I Am Charlotte Simmons: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004
688 pp., 28.95
Reviewed by S. T. Karnick
Modern, All Too Modern
[begin indented quotation] "[N]ot only emotions but also purpose and intentions are physical matters. … [Delgado's] position was that the human mind, as we conceive it—and I think all of us do—bears very little resemblance to reality. We think of the mind—we can't help but think of the mind—as something from a command center in the brain, which we call the 'self,' and that this self has free will. Delgado called that a 'useful illusion.' He said there was a whole series of neural circuits … that work in parallel to create the illusion of a self—'me,' an 'individual' with free will and a soul. He called the self nothing more than a 'transient composite of materials from the environment.' It's not a command center but a village marketplace, an arcade, or a lobby, like a hotel lobby, and other people and their ideas and their mental atmosphere and the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the age, to use Hegel's term from two hundred years ago—can come walking right on in, and you can't lock the doors, because they become you, because they are you. After Delgado, neuroscientists began to put the words self and mind and, of course, soul in quotation marks."[end block quote]
Hence the book's title: is there really an I in our Charlotte Simmons after all, or is she just believing a pretty lie when she says it? As it happens, Charlotte is transported by this vision of great truth, and all the lessons of her past life are obliterated by this well-meaning, Nobel Prize-winning professor. This scene occurs a little after the book's halfway point, and Wolfe spends the rest of the story exploring its insights, especially in the agonizing way Charlotte's story plays out.
Through his masterly creation of moral dilemmas and exposition of characters' internal conflicts (involving numerous highly explicit descriptions of sex, violence, bodily functions, and vulgarity), Wolfe suggests that nearly everyone at Dupont University, from administrators to professors to students, is there solely because of the social status it provides. He is probably largely correct in that surmise and in the implication that the same is true of America's other high-status universities. If a girl so obviously intelligent and gifted, with such a strong background of religion and morals, can fall into this trap, what hope do the rest of us have? Social status must be a powerful motivator indeed.
None of this, however, in any way proves a materialist conception of the human soul, or "soul," as Delgado would have it, nor does it establish a case for even the sociobiologists' more limited notion that all human behavior is ultimately traceable to the biological urge to preserve one's gene lines, nor does it even prove the still more limited idea that social status is the fundamental human urge.
No, there is a much simpler explanation for all of this, and it is right there in the events of the book. What is really happening in the story is something that theists have always known: that we choose to think the things we think, and that what we think will largely determine what we do.
That is precisely what happens to Charlotte and to all the other characters in the book. After all, it is only when Charlotte finally changes her simple, down-home, Christian way of thinking about what a human being is, and what choice means, that she descends into the personal miasma that is the inevitable consequence of the bad choices she makes. These latter, in turn, are the direct result of the bad ideas she chooses to hold. If she had kept to her old assumptions, her behavior would have been completely different. Of that, there can no doubt whatever.
Despite Wolfe's extremely skillful and detailed efforts to show exactly how relentlessly events push Charlotte toward doing the things she does, he cannot conclusively establish that she could not have acted otherwise. Such a thing would be utterly impossible to prove, of course. One can only accept or reject it inductively. And that leaves freedom of choice as a possibility, and indeed the more likely explanation for her actions—the one that in fact best fits the facts of the story.
This leads to a very interesting and important sociological observation that one can draw from the book: that a society's leaders, and in particular its intellectual elite, its philosophers, bear a heavy responsibility for what goes on in it.