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Beat the Devil

The Time of Our Time is an anthology of Norman Mailer’s writing, selected by Mailer himself and arranged as a commentary on American life since the Second World War. Almost all of Mailer’s books are represented, starting with The Naked and the Dead (1948), and there are several magazine pieces that have not been reprinted before. Two of the excerpted books—Ancient Evenings (1983), which is set in the time of Ramses II, and The Gospel According to the Son (1997), a retelling of the Jesus story—do not have much to tell us about postwar American life; but they do have something to tell us about Norman Mailer, and they help to make the volume a surprisingly coherent recapitulation of Mailer’s career.

What does Mailer think of postwar America? The answer (this is not the surprising part) is: something good and something bad. The something good is what Mailer calls “democracy,” ordinarily a term of broad application, but by which he means specifically the conditions under which moral freedom and intellectual honesty are possible. He is not under the illusion that these qualities are sustainable anyplace else in the world. That’s the bright side of life in America. The dark side is what he calls “technology,” ordinarily a term of specific application, but which he uses broadly to mean all efforts to clean up human messiness, to find a nice, rational, hygienic shortcut to satisfaction. His shorthand term for the results of such efforts is “plastic.” Plastic, in his view, threatens freedom. It is the symbol of a creeping totalitarianism.

So far we are comfortably inside the realm of liberal middle-class culture. Everyone within that culture salutes the principles of moral freedom and intellectual honesty, and loathes the idea (without necessarily foregoing the convenience) of plastic. And this is Mailer’s problem. In a nutshell: it is possible to have a nice, rational, hygienic contempt for plastic. A person can despise all the bogeymen of “technology” as Mailer identifies them in his essays and books—the military-industrial complex, the Hollywood studios, NASA, television, synthetics, high-rise buildings where the windows don’t open—and still suffer (by Mailer’s measure) from moral cowardice and self-deception. Liberals are acculturated to feel superior to technology, even as they prosper, directly or indirectly, by its successes. In Mailer’s view, though, technology isn’t just depressing or tasteless or something to write editorials about. Technology is the devil. You don’t beat the devil by writing editorials. You can’t have a rational approach to the threat of technology; rationality is part of the disease.

Mailer spent the decade following the publication of The Naked and the Dead working this difficulty out. Though the elements of his solution were not original, their synthesis surely was. He began by biologizing the conflict between technology and freedom. The United States, he thought, was in danger of becoming just as totalitarian as the Soviet Union—a point he had already made in the closing section of The Naked and the Dead, where he prophesied, in the figure of a character called Major Dalleson, the postwar triumph of the bureaucratic mentality. Mailer thought American totalitarianism would emerge under the guise of what he called, in The Naked and the Dead, “conservative liberalism,” meaning that regimentation would be accomplished by subjecting dissidents to therapy rather than by sending them to Siberia or having them shot.

Thus in two famous early stories, “The Man Who Studied Yoga” (1952) and “The Time of Her Time” (1959), the representative of technology is Freudianism, which paralyzes through introspection. (The man who studied yoga is able, after years of meditation, to unscrew his own navel. He does so, and his ass falls off.) The real danger, Mailer thought, was not economic immiseration; Marx had missed the point. The real danger was psychological dehumanization. Our nervous systems were being invaded. The answer was not to argue but to act.

This much Mailer appears to have picked up from his Trotskyite friend Jean Malaquais, whom he met in Paris soon after finishing The Naked and the Dead; from Sartre, whose essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism” popularized the philosophy in the late 1940s; from Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence, whose influence on Mailer’s writing soon eclipsed the influence, evident in The Naked and the Dead, of James T. Farrell and John Dos Passos; from the Baltimore psychoanalyst Robert Lindner, who wrote a number of clinical studies of psychopathic behavior, one of which was entitled Rebel Without a Cause; and from Wilhelm Reich, who politicized psychoanalysis by erecting (as it were) the liberated sexual instinct as the antagonist of the modern state. Mailer brought Sartre and Reich together by making sex the site of existential struggle.

Where Mailer differed from Sartre and Reich (and from all his other teachers except Lawrence) was in making sex the site of metaphysical struggle as well. The quality of the orgasm became a matter not only of political but of cosmic significance. A bad orgasm—a thwarting or perversion of instinct—could lead (a Reichian idea) to cancer, which Mailer regarded as a kind of biological counterpart to plastic. A good orgasm (an exhausting proposition, incidentally, if we are to rely on the example offered in “The Time of Her Time”) was not only a victory over the machinery of psychological oppression; it was a victory on behalf of God in his war with the devil.

In short, Mailer developed a Manichaean version of Sartre’s left-wing existentialism and Reich’s left-wing Freudianism. Every choice became a choice between God and the devil, with the margin separating the two always razor-thin. Hence the existential frisson: to miss salvation by a hair was to risk damnation. Life was imagined as the psychic equivalent of rock-climbing (which, along with doing dangerous things on balcony railings while drunk, became a popular sport in Mailer’s books). “The best move,” in one of Mailer’s favorite phrases, “lies close to the worst.”

The summa of these meditations was “The White Negro” (1956). The essay is notorious for a passage in which the case of two eighteen-year-olds murdering a candy-store owner is proposed, without much qualification, as an example of “daring the unknown.” (“One enters into a new relation with the police,” as the essay explains.) Irving Howe, who published “The White Negro” in Dissent (it was reprinted in Advertisements for Myself [1959]), later expressed regret for having chosen to run it, as a “scoop” for his little magazine, rather than reject it for its endorsement of violence. (The best move lies close to the worst.) Mailer may have offered the piece to Howe with a view precisely to forcing such a dilemma on him; he regarded the American left as a culturally backward bunch that needed a shot of moral extremism. But “The White Negro” was not merely a provocation. It was a claim to turf. “I wrote it,” Mailer said almost thirty years later, “with tremendous fear and agitation and great difficulty…. If I wanted to be a great writer—and by then being terribly fortified both by success and failure, I absolutely wanted to be a great writer—then I’d found a place where perhaps I could do it. I felt I had perceptions about these matters that I’d never read in anyone else’s literature.”

The argument of “The White Negro” is built up from the proposition that American Negroes (by which Mailer means, of course, American Negro men), by virtue of their alienation from mainstream society, are natural existentialists (they have “existential synapses”), and thus enjoy better orgasms. They appreciate as well the cathartic effects of violence (“individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the State,” the essay suggests). The white American who would imitate them—the white Negro—is the Hipster. His goal is to be “with it.”

To be with it is to have grace, is to be closer to the secrets of that inner unconscious life that will nourish you if you can hear it, for you are then nearer to that God which every hipster believes is located in the senses of his body, that trapped, mutilated, and nonetheless megalomaniacal God who is It, who is energy, life, sex, force, the Yoga’s prana, the Reichian’s orgone, Lawrence’s “blood,” Hemingway’s “good,” the Shavian life-force; “It”; God; not the God of the churches but the unachievable whisper of mystery within the sex, the paradise of limitless energy and perception just beyond the next wave of the next orgasm.

To which a cool cat might reply, “Crazy, man!”

Mailer soon dropped the language of Hip (which was just the jargon of beatniks and jazz musicians). Over the years his enthusiasm for real violence was largely replaced by an enthusiasm for play violence—bullfighting, football, and, especially, boxing. As celebrity was visited upon him, his political animus relaxed. But “The White Negro” has remained the well from which his thought is drawn. What The Time of Our Time reveals (and this is the surprising part) is the extent to which Mailer has spent forty years occupying the ground he staked out in 1956. He is a man—possibly, in 1998, he is the last man—of the Fifties.

Mailer is commonly regarded, of course, as a man of the Sixties, for it was in the Sixties that he enjoyed his most productive and popular run as a writer: he published two novels, An American Dream (1965) and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967); two volumes of essays, The Presidential Papers (1963) and Cannibals and Christians (1966); two works of reportage, The Armies of the Night (1968) and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968); and a collection of poems, called Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters) (1962). He also turned his novel The Deer Park into a play, wrote and directed three movies, and ran for mayor of New York City (he did not finish last). He had good reason for considering it his favorite decade.

But he was not fundamentally affected by anything that happened in the Sixties. He had entered the decade with his own style of political radicalism and his own brand of sexual liberation already worked out; he did not (in his mind) have much to learn from the counterculture and the New Left. The war in Vietnam did not take him by surprise; it was exactly the sort of technocratic insanity he had been predicting since 1948. And the general attitude of “anything goes” was, he must have imagined, just the attitude he had prescribed in “The White Negro.”

But it was not. In the end the social movements of the Sixties were the undoing of every tenet of Mailer’s radicalism, for they were not, despite appearances at the time, radical movements. They were liberal movements. Their purpose was to make life fairer by clearing away exactly the sort of mumbo-jumbo about race and sex that Mailer had built most of his philosophy around. The civil rights movement discredited the primitivist myth of black sexuality; the sexual revolution tried to get the language of sin out of talk about sex (“free love” was pretty much the antithesis of any notion of sex Mailer ever had in mind); gay liberation established homosexuality as something other than a heterosexual deformity; and women’s liberation debunked the metaphysics of the orgasm. Mailer had gone to great lengths to mystify biology. The Sixties demystified it. “Anything goes” did not mean that all is permitted on the understanding that the wrong move will cost you a piece of your soul. It just meant that all is permitted.

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