Yeah, we all know Tom Wolfe can do social satire; but until I read A Man in Full I didn’t know he could do chilling urban anthropology [Note to Self: Try not to go to jail in Alameda County.], Stoic philosophy, and more compelling redemptive narrative than Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. I shall quote from the chapter, “Epictetus Comes to Da House.” Our hapless hero, Conrad [picture Steve Buscemi], through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, finds himself locked up in the Santa Rita pokey [in all senses of the word], clueless how to survive. N Aff [see “The Lone Wolf” post] is the only code of conduct, and Conrad can’t find a reference group. He gets the “wrong” book sent to him–The Stoics instead of The Stoics’ Game–but discovers that Epictetus [an ancient Greek, sold into Roman slavery by his parents, who when freed became a philosopher] knows a thing or two about enduring unfair captivity. When Conrad is cornered by a Very Bad Man whose aggressive subtext is clear, he channels the wisdom of Epictetus [who says we all must die of something, sometime, but we can try to do it with our character intact]. To his own chagrin, Conrad slips into the idiom of an “Oakland homey,” [when in Rome, and all…] and tells the bully, “Hey, brother, look! You a number in here, and I’m a number in here…see…and I ain’t tryin’a disrespectchoo none…I ain’t tryin’a sweatchoo none, play you none, dog you none, or get over on you none…so ain’ no cause for nobody be playin’ me or doggin’ me or runnin’ a game on me, neither.” To find out what happens next, buy the book.
Let’s notice how much Phatic speech Conrad uses. Always a good idea, when addressing strangers, or those acting strange. A young boy’s Phatic communication once saved my life in Boston. I was on the escalator at the Back Bay train station, wearing a long, flowing muffler, when I heard the cryptic words: “Goy Lee! Goy Lee! Ya skaaf! Ya skaaf!” I deciphered this as: “Girlie! Girlie! Your scarf! Your scarf!” I then realized that I was the “Girlie,” about to do an Isadora Duncan [choke myself by getting my muffler caught in the machinery]. I yanked the flowing tail up, and shouted back, “Oh, yeah, t’anks a million, dere!” [When in Boston, and all…] If he had just yelled, “Ya skaaf! Ya skaaf!” I’da been none da wiser, an’ needin’ a wake, surely.
Also notice that Conrad is putting out the “subway subtext” [see the “Walk on the Wild Side” post]: “I am not your victim, but I am not your enemy.” Who knew, when my acting friends and I were busy devising this cool-as-a-cucumber response, that Epictetus had been there and done that 2000 years before us?
As valuable as witty ripostes and/or Stoic replies are, in the face of aggressive provocations, they do not always serve. There are, sadly, times–in my opinion and even that of Epictetus–that the appropriate response to aggression is aggression.
That’s for another post.