Showing posts with label Norman Mailer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Norman Mailer. Show all posts

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. 

Monday, September 5, 2022


Taschen has published an expensive"art edition" re-issue the long out of print controversial Norman Mailer biography of Marylin Monroe, 1973's Marylin. It will, I think, make available what is one of the most underrated of Mailer's books. The book was controversial indeed when first published in 1973; charges of plagiarism and an attendant lawsuit from the authors of biographies used in his research put a pall over Mailer's interpretative accomplishment, and feminists and progressives were particularly at arms by the fact that Norman Mailer, of all people, had written anything at length about Monroe. Mailer had, shall we say, a problematic relationship with women, personally and philosophically, during his public life, and it was easy enough to accuse the late author of indulging in a kind of literary onanism, projecting his ego on the public perception of Monroe, the actress and superstar, and inflicting those results on to us? I think it took courage on Mailer's part who, fully aware of his infamy regarding women's rights, birth control and his insistence on a cult of masculinity, to take on the subject of Monroe anyway (even, as Mailer has admitted, for the money) and to investigate his own conflicted perceptions of Monroe. Mailer is an arch romantic, and allows his prose to soar and swerve and swoop from great heights in an attempt to capture something about Monroe the cultural force that film criticism, fashion commentary and sociological analysis couldn't get near. This book contains Mailer's Private Marylin Monroe, and at the time it was published it was a florid, beautifully written, occasionally interpretation of the dry facts about Monroe's life and career. Monroe is one of the central icons of 20th century American culture, no less than Elvis or JFK, and one ought not be surprised that dozens of smart writers like Mailer have taken their turns re-imagining, recasting, reinterpreting the life of historic figures. Mailer's interpretative biography, I think, is a well written, occasionally brilliant piece of speculation about the source of Monroe's persona and the effect she had on a generation of male psyches. He does the splendid trick of bold speaking of her as a sexual creature who honed her limited craft into an Art that could not be ignored, the notion that Presence itself sometimes suffices as a legitimate aesthetic gesture, and then qualifying his pronouncements that what he proposes, based on other people's facts, is his conjecture. Monroe's' career as an actress was entirely fascinating. Mailer's public musings on what she meant beyond the films she made is not less intriguing, even now.

A later book Mailer wrote on Monroe was published in 1980, Of Women and their Elegance, which combined Mailer's latest interpretations of the actresses' life along with the photographs of Milton H. Greene. This time eschewed doing further interpretative biographical work and instead composed a fictional portrayal, an imagined first-person narrative Monroe that can be taken by the reader either as readings from a secret journal or a long conversation with an unnamed confidant. It's a short novel, generally unheralded when discussions of Mailer's fiction arise. I think it's a bit of a minor masterpiece. An underappreciated Mailer work, one which, to my mind, debunks the general charge that Mailer couldn't write complex or compelling women characters. The controversies involving Mailer and his feminist critics is likely to remain current for the foreseeable future, but his fictionalized account of Monroe presents the troubled actress--part naif, part fighter, smarter than likely men and women film goers and critics preferred to think--as someone caught between different personalities that constitute the Hollywood snake pit. Mailer allows her a first person narration and creates a voice and personality that attempts to be a serious artist and to do good work and also, please bosses, boyfriends, husbands, friends real and doubtful. The accusation might be put forth that this merely more male fantasy stuff that Mailer was given to composing when he sought to discuss the dynamics or difficulties of men and women relating to each other in a consumer culture --his previous "Marilyn biography, a marvelous and occasionally beautiful tribute to the actress did, at times, veer off into the most purple of prose stretches this side of Cornell Woolrich--but I think here the author allows the actress to address her narrative, in a clearly plain-spoken and sympathetic tone. It's a product of Mailer's imagination, I admit, but it is an intriguing read, a fine short novel. 

To that point, let me add that I wish Mailer had written larger number of shorter fictional works. Why Are We in Vietnam?, Tough Guys Don't Dance, An American Dream --these novels are controversial and have been subject to great praise and red-hot scorn, but it's been my feeling that he functioned as a fabulist engaged in outrageous notions when he was pressed for time and wrote feverishly, his language loose, nearly chaotic, brilliantly conveying the fevered spirit of Mailer's best and worst thinking. Of Women is one of those novels that introduces its ideas quickly and explores them vividly, daring to tweak the conventional thinking , willing to be assumed the fool for doing so, and willing as well to have his best writing and his worst ideas exist in in concise firepit of linguistic experimentation and ersatz mysticism. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Harlot's Ghost, a novel by Norman Mailer

Image result for harlots ghost
This is a generational saga more than anything else, the story of Harry Hubbard and his relationship with his CIA mentor, the titular Harlot. It is, I think, a brilliant mess of a novel, not unlike the projects the Central Intelligence Agency has taken on covertly, unheard of and unspoken, in order to preserve the good graces and virtue of the United States. The main message, I think, is that one cannot fight evil unless they understand exactly what evil is and are willing to be evil , unprincipled, lacking in romanticized notions of goodness and fairness in order to combat any and all threats that approach our shores.  It is messy work, in other words, and there is a liturgy here, something approaching a theological world view that places the agency and its agents in a context that represents an over specialized class of professional attempting to rationalize the vileness of their work by allusively equating their violence, lies and disruptions as serving the greater good.What especially intrigues about this novel is the foul premise that one cannot effectively fight evil unless they are able to become evil themselves, which is to say that the agents in play, visiting various bits of expensive and furtive skulduggery against enemies present and invisible, have to pay grave  lip service to the virtues of American freedoms and the governing institutions that direct them, but who must be able to betray every moral principle they've sworn to uphold as a means of defending against the godless, the unbathed, the fearfully "other". Rather than have agents who are compartmentalized to the extent that they lie, cheat, steal and dispatch bad guys by day and watch TV and crosswords at night, we have instead characters who are at war with the lies they tell themselves.Within this is a paranoia that is made into a layered, convoluted, brooding world. Not a perfect novel, but a genuine work of literature none the less. I would venture that this is Mailer's best novel. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Gritty, clammy, unresolved:Mailer vs Germaine Greer, Jill Johnson, Diana Trilling

Germaine Greer
There are perverse types who think that if one places a group of people in the same room who've sworn, metaphorically or literally, to destroy each other, the reflex to go for one's gun will subside and what will result is a frank exchange of opinion, insights and life stories. And after the participants have learned that they're not nearly as distant from each other as they had thought, they'll lock arms, brothers, and sisters all, and stroll down the beach into the fiery sun of a higher revolution. All eyes raised, shoulders broad, worker and intellectual, farmer, and chemist, all eyes upraised and looking to the top of the mountain we will climb, as one, united in cause and spirit. Anyone of us can, of course, say 'posh' to the .and know, ' smirking. that enemies remain antagonists to the bone despite the demands of decorum.  The results of these situations are inconclusive and crackling with uncertainty, a heap of hot laundry alive with static electricity,  neither side abjuring to the points made by an opponent. A lot of us like to watch a spat, a public argument of bright people trying to keep their personal views out of a heated grousing about matters that concern us all more so than the entertainment value of raised hackles and arched backs might otherwise indicate on first view. These are situations where otherwise reasonable people are reduced to the level of kids fighting over the use of a prized toy. As in hack-and-slash horror films, many of us get a cheap thrill over blood being drawn for no good purpose.  Or, one could postulate, no one looks good in a shouting match if that passes as a good purpose. That is a reminder to the rest of us to pick our battles and pick our venues in which to have them.

Norman Mailer
So was the case with the film Town Bloody Hall, a documentary in the cinema vertie mode by director D.A. Pennebaker,  a little view film I had the good luck to see at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in the early 80s. Filmed in 1971, it is an account of a debate between writer Norman Mailer and an impressive panel of prominent feminist  polemicists  including Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch), radical lesbian Jill Johnson, literary critic Diana Trilling and a representative from The National Organization of Women, whose name I am unable to recall. Pioneer 2nd Wave feminist writer and critic Kate Millet had viciously vilified Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and Mailer himself in her tract Sexual Politics as outstanding representatives of an elitist male literary culture that has oppressed women by distorting their image so that the imaginations of male fictioneers might be better served. Mailer. whose pugnacious reputation has at times dwarfed his writings in the public mind, countered with The Prisoner 0f Sex, a scathing attack on Millet's lack of literary critical skills and her deliberate misreading~of the texts she was dealing with. It is also at turns a brilliant defense of Millet and Lawrence and a convoluted agonizing over the "existential" aesthetic in male/female relationships.

 Mailer's book sparked a fair amount of public debate, and some enterprising souls thought it would be a neat idea to have The Prisoner confront representatives from the opposition. To be expected, the event was hardly a shining example from a Kansas debate manual, but was rather a riot of rhetoric, name-calling, heckles from an unruly crowd and public spectacle. In other words, an intellectually worthless few hours, but, I'd say, a rousing good time. much like a TV wrestling match on a Saturday afternoon. With Mailer officiating, each speaker was to be given ten minutes to speak, after which Mailer would pose a question. Things got off to a proper start. First to talk was the NOW representative, who offered a list of moderate feminist proposals: housewives should draw a living wage, women should get equal pay for equal work and other less than incendiary ideas. Greer spoke next, eloquently attacking the premise of Mailer's literary heroisms and poetically called for an art of the collective, not of one voice but many. Then matters derailed and declined to the point where the night got permanently off-track. Reading from a text composed in the stream on conscious manner that has always sent me to pounding my head against the wall, Jill Johnson rhapsodized that all women are able to love all other women and until men are able to love all other men, the hopes of an all-embracing social revolution will be scuttled like pipe dreams. Mailer, poking a pencil through a cardboard coffee cup, his face a mass o( downturned lines, cut Johnson off at this point, saying that she'd done five minutes over the time limit. Johnson stands motionless while the audience heckles Mailer, demanding that he let her conclude. After an exchange of curses, he initiates an audience vote and concludes that the 'nays' have it. Someone heckles Mailer again. and Mailer, agitated. points to the crowd and says "If you think you can do a better job than me, then come up here (the stage) and take this microphone from me."Johnson effectively undercuts Mailer's angry-dad tantrum as she begins to make-out and grab as with a woman-friend on stage while Mailer demands that she "act like a lady." When the audience cheers the pair on, Mailer says "You people paid twenty-five dollars to see two pairs of dirty jeans wrestle on stage, which seems odd to me because you can ee all the cock and cunt you want down the street for four bucks." Johnson and friend leave the hall, not to return.

Picking up the pieces after Johnson's psycho-theatrics was hard, and for the rest of the debate the panel split hairs on Mailer's "poeticized" understanding of biology, whether vaginal orgasms were possible, Mailer's warnings that Women's Lib has the potential of becoming a leftwing totalitarianism, why the women's movement must concern themselves with their own lot over all other causes and a host of other feelings, all accompanied by the interjections of an audience. With that, the night was ended, with no one's mind changed and few friends gained. What fascinates me about Town Bloody Hall isn't how concisely it's members articulated their views - in the long run, everyone loses their cogency as tangent pin out faster than a car on a greased blacktop- but just how the women's movement will have to shore up their own politic. In 1971, when this film was made, the movement was just beginning to develop a coherent analysis of the society that was oppressing women. At this time of theoretical splendor,  a clumsy and clammy argument over vaginal orgasm, a pertinent citing of a housewife' right to draw a wage and a far-reaching critique of the culture and politics of art and literature were the order of the day. In the ten years since the debate, the right wing in the country has managed to shore up its own resources and have shown themselves to be astonishingly effective. The fact that Ronald Reagan won the presidency on a platform that opposes abortion and the ERA and holds a grab-bag of other. " Conservative sentiments means that the women's movement is faced with a crisis, a crisis that means that the advancements women have managed over the years could be handily wiped out, setting them back to square one. Town Bloody Hall quite unintentionally reveals what the women's movement must do: hipster bohemianism must be doffed and women must more than ever enter the gritty, un-scrubbed ruthlessness of mainstream electoral politics. And that will be the next test on the movement. If it's to have a lasting effect on the culture in which all of us live, it must be affirmed at the voting booth. A sudden, un-decorated realism is cast upon all of us.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Bromancing at the Ramparts

Image result for buckley mailer
The Difficult Frienship that
Shaped the Sixties
By Kevin M. Schultz
Both men in the title were large presences in the worlds they inhabited, and likewise enjoyed the continued company of other men of equally over sized personality. Schultz gives an accurate , vivid and swift accounting of the relationship between Mailer and Buckley, summing up their world views , their similarities and differences handsomely, but there is not much here in the way of literary criticism or speculation.  

Schultz's thesis, that both writers represented conflicting movements in the culture, the stalwart Right battling off the revolutionary Left, is a shaky at best.Buckley, though, was the leader of a movement, the Conservative Movement, which he was instrumental in founding and organizing with his publication The National Review and his program Firing Line. He used the NR platform to formalize a philosophy that charged thousands of younger conservatives into getting involved in politics, their greatest triumph being the election of Ronald Reagan.Mailer did co-found the Village Voice, of course, but sold his stake in it to finance his films, and was, unlike Buckley, a political wild card. He sided with the left on many a cause and belief, but there was a stubborn conservative contrarianism in is viewpoint, a quality that made him fascinating as a writer and thinker but, shall we say, unstable as an ally, let alone leader of anything.His treatment of both writers is, I think, much too worshipful . This is precisely the kind of subject that makes you wish the late John Leonard were still with us in order to take apart , inspect and comment upon the public utterances and behaviors of Bill and Norm and render a judgement as to how both men, as thinkers, will be effected by the eventual and brutal judgement of history. But for those fascinated by the culture, art and politics of the 50s and 60s, certainly a combustible era for America, Buckley and Mailer is an informative, if terse, recounting of the doings of two of its most interesting white men.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sometimes crazy is merely crazy

Too many books are called "unfilmable" as a matter of habit; each of us, I bet, can offer an example of a novel that" could not be adopted" that found a splendid movie interpreter. "An American Dream," though, is one of those books that truly does not lend itself well to what we regard as good moving making source material. This version was so redacted as something resembling a Saturday Night Live sketch rather than a vision of one's breakdown and journey into the psychic wilds. 

AAD was Mailer's best use of Lawrence's influences and his unique ideas about religious existentialism. It was a brooding, baroque and sensationalistic embrace of the irrational, the madness poet Allan Ginsberg declared that we must not hide, the intensely focused idea that the impulses beyond the Norm can actually deliver us, individually and collectively, from greater insanity that erodes our humanity, and worse, our masculinity by the repulsive inch. Crackpot theories of all sorts proposing extreme and unsubstantiated cures for the ailing psyche were resonating in Mailer's mind at the time he took on the endeavor to write An American Dream on deadline, a chapter a month for Esquire magazine, the goal is to write quickly for equally quick cash. Mailer took the challenge and never looked back, the result being what would be an utterly ridiculous novel saved only by the sublime and frenetic flights of language the author's fevered pace produced as each deadlined reared. It isn't surprising that Mailer had a few of his own, a spikey concoction took from Marx, Wilhelm Reich, Lawrence. It was a crime novel, a novel of metaphysical mulling, a tale of a spiritual quest, a black comedy, a confession, a serial about the dysfunctions of the wealthy.  The things that irritated readers in the novel--murder, sodomy, a battle with a black musician with a definite hoodlum style--are nonetheless presented with the frenetic brilliance of Mailer's prose, a rushing stream of continuous simile, metaphor, and allegory of a man in the throes of a breakdown that leaves a good amount of wreckage in his wake. At the same time, he pursues the impulse to learn how to be brave and love genuinely by extraordinary measures. 

The film, the skeletal and deadpan rendition of the admittedly lurid plot, gets none of Mailer's tone, nuance, or inclination precisely. This was Mailer's testing his theories about violence and transformation from "The White Negro" and what it revealed to Mailer, I believe, was that the kind of spiritual transformation through an embrace of an anti-social and psychotic definition of "courage" resulted in Mailer didn't expect, which caused Mailer to re-think his notions about the curative properties of his imagined road to genuine masculinity. It seems that the gulf between Saint and Psychotic was larger than he first thought, that the psychotic is in a state in which they remain psychotic and become a threat to themselves and the communities in which they live. 

Do the pure products of America go insane, as WC Williams has remarked? In any event, his next novel, "Why Are We in Vietnam," a cannily refurbished telling of Faulkner's short tale "The Bear," puts to men in the woods hunting pray with far too much firepower and reveals characters trying to make nature bow to their will and weapons, with a narrator, DJ, telling the tale in a surreal mix of idioms--disc jockey, black hipster, a southern baptist preacher, literary scholar--ranting on about God and men and penises and caca with no direct connection to anything outside nature if only to insist in a diffuse ramble that all returns to earth as waste. And the question in the title is answered only on the last page, but with no direct answer but this ."Hot damn! Vietnam". Do the pure products of America go insane? Mailer answered by imagining his notions of achieving masculinity through blood rites: as pure American products, we were in Vietnam because we had to be. We end up being the things we choose to become, with results that run afoul of our ideas of resulting benefits.

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.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Mailer and the middle finger

Another Mailer obsessive posted in an online forum dedicated to the late writer's life and work that he was of the opinion that Advertisements for Myself was the most audacious work produced in 20th century literature. I scratched my  head, figuratively, and wondered if he meant in all languages, or in literature written exclusively in English? And if the criteria was English only, what titles did Mailer beat out to be the most audacious?

 More than Naked Lunch? Gravity's Rainbow? Ulysses? The Recognitions? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Howl? Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note? Wise Blood? Myra Breckenridge? White Noise? The Balcony? Post Office? 

Advertisements for Myself was audacious and brilliant indeed, but claiming it as most audacious for an entire century is more audacious than factually accurate. Mailer has done better and more daring work since that book, more audacious, if you will--An American Dream, Why are We in Vietnam, Ancient Evenings. And I think any number of writers from the 20th century can have an equal claim to literary daring do. 

This is not to take Mailer down but to simply assert that he is rare company, writers with incredibly idiosyncratic lives who managed , against the odds of getting in their own way with fancy and folly, to write literature that is genius of the rarest form. Mailer had competition in that regard, making himself the center of his writing. Bukowski certainly isn't shy showing warts and all, Henry Miller was especially arrogant enough to write about himself past the point of genius to wretchedly excessive confession, and the likes of Lawrence and Genet were prone to make most of their male characters fanciful versions of their public biographies. What matters , 
is the degree of genius the writing reveals; I would agree that Mailer's track record is rather high on the scale.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

In a nutshell, my least favorite and most favored Mailer Novels.

I regard "Barbary Shore" as the only total failure among the many brave books Mailer wrote. In "Advertisements for Myself" he discusses in detail his thinking about wanting to write something completely different from what made him famous--would he write "The Naked and the Dead" Go to Paris--and one can't fault him for wanting a reputation as more than a "war novelist". There are spots where the writing shines, but at the end of the day and the last page. the novel is turgid and reads like a better than average submission to a collegiate short story course. Mailer hadn't yet found a style that suited him and which would avail him a genuinely flexible style that would serve him effectively for several decades. The politics and metaphysics haven't aged well, the sex appeal is awful, the book is a plod. I've read where Mailer has defended the book , as well he should, but I'm fairly sure he acknowledged its shortcomings and  would admit, privately, to a confident, that it was a lesson in how to start and finish a new novel after the rush of creating the first inspired saga has ebbed and what remains to do be done is actual work.  

Barbary Shore has defenders, but it hasn't the flow or rhythmic mastery of the Mailer writing that came with the linking narrative of Advertisements for Myself. Shore reads like an over controlled style, good writing on the face of it but reeking of the exhaustion one witnesses when they read a young writer trying and to not sound like the writers that influenced him. Additionally, I think he was too taken with the convenient metaphor of the boarding house being an existential hell that harbors various creatures who's nerve has failed them; what is obvious is that no one leaves the property for good until one of them makes a decision to do something, follows through on their choice, and then takes full and unapologetic responsibility for the results and / or consequences. Barbary Shore was a practice novel of ideas--he would later write some of the most brilliant fiction of his generation in short order.

In the other extreme , my favorite Mailer  novel is An American Dream, and has been since I read it in high school  in  1970. As was said before, this book is a fever dream, and it supports my notion that Mailer at this period was keyed in to the poetry and poetics of rage like no one else was. Rage, anger, possession by absolute venting makes the world a coherent and connected place, and Mailer's Roszak, an alternately roiling and quaking mass of revenge and maudlin tenderness, is off on a series of hallucinations in which forces behind the appearance of things command him to endure a series of challenges and tests. It is something of a Faustian pact, with the Devil being in the circumstances where Roszak decides to delve deeper into a willful evil in order to rid himself of what he imagines is a disease. Mailer had written so much about violence up to now that the fantasy that is An American Dream is Mailer's headlong test drive of this theories in narrative form, to see , in the act of violence, what new things might arise from the wreckage, what new experiences might result. By the end of the novel, at the phone booth at the edge of the Nevada desert, the hero is a mess, a new kind of man, somewhat flat in emotional affect, a harried soul who has effectively cauterized his anxieties and doubts by severing himself, violently, from his connections to a previous life. The book is simply astounding.