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Confessions of the Last American

The Armies of the Night: History As Novel; The Novel As History

by Norman Mailer
New American Library, 304 pp., $5.95

As one who dislikes Sean O’Casey’s autobiographies, I start with a strong prejudice against authors who write about themselves in the third person, and who have no fear of bombast. It was therefore with some of the feeling of a Christian being dunked in the Ganges that I immersed myself in the Mailerian prose. I had read The Naked and the Dead many years before, and with admiration, but since then I had read only excerpts from his other works. Selected by reviewers who were perhaps unfriendly, these excerpts led me to believe that I must have been wrong the first time.

At a first glance, The Armies of the Night seemed to confirm the impression. The title was an irritant, with its evocation of Arnold’s “ignorant armies”; if the writer cared enough to volunteer for one of the “armies” how could he, so quickly thereafter—and without any notable intervening experience—imply that both sides were fighting in benighted ignorance? This seemed too snappy a disengagement: a tranquility so promptly available casts doubt on the reality of the emotion recollected in it. Were the armies anything more than an impressive setting for the display of the author’s inner struggles? Were the steps of the Pentagon any more for the author than stage props for the most intimate of love-affairs: the Walls of Troy for Norman Troilus and Cressida Mailer?

In both cases, probably, the answers are: a little more, but not much. But as one reads the book—or rather the autobiographical part, “The Steps of the Pentagon,” which makes up the bulk of The Armies of the Night—this ceases to matter. A kind of miracle occurs. This prose, which seems turgid, is precise and witty; its excess is that of gusto, the rare triple triumph of a writer who enjoys writing, believes he is writing very well, and is justified in that belief. This egotism is so vast and lucid that it becomes a kind of modesty, even a medium through which comes new light on the world of which it is the iridescent center. By the sheer force of his intense interest in himself, and therefore in how his friends see him, Mr. Mailer sees his friends with exceptional clarity in their relation to him as well as to “History.”

NOT ALL the friends are quite friends, it is true: Mailer can draw blood; the name “Goodman” in particular, however preceded, seems to evoke dialectically whatever is wicked in him. Nor does he forget old enemies; a Time reporter puts him in mind of “the unhappy furtive presence of a fraternity member on probation for the wrong thing…”; the infestation of the Committee for Cultural Freedom by the C.I.A. “called up pictures of the cockroaches in a slum sink; not all the wines of the Waldorf could wash out a drop of that!”

But he writes well also about the few whom he admires. The conversations with Robert Lowell are especially pleasant to read, with Mailer’s astute and agreeably baffled comments:

Mailer was particularly graceless at these ceremonious repetitions by which presumably New England mandarins (like old Chinese) ring the stately gong of a new friendship forming.

And again:

I’m just going to read some poems,” he said. “I suppose you’re going to speak, Norman.”

Well, I will.”

Yes, you’re awfully good at that.”

Not really.” Harumphs, modifications, protestations and denials of the virtue of the ability to speak.

I’m no good at all at public speaking,” said Lowell in the kindest voice. He had indisputably won the first round. Mailer the younger, presumptive, and self-elected prince was left to his great surprise—for he had been exercised this way many times before—with the unmistakable feeling that there was some faint strain of the second-rate in this ability to speak on your feet.

MAILER’S ATTRACTION and repulsion for speaking in public form the moods of his relation to political life. His book opens with a gloriously disastrous speaking performance, and the book itself is a brilliant relation of writing to speaking and to the public, an exercise in showing off while analyzing how one shows off. As Mailer describes the after-speech feeling, the mood of omnis orator tristis, one even see exactly how so much tranquility could succeed quickly and genuinely to so much emotion:

It was due no doubt to the intimacy—that most special intimacy—which can live between a speaker and the people he has addressed, yes they had been so intimate then, that the encounter now, afterwards, was like the eye-to-the-side maneuvres of client and whore once the act is over and dressing is done.

As an episode from a novelist’s autobiography. The Armies of the Night is superb. What of its claims to be History and a Novel as well? Mr. Mailer himself seems to take these claims seriously enough, for he divides The Armies of the Night into two Books: Book One, in 216 pages, deals, under the title “History as a Novel: The Steps of the Pentagon,” with his personal experiences; Book Two, in 71 pages, under the title “The Novel as History: The Battle of the Pentagon,” is a narrative, with commentary, of things which he believes to have happened both before his own involvement and after his own removal from the scene.

The first is by far the more important, both as history and as an example of the novelist’s art. As a historical document, it is important for the detailed recollection—by an observer endowed with exceptional sensitivity, integrity, and memory—of significant events: the preparations for the March on the Pentagon, and the earlier stages of the March. Future historians, concerned with the moral and emotional climate of America in the late Sixties, will have to consult this part of The Armies of the Night. They will probably look there for light on such subjects as the motives of the white middle-class protest, the depth and nature of intellectual participation in protest, and the relations between races and generations engaged in protest. The historians will need Mr. Mailer because he writes on such subjects with a candor lacking in other sources which will be available to them. This part, then, is history but it is history which would lose much of its life if it were separated by scholarly analysis from what makes it breathe: the fact that it is also a tender but honest self-portrait by a novelist of extraordinary talent, carefully observing himself amid events of which he is, for himself, the center. He compares himself at one point to Proust; he is not quite Proust1 ; and the March on the Pentagon is not quite the Battle of Waterloo; yet “The Steps of the Pentagon” is rather like a Proustian version of Fabrice del Dongo’s Waterloo—an exquisitely drawn out recollection of a corner of history in its confusion as it is lived.

THE SHORT SECOND SECTION, “The Battle of the Pentagon,” is superficially more exciting, as it contains more “action.” The first section contained nothing more outwardly animated than conversations, speeches, a decorous march and a decorous arrest, and a brief period of not unusually eventful incarceration. The second has the “headline” material, the provocations offered by the hard-core activists to soldiers and police, and the final brutal charge of “the Wedge” by which the last stage of the demonstration was broken up. But the really important difference is that Mr. Mailer was “there” for Book One, and not for Book Two. The particular element which gives Book One its interest as “Novel”—the novelist’s interest in his own actions—disappears in Book Two; in theory it could be, but in fact it is not, replaced by some other center of personal interest. “As History,” Book Two is largely invalidated by the fact that the author is writing from hearsay, without revealing his sources. The result makes quite interesting reading, but is on a different level from Book One and it might have been better to publish it separately; calling it “The Novel as History” does not make it cease to be what it is—“Journalism as Journalism.”

Mr. Mailer’s commentary, so subtly penetrating when he analyzes personal experience, is less sure when, as in Book Two, he hands down general judgments. Here he seems to lack, precisely, a sense of history. “The New Left and the hippies,” he says, for example, “were coming upon the opening intimations of a new style of revolution—revolution by theatre and without a script.” But “revolution by theatre” is not new; both the English and the French Revolutions were highly theatrical, especially in their earlier “intimations”—the Bastille was a perfectly selected theatrical target. Nor is the “new style of revolution”—whether in America, France, West Germany, or China—really “without a script.” On the contrary, there are usually several scripts, for both sides of the agon, and this again is not new.

WHAT IS NEW, for this period of history, is that the Left has recovered for the moment something which once belonged to it, but which it had largely lost: a zest for play-acting. The glum rectitudes and certitudes of scientistic socialism had tended to repel the dramatic from politics; the appeal to the imagination through play-acting was regarded as a Fascist speciality: this is among the reasons why some of the Old Left think they discern traces of Fascism in the New Left. That emphasis on the heart, that distrust of rigorous reasoning, these costumes, this display…. Nor are these suspicions entirely confined to the Old Left; on the New Left too, among all these young Dantons, Desmoulins, Marats of fantasy and possibility, one can already pick out here and there the tight-lipped manner, the careful dress, and the touch of pedantry of the potential Robespierre. The play-actors have returned to the stage, but the Puritans are waiting their turn.

There are New Leftists who are of the Old Left in spirit; Mr. Mailer is to the right of the Old Left intellectually, but imaginatively drawn to what is most histrionic in the New. At the level of the prophetic editorial, which is that of the short second Book, this can lead him to disaster; as it does in the concluding section, “The Metaphor Delivered” which reads like the reverie of a patriotic adman, on reading Yeats’s The Second Coming:

Brood on that country who expresses our will. She is America, once a beauty of magnificence unparalleled, now a beauty with a leprous skin. She is heavy with child—no one knows if legitimate—and languishes in a dungeon whose walls are never seen. Now the first contractions of her fearsome labour begin—it will go on: no doctor exists to tell the hour. It is only known that false labour is not likely on her now, no, she will probably give birth, and to what?—the most fearsome totalitarianism the world has ever known? or can she, poor giant, tormented lovely girl, deliver a babe of a new world brave and tender, artful and wild? Rush to the locks. God writhes in his bonds. Rush to the locks.

The maudlin often beckons to Mr. Mailer, but in The Armies of the Night he does not yield to it until this last page, which it would be nice to be able to take as a final irony, a signature in self-parody. It is not that, it is a catastrophe, yet there is something fitting, something inevitable about it as an end for this book. Of no one could it be said with more truth than of Mr. Mailer that he “gives himself away.” To do this as he does it, requires great generosity of spirit, which pervades this book. Such generosity involves the capacity to make a great fool of oneself, which Mr. Mailer does with abandon on his last page. Rousseau was rather like that; no European now writing could achieve either the heights or the depths of The Armies of the Night.

There has been, after all, something in the talk of American innocence. No doubt it is a false innocence, fabricated by a myth-charged education: the lady who was “once a beauty of magnificence unparalleled” nourished her complexion on genocide and slavery. Yet her beauty existed in the eyes of her children, especially her adopted, immigrant children, brought up on the myth, and drawing from it a kind of lunatic imperviousness to original sin, a capacity for quarreling with history as if it were something that had suddenly sprung up, an ability to produce a Norman Mailer. Now that the blacks have come to the surface, all that must change; myth dies in the presence of what it had tried to suppress.

It is natural that Mr. Mailer should feel wounded by the behavior of the black militants on the march to the Pentagon; they represent the death of the kind of innocence which was the heritage of his generation of Americans, and which has not descended beyond them; no one of Mr. Mailer’s powers will ever write again about America in this vein. In so far as the word “American” implied a freshness and righteous confidence which had been lost to Europe, then Mr. Mailer’s autobiography—in which we may hope “The Steps of the Pentagon” is but a chapter—will constitute the Confessions of the last American.

  1. 1

    He might become Proust, if he could get himself shut up long enough in a cork-lined room. In any case Rimbaud compared himself to Joan of Arc—lamentablement according to Paul Claudel.

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