Monday, August 10, 2015

Mailer and Violence

Let’s Be Clear: Norman Mailer’s Wife-Stabbing Was Not Art | Flavorwire:
This is a compelling think piece that pushes aside the intellectual dishonesty that followed Norman Mailer's stabbing of his second wife Adele Mailer 1960. Mailer was preening about the country as something of a self-constructed Existentialist philosopher who had invested a huge amount of  energy praising particular members of the Beat generation, who lived by a code of Hip (adopted from what was taken from the manner of ethos of Black American culture) that allowed them to seek experiences that were truer, more exciting, more beneficial to mental health, a style of being that included the use of violence to break the chain that binds them to the System. Mailer's quotes  after the near-fatal stabbing didn't help his cause, as this article recalls:
"It changed everything in my life. It is the one act I can look back on and regret for the rest of my life. And it happened out of the way I was living. There’s no question about that. What happened is I was getting into more and more of a violent edge.'' -Norman Mailer
The early quotes he gave after the stabbing sounded like someone who wanted to give the impression that he had realized the horror of what he had done and that he had taken measures to step from the violent edge, but it comes across as a form of bragging, that he was the only one among who had the courage to experiment with life choices that make for unpredictable results. Mailer was, in effect, congratulating himself for being an example of The White Negro he hypothesized about. It's my feeling that the writer , in the decades since up to the time of his death, was acutely aware of gross his remarks came off as; if nothing else, he likely wishes he had a more delicate sense of phrase making at the time. Or perhaps he wishes he had kept his mouth shut all the same. Mailer, though, could not resist the lure of a reporter's microphone ,nor the desire to make his own experience like one of the characters in his novels, someone who is in a narrative that is a philosophical construct to test the limits of his ideas about violence being a sane and effective method to free the psychically burdened individual from a cancer-causing conformism that Society imposes on them. 

But Mailer did, I think, make a life long and very earnest inquiry in his novels, essays, plays, journalism, reviews and films to understand violence, to get solid insights as to what drives people to such states of rage and anger that they become unhinged enough to commit violence, horrible, violence. It's a subject that was, in essence, his lifelong project.  There's no way around this this was an ugly, vile thing that Norman Mailer did to his second wife Adele; even those who greatly admire Mailer both as 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 an vile, mendacious, evil thing he'd done.  

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 big 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 un-diagnosed and not dealt with in any 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 the hook by blaming Mailer's act on 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 a 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 over all 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.


(An exchange with writer Barry Alfonso)

BA:Wouldn't you say that Mailer was a product to his times, responding to a sort of psychic claustrophobia we can only guess at today? How else to account for his PUBLIC declarations, let alone his private trangressions? Time moves on and things change; what was once an acceptable act of madness is now simply bad taste. The phrase "White Negro" is now fraught with all sorts of meanings and consequences that simply didn't exist when Mailer wrote his notorious essay. Advertisements -- for Yourself or anyone else -- discolor with age and grow lurid as the ink decomposes....

TB:I think the only good thing to come out of Mailer's attempted murder of his ex wife--and that is exactly what it was, stripped of the Laurentian apologetics that encourage a submission to impulse as a means of liberation--is that he wrote many hundreds of pages of magnificent prose in his attempts to discern the reason for what he typified as a the general insanity the culture that engulfed him. But you're right, Mailer, like many others, was seduced by the bright eyed outrageousness of the times, notions that seemed real alternatives to the ways things were being done in one's world. It was an excuse not to grow up , I guess, and the lessons deferred are the hardest lessons to accept when they finally return in later circumstances that cannot be ignored. At least Mailer realized he was on the slippery slope as he was more cautious with his later writing--his writing veered more toward the journalistic. Mailer was, perhaps, a self-regarding shit head to the end and it was a fluke that such a social galoot had the large gift he did for words. He wrote some masterpieces,w hich are for all time and for which curious readers should be grateful, but his deeds , venal and assholish to many, are hurts that remain in the lives of those who crossed his path.

BA:All true. It strikes me that Mailer has something in common with the Futurists, the Italian artists who worshipped speed, dynamism and violence and veered into the fascist camp. Mailer was no totalitarian, but he fell into the individualist/collectivist trap where the champion of the powerless becomes a power-drunk egomaniac who slashes in print and stabs in real life. This does not invalidate all of Mailer's work because writing bends the edges of conventional morality. It does validate his assertion that real life choices are inherently dangerous --SHOULD be dangerous -- and convicts him by his own standards, a sentence I think he would accept. Mailer would probably be behind bars and marked eternally as a pariah if he did what he did today. I would like to add that it would be interesting to critically compare Mailer with Ayn Rand in terms of their radical individualism. Mailer is a Dionysian figure, while Rand is Nietzschean in her outlook -- still, they both shared an intense desire to resist all-pervasive banal conformity as promoted by organized society. Mailer, I think, learned to accept the necessity of the Banal as he saw the consequences of his earlier positions and his bones took on the house-creak of age. Something to ponder...

 TB:Comparing Rand and Mailer  would be telling, no? Rand suffers in the comparison,not just for writing talent, but as an intellectual, which was to say that her ideas were little else than prolix bumper stickers and her characters being cut outs made of soggy cardboard. She took what she misunderstood from Nietzsche, with the simple position that those of genius, great ability and intellect must not be constrained by slave morality and be free to do what they want and that society in whole must accede to their needs and demands. She was in fact a Social Darwinist, thinking that everyone else who was "a taker" should just perish due to their own mediocrity. It's a position that she really hadn't modified in all her time among the living; there is a redundancy of claims in her writings. Realize, also, that her body of work was small considering that she lived until she was 77 with her wits fully gathered, 11 books published in her lifetime, about half of them collections of previously published essays from the Objectivist newsletter and other sources. She wasn't especially curious about the world she lived in, had no interest in most kinds of art or literature, could care less about trends or social movements beyond her own agenda. She had figured it all out, mapped it out, stated her claims about the ethical structure of the universe and saw anything that deviated from her half-witted assertions to be the thinking of someone who is insane and immoral. She was a cartoon character with no sense of humor. 

She could debate Irwin Cory, I suspect, and not have a clue that she was being set up for punchline. She also justified the use of violence as a means to an end, a slippery slope, notable in The Fountainhead, where Randian hero Howard Roark rapes the heroine, the erstwhile heroine, a conquest he's entitled too because he's a genius (in Rand's world view) and who destroys a government funded housing project for the poor he had secretly designed because bureaucrats messed around with his intellectual property,his creation. Later, at trial, he gives a long speech claiming his right to build anything for anyone for any reason but only on his own terms, without interference, without question, without alteration. It's a stirring speech geared for mid teens who, hopefully, graduate to more nuanced writers. Mailer was a more complicated mass of influences and motivations, a Progressive Marxist, a Jewish Mystic, a religious existentialist, a literary artist, a politician, a masculinist,. We've discussed the virtues and demerits of Mailer's conceptualization of the world in terms of his opinions and his actions, including his stabbing of Adele Mailer, but Mailer ,  unlike Rand, had a fairly extensive body of writings by the time of his death, forty some books, novels, journalism, plays, poems, essay collections, movies. Not all of it was good, of course, but Mailer was a man who,though harboring and nurturing concepts that remained with him for life, mellowed , shall we say, when it came time to grow a little and rethink the emphasis he put on some early postulations and assertions. Mailer continued to write, expanded on old ideas, changed his mind on others, came up with new notions, positions, fresh opinions. His fascination with violence became something that went from the deliberate flirting with the idea that murder was potentiay a means of personal salvation to trying to understand what makes individuals capable of monstrous acts. He matured enough to realize that though he may present a logical case, framed in metaphor and philosophical trappings and lyrical language, of how destroying something or someone can release a beauty that was , until then, only the idea of beauty, the act of violence,the murder,the mayhem,the destruction has no inherent logic , now utilitarian purpose than to simply destroy what is around you. It is not beauty that is released, but only misery, grief and despair as a consequence. Mailer wanted to change the way people view the world, a conceit of all Modernists from the beginning, reactionary and progressive, but rather than tell populations how to behave according to an oppressive plan, he desired that the likes of us all achieve a freedom that was meaningful in terms of personal fulfillment and fostering a greater sense of community among a diverse citizenry.

BA: All pungent and defensible assertions here. What I would suggest as an associative link between individuals as different as Mailer and Rand is the presence of a rampant Ego and a Will to Rage at the tapioca-beige walls of mid-20th Century America. It is certainly true that Rand had the unshakable confidence that is true insanity, as well as a fatal lack of a sense of humor. Mailer recognized absurdity, embraced illogic and ran with the dogs with his tongue hanging out down the dark corridors of carnality. But both he and the iron-assed Ayn refused to submit to community-centered Law and justified their actions by a primal belief in Divine or Unholy Nature (take your pick). To call Mailer a progressive Marxist is to speak of the rational side of the bifurcated personality he never fully displayed until his later years – when the full moon was out and his blood was up, he howled and rutted and pissed on the Bible, the Constitution and Das Capital alike. Howard Roark and Rojack were cousins with weirdly dilated eyes who knew no Master. The difference might be that a sobered Mailer recognized his own madness, while Rand gloried in it without qualm.

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