Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Life is a sexual carnival... 

...according to Tom Wolfe:
'I personally would be shocked out of my pants if I was at college now,' confides Wolfe, who spent four years trawling the campuses for raw material. The book, he says, is 'about sex as it interacts with social status. And I have tried to make the sex un-erotic. I will have failed if anyone gets the least bit excited. So much of modern sex is un-erotic, if erotic means flight of fancy or romantic build-up. Sex now is so easy to consummate - it is a pressure that affects everybody, girls more than boys, I think.'

As he notes, the America which votes tomorrow is a country riven over morality like never before. On the flip side of the culture of ubiquitous sex is that of puritan Christianity, as harnessed in no small part by Bush. 'Yes, there is this puritanism,' says Wolfe, 'and I suppose we are talking here about what you might call the religious right. But I don't think these people are left or right, they are just religious, and if you are religious, you observe certain strictures on sexual activity - you are against the mainstream, morally speaking. And I do have sympathy with them, yes, though I am not religious. I am simply in awe of it all; the openness of sex. In the 60s they talked about a sexual revolution, but it has become a sexual carnival.'

After an inane statement by the Guardian columnist writing about Mr. Wolfe, the article has several other interesting points in it:
Where does it come from, this endorsement of the most conservative administration within living memory? Of this president who champions the right and the rich, who has taken America into the mire of war, and seeks re-election tomorrow? Wolfe's eyes resume the expression of detached Southern elegance.

"I think support for Bush is about not wanting to be led by East-coast pretensions. It is about not wanting to be led by people who are forever trying to force their twisted sense of morality onto us, which is a non-morality. That is constantly done, and there is real resentment. Support for Bush is about resentment in the so-called 'red states' - a confusing term to Guardian readers, I agree - which here means, literally, middle America. I come from one of those states myself, Virginia. It's the same resentment, indeed, as that against your own newspaper when it sent emails targeting individuals in an American county." Wolfe laughs as he chastises. "No one cares to have outsiders or foreigners butting into their affairs. I'm sure that even many of those Iraqis who were cheering the fall of Saddam now object to our being there. As I said, I do not think the excursion is going well."

And John Kerry? "He is a man no one should worry about, because he has no beliefs at all. He is not going to introduce some manic radical plan, because he is poll-driven, and it is therefore impossible to know where or for what he stands."

As far as Wolfe is concerned, "the great changes in America came with the second world war, since which time I have not seen much shift in what Americans fundamentally believe. Apart from the fact that as recently as the 1970s, Nelson Rockefeller shocked people by leaving his wife of 30 years, while now celebrities routinely have children outside marriage, the mayor of New York leaves his wife for his lover and no one blinks. But a large number of people have remained religious, and it is a divided country - do not forget that Al Gore nearly won the last election. The country is split right along party lines."

And there has been a complete climate change in the nation which elected Bill Clinton twice, to that which may confer the same honour on George Bush tomorrow. This, says Wolfe, began not with the election of Bush, but on the morning of September 11 2001.

None of us who were in New York that day will ever forget it, and Wolfe is no exception. "I was sitting in my office when someone called to tell me two light planes had collided with the World Trade Centre. I turned on my television, before long there was this procession of people of all kinds, walking up the street. What I remember most was the silence of that crowd; there was no sound.

"That day told us that here was a different kind of enemy. I honestly think that America and the Bush administration felt that something extreme had to be done. But I do not think that the Americans have become a warlike people; it is rare in American history to set about empire-building - acquiring territory and slaves. I've never met an American who wanted to build an empire.


So what is it about his liberal neighbours and fellow diners in his adoptive New York that Wolfe cannot abide? "I cannot stand the lock-step among everyone in my particular world. They all do the same thing, without variation. It gets so boring. There is something in me that particularly wants it registered that I am not one of them."

Parting cordially, it seems strange that such an effervescent maverick, such a jester at the court of all power - all vanity, indeed - should so wholeheartedly endorse the power machine behind George Bush. And so an obvious thought occurs: perhaps Wolfe is jester at the court of New York too. Would he really be happier away from New York, out on the plains, in the "red states" where everyone at dinner parties votes for Bush? Wolfe's eyes revert to that mischievous glint, and he allows himself a smile. "I do think," he admits, apparently speaking for himself, his country and his president, "that if you are not having a fight with somebody, then you are not sure whether you are alive when you wake up in the morning."

I have respect for this independent-minded man.

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