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The Aesthetics of Norman Mailer

Miami and The Siege of Chicago

by Norman Mailer
New American Library, 223 pp., $.95 (paper)

There have been times when writing was considered an act of grace, a form of almost supernatural intervention in the ordinary affairs of the human imagination. The modern masters, however, have made it clear that the merely inspired soon perish and that the writer and his book are best, if not entirely, sustained by an act of will. James, Flaubert, Joyce, Mann—their testament can be seen as much in the persistent struggle to create a disciplined and meaningful language as in the worlds and characters that they left us. One need not be acquainted with their biographies to understand that a long battle of attrition once took place to ferret out of the rough matter of inspiration a strong, polished, personal idiom. Indeed, again and again readers have discovered that, at its best, the modern novel often deals with the adventure of its own making and that, while celebrating itself, it more than insinuates that its real hero is its creator, whose passion and agony we, for convenience, simply call his “style.”

To many, Norman Mailer may seem far removed from these aesthetic preoccupations, but he is in fact one of the very few writers in the last decade or so who has really understood the hard lesson that the modern masters have taught. He has certainly grasped the act of will—the style—necessary to the writer-as-protagonist, and he has insisted stubbornly on exercising it again and again for its own sake as well as for the periodic re-creation of himself as a writer. He has done this, of course, without the aid of the faith in aesthetic form which sustained his predecessors; nor does he conceal his literary strategy and self-awareness by using an ironic and formal mode of expression. Rather he spreads everything out for us so that we may see to the bone and muscle of the writer’s determination to survive. For all his pose as an activist and his well-advertised involvement in public life, Mailer’s response to the controversy in which he is so much engaged is almost completely stylistic, and one soon realizes that his literary manner is in itself a dramatic dialectic. Mailer seems to be intellectually exhilarated by language and I honestly believe he would much rather narrate for us the way he has tracked down the proper, self-revealing adverb than give us sagas of how wars are won or analyses of the tactics of political revolution.

Many of his critics have misunderstood the purely literary quality of Mailer’s work, its unabashed, almost precious, obsession with itself. They have taken part of the author’s public style as a clue to his intentions and have been pleased or exasperated accordingly. But no matter how diligently Mailer insists on creating a persona in the thick of political and social joustings, a persona part demagogue, part clown, part visionary, one cannot help feeling that his forays into the community are little more than intentionally self-lacerating experiences meant to sharpen the nuance and the tone of what he knows will finally be their literary re-enactment.

His last novel, for example, Why Are We in Vietnam?, clearly displays Mailer’s method of digesting experience. Taken as a collection of social insights into Corporate America it is an outlandish caricature; taken as a narrative of the American spirit coming upon its pagan god at the end of a man’s hunting trip, it is simple and familiar stuff; but, considered as the recreation by means of language of the notions Mailer has about America, it is brilliant. The monologues of the narrator, D.J., are as superbly monstrous, as tortured with vernacular fustian, as are the forms of our national existence which he both comments on and embodies. The novel, to be sure, is an indictment, a J’accuse, but it is, in every way, the J’accuse of a writer obsessed with language—the J’accuse, finally, of a belletrist. The oblique title of the novel has its purpose: it is as if Mailer has said “These words are my politics. Think of this semantic Walpurgisnacht the next time the Secretary of State speaks statistically about our war.”

The ability to make convincing resolutions almost entirely through literary style is Mailer’s major gift. However, finding occasions for the exercise of this gift seems always to have been a problem for him. Though he is what many consider an almost too personal writer, he has produced very little about small, isolated experiences. Everything he writes seems at first glance to be occasional, to be encased in some prevalent mood, some new philosophy, some general current phenomenon. Again, his critics have seen him as always ready to attach himself and his prose style to any event that is fashionable and guarantees a certain amount of public attention. Indeed, it is true that Mailer’s work often seems propped up by the styles of the times. Beat Literature, pot, the Black Rebellion, urban planning, sexual freedom—one can wonder if there has been any cult in the last twenty years that he has not used as fuel. Anti-Mailer moralists see this as a sinister form of exploitation, and even his fans talk about the novel he could and should be writing, as though there were some special excellence attached to this particular literary form. Mailer himself admits, in the swaggering boxing metaphors he occasionally uses, to being a counter-puncher, and it appears that only when he is struck by something on the scale of a social movement is he moved to hit back, to draw on the literary energy he apparently keeps ready for all occasions he considers to be in his weight class.

Still, no matter how grand the subject he decided to challenge, it often seemed that his literary sensibility was too well-trained and dazzling to give it a fair fight. One would watch fascinated as Mailer transformed a public event into private expression, but, while grateful for his surprising reflections, one somehow missed the old, recognizable outlines of that event once he was through with it. The aspic of Mailer’s prose often covered over events a bit too easily, turning them into grotesque and fascinating, semi-philosophical bursts of rhetoric.

Yet so pugnacious a literary will as Mailer’s seemed always to be searching for the tougher adversaries he deserved; and in his frequent restive appearances in print he was like some Jacob in extreme need of an angel to wrestle with. Now the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions hardly suggest angels, but they, along with the Pentagon Peace March of the previous year, have proven to be for Mailer the agents for the action he understands best, the adventure of literary art in the world. He had often before matched himself against an historic moment, but this time history, while not exactly forcing an accommodation, at least succeeded in winning the right of co-existence.

The result is a tense balance between social and literary observation which often reads like a good, old-fashioned novel in which suspense, character, plot revelations, and pungently describable action abound. Indeed, I am certain that one of the main reasons The Armies of the Night and Miami and The Siege of Chicago have been so widely praised is that they permit the well-worn, comfortable habits of reading. Here, after all, the writer-as-hero has come out from behind his aesthetic camouflage and placed himself and the gestation of his work into an arena nicely suited to his battle between public and private style, an arena where no architectual details get in the way of an open, entertaining view. As he proved by his earlier study of the nomination of Barry Goldwater, Mailer has few equals at describing the national rituals of American life; and these last two works demonstrate that he has no equal at all when it comes to matching one’s personality against these rituals.

These virtues have been duly celebrated, and certainly Mailer has an eye for and on the souls of his compatriots. He can pin down the immaculate Wasp, in town from Iowa to give his polite, Christian consent to Richard Nixon, as well as, with a certain reserved affection, the Yippie who consents to nothing but the half-hearted practice of Japanese riot techniques. Mailer is also an extraordinary synthesizer, a reporter who can sense moods and the subtler vibrations of political performance, and who can turn often tedious and random happenings into interesting, cohesive speculation. Finally, one must mention his ego and his honesty, a combination which permits him to confront events and personages as their antagonist and their equal, certain that it will be he who will illuminate them.

Still, it is not simply the extraordinary personal journalism that is most impressive about The Armies of the Night and Miami and The Siege of Chicago. The peculiar power of these books comes not from the fact that Mailer offers us better writing than that to which we are generally accustomed in politics, but, rather, from the uncanny way in which he has managed to maintain in these works the stylistic play and form of the most complex literary fiction. One should never forget the allegiance Mailer feels to fictional truth and judge these two books as showing an elementary split between confessional data on the one hand and public facts on the other.

Consider, for example, the first part of The Armies of the Night, the section which is entitled “History as a Novel: The Steps of the Pentagon.” Here we have Mailer as character observing himself perform, preparing those observations for the Mailer who is relating to us as we read what he has observed about those observations. And, too, at most times, there is yet another watchful instrument, a television camera, on hand to effect one more layer of awareness. The whole sequence is an elaborate orchestration in which tones merge and blend in a manner which forces one to listen very carefully for the truth of things shaded by style, moments caught in an expressive reality which Mailer sets against the banalities of a Time reporter. Mailer has used here the apperceptive techniques of the modern novel, and used them to make a heavy literary assault on the common notions about history. It is not simply a question of the oddities of a single personality brought to bear on a subject that is generally dealt with “objectively.” Rather, what Mailer does is to tinker consciously with the ways through which we are used to receiving information and reflection about certain areas of national experience. In short, for three-quarters of The Armies of the Night Mailer is a literary modernist, juggling forms and experimenting with the narrative voice, teasing our sensibility which insists on getting quickly to the heart of the matter, forcing it to put up with dissertations on rhetoric, and surreal and pedestrian asides, until we admit that we are in a special terrain and must proceed with caution.

However, as I have said, history has made its own demands on Mailer’s style, and these have kept him from being too much a formalist, from being a self-indulgent verbal speculator. The historic voice has its own traditions, and these have impressed themselves on Mailer and kept him finally within the boundaries of readability. Taken together, The Armies of the Night and Miami and The Siege of Chicago form a stylistic argosy from one form of awareness which is antic and novelistic to another which, with some melancholy, admits the strength of a simpler and more brutal actuality. In his reports on the conventions, Mailer seems at times completely overwhelmed by the deep ruptures he senses in America and by the final incapacity of even the most disciplined artistic will to force an adhesion. He becomes less and less concerned with maintaining a literary center to this second work, and allows the sequences from Miami to Chicago to unfold for the most part unchallenged by his imagination.

Whereas in The Armies of the Night he was in every sense a participant, in its sequel he is more detached, more wary, as tentative in his verbal manner as he is in his role of Old Guard Revolutionary. Between the quiet inexorability of Miami and the porcine hysteria of Chicago, there seemed less and less room for aesthetic sportiveness, and, as the pressure of these events increased, one felt Mailer’s constriction of spirit, a slow sentence-by-sentence admission that there are forces of obliteration uncowered by even the most intricate artifice.

Miami and The Siege of Chicago is like the second part of an artistic Bildungsroman in which the hero finally allows the social order its right to a reality of its own. As the book slips into a glum catalogue of events, such as trips to a Hugh Heffner party and missed opportunities to be on hand when the police charged the formidable band of McCarthy supporters, it is as though the end of some passion were being described in a purposefully flat and muted way, as though history and art had worn themselves out in a magnificently equal encounter.

The last few years have produced much talk about the new “creative journalism” and the use of novelistic techniques in reporting. Whatever these phrases meant before—and it is my impression that they meant very little—they have now acquired a definition after the event of these two books Mailer has created a fresh entente between the personal mode and the public record, and, at a time when it is badly needed, he has reaffirmed the rights of the individualistic idiom to move in any social sphere. Simply, he has enlarged the territories of language, something the very best writers have always done for us.

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