me, and until my breath shall have failed...

Now Makar can say such things fuelled by Varvara being beyond his reach. Now that she's gone from him, now that it is too late and there is no consequence for him, he can pathetically release himself a little from his abstracted evasions. 

But even here there is no interior full reconciliation of his true feelings:

...When you are gone, Varvara, I shall die—for certain I shall die, for my heart cannot bear this misery. I love you as I love the light of God; I love you as my own daughter; to you I have devoted my love in its entirety; only for you have I lived at all; only because you were near me have I worked and copied manuscripts and committed my views to paper under the guise of friendly letters...

The lack of reconciliation is evident in his likening of his love for Varvara to his love for "the light of God" and for his daughter, which likening mixes with the concreteness of his declaration of love as such and his admission that his "friendly letters" were a "guise," a pretext behind which he hid his complete love. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

This Big Smoke's On Fire



There are two sorts of fires burning in Toronto.

One is real. The other is metaphoric.

The first sort concerns what seems to me a rash of fires in Toronto, including today's massive one at The Badminton and Racquet Club, near St Clair and Yonge, a part of town I love. Maybe there aren't these days more than there have been, but it sure looks like there are--houses, industrial buildings, apartments, sports clubs. Is it a wave of arson, a series of coincidental accidents, both? What the hell is going on?

The second sort concerns, slightly old news, Toronto's Gay Pride's decision to exclude the typically exemplary and certainly multicultural men and women who serve and protect us, including Gay Priders, our police, that is to say, from Gay Pride's 2017 instalment of their annual parade. 

That ridiculous decision came from the imprecations of Black Lives Matter, Toronto Division. And the hysteria animating the imprecating is of a piece with a BLM, U.S. Division, bigwig spokesperson calling Justin, aka Joe, Trudeau a white supremacist, a formulation in which only the colour is right. 

So from Pluto is this calumny that even our own not shy Rex Murphy, a consistent and hard edged JT lampooner, rose to Trudeau's defence. The inanity, the toxic insanity that some people are breathing in and exhaling days: it's stunning. Do Black Lives Matter (too)? Of course. But if the measure of the matter is this kind of unhinged exclusion and this kind of toxic, inane, insane rhetoric, then they're mattering, I'm sorry to say, rather somewhat too much.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Some Exchanged Comments On Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom Of Language


Some exchanged thoughts today prompted by Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom Of Speech: 


An argument against language having evolved seems to be a version of irreducible complexity, that there's nothing close to being anything like it "below" us. 

Chomsky versus Everett.

Or is the question, as I loosely think it is, overly-binarized because however language precisely came to be, the capacity for it is within us but formed and informed by what is about us, so to speak.

Larry C:

Did you start from a web page?

In any case, seems like one of those specialist debates that lay people can only watch from the sidelines. As a kibitzer, though, I'd say:

- language seems constitutive of culture, in the human sense, and not therefor just an artifact of culture.

- whatever it is or however it works, if it isn't "within us" I'd like to know where else it might be.

- if language didn't evolve where did it come from? God? 


No I just finished reading Wolfe's The Kingdom Of Speech.

And as I'm now an expert in the origins of language, I resent your reference to me as kibitizer on the sidelines. 


I guess math is similar.  Something happened that made it possible but it seems more like a sudden awareness that it can be done with what evolved for other purposes.  But I think they have found families that hand down very specfic language defects.  


That's the argument Everett makes as recounted by Wolfe, this Amazonian tribe, Piraha, (sp) with no recursion in their language, shooting down the idea of a universal grammar, universal by definition brooking no exceptions. 


Wolfe says Everett says, if I get it, humans made language to communicate from an abundance of roughly analogous templates, bird and animal sounds, gestures, an artefact. 

Does language being a constituent of culture necessarily negate it as an artefact of culture? I'm not sure. But does it help to say it's a human artefact and not a cultural artefact?  

Larry C:

So who says anything other than what Everett says? Chomsky? Wolfe? I thought I remember reading that Wolfe does in fact think language appeared sui generis, like some gift of the gods -- is that right?

Anyway, what I (the kibitzer) said was that language was constitutive of culture, not a constituent of culture -- constituting something is quite different from being a constituent of that thing. And yes, to the extent that "human" (a species of primate) is distinct from "culture" (just a feature of this particular species, albeit a distinctive one) then I think it makes sense to distinguish a human artifact from a cultural one.

Larry C:

No, I only said or meant I'm a kibitzer, not you. You, as you say, are an expert. 


I'm in the self proclaimed experts hall of shame. 

I mean fame. 


Wolfe says Chomsky said something precisely contrary to what Everett said.

Past tense because Wolfe suggests they, Chomsky and Everett, seem to have moved off some, at least Chomsky for sure, the conflictual positions marked in the book. The conflict is that language use evolved, entailed by it being an innate, hard wired capacity, with a deep structure comprised in part by necessary verb subject agreement and embedded meaning, which is a function of language use being additive. The deep structure underlies all the surface differences in language that for Chomsky is/was superfluous to our understanding the essential nature and origin of language. Everett says the tribe he lived with and whose language he learned is a thesis breaking counter example: its members speak, according to Everett, in simple declarative statements with no abstractions, with only subject per utterance, hence no recursion. Wolfe agrees with Everett that language is made by humans over time and deeply affected by, informed by and reflective of what's around them: 17 words for snow against one.

The book takes off from a recent essay by Chomsky and a couple of acolytes that, via Wolfe, declares that for all that they wrote over the years, they're mystified by the origins of language; they're back to point one on the issue. For Wolfe, that's an amazing concession to the failure and futility of two generations of endless theorizing and asserting by the concessionaires/conceders/concessionarians. All those words, words, words as nothing, says Wolfe.

I got it that you had said "constitutive of" and not "a constituent of." I was just wondering out loud, sticking for a moment to the "cultural artefact" phrasing, whether that phrasing, which is Wolfe's, might suggest a kind of chicken/egg conundrum. 


The 17 words for snow (via Whorf?) is apparently false. 


It was my expert example trying to exemplify a point, not Wolfe's.

It sure stands to reason, though, that Eskimos, I mean Innuit, would have more words for snow than we do, Whorf being *generally* discredited, apparently, notwithstanding.

Larry C:

This too seems familiar -- haven't we touched on these issues at some point? 

Whatever, now I'm not getting the conflict, or maybe just not getting the idea, whatever it is. Would seem to me that language can be innate, hard-wired, etc., in some "deep structure" sense, but still be made by humans over time, etc., in the surface structure (so to speak) sense. This would be the only plausible explanation I can think of for why, on the one hand, humans are the only animals that exhibit language, and also why, on the other hand, there are a wide variety of human languages, each no doubt evolved to cope with what's around them, at least to some extent. Everett might have undermined the recursion theory of linguistic deep structure, but I'm not seeing how that undermines the idea of something innate that appeared with humans and not anywhere else.

And I don't get where a kibitzer like Wolfe gets off referring to the failure to date to explain the origins of language as "futility" -- what, he's got a better idea himself? Is the failure to unify gravity and quantum theory to date also a futility? The failure to explain the origin of life? Am I missing his point? 


Not sure re the prior touching on. 

I originally said I thought it the two theories were maybe excluding a middle, but that noted, I can't explain what the conflict Wolfe describes any better than I have as between an innie and outtie, so to say. Or maybe I'm explaining passably enough what Wolfe says but you just don't buy that he's describing as a conflict. As I say I don't know how to say it any better: one guy said it's inside us; the other guy said it's not inside us, it's something we made, evolution aside. 

Wolfe, a kibitzer who's read widely and deeply in this, so maybe he's more than just that without being academically specialized--some academics at least are impressed with his grasp of what he's talking about--starts by discussing Chomsky's own admission of failure. What animates Wolfe's pleasure at that is how he saw how magisterially, dismissively and imperiously Chomsky acted in both his presiding and rejecting counter theories such as Everett's, how he disdained field work, how his disciples ganged up to try to sabotage Everett, a former disciple, due to his, Everett's, 25,000 word essay took after Chomsky's theory/Ives to assert a counter hypothesis, how rocked the Chomskeyean academics were by a threat to their premises, and all that kind of thing. So what I see is is that for Wolfe the measure of the futility is the degree to which Chomsky by unlovely means tried to sabotage any attempt to come after his ultimately close minded certitudes.

Btw, Wolfe leaves off by noting how in effect Chomsky by his admission of failure rendered Everett something of a footnote, having swept aside his own very theories that Everett gained prominence in attacking.

Finally, I agree that it's not entirely clear, at least to me as well, to say we uniquely among species made language, that it's a human artefact but that that's entirely different from saying language is innately evolved in us. All I can think, even granting my expertise, is that the difference is between having said on one hand we're necessarily   language machines, that it comes pouring out of us, and that at core the machinery is the same for all of us--a "universal grammar" marked by certain inhering universal attributes, as opposed to saying no we're not, we, rather had the capacity to manufacture, as it were, over time uniquely sophisticated means of communication varying in distinctive ways and there is no necessary deep underlying commonality in language true for all humans everywhere, that what's important is observing the differences, getting out in the field to do that, and not positing sitting-in-one's-office meta language theories to the dismissive exclusion of all the observable differences. 

So I guess a question is whether there's a meaningful difference between saying deep structured language is innate in us universally whomever we are and saying we've had the capacity to make the different languages we have and that have altogether no underlying universality to them. 


P.S. Wolfe says that Chomsky's theory of recursiveness was for him and his acolytes the sine qua non of language's underlying deep structure and one of his greatest theoretical discoveries, which is why Everett's precise attack on recursiveness was so alarming.  

Larry C: (last word, for now)

Gmail lets you find anything, so it turns out you, Itzik, sent around a review of Wolfe's book by one Charles C. Mann, in the WSJ on Aug 26 last year ("Taking on Chomsky (and Darwin)"), which was highly critical. You called it a "gr8" review, and I agreed, though I guess neither of us had read the book reviewed at that point, and now you have me one better -- but I'll quote myself nevertheless:

"A gr8 review indeed. Here's another, but it doesn't do as good a job of exposing the stupidity of Wolfe's conclusion. 

Now, I generally like Tom Wolfe and consider the political Chomsky a paranoid wacko, but this notion that "Man, man unaided, created language" has a laughably boot-strap absurdity about it that I'd think a six year old could see through. What was "man" before he or she created language? Not-man? An animal? But then it wasn't man that created language. Or, if man was man before language, then speech isn't "a sheerly dividing line [between man and animal] as abrupt and immovable as a cliff". Saying that speech is what separates man from animals is as silly as saying its long neck is what separates giraffes from animals. Language is at the basis of culture, true, and that in turn has been a great aid in human survival and proliferation, but it doesn't endow the human animal with some god-like immunity from the ever-present forces of nature that Darwin and Wallace identified."

That aside though, I agree that the two theories, as you present them, seem to exclude a third or middle if you prefer, which is that language is both innate in its core -- whether you regard that "core" as some kind of "deep structure" or simply as some sort of species-based "capacity" -- and man-made in all its superficial, but nonetheless translatable, variety. Disputes over technical/scientific/academic issues beyond that can be of interest in themselves, and more so when egos, celebrities, and reputations are involved, but it looks to me like Wolfe has let them sidetrack him into quasi-theological quicksand.

Josh Blackman On 9th Circuit's Refusal To Lift Stay



Josh Blackman on the 9th C thingey and Justice Jackson on sovereign executive power--"to personify the federal  sovereignty."---Blackman notes the 9th C's erroneous substitution of a virtual "strict scrutiny" standard for what should have been, he argues, a "rational basis" standard of constitutional review: 


As a matter of inherent Article II authority, even in the absence of any statute, the President could deny entry to the United States of those he deems dangerous. But that is not the entire calculus. Here Congress has, with unequivocal language, delegated its Article I powers over immigration to the President. In Justice Jackson’s words:

Quoting Jackson

".....When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate.[2] In these circumstances, and in these only, may he be said (for what it may be worth) to personify the federal sovereignty. If his act is held unconstitutional under these circumstances, it usually means that the Federal Government as an undivided whole lacks power. A seizure executed by the President pursuant to an Act of Congress would be supported by the strongest of presumptions and the widest latitude of judicial interpretation, and the burden of persuasion would rest heavily upon any who might attack it....."

Back to Black(man):

The 9th Circuit did not apply a presumption of constitutionality. Nor did it impose a wide latitude of interpretation. Rather, without any precedent, it imposed an insurmountable burden on the government. Had the panel even bothered to engage with the statute, it would have realized we are in Jackson’s first zone, and that judicial scrutiny must be at an absolutely minimum. 

The court should have presumed that when Congress afforded the President this power, it did not think Due Process controlled, for it failed to put in any review mechanisms (in contrast to countless other provisions of the immigration laws). There is every indication that, at least with respect to denial of entry, Congress agreed the President had plenary power.

Instead, the court applied something approaching strict scrutiny to the denial of entry for certain aliens who have zero connection to the United States. Really, it applied the sort of scrutiny Justice Jackson wrote about in the third tier:

Quoting Jackson:

Presidential claim to a power at once so conclusive and preclusive must be scrutinized with caution, for what is at stake is the equilibrium established by our constitutional system.

Back to Black(man):

There are so many grounds to criticize the panel’s decision, but the failure to even discuss the statutory framework is inexcusable because it allowed the judges to look away from Justice Jackson....

Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom Of Speech

Aug. 26, 2016 3:12 p.m. ET

Tom Wolfe is back, but which Tom Wolfe? The nose-thumbing satirical novelist? The journalistic anatomist of the American id? No: It’s the pop-intellectual historian, the guy who eviscerated modernist art in “The Painted Word,” modernist architecture in “From Bauhaus to Our House” and modernist literature in “The New Journalism.” In a twist, “The Kingdom of Speech” is an Olympic dive into the Rio-murky waters of evolution and language. Is speech a product of evolution, Mr. Wolfe asks, or of the free play of the human mind? The author’s own prose is, as ever, a marvelous mix of gleeful energy and whip-around-the-neck control, and his book is a gas to read. It’s also kind of bonkers.

Mr. Wolfe begins by retelling the curious episode in which Alfred Russel Wallace, racked with malaria in the Malay Archipelago in 1858, invents the basic intellectual framework of evolution, writes up his ideas in a literal fever and mails them from his sweat-soaked hammock to a British acquaintance, seeking help with publication. The acquaintance is, of all people, Charles Darwin. Darwin had arrived at precisely the same notions two decades before, but a mix of timidity, perfectionism, writer’s block and psychosomatic illness had kept him from writing them down.

Mr. Wolfe has great fun (who can blame him?) evoking how the painfully moral and propriety-conscious Darwin talked himself into euchring most of the credit for evolution from Wallace, the scion of a downwardly mobile family who made his living as a “flycatcher,” collecting exotic specimens from faraway places and selling them to rich hobbyists.

As Mr. Wolfe notes, naturalists—gentlemen and flycatchers alike—had suspected for decades that the Earth’s panoply of creatures had developed from a much smaller set of ancestors. Darwin and Wallace provided the mechanism: natural selection. Natural selection is the notion that some offspring are, by chance, different from their parents; that some of the random differences—stronger muscles, say—will be beneficial (others won’t); and that individuals with favorable variations will have a better chance of surviving. These survivors will then pass on the favorable characteristics to more offspring. In this way, Darwin and Wallace argued, advantageous features spread spontaneously through populations, and species evolve.

All histories of evolution sing this song, but Mr. Wolfe’s version adds weird notes. Darwin’s “real dream,” he claims, was to show the world that “man was just an animal himself.” This, he writes, was “the central point of his entire theory from the beginning.” What makes humans human? Speech and language, says Mr. Wolfe. Thus “proving that speech evolved from sounds uttered by lower animals became Darwin’s obsession.”

Obsession? By this point, I was scribbling “???” in the margins. Darwin did mull over the place of humankind in general and speech and language in particular. If speech and language, our defining features, were produced by natural selection, how, exactly, was the trick performed? There is an enormous gap between animal sounds—baboons barking and beagles baying—and “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Invoking natural selection to explain the origins of speech can seem like claiming that F-16s evolved from toy balloons by the accumulation of chance variations. But Darwin appears to have been anything but obsessed by the puzzle. His musings about speech occupy fewer than 20 of the more than 1,000 pages of his evolution notebooks, all from the late 1830s, according to an exhaustive study by historian Stephen Alter.

Quickly, and with no evident doubt, Darwin concluded that language and the human brain had probably “coevolved.” The slow development of the one fed the development of the other, and vice versa—a positive feedback loop. But because Darwin didn’t know how to flesh out this intuition, because talking about human evolution risked angering the forces of Christianity, and because, above all, he was most interested in his general ideas on evolution, he left all discussion of speech out of his masterwork, “On the Origin of Species” (1859, the year after Wallace’s letter).
When Darwin finally took on language in “The Descent of Man” (1871), the coffee got pretty weak. 

By that point, the argument that language evolved from animal sounds had already been made by well-known figures like Wallace, August Schleicher (the best-respected linguist of the day) and Edward B. Tylor (one of cultural anthropology’s founders). Darwin mainly reiterated their reasoning, which amounted to: Bird song and dog barks are actually pretty expressive, so I bet they could have extended somehow into human language. The term for this kind of thing in academia is “hand-waving.”

Faced against them was Max Müller, a German-born Sanskrit scholar at Oxford. Unlike the Darwinians, Müller insisted that language was fundamentally different from animal sounds. We can say “moo” and know that the sound refers to a cow, but the sound “moo” and the word “cow” are not the same. Unlike the sound, the word carries within it a complex mental model of the species Bos taurus—its appearance, behaviors and uses. Each part of the model depends on the others so much that the ability to link them all together must have been present at the beginning rather than gradually developed. Ergo humans must have had speech from Day One.

Müller was making a kind of “irreducible complexity” argument, a favorite nowadays of creationists. After Darwin wrote his book on humanity, Müller responded, in 1873, with another irreducible-complexity argument (this one hauled in Immanuel Kant as backup). Darwin, whose health was failing, didn’t respond. And there, Mr. Wolfe says, the matter stood—for decades. “The most crucial single matter, by far, in the entire debate over the Evolution of man—language—was abandoned, thrown down the memory hole, from 1872 to 1949.”

Again, in the margins: “Hunh?” Mr. Wolfe’s incredulity seems odd—and not just because Darwin’s protégé, George Romanes, sparred with Müller about speech for another two decades. Speech leaves no traces, so tracing its origin is extraordinarily difficult. To me, it seems plausible that the question was “abandoned” because scientists are loath to hurl themselves at questions that may not be answerable in their lifetimes.

In any case, as Mr. Wolfe recounts, the impasse was finally broken by the arrival of Noam Chomsky, a combative linguist and philosopher hired by MIT about a nanosecond after he finished his doctoral dissertation. In “Syntactic Structures” (1957), Mr. Chomsky argued that babies learn to speak with so little instruction that the underpinnings of language must be present from birth in a built-in “language organ” in the brain, a biological construction given to us by evolution. Because all humans have the same language organ, its capacities must shape all languages. These shared properties are a “universal grammar.”

Mr. Chomsky’s approach transformed linguistics and made him a star in academia—Mr. Wolfe is very funny describing this. But by the 1990s, the failure of biologists to find an actual language organ in the brain was leading to dissent. Mr. Chomsky also had trouble specifying the precise features of the universal grammar—it had to be broad enough to include every language from Japanese to Urdu yet simple enough to be viewed as a small batch of principles. Recognizing the problems, Mr. Chomsky sought to find the minimal foundation of language. In 2002 he and two Harvard cognitive scientists announced that they had discovered it: recursion.

“The only uniquely human component of the faculty of language,” as they put it, recursion refers to embedding a language structure (a sentence or clause, for instance) within another similar structure. Take the awkward but understandable sentence “The cat (that the dog ((which the boy called Spot)) chased) ran away.” Slipped inside one thought (“the cat ran away”) are two more thoughts, one about the dog, one about its name. Recursion allows small units to be combined into larger units, with no theoretical stopping point. More tentatively than Mr. Wolfe allows, the three men proposed that all the rest of the traits necessary for language evolved separately, then were capped by the arrival of the mental structure that permitted recursion. 

Because of this theory, Mr. Wolfe says, “by 2005, Noam Chomsky was flying very high. In fact, very high barely says it. The man was . . . in . . . orbit.”

In the margin: “WTF??” Actually, early that year Mr. Chomsky et al.’s recursion was criticized at length by two luminaries, Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff. Never mind: Mr. Wolfe instead turns attention to another 2005 attack on Mr. Chomsky and recursion theory: “OOOF!—right into the solar plexus!—a twenty-five-thousand-word article” that was “an affront aimed straight at him, by name.”

The “affront” was an account by linguist Daniel L. Everett, a former Chomsky disciple, of the Pirahã language, spoken only by the several hundred members of an indigenous group of the same name in the western Amazon. Mr. Everett had gone to the Pirahã as a missionary with his family, lived for years in difficult conditions and emerged as one of the few outsiders fluent in the language. Pirahã, he said, has no recursion—it doesn’t embody Mr. Chomsky’s universal grammar. More than that, its structure is so obviously tied to Pirahã culture that the language must have been created in its reflection—and not by some universal language organ. Nurture, Mr. Everett was saying, not nature.

A fight of baffling nastiness broke out—baffling because the near-simultaneous dispute between Messrs. Chomsky and Pinker, though equally intense, wasn’t marked by personal insult. Baffling, too, because to an outsider it is hard to judge between a language organ that nobody has yet identified and a language spoken by so few linguists that nobody can actually verify claims about it. Baffling because Mr. Everett saw a single counter-example as proof that Mr. Chomsky and his co-theorists were wrong—when the Pirahã, who have a long and dreadful history, could simply have lost or greatly reduced recursion along the way. Baffling because Mr. Chomsky and his epigones, instead of making this kind of obvious counter-argument, tried to muddy the waters by claiming that the recursion paper didn’t mean what it said and charging Mr. Everett with racism and charlatanism.

Mr. Wolfe sees the whole conflict as a replay of Darwin vs. Wallace, pitting “an old-fashioned flycatcher” against “modern air-conditioned armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts.” When the New Yorker printed a photograph of Mr. Everett neck-deep in an Amazonian river, Mr. Wolfe claims, “no linguist could help but contrast that with everybody’s mental picture of Chomsky sitting up high, very high, in an armchair in an air-conditioned office at MIT, spic-and-span,” never leaving his desk “except to go to the airport to fly to other campuses to receive honorary degrees.” I laughed out loud when I came to this delightful shiv-wielding, though I wondered about Mr. Wolfe’s pretension to mind-reading. But I also thought: Why does this author care about all this? What is at stake here?

“Bango!” Tom Wolfe explains in his conclusion. “One bright night it dawned on me—not as a profound revelation, not as any sort of analysis at all, but as something so perfectly obvious, I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before. There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.” (Aristotle made exactly this argument around 330 B.C. in his “Politics.” But maybe it doesn’t count?) To Mr. Wolfe, Mr. Everett’s attack on recursion—and on the idea that speech was produced by evolution—was proof our species is special. “Speech, language, was something that existed quite apart from Evolution. It had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Man, man unaided, created language.”

Müller was right all along! Wolfe is saying. “Not only is speech an artifact, it is the primal artifact,” coming before agriculture, art and science. “Speech ended not only the evolution of man, by making it no longer necessary for survival, but also the evolution of animals.” Speech, Mr. Wolfe says triumphantly, gave our species “the power to conquer the entire planet,” “the power to ask questions about his own life,” the power to control other human minds—“a power the Theory of Evolution cannot even begin to account for . . . or abide.” “Speech! To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo ’s David.”
And here my pen dropped onto the bonded-vinyl flooring. I stared at the page with a slack, dopey expression. I scratched my fuzzy head. I just did not understand. 

Even if speech were entirely due to culture, why is this some sort of victory over evolution?  Why the boosterish chest-thumping? No biologists think that the great creations of our species— Mozart ’s symphonies, Katsura Villa, the Mahabharata, integral calculus—were due to natural selection. None believe that today’s languages evolved from some unknown ape tongue. Meanwhile, everyone who accepts evolution at all—including, I had thought, Mr. Wolfe—knows that the larynx evolved over time, as did the pharyngeal cavity, motor cortex and the rest of the mechanism of speech. 

Geneticists have turned up a library of genes involved in language. Zoologists have found that animal sounds are more complex than previously believed (most are “non-Markovian,” in the jargon). To all of these people, the arrival of language is not a matter of abrupt on-and-off, like a light switch, but more a subtle accumulation, like a dimmer switch. Co-evolution, as Darwin hand-waved at the beginning. But even if there were an exact line to draw, as Mr. Wolfe contends, why would shifting it here or there reflect better on our species? Why does it matter whether Mr. Wolfe used a product of nurture or nature for his razzle-dazzle prose? Either way, it’s all his.