• Email
  • Print

The Strange Powers of Norman Mailer

1.

Norman Mailer was sixteen when he discovered John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, and James T. Farrell and, he said later, “formed the desire to be a major writer.” He was twenty-five when his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), made him famous for its narrative force and notorious for its army barracks vocabulary. He became the most celebrated and most reviled American writer of his time, a one-man industry producing stories, novels, poems, sportswriting, essays, histories, and biographies in expansive and exhilarated prose, directing films and plays, making headlines with his eloquent protests against the Vietnam War, his quixotic campaign to be mayor of New York, his outrageous theories of race and sex, his skill as an amateur boxer, his six marriages and uncountable affairs, and the drunken fights, in one of which, on a bourbon-and-pot-addled night, he stabbed his second wife almost to death.

mendelson_1-112113.jpg
Annie Leibovitz/Contact Press Images
Norman Mailer, New York City, 1982

He hoped to write a novel great enough to cause “a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” But his best work was his political and cultural reportage: The Armies of the Night (1968), Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), Of a Fire on the Moon (1971), and The Executioner’s Song (1979). He insisted on marketing the last of these as fiction, although he said it was “a factual account…as accurate as one can make it.” He spent much of his life reporting facts as if he were writing fiction, and performing—for an audience of gossip columnists and shockable reviewers—a fictional version of his life as though it were fact.

J. Michael Lennon’s biography is the first that interprets Mailer from within, not as a public spectacle. Unlike his predecessors—Mary V. Dearborn, Peter Manso, Carl Rollyson, and others—Lennon was Mailer’s friend and collaborator; he has read 45,000 of his letters, and talked to an enormous population of friends and enemies, from gangsters to editors. He shepherds a prodigious variety of events into well-organized chapters, sometimes cluttered with irrelevant details like the names and addresses of movie houses where Mailer watched gangster films as a teenager.

Lennon is the also first biographer to see that Mailer’s prolific thoughts about gods, devils, and divine forces were at the heart of his work—from the intimations of obscure powers in The Naked and the Dead to the devil who narrates The Castle in the Forest (2007). His whole career was a search for transcendence. The sixteen-year-old Harvard freshman who hoped to be an aeronautical engineer became the mystical prophet thundering against technology—plastics, synthetics, birth control, computers—as a form and cause of cancer in individuals and nations. His last book was a transcript of his talks with Lennon, On God: An Uncommon Conversation (2007), and Lennon’s biography makes clear that the same habits of mind that kept Mailer from writing a great novel were the ones that made him a great journalist. Mailer was less interested in human beings than in the quasi-divine forces they embodied, and in the vast unconscious currents that shaped political and cultural history.

Mailer sounded like the village gnostic when he talked about religion, but he meant what he said. “God was…at war with the Devil,” he wrote in Of a Fire on the Moon and elsewhere. He told Lennon: “It makes sense to me that this strife between God and the Devil has been a factor in evolution.” “When we act with great energy,” he said, “it is because God and the Devil have the same interest in the outcome.” He was not being metaphorical. He imagined the devils in The Castle in the Forest as fictional characters like Anna Karenina, semidivine persons who don’t exist but resemble those who do.

The best of Mailer’s novels after his first—The Deer Park (1955), Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), Harlot’s Ghost (1991)—display more variety of style and incident than generations of novelists normally manage. But even these novels go more or less wrong because he imagined his characters more as embodiments of impersonal forces than as persons. He planned novels in which characters from The Deer Park would become different persons in each book, sometimes a reincarnation of an earlier self, sometimes an epiphany while encountering “some lost way-station of the divine.”

Mailer said that his novel about reincarnating pharaohs, Ancient Evenings (1983), was set in a world “before anything we know,” “without Moses or Jesus,” though not, apparently, without C.G. Jung or Joseph Campbell. All the major characters are mythical archetypes—or twentieth-century notions of archetypes—temporarily occupying one or another human body, reincarnating themselves through vaginal sex, probing mystic depths through anal sex with women and men. A narrator-prince, waking into death, says, “Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state,” summarizing Mailer’s idea of ultimate human reality, although Mailer’s own state tended to be theoretical imaginings and bourgeois work habits that generated his enormous output.

Mailer, Lennon reports, resolved never to write about his childhood. As a result, he wrote only about experiences that had been mediated through adolescent theorizing or adult intelligence, never the unfiltered feelings of a child. The narrator of his second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), is an amnesiac who seems to have been a college student and soldier but otherwise suffers what Mailer described in his own life as a “lobotomy to my past.” Mailer’s hero D.H. Lawrence wrote of James Joyce’s later work that it was “too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.” Mailer’s later novels tend to be done-on-purpose products of will, unsoftened by the gifts of memory and written in defiance of his deepest sense of himself: “I, who am timid, cowardly, and wish only friendship and security,” he wrote in a journal, “am the one who must take on the whole world.”

The same archetypal impulse that blurred and abstracted his fictional characters made his political reportage vivid, focused, and convincing. Unlike every other political writer of his time, Mailer understood instinctively, without intellectual effort, that political trends were driven by irrational collective myths, that the public saw political leaders as embodiments of mythical heroes. In his essay on John Kennedy’s presidential campaign, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” he wrote: “There is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.” Everyone read this as a vivid metaphor; Mailer, like a nineteenth-century romantic nationalist, meant it literally. He always believed that a nation such as the United States or a people such as “the Negro” had a psyche of its own, with “unconscious undercurrents” that shaped its destiny. “Minority groups,” he wrote, again literally, “are the artistic nerves of a republic.” He believed in myths that, like all great myths from Zeus to the modern myth of a “society” that has Zeus’s omnipotence, seemed to make literal sense of reality. A myth, for someone who believes in it, is not myth but truth.

Mailer’s accounts of political conventions, campaign tours, protest marches, and swarming journalists are his most memorable works. He typically presents himself as an archetypal figure, “the reporter,” “the novelist,” “the observer,” “Aquarius,” or some other avatar of the writer-hero with a thousand faces. He also perceived, sometimes belatedly, that a mythical political hero could also be a calculating operator. Marilyn Monroe said of his Hollywood novel The Deer Park that he was “too impressed by power,” and he portrayed Kennedy the candidate as the World Spirit in an open-backed convertible. But when Kennedy was elected a few weeks later, Mailer, fearing he had apotheosized an opportunist, “felt a sense of woe.”

Mailer was unique in combining mythological imaginings with left-wing politics. Writers like W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound who saw the world through archetypal myths tended to favor reactionary fantasies about natural hierarchies and golden-souled leaders. Writers tempted by archetypes but who refused the temptation, like Virginia Woolf and W.H. Auden, aligned themselves with the rational, egalitarian left. Mailer was a mythologizer who was passionate against injustice, and his double perspective opened his way to become the first American able, on occasion, to write about his country with the prophetic depth and precise observation of Tocqueville.

Mailer did his best reporting in the 1960s, when American politics resembled a Wagnerian apocalypse. He had less to say, and felt “much out of step,” from the 1970s to the 1990s, when cynical technocrats took charge and politics seemed opaque to the mythical imagination. Then, on September 11, 2001, as he wrote in these pages, “gods and demons were invading the US, coming right in off the TV screen…. It was as if untold divine forces were erupting in fury.” As the Bush administration began shining its costume armor for a new crusade, Mailer, now in his seventies, wrote again with all his old energy and insight.

Much of the left explained the Iraq war as Kissingeresque realpolitik; Mailer, while acknowledging that a grab for oil was part of the story, recognized the theological impulses that drove Bush, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz—the “undisclosed logic” at “the root of flag conservatism”—because those impulses were distorted versions of his own. “Myths are tonic to a nation’s heart,” he wrote, but “once abused…they are poisonous.” Sometimes he was the abuser. He wrote an essay that made all the rational and moral arguments against capital punishment with force and clarity, but concluded that state-sponsored killing “may be one of our last defenses against the oncoming wave of the computer universe.”

The Executioner’s Song is the best of his books partly because he forced himself to hold back from mythologizing and write about murder and misery in a stark, almost unornamented style. Joan Didion observed that the first half of the book was spoken mostly by women constrained to a local domestic world, the second half by men “who move in the larger world and believe that they can influence events.”

Mailer acknowledged that she was right, although he had mistakenly thought the first half was about cowboys acting in manly ways, the second half about media types acting in womanly ways. He had been misled by archetypal fantasies about inherently manly and unmanly actions, the same fantasies that impelled him to fistfights and head-butting. Didion perceived that the book was shaped by his craftsman’s sense of the ways in which women’s and men’s styles of speech were shaped by social norms and conventions, not by eternal archetypes.

2.

Norman Mailer’s mother was born in Lithuania shortly before her family emigrated to New Jersey and went into business running hotels for Jewish vacationers. Mailer’s father, whose parents had emigrated from Lithuania to South Africa, was born in Johannesburg, moved to Brooklyn as a young man, and met Mailer’s mother at her family’s hotel. Their son was born in 1923 and grew up first in New Jersey, then in Brooklyn, always in a climate of lies.

mendelson_2-112113.jpg
Frank Fournier/Contact Press Images
Norman Mailer and Norris Church Mailer, New York City, May 1983

His father was a womanizer and a secret compulsive gambler. His mother subtracted ten years from her age and said she was born in America. She is the most consistently baleful figure in Lennon’s biography, refusing help for a faked heart attack until her daughter renounced a gentile boyfriend, telling reporters after Mailer stabbed his wife, “My boy’s a genius,” explaining to another wife that he “needed more love than other men,” telling him that she prayed while nursing him, “Please God, make him a great man some day,” and descending periodically with new supplies of narcissism for him to mainline. Mailer said she never left his father because doing so “would interfere with the largest…work of her life, which happened to be me.”

Encouraged by her, he wrote a 35,000-word novel when he was eleven, then abandoned writing until he found his vocation when a Harvard English professor assigned Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, Dos Passos’s U.S.A., and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Shortly after graduating in 1943 he published a story in a commercial anthology, married for the first time, was drafted into the army, and endured the Pacific island battles that he fictionalized in The Naked and the Dead.

Everyone read the book as if it belonged to the realistic tradition of Farrell and Dos Passos, but Mailer said he had been on “a mystic kick” when he wrote it. He told his editor, “There are going to be troubling terrifying glimpses of order in disorder, of a horror which may or may not lurk beneath the surface of things.” The characters include the first of many in his work whose evil impulses open them to “primitive glimpses of a structure behind things,” who live “on the edge of a deeper knowledge.” The book also includes the first of many ordeals in his fiction and his life in which men test themselves by walking along a dangerous, narrow ridge. The one who fails the test in The Naked and the Dead is the college-educated, recently married Jewish boy.

Mailer had thought of himself as an atheist, neither proud nor ashamed to be Jewish, but “nauseated” by the Jewish marriage ceremony that his mother demanded after he married his first wife secretly. The glimpses of deep knowledge in The Naked and the Dead were reflections of Oswald Spengler’s determinist history in The Decline of the West, which had the same overpowering effect on Mailer that it has had on many bright, susceptible teenagers.

The Naked and the Dead glanced toward an American future in which centralized control would “masquerade under a conservative liberalism,” but the book had little else to say about partisan politics. Mailer, meanwhile, had thrown himself into left-wing politics, speechmaking for Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1948, then losing faith in Wallace’s Soviet-leaning fellow-traveling. In 1949 Mailer was cheered when he stood up to speak at the “Stalinoid” (Dwight Macdonald’s word) Waldorf Conference in New York, and booed when he sat down, having said that the Soviet and American sides were both moving toward state capitalism and that there was no future in fighting for either. But he remained committed to the anti-Stalinist left.

Barbary Shore was Mailer’s first attempt to write about politics as myth. Vast ideological forces are embodied in individual persons in a shabby rooming house, “authority and nihilism stalking one another in the orgiastic hollow of this century,” as he described them later. The Soviet Union, never named, is the mythical-sounding “land across the sea.” Lennon implies that Mailer took up drink and marijuana, joined by his second wife Adele Morales, to find comfort after the critical failure of this book, but it seems likely that he was using them to push open the doors of perception at the same time he was seeking the mythical depths beneath the daily headlines.

In 1955, higher than usual on pot, Mailer had “nothing less than a vision of the universe.” Lennon writes: “His atheism withered and belief took hold, belief in a God who was not all-powerful, an existential God,” who, as Mailer wrote, “is in danger of dying…who can suffer from a moral corruption.” “I believe in it,” he insisted. “It’s the only thing that makes any sense to me.” He cared nothing about modern Judaism, which seemed a shell emptied of its ancient visionary energies—and he wrote a curious sport of a novel narrated by Jesus, The Gospel According to the Son (1997)—but he was excited by medieval Jewish mysticism and wrote essays about the Hasidic tales.

The first fruit of his belief was his theory of the hipster, expounded in his 1957 essay “The White Negro” (published in the otherwise unimaginative pages of Dissent, the left-wing anti-Stalinist quarterly edited by Irving Howe), and later in interviews, reviews, and fictions. Today, when “hipster” means a submissive herd-follower attuned to the latest gadgets, it is hard to remember that Mailer, only slightly exaggerating its contemporary meaning, popularized an image of the hipster as a lonely knight of the spirit attuned to archetypal currents undetectable by the square, like an exiled Obi-Wan Kenobi sensing a deep disturbance in the Force. The hipster is both a theologian who “conceives of Man’s fate being tied up with God’s fate” and “a philosophical psychopath” whose drama “is that he seeks love” through an “apocalyptic orgasm” that has much in common with the thrill of mere psychopathic violence.

The sentence in “The White Negro” that caused the most outrage was one in which Mailer attributed “courage of a sort” to two hoodlums who risked their future by killing a storekeeper. (Readers inferred that the killers were black and the victim Jewish, though Mailer identified neither.) “The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act it is not altogether cowardly.” Mailer, here and elsewhere, made the aesthete’s perennial error of confusing the bravery or intensity of an action with its merit. His argument has been defended by citing T.S. Eliot on Baudelaire—“it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing”—but an argument is no less muddled because Eliot happened to make it. For the next few decades, against all the evidence of his experience, Mailer still imagined that some extreme dérèglement de tous les sens, brought about by drugs, drink, or violence, would reveal the deep instinctive truths promised by his religious ideas. Reality kept knocking him to the mat, but he always sprang up again, punching his way to transcendence.

The nadir of Mailer’s quest for intensity occurred in 1960 during a party at which he had planned to announce his mayoral campaign. Drunk and stoned, he spent the evening hitting friends with his fists and other convenient objects. Around four in the morning he got into a shouting match with Adele and stabbed her twice with a penknife, once in the back, once in the chest.

Lennon quotes Mailer’s late, sanitized recollection of the stabbing as an edgy performance that unpredictably went wrong. He only intended, he says, to nick Adele lightly, but accidentally came within a fraction of an inch of her heart. Lennon then lists sensationalized thirdhand reports from Gore Vidal, Evelyn Waugh, and George Plimpton, his point being that Mailer should not be judged according to fictions. But he ignores the only other firsthand report, by the victim herself, although it seems consistent with everything else known about that night. Adele (in The Last Party, 1997) remembers a stranger and her husband standing over her:

“My God, man,” he said to Norman, “what have you done? We’ve got to get her to a hospital.”
…I felt Norman kick me. “Get away from her, let the bitch die.”
…Norman grabbed the guy, punching him, as they wrestled all over the room.

Lennon tends to portray Mailer’s life as a sequence of disconnected events, and his account of the months after the stabbing describes Mailer as quietly picking himself up and resuming work: “He was mending.” Mailer’s last wife, Norris Church Mailer, suggests a more plausible and sympathetic version. Mailer, she writes in her memoir A Ticket to the Circus (2010), “could pull himself out of the grasp of mental illness by an act of willpower and come back to win Pulitzer Prizes and lead a good life.”

Norris Church Mailer is a better guide than Lennon to another much-reported episode, when Mailer championed the prison writings of Jack Henry Abbott, a murderer who was paroled in 1981 and enjoyed six weeks of celebrity in New York before stabbing to death a waiter who told him that his restaurant had no public restroom. Lennon and Norris both report that Abbott had not been released on Mailer’s recommendation, but because he was a stool pigeon who fingered prisoners and lawyers who organized a work stoppage and allegedly dealt drugs. Norris adds the crucial detail that Mailer knew nothing of Abbott’s continuing record of violence or the warnings by prison psychiatrists that he was paranoid and “capable of sudden violence.”

Lennon blurs the extent to which Mailer was manipulated by Abbott’s rhetorical skill. Abbott portrayed himself in his letters—published with Mailer’s help as In the Belly of the Beast (1981)—as, in effect, the true hipster whom Mailer had only imagined, a victim driven to fierce, hardly contained, almost visionary anger by the impersonal state authority that Mailer despised. At the same time that Mailer was praising Abbot’s “search for inviolability,” Abbot, in circumstances that are still unclear, was colluding with the warden and the United States attorney. Mailer brought Abbott to New York, and when he murdered in New York, Lennon reports, it was no consolation to Mailer that he would likely have murdered somewhere else if Mailer had never heard of him. Mailer never wrote again about psychotic hipsters.

3.

J. Michael Lennon is Mailer’s literary executor, and admirably fulfills his obligations to his memory. Sometimes he overstates Mailer’s achievements. Among the intoxicating ideas he serves up as two-hundred-proof Mailer, many are in fact bourbon-and-Lawrence. Mailer on the “psychic tendrils” of the womb and its “waves of communication to some conceivable source of life” is an echo of Lawrence’s vision of the solar plexus in Fantasia of the Unconscious. Mailer’s excremental romanticism (the anus as a center of power, feces as “the riches of Satan”) copies the “Excurse” chapter in Women in Love. Mailer’s fantasies about the psychosomatic etiology of cancer derive from Georg Groddeck via Wilhelm Reich. In each instance, Mailer used more words than his sources and said less.

Lennon’s account of Mailer’s sex life as a greathearted Don Juan with women waiting in every city has a whiff of leering admiration that inspires skepticism. Norris Church Mailer tells a more plausible story. Both she and Lennon describe the awkward moment when she met Mailer’s Chicago girlfriend, but only Norris adds the detail that the woman “was his age if not older; she wore a gray wig, was about five feet tall, and must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds or more.” When Norris asked what had attracted him, Mailer “said that sometimes he needed to be the good-looking one.” Forty years earlier, the narrator of Barbary Shore lusted after an “undeniably short and stout” older woman; in bed with a young slender one, he “performed” “without tenderness or desire.”

mendelson_3-112113.jpg
John Goodman/Redux
Norman Mailer at his house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, 2007

Norris later learned that Mailer’s other secret lovers resembled the one in Chicago and although Norris doesn’t mention it, the photos she prints of Mailer’s mother fit the same description. In public, meanwhile, Mailer provoked masculine envy by squiring beauties and presented himself as a prophet of sexual energy that broke social constraints. His real sexuality seems to have been the opposite, a lifelong performance by an actor hungry for applause from two audiences—a public one impressed by his books and wives, and the audience in his mind that wanted to see himself as the adored good-looking one. At thirty he wrote in his journal that his desires were the polymorphous wishes of infancy: “I, whose sexual nature is to cling to one woman like a child embracing the universe, am driven by my destiny to be the orgiast, or at least the intellectual mentor of orgiasm.”

Part of his performance as mentor of orgiasm was his theorizing about the hipster’s “search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.” The hipster pursued that orgasm through acts of dominance, but the “extreme contradictions of the society which formed his character” made it “as remote as the Holy Grail.” Could the hipster attain apocalyptic orgasm, he would experience a visionary ecstasy of power. Mailer’s theories about hipsters ignored all the testimony of literature and life that describes sexually induced visionary experiences, whatever play of dominance leads up to them, as visions of gratitude, equality, and awe.

Mailer knew all this when he wrote about real persons—including himself when he was writing privately in his journal—instead of mythical hipsters. For D.H. Lawrence, “sexual transcendence” was “some ecstasy where he could lose…his sense of self and his will.” Lawrence achieved ecstasy through “dominance over women,” but because he was physically weak, psychological dominance “was not tyranny to him but equality.” Mailer’s sense of himself as “the good-looking one” was for him the form of dominance that, by balancing his inner weakness, made equality possible.

Mailer’s friends wondered why he encouraged attacks on himself from women outraged by his theories, as he did at Town Hall in 1971 when he moderated a “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” that he knew would be a well-publicized assault. He was performing a role that required a large supporting cast of antagonists; the more women felt provoked by him, the more masculine he seemed to himself. His provocations had some unwanted effects. Germaine Greer was on the panel with him at Town Hall; afterward, he had to flee from a taxi to escape being dragged into bed by her, according to Lennon, but not Greer.

Mailer always acknowledged in indirect ways that he was the loser in the sexual wars he provoked. “The Time of Her Time” (1959) is the notorious story in which Sergius O’Shaugnessy—a character from The Deer Park, now a hipster somehow earning his living as a bullfighting instructor in Greenwich Village—brings a repressed college student to her first orgasm through anal and vaginal sex with the organ that Sergius calls “my avenger.” As attentive readers noticed, Sergius finally provokes the girl to orgasm by whispering in her ear, “You dirty little Jew”—psychologically effective but scarcely a triumph of the avenger. At the end the girl proves to be the matador, Sergius the fallen bull:

I could see the look in her eyes, that unmistakable point for the kill that you find in the eyes of very few bullfighters…. She came on for her moment of truth by saying, “He told me your whole life is a lie, and you do nothing but run away from the homosexual that is you.”
And like a real killer, she did not look back, and was out the door before I could rise to tell her that she was a hero fit for me.

Mailer, as Lennon observes, wrote relatively little criticism, but he wrote about books and films with an unforced enthusiasm unlike anything else in his work. The selected essays in Mind of an Outlaw include splendid examples such as his joyful bumper-car collisions with rival novelists in “Quick Evaluations on the Talent in the Room” and “Some Children of the Goddess,” and his scene-by-scene dissection of Last Tango in Paris, written (for these pages) somewhat in the mood of Shakespeare’s Theseus delighting in the earnest awfulness of Pyramus and Thisby. He slipped critical judgments into almost everything he wrote. Denouncing modern synthetics, he listed “fiberglas, polyethylene, bakelite, styrene, styronware.” The last of these was his trade name for William Styron’s novels.

In 2007, a few months before he died at eighty-four, Mailer visited his San Francisco lover during a publicity tour. They met in the hotel restaurant and talked about his surgeries. Then he asked, “Would you like to come up to the room?” She declined: “If I come up, I’ll fall asleep.” He replied that he would too, perhaps still hoping to cling drowsily to a woman “like a child embracing the universe.”

  • Email
  • Print