Thursday, February 2, 2023

NORMAN MAILER AT 100 (and some miscellany)


Happy Birthday, Norman Mailer, born January 31, 1923. The late author was never everyone's favorite, certainly not with most critics and a large part of the reading public. It was difficult to remain neutral about Mailer if you'd him because he was anything except well-behaved and soft-spoken like serious writers were supposed to be. Mailer was vain, arrogant, seriously convinced that he had instincts greater than those of mortal men, and he had opinions, an endless stream of them. He was, though, charming to a fault when he needed to be, he was seriously engaged with the issues and    activities in the America of his time, politically, culturally, aesthetically, he challenged cant from the right and the left when he heard it, and tried to make sense of the roiling forces that were driving America to the brink of becoming a lumbering, mindless brute among nations. He was a cracker barrel philosopher at times, offering up a simple version of existentialism when he wandered too far from specifics, facts and figures, and other times what insights he was reaching for exceeded his reach. 

But just as often he was incisive, investigating the odd forces at work in the country he loved, and composed a series of books that were unique, compelling, elegantly written and serious inquiries about the larger consequences of problematic happenstance. Not a philosopher, not a psychologist sociologist, he was finally one thing, a writer, a writer who thought it is his task to dig deep into his psyche to understand and evaluate what he bore witness to--feminism, boxing, Moon landings, political conventions, protest marches, the culture of graffiti art, the souls of execution bound murderers- and give reports, opinions, revelations, arguments linked together with his genius for metaphor. Again, Mailer was erratic in his output, but he did, in my view, hit the long ball out of the park on several occasions. Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, The Fight, Of a Fire on the Moon, Oswald's Tale, Executioner's Song--these are titles even those professing to despise Mailer and his work are forced to admit are great, admirable masterpieces of American literature, much to their chagrin. Mailer was the necessary man to have around in the day, according to Alfred Kazin. I couldn't agree more.

One of the things missing from Mailer's work is any mention of his attack on his wife.  This is a matter I don't think he ever came to grips with,not in writing.  For all his genius as a slinger of words, he fostered a good many bad and dangerous notions that, worst of all, he took seriously. There are times when I've read when his mythicized misogyny made me ill.  His unapologetic egotism was a mixed blessing. It gave him confidence to pursue his path, inspired by and rebellion against the writers who inspired him. Bloom had a general theory of that, the anxiety of influence, where great writers, genius writers, write with great determination in ways that different from what their inspirations had done. The irony is that the younger writer is forever in the shadow of those who came before him. This created tension when arrogance was a mask against feelings of being weak, and his efforts to create something his own, his voice, his set of metaphors and intellectual constructs to fit them in allowed to create a style and a personality that gave him some genuine triumphs as a novelist, journalist, essayist. The ego, though, drove him to make some resoundingly bad decisions in personal life and in his writing career. Rather than soar, he wrote books that were sluggish, muddleheaded. One can admire his refusal to apologize for anything he's done while a career and personal life, but he seemed blind to his shortcomings, those things that got him into snafus no reasonable person craves. But Mailer was not a reasonable person much of the time, and his embrace of the irrational resulted in some great books and much, much foolishness.



A fact of existence is that birthdays aren't happy events for many,a real fact that brings us to a protracted rant urging their abolition in a recent posting in Slate. Armed with statistics, quotes from experts and researchers  in the essence of what makes people unhappy, stressful, experience increased anxiety and contemplate the extreme cure of suicide, author Lauren Vinopal advocates for the outright banning of birthday celebrations. The main point is clear, and not unreasonably, that our consumer culture has turned our life's experience into a resource for the increased profit of corporations. But one can't shake the idea that she's stressing too much for a solution that seems as delusional as the super human expectations commodification gives more than a few people in our midst.   For millions of people, any one of a million things can be "triggers" for increased depression, anxiety and, yes, suicide. However, banning birthdays to alleviate these wretched conditions won't help anyone who truly suffers; life is one massive trigger, as such, for creating situations the emotionally fragile will react poorly to. Holidays, movies, comic books, 24 hour news channels, porn, drugs, alcohol, New Age sophistry, white supremacists, featherbedding politicians, fashion models, tall buildings, improperly set tableware, smooth jazz, raging bebop, classical music, anything on Nickelodeon... Where do we start on this project to rid society of properties that make living inside our skins and inside our heads a riot of emotions, with all kinds of metaphorical chairs being thrown across the brain pan? Or better, when do we stop demanding that problematic elements within the consumer culture be banned, canceled or more severely chastised and repudiated and instead summon the political will to provide Americans to a substantially improved and easily accessible health care system that includes a range of mental health provisions that can help the psychologically troubled to live fuller lives?  You would assume that the obvious answer is an easy one, though a difficult one and ongoing, to help fellow citizens live in society, not shield them from it.



Being of solid Irish American stock , my family and I have put with being subjected to every Irish stereotype and insult for decades, which brings me to say that I am sick of nearly all things Irish. Except a good number of poets, playwrights and novelists, but they're all dead. It's the whole "Ireland is the Israel for gentiles" hype that the equally deceased Harry Reasoner asserted years ago in one of these nutrition-free 60 Reports on what it means to be Irish, in Ireland. Likely the producers were looking for a nationality, an ethnic group they could fetishize without being accused of subjecting anyone to cultural caricature. But the Irish have been a caricature, and it's understandable why not a few folks have made livings extolling of the virtues of a country that seems to brag about full of grandiloquent , amiably belligerent alcoholics who are sad that getting into fist fights at poetry readings isn't the national sport. 

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