I won’t vouch for the scholarly accuracy of Tom Wolfe’s skewering of Noam Chomsky, but oh my goodness is it fun to read. (Subscribe to get around the paywall, and you’ll get an essay from me next month!) And he’s channelling in his own inimitable style critiques made by a good many other linguists. At 85 — eighty-five — he is still a first-rate researcher and he writes like a deranged but virtuosic songbird.
Only wearily could Chomsky endure traditional linguists who thought fieldwork was essential and wound up in primitive places, emerging from the tall grass zipping their pants up. They were like the ordinary flycatchers in Darwin’s day coming back from the middle of nowhere with their sacks full of little facts and buzzing about with their beloved multi-language fluency. But what difference did it make, knowing all those native tongues? Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude of Plato’s transcendent eternal universals. They, not sacks of scattered facts, were the ultimate reality, the only true objects of knowledge. Besides, he didn’t enjoy the outdoors, where “the field” was. He was relocating the field to Olympus. Not only that, he was giving linguists permission to stay air-conditioned. They wouldn’t have to leave the building at all, ever again . . . no more trekking off to interview boneheads in stench-humid huts. And here on Olympus, you had plumbing.
Fair? I don’t know. But oh so delightfully wicked.