Swans Commentary » swans.com November 5, 2012  



Sounding Off Between New Age And Counterculture: Norman Mailer


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - November 5, 2012)   In 1998 Norman Mailer was seventy-five and it had been fifty years since the publication of The Naked and the Dead, the novel that set his career in motion. An anthology of his work, The Time of Our Time, marked the double anniversary. The 1,286 pages came from work done until 1997. The author's inimitable vision informs the project: it is cockeyed. To the second page of his Foreword, which lays out the logic behind the two-and-a-half-inch-thick volume, Mailer adds a footnote saying that said logic had to be scuttled.

His intention, he wrote, had been to sequence the selections according to the years they dealt with and not in the order they were written. So the first selection, about Hemingway, is dated 1929, when Mailer was six, though it was written fifty years later. Muddle was inevitable. Where was he going to put the excerpt from his novel of 1997 about Jesus? He stuck it at page 1,240.

Tongue in furrowed cheek, Mailer justified his methodology. By highlighting subject matter and events he would avoid fixing on himself, ergo, avoid egotism. Pause for a long horselaugh by readers, shared up his sleeve by Mailer himself. Accusations of ego-bloat had assailed him early. He shrewdly took them aboard and made clownish megalomania his trademark. It was like Groucho's cigar or Jimmy Durante's nose. Advertisements For Myself dates way back to 1959. Mailer knew of course that any productive writer is fueled by self-regard and that, save money, there is no other propellant so strong. He differed from his colleagues only in that they pussyfooted around their absorption in themselves while, like a boor, he exaggerated his.

The organization of the anthology matters. It was Mailer's way of creating a summary image of himself, the definitive ad, so to say. He would be the well-balanced elder statesman of the nation's belles lettres who had put his finger into all the significant American pies of his lifetime. His long journey, his story went, had been down Main Street with only playful, adolescent detours into counterculture dead-ends and New-Age flakiness. This pretty fiction, like so many from his pen, while cogent and rhetorically neat, is spurious. What The Time of Our Time does lay before us is yet another scenario of an American liberal losing his way: Young writer begins in riotous opposition, finds success that entangles him in the commercial system he opposed, and soon settles into the comfortable stance of gadfly or court jester, what the British call "Her Majesty's loyal opposition." Blathering about "karma" in Partisan Review in 1975, Mailer says of 1953, "I was an atheist and a socialist in those days."

In fairness to Mailer, who along the way would do some impressive writing, it ought to be noted that he was at least as confused about his talent as he was guilty of putting one over on the reader by posing as a thinker. His true gift was that of a word spinner, a narrator, a storyteller who had an eye for looking into people and seeing the smallness we all, complicit, would like to ignore. Now the essence of a narrator is that he is not a man of principles; he is not an ideologue. He proceeds by empathy, or identification with everything in sight including domestic animals and the clouds in the sky. Mailer probably realized this about himself at some stage but shrewdly and out of character kept quiet about it. If readers swallowed his "thinking," then why correct them? Why skewer the course of a career that was bounding forward?

Another writer pinpoints the situation and gives us a perfect portrait of a narrator. James Ellroy, in My Dark Places, describes his attitude toward the Watts riots of August 1965:

The riot fizzled out. It reconflagrated in my head and ruled my thoughts for weeks.

I ran stories from diverse perspectives. I became both riot cop and riot provocateur. I lived lives fucked over by history.

I spread my empathy around. I distributed moral shading equitably. I didn't analyze the cause of the riot or prophesy its ramifications. My public stance was "Fuck the niggers." My concurrent narrative fantasies stressed culpable white cops.

I never questioned the contradiction. I didn't know that storytelling was my only true voice.

Narrative was my moral language. I didn't know it in the summer of 1965.

Now Ellroy was an uneducated dropout who as an adult kept afloat for a while as a golf caddy, bedding down at night in L.A. parks. Mailer, a Harvard graduate, was a best-selling author at twenty-five. He was, moreover, a New Yorker, at a time when "New York intellectual" was not a term of abuse but of respect, often even enhanced to "public intellectual." There would be no keeping the resourceful, ambitious and, above all, competitive Brooklyn boy from climbing on the stage with Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling et al.

Mailer's single most influential piece of make-believe intellectualism was The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster of 1957. It appeared in Time of Our Time, but without the rebuttals and Mailer's replies that had accompanied it in Advertisements For Myself. Its place in the anthology among one-page jokes and other trivialities hardly does justice to its importance. Mailer couldn't leave it out -- Mailer only ever left few of his own words out -- but he may have wished he had never written it forty years before. If so, he was mistaken. His value to us is as a witness of issues, be they ever so oblique, that touched American life during his own. He never let any fad pass him by without getting on for a ride. When he didn't manage a foothold on the zeitgeist bandwagon, as with feminism or contraception, he would steal attention by noisy opposition.

Mailer fended-off criticism by labeling his White Negro remarks as "superficial." He had come on the subject in a characteristic fashion that we will see him often repeat. He picked up interest in the hipster phenomenon from someone else. His Dissent and Advertisements For Myself printings are preceded by a quote from a Harper's Bazaar article of February 1957 by Caroline Bird, Born 1930: The Unlost Generation. The 1998 anthology leaves this out. Mailer's knack wasn't for discovering new social facts but for inflating them for the sake of drama and polemic flare ups.

For him, hipsters come out of WWII and its nuclear aftermath that produced conformity and depressed minds. Only isolated individuals were afterwards capable of courage. He advised them to go with the psychopath in themselves and refuse to conform. Lest psychopathology frighten us, Mailer pointed out that the psychopath is merely an American existentialist, a rebel quite different from a legally insane psychotic. In the present juncture, psychoanalysis was of no use. Analysts were "ball shrinkers."

No one in America was more marginalized than what Mailer termed "Negroes." They were close to nature, to impulse and psychopathy. Like the psychopath, "good" orgasm was their therapy and their goal. Caucasians who had thought themselves into the mentality of Negroes were White Negroes. The two belonged to a significant social subgroup, the hip as distinguished from the square.

"The only hip morality [...] is to do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible, and -- this is how the war of the hip and the square begins -- to be engaged in one primal battle: to open the limits of the possible for oneself, for oneself alone, because that is one's need."

Mailer's pickings from cocktail party badinage here included hints from the anti-psychiatry movement that would be associated with R.D. Laing and David Cooper. He mentions by name the men he considers influencing the "hipster generation," but it's hard to imagine anyone reading them on Chicago's South Side or in Harlem. What he's really saying is that the four all meant much to Norman Mailer. They were Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Wilhelm Reich. Hemingway would be an example of courage. Lawrence contributed extreme sensitivity to women and a cult of the phallus. Miller accepted and described sexual couplings high and low. Reich's importance was in his preoccupation with the orgasm as a factor in world politics, war and peace, and an individual's sanity.

In Advertisements For Myself the White Negro was followed by two objections and Mailer's reply to them. Jean Malaquais, a French Trotskyist, pointed out that rebellious youth could be found in half a dozen Western countries where Negroes didn't figure large. He pooh-poohed the idea of the hipster as messiah and noted that most hipsters end up conforming. "All the 'mysticism' all the 'dialectical conception of existence' Mailer so generously bestows upon hip is, as far as I am concerned, a gorgeous flower of Mailer's romantic idealism."

The American Ned Polsky thought Mailer's hope that unlettered hipsters would produce any worthwhile art or writing was wishful thinking. As far as orgasm went, the hipster fared no better than anyone else. "Now, the inner tragedy of the hipster subculture is this: the white member is attracted to the Negro member because of the latter's Negro-ness, whereas the Negro -- and this Mailer ignores -- is attracted to the white precisely because of his whiteness."

Mailer's comeback to Malaquais's down-to-earth social analysis based on property relations was to waffle on about the need for a new revolution of consciousness. To Polsky, a sociologist, he answered with a barrage of vague talk of the orgasm, good and bad. In other words Mailer defended his assertions about the White Negro by invoking Wilhelm Reich, though not bothering to name him again.

Reich had completed his transition from his European persona of a rebel psychoanalyst, enemy of Fascism, to his American one of surprisingly influential quack. Come to the U.S. in 1939, his mental health had deteriorated under persecution for his ideas, which had included a burning of his books at the Gansevoort Street incinerator in Manhattan. What Mailer (and other writers like Saul Bellow and William S. Burroughs) retained of Reich was that the quality of orgasm determined human happiness and social peace. Mailer also adopted Reich's tenet that libido was physical energy, something cosmic that could be gathered to a person by sitting in a metal-lined wooden box known as an "organe accumulator." Mailer, a handyman, made himself one like a huge egg that he could pull closed and be rocked in while reclining. Reich had also suggested that cancer could originate from a wounded mind, a notion that Mailer would come back to frequently. In 1957 when The White Negro was published, Reich's death in federal prison occasioned a burst of publicity.

Mailer did not fail to sniff any notions wafting by in the New Age breeze. In 1974 he picked up a book on Bantu philosophy and changed his take on Afro-Americans. They were no longer "good savages" coursing through life on first class-orgasms. An African flaw surfaced in them that portended badly for father figures, a category that Mailer himself had now entered in a big way.

Something of a New Age dad, Mailer objected to his children (he had nine) being immunized and to his wives (he had six) having their pubic hair shaved before giving birth. He could also come up with conversation stoppers presented as his own but not foreign to venerable New Agers like Rudolph Steiner. In the 1998 anthology he reprints an interview from Advertisements For Myself with Richard G. Stern. The interviewer was disconcerted when Mailer, tired of hipsters, suddenly turned to theology. He said that God was dying, which was bad news for humanity. God, he announced, wasn't omnipotent. Indeed he was constantly wrestling with the Devil, who often came out on top. Mailer seemed quite serious about this view, but it was the seriousness of a storyteller, not a philosopher. Henceforth the Devil would never be far from Mailer's desk.

It's worth remarking that Mailer often further developed similar conceits that scarcely qualified as ideas. Over time they might reach a pitch of literary refinement in his structured fiction. Take this metaphor that he throws out in the Presidential Papers of 1963: "The rebel or the revolutionary might argue, however, that the form of society is not God's creation but a result of the war between God and the Devil, that this form is no more than the line of the battlefield upon which the Devil distributes wealth against God's best intention." In Mailer's 1965 novel, An American Dream, a husband reports that the wife he murdered believed she was possessed by demons and that if she went to hell she could still fight the Devil there. He tells the police she thought marijuana was "the Devil's grace."

In An Interview on Existentialism and Karma in Partisan Review of 1975, Mailer managed to have himself interrogated on his "philosophy." It was the now familiar cartoon story of Old Nick and a vulnerable God-the-Father engaged in a bout of Papa Hemingway arm wrestling. Mailer manages to keep a straight face while doing his Kierkegaard imitation, rightly convinced that he might be far from philosophy but was on to a meaty scenario for a storyteller.

In Mailer's head the Satan figure would keep feeding on itself until in Harlot's Ghost of 1991 it becomes a recurrent subject for philosophizing over martinis. One of the most brilliant minds of the C.I.A shares this belief in a heavenly tug-a-war. In Mailer's last novel, The Castle in the Forest of 2007, the Devil is a kind of J. Edgar Hoover figure whose agents, minor demons, step in to tell the story. Sly and naughty, their playfulness makes for irony that absolves Mailer of naïveté. The reader is reminded of The Screwtape Letters, the 1940s satirical novel of C. S. Lewis that promoted Christian apologetics with a smile.

It's this Mailer, the astute literary man who will enter the debate with Kate Millet in A Prisoner of Sex of 1971. No one was quicker than Mailer to drop his street fighter's surliness when the situation called for it. Millet attacked writers for the macho attitudes of their characters. For a novelist that was like accusing Shakespeare of being a monarchist or Melville's Captain Ahab of cruelty to animals.

However, Mailer's first line of defense against the doyenne of Woman's Lib was a word-meister's precision. He pointed out that Kate, the "pug-nosed wit," had wrongly accused his character, the uxoricide Stephen Rojack. This came from her ignorance of the difference between sodomy and analingus. In her attack on Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn she was guilty of misquotation, and more seriously of not reading before and after what she quoted. Miller's account of the punishment his friend Van Norden inflicted on a whore was followed by Miller's pacifist musings. He found Van Norden's cruel need to get his money's worth as senseless as a soldier at war: "[...] even though he has the soul of a cockroach and has admitted as much to himself, give him a gun or a knife or even just his bare nails, and he'll go on slaughtering and slaughtering, he'd slaughter a million men rather than stop and ask himself why."

Mailer has to strain to defend his second hero, D.H. Lawrence, against Millet's charge of his being a "counterrevolutionary sexual politician." That's because Lawrence tended to identify with his male protagonists. Mailer has to admit that in all Lawrence's books "there are unmistakable tendencies toward the absolute domination of women by men, mystical worship of the male will, detestation of democracy." However, he found mitigation in the fact that Lawrence's failure to master the female brought him to despair and a return "to his first knowledge that the physical love of men and women, insofar as it was untainted by civilization, was the salvation of us all, and that there was no other." Furthermore, Mailer asked how it was possible for women to decry a writer who by their own admission wrote so understandingly about them.

While Mailer made journalistic copy of every droplet of the Counterculture-New Age shower that leaked through to him, he was also writing novels where the same material might figure thematically. One of these, Why are We in Vietnam?, a remarkable performance of 1967, signaled a bifurcation in his work. He was moving into what would be called the New Journalism. Controversy still simmers over whether he started the trend or not. There were premonitions of it in Seymour Krim's and Mailer's 1950s pieces in The Village Voice. But the genre burst forth fully in Esquire magazine in the next decade, encouraged by its editor Harold Hayes. The New Journalism would become synonymous with the signature cultural review of the 1960s, Rolling Stone. The essence of the new writing was in Norman Podhoretz's words, "The article as art." The writer-journalist would become a character in his piece, his subjectivity entangled with the facts he was reporting.

Whatever Mailer's role in originating the New Journalism, as a practitioner he would make it his own. After all he had a head start. For years he had made himself an actor in much of what he wrote. The practice reached boiling point in the film Maidstone that he directed in 1970. Not satisfied with writing and directing the story, he also played the leading role of a filmmaker who compared himself to Fellini, Buñuel, Dreyer, and Antonioni. This character, Norman T. Kingsley, was also a target for assassination and a candidate for president of the USA. Filming went wrong, overcome by fumes of Scotch and Vodka. Actor Rip Torn grabbed a hammer and swung at Mailer who fought him off by biting his ear.

Wisely, Mailer then turned much of his energy to personalized reporting. Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History appeared in 1968. It was Mailer's experience of the March on the Pentagon in protest at the war in Vietnam. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He followed with Miami and the Siege of Chicago (about the 1968 political conventions), Of a Fire on the Moon (on the Apollo 11 landing), St. George and the Dragon (about the 1972 Presidential campaign), and The Fight (about the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman bout in Zaire).

The so-called nonfiction novel, throwing Mailer up against major historical events, drew his attention away from picayune New-Age concerns. Political events that decided war or peace left no room for fussy eccentricities. On a rocket to the moon, who was worried about revving up his own orgasm? Ali against Foreman in Africa made the Devil seem a burlesque clown.

Other nonfiction novels had preceded Mailer's, among them Truman Capote's masterpiece In Cold Blood, Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels, and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But Mailer dominated the genre by immediately raising the ante. His The Executioner's Song, distilled from his friendship with a condemned killer, ran to a thousand pages and won another Pulitzer Prize.

In his million words, Mailer ducked in and out of the Counterculture. He was never a victim of New Ageism. Rather, if his antenna alerted him to a usable shred of fashion, be it ever so esoteric or off the wall, he would spear it with the end of his pen and dress it up in words. Flights of fancy, not truth or falsity were his business. Like James Ellroy, narrative was his moral language. He was a narrator, occasionally a great one.


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Published November 5, 2012