At this relatively quiet moment in a noisy career, it may be tempting to try to see Mailer steadily and whole, as Professor Robert Lucid’s anthologies invite us to do. One gasps at the subtitle of The Long Patrol—has it really been twenty-five years since The Naked and the Dead? Even though the strictest answer is “no, not quite,” a lot of Mailer has indeed happened since 1948, as well as a lot of other things, and the institutional reek of “the man and his work” smells at least less inappropriate to the subject than it would have a few years ago. If Lucid’s professorial coupling of Mailer with Washington Irving and Longfellow in a tradition of “public writers” is a bit unsettling, still Mailer has never notably shied away from the idea of becoming an institution, the champion, the mayor, the president of letters, though he insists on his own terms, as in his remarks upon accepting the National Book Award: “It is nice to have awards and to accept them. They are the measure of the degree to which an Establishment meets that talent it has hindered and helped.” One notes who meets whom here, while relishing the precision of “meets,” which I suppose can only mean “comes into conformity with.”
Mailer’s friends and admirers needn’t worry about the prospect of his becoming a cultural monument. It’s one of his best roles. But how should the thing be constructed? From what angle should it be viewed? Lucid’s The Long Patrol, which strikes me as an imaginative and commercial absurdity, shows how not to do it. Who could conceivably want to spend fifteen dollars for a collection of excerpts from Mailer’s books, however nicely printed and tastefully chosen, when for an equivalent sum you could buy most of the books, entire, in paperback? To be useful to anyone, such an anthology should have included two or three whole books with briefer selections from the others; if copyright problems precluded this, the project would better have been scrapped.
The Man and His Work is more successful. Lucid assembles a good and representative sampling of writing about Mailer since 1959, the year in which Advertisements for Myself arrived to advise everybody that he not only still existed but was going to require a more complex attention than the early novels had suggested. Two articles from that year define the critical drama to follow: Alfred Kazin admiring the talent but worrying that it was being destroyed by self-consciousness, and Norman Podhoretz rising above his distaste for hipsterism to argue that Mailer was about to become a major novelist, maybe the major novelist, of his time. There was, of course, always a third camp, here represented by petulant putdowns by Calder Willingham and Tom Wolfe, but The Man and His Work mainly shows the division between people who respected Mailer’s gifts but complained, more or less kindly, about misapplications and abuses—Kazin, Gore Vidal, Diana Trilling, Midge Decter, Elizabeth Hardwick—and ones who pushed beyond a decent judiciousness to insist that Mailer was more important than the rules he broke—Podhoretz, Richard Poirier, Leo Bersani, John W. Aldridge, Jack Richardson.
I take the latter view—Mailer is one of our great writers not in spite of but partly because of his refusals to be what we thought we wanted a great writer to be. But it seems clear that he has in effect invited the kind of indulgent parental correction many of his critics, especially ones who know him well personally, have lavished upon him. Midge Decter acutely remarked that there’s a persistent earnestness inside his literary and human misbehavior, and, as in some very talented children, the combination of earnestness and a taste for rebellious play works on a certain kind of grown-up heart as neither disposition could separately.
Mailer’s is a fatal, painful charm for what might be called, without respect to sexual or ethnic actualities, the Jewish Mother school of Mailer criticism, which reduces to the paradigm of a) “The trouble with him is…”; b) “But he’s very brilliant”; c) “What will ever become of him?” (this last with ostentatiously concealed suffering and pride). It’s not the smallest aspect of Mailer’s gift that he can put sympathetic critics in impossible positions and make them enjoy their own frustration. But if the history of his reputation has some of the dimensions and amusements of domestic tragicomedy, it does seem as if the work is best apprehended from somewhat farther away.
Yet monuments needn’t be mausoleums—as the anthologist measures his subject for a good and final fit, the reader may look around to see what Mailer has been up to recently. The last few years, stimulating enough for most of us, seem not to have stirred him very deeply outside the full-size books he’s been writing, as if the investment of energies there had left little for the occasional journalist and self-examiner to do. Existential Errands, his new collection of essays, reviews, and occasional pieces (some exceedingly occasional, I fear), shows him marking time, between engagements, vamping till ready. Compared to Advertisements for Myself, The Presidential Papers, and Cannibals and Christians, it’s a rather weak book, and the immediate temptation is to lecture or bully him—why doesn’t he eat up the chicken soup or bring home a nice Jewish girl once in a while? Doesn’t he love us any more?
But when even Homer nods, we punish him not for nodding but for being Homer in the first place, and Existential Errands shouldn’t be used for getting even with Mailer for those astonishing five years in which he published The Presidential Papers, An American Dream, Cannibals and Christians, Why Are We in Vietnam?, The Armies of the Night, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In fact there’s plenty of strong writing, which in his case also means strong thinking, in the book, and a Professor Lucid could have edited it down into a stunning collection perhaps a third as long. But Mailer has his honesties—the unassertive title of the collection is one of them—and it may be more useful to ask why these recent writings seem different from the best work than to complain about our own disappointment, as if a writer’s only duty were to keep us continually stimulated and amused.
As we know, to read Mailer is to watch an imagination generating selves suited to the diversity of its engagements with experience and possibility. The activity matters more than its products, which are to be judged not simply by their relation to objective circumstances—the subjects, conditions, or whatever else the writer addresses himself to (though of course judgment can’t wholly avoid these terms)—but also, and mainly, by their success in representing the processes of intelligence and feeling that brought them into being. The point may be made by considering the writings in Existential Errands that reflect Mailer’s candidacy for mayor of New York. To the extent that he possesses some of the skills and instincts of the successful politician, that candidacy wasn’t at all absurd; his programs were mostly sensible and considerably less impractical than the professional politicians could afford to admit. And to judge the candidacy by trying to imagine what would have happened if he’d won—the messes his temperament and inexperience would have got everyone into—is, at least for the purposes of literary judgment, irrelevant.
Yet Mailer’s writings and speeches on the campaign don’t quite work, chiefly, I think, because they don’t express a convincing process of self-imagining in the role proposed. Mailer wrote then of himself and Breslin:
As for the fact that they were literary men—that might be the first asset of all. They would know how to talk to the people—they would be forced to govern by the fine art of the voice. Exposed by their own confession as amateurs they might even attract the skill of the city to their service, for the community would be forced to swim in full recognition of the depth of the soup. And best of all, what a tentative confidence would reign in the eye of New York that her literary men, used to dealing with the proportions of worlds hitherto created only in the mind, might now have a sensitive nose for the balances and the battles, the tugs, the pushing, the heaves of that city whose declaration of new birth was implicit in the extraordinary fact that him, Mailer! and him, Breslin! had been voted in.
Here we must leave aside the question whether “the fine art of the voice” is really enough for political success, though indeed some pros, including that master elocutionist R. Nixon, behave as if they think so too. The question is: does this charming, resourceful rhetoric reflect a writer who is imagining how his present talents would be reconstituted, transformed, by the demands of public office, or does it just reflect a writer who is imagining (despite his intention) what it would be like to have him, Mailer!, his present, fun-filled self, for mayor? I judge it to be the latter, just as I judge that he seriously mis-imagined his ability to talk to “the people,” who are not frequently moved (and rightly so) by caricature forms of their own styles in someone who obviously knows that he’s smarter than they are.
The other roles Mailer plays in Existential Errands come off better, because they’re either easier or harder for him to manage. As a man of letters, knocking off a preface or a letter to the editor with one hand, he has no trouble at all being pertinent and funny—one remembers that his Stephen Rojack had been a TV personality and feels grateful that Mailer didn’t go that route until his style had been hardened by other, sterner self-imaginings. More impressively, he remains our best writer on sports, in the essays on the Ali-Frazier fight and “El Loco,” an inept bullfighter who yet was occasionally and unpredictably visited by grace.
Here too, though, reservations intrude. The bullfight piece is a bit coy and written to the Hemingway formula, and the Ali-Frazier essay, knowledgeable and exciting as it is, nevertheless seems more like a (superb) version of “objective” sportswriting—as good as the best Liebling, which is saying a lot—than a rendering of Mailer’s own way of participating in what he reports. In the marvelous Patterson-Liston story the fighters and the fight were perceived through Mailer’s efforts to see himself in the act of seeing and writing about them, the way in which his presence, his excitement about being, at last, a reporter (“next to being a cowboy, or a private eye, the most heroic activity in America”), affected the object and heightened its imaginative potential.
It is this sense of his own presence and its importance that makes Armies of the Night a better book than Miami and the Siege of Chicago. At the Pentagon Mailer had both history and himself in history to cope with, and his ego was up to the occasion; though Armies is the record of his resisting the mass identity offered by Resistance, the event was yet dramatically alive with possibilities that the conventional rhetoric of protest didn’t wholly falsify, and its excitements energized his way of apprehending it, even in qualified or ironic ways. But the drama of Miami and Chicago was too large and hopeless, too banal, to sustain his participatory art over book length—how could it matter that Mailer was there when it didn’t really matter that anyone else was there, Nixon, McCarthy, Humphrey, the newsmen, the kids, Daley and his cops? And in Of a Fire on the Moon the lack of more than a fitful, uncertain expression of any self shaping the event seemed to show him even more at a loss in the face of a subject indifferent to merely human presence, one that Mailer as astro-engineer couldn’t finally make much more of than Neil Armstrong or Walter Cronkite could.
In Existential Errands, the writings on Mailer’s adventures in film-making come closest to recapturing the sense of significant involvement his art requires. I know too little about the subject to judge whether his theories of cutting, scriptless filming, and the like are as interesting as he thinks they are—no doubt we will be hearing from the professional theoreticians of cinéma vérité. But even if he has only been reinventing the wheel all the while, even if the essays on Wild 90 and Maidstone are too long and explanatory for their practical content, there are fine passages in them, ones that make it clear that a real and productive effort of self-definition has been invested.
Mailer on his own films can be boring enough, as can the films themselves, I gather. But in making and thinking about movies he is led to difficult and impressive thought on other matters—his own relation to Hollywood as a cultural force, the relation of acting to “real” emotion, the flow from dreams to art to practical behavior, the phenomenology of film, memory, and death, the intricate mingling of artistic and personal intentions in a collective creative enterprise like the making of Maidstone. The aesthetic being worked out, though not completed, is potentially a theory of fiction generally, and if it ever leads him to write largely on what he knows most about, novels (as opposed to novelists, conceived as the competition), virtually everyone will want to listen carefully.
Of a Fire on the Moon and The Prisoner of Sex suggest that Mailer has lately been at a kind of impasse, unable to locate the subjects that can force him to the hardest kind of reimagining of himself as writer and man. Why doesn’t he write another novel? the Jewish Mother in me mutters—novels are at least exercises in total self-imagining, without the confusion of having exterior subjects to respect, and it seems as if The Deer Park, An American Dream, and Why Are We in Vietnam? set off or sustained his imaginative processes at crucial moments in his career. I suspect that the invention of Marion Faye, Rojack, and D. J., minds living at one or another of the margins of our old language of the self, extended his sense of the possibilities for himself as a writer, suggesting roles his imagination might occupy outside the world of “fiction,” where the imperial gestures of the imagination meet with more resistance.
To say that Mailer has learned through writing novels how to continue as a writer and a man does not, of course, turn the novels themselves into laboratories or gymnasiums—I think them more important and valuable than any of the nonfiction, as it happens, if only because they are so much more offensive, more challenging to our conventional wisdoms about art and life. Novels have, however, been healthy for him in the past, making possible the brilliant performances as essayist and reporter from Advertisements to Armies of the Night and Cannibals and Christians, and it might not hurt him to get back to the old drawing board yet again.
But surely he may safely be spared such impertinences by this time—he knows everything that we know about him, since he after all taught it to us. If Existential Errands doesn’t show him making new advances, it does show him remembering and honoring his own demanding sense of what his art should try to be:
I will always have love for El Loco because he taught me how to love the bullfight, and how to penetrate some of its secrets. And finally he taught me something about the mystery of form. He gave me the clue that form is the record of a war. Because he never had the ability most bullfighters, like most artists, possess to be false with their art, tasty yet phony, he taught something about life with every move he made, including the paradox that courage can be found in men whose conflict is caught between their ambition and their cowardice.
The warfare recorded by form in Mailer’s work has been winding down somewhat of late, certainly. But it doesn’t demean even an important man to run a few errands while things are quiet, and whatever else there is to say about war, it can at least be counted on not to end before we want it to.
June 15, 1972