Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mailer: self-made sociopath

As a young man banging around New York parties , the late writer Norman Mailer liked to make a big noise among the friends and strangers that he surrounded himself with and claimed, in various guises under varying excuses, that he was the best writer in the world, that no one else could write, fuck or  be more studly than he was. Mailer was, though, writing up a storm and was always provocative in ways that allowed him to keep getting published in magazines, newspapers, and books. An existentialist of his own design, he wanted to be a man of action, eager to shake off what tether wrapped around him and to severe the metaphorical leeches the culture laid on his brilliant soul; he was afraid, that his weenie was going soft. He picked fights with people. That was awful enough, all the drunken brawls and head-butting committed as a means to distinguish himself from the herd, but he there was that moment when he was fucked up in the head with enough ego, booze and, assumedly, high-powered powders that he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales Mailer. 

There's no way around this was an ugly, vile thing that Norman Mailer did to his second wife Adele; even those who greatly admire Mailer both as a writer and keen intellect have no easy way of addressing this violent incident. One can cite mitigating circumstances, such as that Mailer was crazed on a combination of booze, pot and Benzedrine (his favorite combination during the Fifties), but there is something to be said for the idea that since Mailer had written so brilliantly about masculinity and the possibilities of violent acts to shatter old, limitations and allow an adventurous man to realize and take advantage of new possibilities (this is outlined in his problematic essay "The White Negro") ,it's plausible that Mailer, crazed with narcissism, drugs and the bohemian spirit of 50s avant-garde thinking, decided that he ought to practice what he preached and attempt his own cure. There has been a lot of double talk over the 45 years since I first became interested in Mailer as to whether the writer, in fact, was acting with some sort of perverse integrity by stabbing his wife, and for me that does not cut ice. The best thing to come out of this incident was the fact that no one was killed. Mailer had remained silent, for the most part, on this incident for most of his life, although just a couple of years before he died in 2007 he admitted that he was so horrified by the assault that he could not bring himself to write about it or talk about it. He admitted that it was a vile, mendacious, evil thing he'd done. To his credit, Mailer did try to understand the nature of evil imaginatively in a series of essays, novels, and journalism, most notably in his novels "An American Dream", a fictional piece where a Maileresque hero (the celebrity Mailer) willfully gives himself over to a violent impulse and seeks to rid himself of what he considers is killing him psychically : he murders his wife, steals a Mafia Don's mistress, beats up a character intended to represent to be Miles Davis, and defies the New York City Police Department, the CIA and other sinister, secret forces. It should be mentioned that the novel's hero is constantly drunk through this escapade. It is a brilliantly written book, containing many passages of astonishing poetry and insight into mores and social relations, and I regard it as an obscene male fantasy he needed to write, an act of speculation about what would happen if the Mailer hero were unleashed onto the world.  Mailer, a bit older and wizened to a degree, was likely not all that pleased with the mess this Mailerian existentialist in the course of the story.

I suspect he felt to write his next novel, "Why Are We in Vietnam", as an attempt to suggest reasons for the propensity of American males to irrational violence--it's a funny story about an Alaskan bear hunt, a reworking of "The Bear" by Faulkner, and through the characters he presents a thick layering of issues that are not resolved and which, being undiagnosed and not dealt with in an authentic way, mingle and merge and produce a tension that can only be released through violence or art. Mother issues, latent homosexuality, technology removing culture and the people in it from authentic, tactile experience with their world, a political agenda that knows only to expand and conquer with religion and natural law as bogus rationales--this is a lumpy stew of issues that make us , as a whole and individually, functionally insane and capable of nearly anything as the right provocation presents itself. "The products of America go insane" is what William Carlos Williams said, and the title of the novel, asking us why we are in Vietnam, has a simple answer: because we had to be, by our nature. This is not to let anyone off the hook by blaming Mailer's act on the environment and other extraneous details. Mailer's violence against Adele Morales was, at the heart of the matter, a conscious act. He was aware of the difference between right and wrong and he chose to do the wrong thing. Mailer, I think, is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and was deserving of the praise he has received, but he also deserves the damnation. He has written several masterpieces and overall I think his literary reputation will grow. But we need to remember all the things he did and understand, as well, that there is something unjust about a man, no matter how you admire his work, who thrives professionally after the fact.


  1. Vincente Scintillo6:36 AM PDT

    Many good points here, as well as a well-balanced assessment of Mailer as a writer and a human being. I would additionally stress that Mailer was a product of his times, incited to engage in increasingly dangerous and self-destructive behavior by the cult of the primitive that seized some on the cultural Left after it became apparent that the Great God Communism had failed miserably to bring on the grand new utopia so many had been wishing for. Mailer’s overheated effusions of personal freedom and rampant machismo can be placed in the context of “Blackboard Jungle,” “The Wild One,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and other films that celebrated a false depiction of juvenile delinquency and leather-jacket cool. Stir in a misconception of the Negro’s place in American life and a selective reading of French existentialism, add pep pills, Bennie and Mary Jane and you have a recipe for intellectual derangement. In Mailer’s case, I would imagine there would be the alienation of a returning G.I. facing the cloying conformity of post-WWII America, a condition reflected more mildly in the studied irresponsibility of the Beat Generation. That Mailer didn’t simply succumb to insanity and irrelevance is a testimony to his solid gifts as a craftsman, occasional embarrassing spasms of ludicrous tough-guy dementia like Maidstone notwithstanding. As a political thinker, Mailer often crumbles upon serious analysis – he could be a good reporter but was a fitful visionary at best. Despite his feints, struts and lunges, he wasn't Edmund Wilson, much less Henry Adams. Re-reading Some Honorable Men (a collection of his political convention reporting), I was stuck by how reactive his writing was; there’s plenty of rich detail and deft character sketches, but a paucity of deep thought or sustained reflection. There’s always the sense of The Reporter/Aquarius trying to prove himself, to stand up to the Man, the equivalent of LBJ showing off how big his rascal was to the army brass You can blame it on the ‘60s or the Military-Industrial Complex or indulging in too many TV guest appearances, but Mailer continued to cling to his belief in the salvation of applied irrationality well into the ‘70s and probably didn’t lose it until his body clamped down on his libido, giving up the braak and bugga for the inner chambers of sagacious age.

  2. As a writer, it's always been the odd combination plate with Mailer, genius, fool, asshole, usually in the confines of the same book. Mailer is a product of his times and his temperment as an artist has obvious origins--D.H.Lawrence, Henry Miller, Hemingway--but all artists are creations of their times. As much as I believe in the idea of Free Will and the ability of the individual to map out their own course and have a say in their destiny, the best and worst decisions they can make are molded by the best and worst thinking history provides up to their particular moments. Most writers become relics, no matter good the reviews, while a few produce books that survive an individual's bad choices, foul words and general stupidity and last decades beyond a writer's lifetime. Mailer, I believe, is one of these few, and it would be a safe wager that more than a few of his books will be read and parsed for some time to come. Great writers are great inspite for their most earnest efforts to be great. Mailer was a brilliant novelist, but that is an issue subject to further research among the academics; Mailer is lucky to have lived in such convulsive times, an era readymade for a bright young man with a facile mind to riff upon.


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