13 November 2007

More on Mailer

What fascinates me about Norman Mailer is that he seemed to be the last survivor of a heroic age of American literature. Does any author these days actually aspire to fame based on anything other than sales numbers? Mailer idolized Ernest Hemingway, who was thought to have found a new way of describing human experience, and at the same time projected an ideal of adventurous manliness. Like Hemingway, Mailer was egotistically combative, determined to be recognized as the champion U.S. writer, and he had an early, massive success in the novel The Naked and the Dead to back his claim -- a success, in fact, that earned Hemingway's resentment, since he considered it his right to write the great novel of World War II. No present writer, to my knowledge, declares his ambition to top Mailer. In part, this reflects Mailer's failure to hold the summit of novelists, but who else might the modern writers see as a master to surpass? I suspect that they have surrendered the field of fame to the Stephen Kings, the John Grishams, and all those who win the numbers game. Stephen King is a celebrity, but does anyone think he's making an important contribution to civilization? Not even himself, I'd guess. This is not to assert recklessly that Mailer made such a contribution, but I admire his aspiration to do so, and I miss it in the present generation.

In my view, Mailer ultimately succeeded better in non-fiction because he was such a narcissist. Not having read The Naked and the Dead, I can't say that he came into his own until he made himself and his perceptions the principal subject of his writing. This is often dismissed as pure egoism, but it differs from, for instance, Hemingway's egoism in its concern for self-analysis and self-criticism. Mailer's writing is often criticized for self-indulgence, but he believed it necessary to face up to his own demons, admit his worst feelings and fantasies, and address them in a manner more objective than he often got credit for. Reading Advertisements for Myself, I see a harsh and not self-flattering honesty in his expectation of barbaric, psychopathic violence as the perhaps necessary alternative to the suffocation and slow death of everyone at the hands of an increasingly totalitarian society. Mailer is no Utopian and no pacifist. Here's something from an interview he included in the book:

"The trouble is that it's enormously difficult to return to the senses. We're all civilized, and to return to the senses and keep the best parts of our civilized being, to keep our capacity for mental organization, for mental construction, for logic, is doubly difficult, and there's a great danger that the nihilism of Hip will destroy civilization. But it seems to me that the danger which is even more paramount --the danger which has brought on Hip -- is that civilization is so strong itself, so divorced from the senses, that we have come to the point where we can liquidate millions of people in concentration camps by orderly process."

But in the next breath he allows that he could be completely wrong:

"If the divorce from the senses I talk about is becoming a human condition, then by all means, yes, civilization must be cashed in or we will destroy ourselves in the cold insensate expressions of due process of law and atomic radiation. On the other hand maybe this divorce from the senses involves just a small party of my generation, and the Square, in contrast, leads a sensuous life with sufficient contentments to keep him civilized (in the good sense) and equable. It is we -- hipsters -- who would then be the only ones alienated from our senses. If this be true, then everything I have said is merely an intricate and ingenious rationalization to defend my neurotic .. perversities, anh? [ellipsis in original] Of course, I don't believe this is true."

Your own appraisal will determine Mailer's worth for your own intellectual development. The important thing is not whether you take his word for it or not, but to ask the question yourself and appeal to your own experience and knowledge. In some cases you should by all means not take his word for it, because in those cases words like "style," "mood," "orgy" or "cancer" become a kind of jargon with special meanings to him that we don't necessarily share. Overall, though, his message is clear enough. But despite that claim, I'll probably discuss it more later this week.

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