Norman Mailer fancied himself to be many things, some of them he mastered grandly and other roles not so grandly, embarrassing in truth. He was not just a public crackpot along the lines of Russell Kirk, Dwight McDonald or Lionel Trilling, he was the Public Crackpot. His theories, emboldened by his fame and reputation for being edgy, if not actually on the edge, lead him to opine, pontificate, huff and puff theories that would make a white man weep and all others laugh. So why have I stuck by someone who's had a career of nearly dedicating equal amounts of energy between his worst habits as his best virtues? Well, no matter the idea he put forward, Mailer was never dull, and I rather liked the way he could take over a conversation and require the fussy right wing and left wing gadflies pull up their pants and stretch their well-heeled dogmas in defense of their concepts of society, history and reality should work . Mailer was a born usurper, in Gore Vidal's words. The key thing to remember is that Mailer is a literary artist above all else that did, and since making words express those notions and impulses that don’t have coherent expression is what Mailer happened to excel at in his most inspired writing. It’s fair enough to loved language enough to abuse it in order interest to get his oft-script impressions across. But this is not a case where Mailer’s appropriation of the selected terms can be dimly understood by those reading him , a lot or just a little; he took pains throughout his books to make clear what he meant by his use of the terms cancer, hip, existential and totalitarian.
Mailer , of course, had odd ideas as to the cause and spread of disease and , in to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oats, was dangerous with some of his opinions because he expressed them so well, but I’d venture that “cancer” in particular was a metaphor he applied liberally to a social condition that set in on the collective spirit in of America during the Post War period. Strictly speaking, there’s something crackpot in how long he held on the Reichean notion that bad faith causes the cells to go berserk, but I think, for Mailer, it was a rather good spring board to his fabulous metaphorical flights; the absurd notion that too much comfort and lack of risk taking increases our chances of become cancer ridden is fairly much forgotten as those bits of fevered lyricism take over your attention and manage to do what a great poem ought to, engage at the level of the line where it reveals the substance that’s under the assumption of accord our daily routines by and to realize that much of what we assume is fixed is subterfuge , socially constructed restrictions embedded in culture, institutions and even the language we use to critique our assumptions. This leads us to his use of the word “existential”, which , while lacking the systemic critique of the philosophical idealism that preceded its rise in a Europe ravaged by world wars, revolutions, and genocide , all the same coheres nicely with the notion that existence has no “meaning” independent of what one brings to their life span in terms of deeds performed in good faith, actions for which the active agent, the Hemingway hero, the Sartrean doubter, takes responsibility for. It’s a personalized brand of existentialism, and Mailer offers his adjustment to the term a number of times through his books.
You have to stop sometimes so you can appreciate what the senses have given you as you go your way through the world . You have to stop in order to write about the need to pursue the seductive logic of never stopping . But you have to stop before you go forward, as the brain absorbs only so much ; you stop , you breathe, you think, you connect what has happened recently with the narrative of a life already recorded. This engages you with the world, truly, this is where the poetry comes from, not gushing hot lava adjectives and verbs while writing that the world is made more real by moving forward, with out apology, without pause or reflection, following the string where ever it leads. But this is not poetry and it is not lyricism. The writer in those times they stop agitating the gravel and take pause to reflect, meditate, consider the thingness of the world they’ve blazed through a little too quickly, there arises the sense that one forgets that they are a writer, the self-appointed priest of making things happen on the fly; the writing becomes about the world , the people, the places, the things that occupy the same space as you, the same patch of land your visiting. It becomes less about the writer, the seeker of knowledge attempting to gain knowledge through velocity , the impatient explorer more concerned with inflaming their senses rather than being genuinely curious about and teachable within the world. You have to stop , take a breath, create a language, a poetry, a prose style that convinces the reader that they’ve actually encountered something extraordinary in their travels through hill and dale, river and inlet, village and burg, that they’ve actually learned something they didn’t know before. Otherwise , I believe, nothing is revealed because nothing was learned and, despite all manner of ranting and such protests defending one’s unique view, that view is forgotten and another opportunity is lost to move a reader in ways you might not have expected.