Saturday, March 28, 2009

Power and Vanity

The truism that the book is always better than the movie is especially true for Tom Wolfe's novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
One of the defining moments in the book occurs when a Bronx Assistant DA confronts a rich socialite with evidence of her complicity in a hit and run incident. The socialite seems outwardly composed until he's finished. Then she swallows and just from that small reaction, the DA knows that she's been intimidated. He's suddenly struck by the realization of the power he holds. I would've liked to reproduce the entire segment here, but that would involve lots of typing and I'm also not quite sure about copyright laws. In my edition of the book (Picador, 1st ed.) the segment is found on pages 609-612.
Wolfe's achievement here is his vivid literary depiction of the controlling authority of the state as personified by the DA "...the power of the government over the freedom of its subjects." The DA becomes intoxicated by the newfound understanding of his power, "...the poet has never sung of that ecstasy or even dreamed of it..." He " understood what gave him a momentary lift each morning as he saw the island fortress (the Bronx County Courthouse) rise at the crest of the Grand Concourse from the gloom of the Bronx." He no longer feels inferior to his former law classmates who had taken positions with Wall Street firms earning much higher salaries. His own compensation includes " control of your destiny and your helplessness in the face of the Power." Even the rich and famous must bow before his authority.
(This brief description doesn't do justice to Wolfe's masterful writing. The entire excerpt has to be read to be appreciated. Or better yet, read the whole marvelous book).
The Wolfe scenario brings to mind any pompous, officious Congressional committee member castigating a private industrialist for alleged exploitation of society's downtrodden. You can just sense Barney Frank's narcissistic satisfaction as he sits peering down at and lecturing all those rich and powerful, yet relative to him, lesser beings.

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