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“O Rotten Gotham – Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink” by Tom Wolfe Essay

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Updated: Sep 18th, 2021

Introduction

Wolfe (1968), in his essay ‘O Rotten Gotham – Sliding down into the Behavioral Sink, ‘speaks of the suffocating congestion that has happened in cities and makes people inured to human suffering and turns them into sadistic and mindless beings (Washington Post 2002). This paper provides a rhetorical analysis of the essay.

Analysis Theme of the essay

Wolfe discusses the problems of overcrowding in cities and the resulting stress and adrenaline rush it causes. The combination of stress and overcrowding causes citizens to turn into malevolent behavior where humans turn into ‘bilious, nephritic, queer, autistic, sadistic, barren, batty, sloppy, hot in the pants, changed on the flankers, leering, puling and numb.’ Wolfe suggests that such behavior is all-consuming in its malevolence and makes the people fight with each other for a small amount of private space around themselves (Bio 2005).

Wolf (p, 734) has compared the rush in cities and the behavior of people in the New York subway with rats that are packed into narrow tunnels when the people rush to catch the subway trains. The people are so mesmerized that they rush about mindlessly, just barely avoiding colliding with each other in a rush to get off or get on to the subway. People are blind to everything and push, shove, argue and fight with each other in their rush to a small secure privacy zone around themselves. Such intense stress and overcrowding cause psychological and social changes and people descend into the ‘behavioral sink.’ The sink causes a general breakdown of etiquettes of societies and makes the people become violent, fall prey to diseases, take up the sexual perversion, and so on. The author has quoted the work of the noted anthropologist Edward Hall who says that a human needs to have at least ninety square feet of private space envelope to retain their sanity. The student of this paper supports the statement and suggests that this type of behavior can be ascribed to people in all cities.

The author has pointed out a number of visual and smell triggers that create the adrenalin rush among people. He speaks of psychosomatic manifestations such as human sweat, urine, effluvia, and sebaceous secretions. He has pointed out that their rush to get about their tasks makes passersby so impermeable to human suffering that they will not even acknowledge the sight of a stricken old woman who is being wheeled out on a stretcher attended by two policemen. The author is hinting at the inner fears of the people who perhaps may think that such a fate could happen to them also.

The use of rats as a symbol and the subjects of experiments mentioned in the essay brings the authors insistence on comparing humans to rats. Experiments by other researchers show that animals such as rats and stickleback crabs, Sika deer needed to have sufficient private space, else they will perish even when sufficient nutrition is provided.

Wolfe has analyzed the experiments of the ethnologist Johri Calhoun conducted on domesticated rats in a laboratory (p 736-737) and formed the concepts of the ‘Behavioral Sink.’ The scientist placed 48 Norway rats in an enclosure with four sections connected by ramps with a common area. Space was perceived to be sufficient, but in effect, it was not, and total anarchy descended in the colony. Two dominant males formed their own groups at different ends, and they lived there with their harem of female rats; and this area was regarded as the aristocratic area where other rats were chased out. In the common areas was a group of rats that had a few male rats, female and other age groups. The severe restrictions cause the males to turn into sexual psychopaths, and a major amount of their time was spent chasing females and mounting them. The colony soon turned so violent that homosexuality, rape, and other disorders came into force. Females lost their interest and energy in bringing up the children and did not attempt to protect them, and filth prevailed in the common area. The aristocratic lived in their isolated world and grew fatter and sleeker while the rats in the common area withered. Wolfe reasons that the behavior of humans is similar to the rats in the experiment. The severe lack of space unbridles the base instincts of man that drive him into antisocial behavior to satiate the passions and carnal needs. In cities, there is the central area where crime and antisocial behavior dominate, and there are the relatively isolated suburbs where the well-to-do life. The author has used a similar study done on a herd of Sika deer that showed faster death rates, and while their body health was very good, the adrenal glands were enlarged by twice over the normal deer. Wolfe has ascribed that the increased decibel level and persistent and sustained high level of alert creates a massive increase in adrenaline, and this created increased incidents of black thrombosis, cancer, kidney, heart attack, liver failure. Wolfe (p 740) has pointed out the insulation and insensitivity of people in the case where a girl has murdered the courtyard of an apartment while fifty people looked on and no one even bothered to call the police or help.

In cities, aristocratic or the rich attempt to hide behind glass and steel doors protected by guards and security, and people try to create a private space of isolation in the feeling that what they cannot see cannot hurt them. Wolfe (p. 751) has pointed the pathetic conditions in Harlem slums where people are backed into high rise apartments, and this creates an intense, claustrophobic feeling and people recklessly dump their garbage from their houses onto the streets, and this creates a dirty environment that serves as a festering, breeding ground for violent perverted behavior. Wolfe finally suggests that much of the social problems due to overcrowding can be solved by better planning the buildings, using space properly, and extending the development projects to the suburbs and the fringe towns near the outer city.

Conclusion

Wolfe has pointed out the social and behavioral problems caused by overcrowding in cities and the lack of personal space. He has used experiments conducted on rats in a laboratory where the rats displayed antisocial behavior when placed in an enclosure. The author has pointed out that the behavior of people is the same as what the rats displayed, such as overt sexual predation, homosexuality, lack of care for children, and an intense physical struggle for survival. The author has suggested that by better planning of cities, the problem can be reduced.

References

  1. Bio (2005), ‘Tom Wolfe Bio’.
  2. Washington Post (2002), , Web.
  3. Wolfe Tom (1968), ‘O Rotten Gotham – Sliding down into the Behavioral Sink’, Ed Wolfe Tom, ‘The Pump House Gang’, Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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IvyPanda. ""O Rotten Gotham - Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink" by Tom Wolfe." September 18, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/o-rotten-gotham-sliding-down-into-the-behavioral-sink-by-tom-wolfe/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. ""O Rotten Gotham - Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink" by Tom Wolfe." September 18, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/o-rotten-gotham-sliding-down-into-the-behavioral-sink-by-tom-wolfe/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) '"O Rotten Gotham - Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink" by Tom Wolfe'. 18 September.

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