Electric Logocentricity

In the beginning was the Word. Not verbum, the written word, thought Erasmus, but sermo, the spoken word. Whatever its validity for understanding St. John's Gospel, literature that matters seems to split along the lines of that dichotomy. There are exciting and important books that dance on the page, wheeling and turning at the command of a master drill sergeant, able to conquer vast terrains, but in silence. Read Kant, for instance, aloud, and his magic vanishes. Then there are the masters of the spoken language, who charm us because we can hear their voices, even if we cannot follow everything they are saying: Plato, Virgil, Dante, St. John himself.

Tom Wolfe belongs to the electric masters of logocentricity. To this day I can hear the famous party that pulsates at the center of "Radical Chic." "Mr. Bernsteen." "STEIN!" Of course, there are other sensual images in Wolfe's carnival. He begins The Painted Word by comparing the experience of reading the Sunday New York Times not to an intellectual activity but to sinking slowly into a soporific hot tub. The image is as illuminating as it is witty. In the end, however, Tom Wolfe is meant to be read aloud.

In comparison with those earlier tone poems. The Bonfire of the Vanities is an oratorio sung by full choir. "There are eight million stories in the Naked City," the old TV show used...

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