Tom Wolfe and the ‘Fiction-Absolute’

Tom Wolfe’s gifts as a writer are much in evidence in his 2006 Jefferson Lecture, “The Human Beast.” No one reading it will be able to forget, for example, his description of José Delgado in the bull ring: “The bull charged. Delgado stood there, motionless. The bull reached the critical point where it would be useless for anyone, even a toreador, to flee. Delgado pressed a button on the transmitter — and the bull came to a shuddering halt within feet of the scientist, and then turned and trotted off in the other direction.”

Unfortunately, Wolfe’s ability to write vivid prose gets in the way of his argument. He looks for striking ways to make his points; and, in doing so, he exaggerates. He starts with an insight of Max Weber’s. By the time he has finished with it, an amusement-park mirror distortion of Weber’s view has become the clue to explaining history.

He says that while studying for a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale in the early 1950s, he read Max Weber’s “very dense” essay, “Class, Status, and Power.” Weber’s concept of status caught his imagination. Weber distinguished groups characterized by a relation to social honor from economic classes. These groups, just as Wolfe explains, have different life styles.

So far, so good, but from this account of Weber, Wolfe somehow comes up with this: “Even before I left graduate school I had come to the conclusion that virtually all people live by what I think of as a ‘fiction-absolute.’ Each individual adopts a set of values which, if truly absolute in the world — so ordained by some almighty force — would make not that individual but his group, the best of all possible groups, the best of all inner circles.”

This is not at all what Weber meant by status. In Weber’s concept, a status group has either a positive or a negative relation to honor: by no means do all groups rank themselves as the best possible. A group in Weber’s sense can, e.g., be marginal to the rest of society. Further, Weber did not claim that groups were always more important than economic classes.

Not so for Wolfe. Groups are all important, and everyone is in the grip of his “fiction-absolute.” How does he know that an individual chooses a set of values that ranks his group first?1 He does not tell us. In fact, he gives no examples of any group whose members do this. No doubt, e.g., the fighter pilots whom he discusses valued their activities highly; but nothing in Wolfe’s account of them deals with how these pilots rate themselves against other groups.

One astute reader of Wolfe’s essay raised an important question. Suppose a group has an inferior position in society. How could the members of the group accept this, if they think that the values of their own group have supreme worth? Perhaps they are better off than they would be otherwise, even though they are at the bottom. But, given Wolfe’s theory, will this be enough to induce them to remain within society?

It’s an excellent question, but it should not induce us to fear for the stability of a society with groups that have inferior positions. Wolfe’s conjecture is the barest speculation. It will be time enough to worry about it when evidence for it turns up.


  1. At least I think this is what Wofe means. So long as no almighty force ordains that the values held by a group are “truly absolute,” Wolfe’s definition is consistent with an individual’s ranking the values of his group very low. The definition concerns only a situation that Wolfe, one assumes, thinks nonexistent. But this is no doubt a mere verbal slip.

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