Review of The Painted Word. Barbara Rose, The New York Review of Books, June 26, 1975.
In the spring of 1965, Tom Wolfe, a young writer with a growing reputation for a flamboyant wardrobe and an equally flamboyant prose style, met Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian professor with an idea whose time had come. Normally condescending, Wolfe found much to admire in McLuhan’s ideas about audio-visual-tactile synesthesia and in his instant celebrity. Comparing McLuhan with Freud in “What If He Is Right?” an essay commemorating his momentous Lutèce luncheon with the super-guru of the Sixties, Wolfe characterizes both as great prophets: Freud of sex and McLuhan of TV. If this sounds simplistic, it is fairly typical of Wolfe’s thinking about issues, as opposed to his skill as an observer of social manners. For all his talent in capturing the nuances of fashion, decor, and ambiance, Wolfe has consistently had difficulty in dealing with ideas. Consider, for example, this insight into the likeness of Freud and McLuhan:
Both men electrified—outraged!—the intellectuals of their time by explaining the most vital, complex, cosmic phases of the human experience in terms of such lowlife stuff: e.g. the anus; the damnable TV set.
The advantage of such condensation is to permit readers who have heard of psychoanalysis and communications theory to feel that they are somehow au courantwith the urgent issues of the moment, in fact superior to them, without ever having to go through the difficult, time-consuming experience of engaging directly with the substance of either subject.
The New York Review of Books