Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer; drawing by David Levine

“Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state.” With this artful sentence, Norman Mailer begins his Book of the Dead. Our most conspicuous literary energy has generated its weirdest text, a book that defies usual aesthetic standards, even as it is beyond any conventional idea of good and evil. Like James Merrill, with whom he has in common absolutely nothing else, Mailer finds one of his occult points of origin in the visionary Yeats, but unlike Merrill, Mailer truly shares Yeats’s obsession with the world of the dead. Merrill’s spirits, in The Changing Light at Sandover, are representations of our lives, here and now. But Mailer has gone back to the ancient evenings of the Egyptians in order to find the religious meaning of death, sex, and reincarnation, using an outrageous literalism, not metaphor. What the subscribers to the Literary Guild will find in it is more than enough bumbuggery and humbuggery to give them their money’s worth.

But there is also spiritual power in Mailer’s fantasy (it is not the historical novel that it masks itself as being) and there is a relevance to current reality in America that actually surpasses that of Mailer’s largest previous achievement, The Executioner’s Song. More than before, Mailer’s fantasies, now brutal and unpleasant, catch the precise accents of psychic realities within and between us. Ancient Evenings rivals Gravity’s Rainbow as an exercise in what has to be called a monumental sado-anarchism, and one aspect of Mailer’s phantasmagoria may be its need to challenge Pynchon precisely where he is strongest. Paranoia, in both these American amalgams of Prometheus and Narcissus, becomes a climate.

Ancient Evenings goes on for seven hundred large pages, yet gives every sign of truncation, as though its present form were merely its despair of finding its proper shape. The book could be half again as long, but no reader will wish it so. Thomas Mann proudly remarked of his Egyptian novel, Joseph and His Brothers, that “as the son of a tradesman I have a fundamental faith in quality…. The song of Joseph is good, solid work.” Mann gave his life to the book for sixteen years, and its quality is durable. Mailer has given Ancient Evenings a decade, and it is wild, speculative work, but hard work nevertheless. Its quality is not durable, and perhaps does not attempt to be. Mailer is desperately trying to save our souls as D.H. Lawrence tried to do in The Plumed Serpent or even as Melville did in Pierre. An attentive reader ought to bring a respectful wariness to such fictions for they cannot be accepted or dismissed, even when they demand more of the reader than they can give. Mailer wishes to make his serious readers into religious vitalists, even as Lawrence sought to renew our original relationship both to the sun and to a visionary origin beyond the natural sun. Mailer’s later works thus strain at the limits of art.

Mailer’s readers will learn rather more ancient Egyptian mythology than they are likely to want or need, but the mythology is the book, and seems more than mythology to Mailer. Like his ancient Egyptian nobles, Mailer hunts, slays, roasts, and devours his gods, in order to increase his share in courage, sexual potency, immortality. I assume that a reading of The Book of the Dead (The Papyrus of Ani) first alerted Mailer to the Egyptian analogues to his own ongoing obsessions, but whether that is true or not, it is of some interest to look at the translation of the ancient text by E.A. Wallis Budge1 alongside Mailer’s nightmare of a book.

The Book of the Dead exists in many versions, some of which may go back thousands of years before the 190 covered in Mailer’s book (1290-1100 BCE). But they tend to tell the same stories concerning the gods and the afterlife, stories that center upon the death, mutilation, and resurrection of the god Osiris. Even as Osiris triumphed over death, so the Egyptians hoped to emulate him, and indeed to achieve a virtual identity with that king of eternity, who in his resurrection had taken on aspects of Ra, the sun god. And even as Osiris had risen in his reassembled corporeal body, so the ancient Egyptians conceived that they would live again in more than the spirit. As resurrected gods, they would feast and love forever.

Unfortunately, the great hazards of passing through the various stages and places that lay between the tomb and heaven made this vision of resurrection difficult even for those handfuls of monarchs and great nobles who could afford properly monumental and well-stocked tombs. The duad or Land of the Dead swarmed with hideous monsters, and only a proper combination of magical preparation, courage, and plain good fortune was likely to get one through. This is essentially the given material that Mailer appropriates.


What Mailer adds are his own emphases upon scatology, buggery, and the war between women and men, but the fundamental material on the wavering border between the human and the divine, and on the world of the dead, is already there in Egyptian mythology for him to develop. His book’s peculiar and disturbing sincerity is its strength. The reader is likely to be numbed by the repetition of charnel-house horrors, and even the most avid enthusiasts of buggery, whether heterosexual or homosexual, may flinch at confronting Mailer’s narrative exuberance in heaping up sodomistic rapes, but the religious seriousness of all these representations is rather humorlessly unquestioned and unquestionable.

“Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state” because Mailer’s narrator is the Ka or surviving double of a dead young nobleman who had been named Menenhetet the Second. This unfortunate Ka takes us on a ghastly tour of the necropolis, where it encounters the Ka of the young man’s great-grandfather, Menenhetet the First (henceforth I shall emulate Mailer in calling both these personages by their shortened name, Meni). Great-grandfather Meni is Mailer’s central character, and has just died out of his fourth life, at a still monstrously vigorous sixty. We are at about 1100 BCE in an Egypt all too like the United States in the 1970s, but now we are hearing the song, not of the executioner, but of the magician.

Great-grandfather Meni, a devourer of bat dung, has mastered all the mysteries, including a rather lively one of Mailer’s own invention (which rather peculiarly is attributed to Mosaic esotericism). In this occult performance, one becomes one’s own father, by begetting one’s own next incarnation upon a woman who thus in some sense already is one’s mother. Meni the First selects his own granddaughter, Hathfertiti, for the honor, which in some other sense has to be regarded as very nearly one’s dying act. But I don’t intend to give an elaborate plot summary, since if you read Ancient Evenings for the story, you will hang yourself. There is a lot less story than any summary would indicate, because this is a book in which every conceivable outrage happens, and yet nothing happens, because at the end everything remains exactly the same.

There are only two characters who matter in the book, and they not inaccurately could be termed versions of Hemingway (I mean the novelist, not one of his characters) and of Mailer himself, the heroic precursor and his vitalistic follower and son. One is the great pharaoh Ramses the Second, victor over the Hittites at the battle of Kadesh, and the other is the three-times reincarnated magician Meni the First, who fought at Kadesh as the pharaoh’s first charioteer.

Ramses the Second is a beautiful and potent male god, usually called Usermare, while the scarcely less potent Meni is condemned to be the perpetual worshipper of his pharaoh, a condemnation enacted by way of a ferociously divine bumbuggering of Meni the First by Ramses, which in true Maileresque terms sets up the dilemma that all Meni’s magic will never resolve. To have been bumbuggered by one’s precursor is a sublime new variant on the sorrows of literary influence, but evidently it does not inhibit the strong sons of strong fathers from bumbuggering the Muse, a delicious revenge carried out by the magician Meni upon the queen and goddess Nefertiti, prime wife of Ramses the Second.

Most of the magician’s story is told by him to the reigning pharaoh, a descendant of the great Ramses, in the course of an endless night of banqueting, which together with the inserted lives of Meni the First consumes about five hundred of Mailer’s seven hundred pages. There is an unsolved problem of form here, but that is minor compared to defects of texture, to hopelessly unresolved inconsistencies of tone and of badly mixed imagery. Mann found a style for Joseph in Egypt, but Mann’s strength was irony and Mailer’s strength is never ironic. There are some horribly grand set pieces, most notably the battle of Kadesh, but there are also immense stretches through which the poor reader must crawl with an unrewarded patience, including the entire “Book of Queens,” which occupies 135 pages of harem intrigues. Nothing else Mailer has published is so hopelessly listless as the “Book of Queens,” which might have been entitled. “The Prisoner of Sex Revisited, or The Radical Feminists’ Revenge.” In fairness to Mailer, I offer a single representative passage, honestly chosen at absolute random:

Disloyalty stirred then in Menenhetet, and his breath became hushed as the water. He was ill with desire for the little queens. It was vivid as shame to be alone among so many women with not even a boy about older than ten, but then by that age, the children born here were off to the priests for schooling. All he heard were the voices of women who had no husband nor friend nor any lover but the Good and Great God Usermare. Worse. About him were all the plump eunuchs with their black muscles enriched by the air of their easy life. Thereby they were appealing to all—the hundred women and Menenhetet—attractions powerful to his senses. His loins ached, his throat was gorged, and his mouth was so hungry he would not look through their windows at the beerhouse these little queens were making. In the dark, like the horse that hears a murderous beast in the rustle of a leaf, he started at each breeze. At this hour, there were eunuchs everywhere in the gardens, fondling one another with their fingers and their mouths, giggling like children, and the flesh of Menenhetet was inflamed.

But poor Meni’s flesh is inflamed for pretty much all of these seven hundred pages, and ultimately the inflammation is the lust to be Usermare-Ramses, pharaoh and god, and so never to die except as a rapid transition between incarnations. The actual magical and physical process by which Meni begets a fresh incarnation is rather obscure. He must be able, “during an embrace, to ride his heart right over the last ridge and breathe his last thought as he passed into the womb of the woman and thereby could begin a new life, a true continuation of himself; his body died, but not the memory of his life.” Whatever that gallop over the last ridge truly is, Meni the First still comes to a very bad end. Unlike Scheherazade, Meni finally runs out of stories, and is graciously allowed to cut his own throat with the pharaoh’s own knife. Where has Mailer’s fantasy of his magician brought us? On the Stevensian aesthetic principle that “It Must Change,” Meni, once a general, can find his epitaph in Stevens:


Nothing had happened because nothing had changed.
Yet the general was rubbish in the end.

Why are we in Egypt? Where else could we be? Mailer’s dialectics of sex and death have found their inevitable context, though the world of Usermare and Meni may not be wholly distinct from the world of Gary Gilmore. Pynchon and this newest Mailer are what Vico called “magic primitives,” giant bards who try to deify themselves by the ancient praxis of divination, but Pynchon scatters himself even as he finally scatters his hero Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow quite literally, by having him undergo a parody of the fate of Osiris, or as Yahweh scattered the builders of the Tower of Babel. Mailer, like his American ancestors from Poe through Hemingway, resists the scattering of his self and name. Ancient Evenings thus fulfills the critical prophecy of Richard Poirier’s book on Mailer (1972) which found in the emphasis upon buggery a dialectic by which meaning is both de-created and restituted. Poirier argued that it is almost as though in the Kabbalah of Norman Mailer, buggery constitutes the trope of the breaking of the vessels, as a negative creation that is a prime Gnostic image.

Mailer, as a fictive theologian, has been developing a private version of an American gnosis for some time now, in the sense that Gnosticism can be a doctrine insisting upon a divine spark in each adept that cannot die because it never was any part of the creation anyway. Such a doctrine resigns history and mere nature to the demons or bad angels, and identifies what is immortal in the self with the original abyss, from which the Yahweh of Genesis stole in order to form his bad creation. Libertine and antinomian, since it identifies the law of the Torah with a catastrophic creation, such a faith is the antithesis both of normative Judaism and of orthodox Christianity. In Jewish Gnosticism or Kabbalah, the catastrophe that ruins creation is imaged as the breaking of the vessels, the shells of the cosmos and the body that becomes riddled with divine light. Consciously or not, Mailer has substituted buggery for the breaking of the vessels.

Buggery even as a word has Gnostic origins, alluding as it does to the Bogomils or Bulgar Manichaeans. As a metaphysician of the belly (self-titled), Mailer had some earlier inclination toward regarding buggery as an antinomian act—a transgression of all the rules of a deeply false order that would reveal a higher truth (see the buggering of Ruta, the German maid, in An American Dream and “The Time of Her Time”). In Ancient Evenings he has emancipated himself, and seems to be verging upon a new metaphysic, in which heterosexual buggery might be the true norm (as it may have seemed to the Lawrence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover), and more conventional intercourse perhaps is to be reserved for the occult operation of reincarnating oneself in the womb of the beloved. Here we may recall an analysis of the Marquis de Sade that was carried out by Horkheimer and Adorno in their chapter on Juliette in The Dialectic of the Enlightenment, in which they observed that the harangues of the Sadean heroes marked a final perfection in the rationality of the Enlightenment. Yet this seems more appropriate to the sado-anarchism of Pynchon’s paranoid rationalists than to the Egyptian mysteries of Mailer-Meni, who has striven so mightily to wrench himself away from post-Enlightenment reality.

Mailer’s is too formidable a case of an authentic literary drive to be dismissed, and dismissal is certainly not my intention. Ancient Evenings is on the road of excess, and what Karl Kraus said of the theories of Freud may hold for the speculations of Mailer also—it may be that only the craziest parts are true. Mailer probably is aware that his Egyptian obsessions are in the main tradition of American literature, carrying on from much of the imagery of the major writers of the American renaissance.

The definitive study here is John Irwin’s American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance.2 Irwin centers on Poe, and in particular on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but much that Irwin says about Melville’s Pierre is as relevant to Ancient Evenings as is Irwin’s brilliant commentary on Pym. Irwin argues that Emerson and those he stimulated—Thoreau and Whitman positively; Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville negatively—found in ancient Egypt a vision of resurrection through reincarnation or reappearance that they could oppose to the Hebraic vision of the resurrection of the body. Certainly the attitudes toward death of the Pharisees, and of mythological Egypt, could not be more antithetical than they were, and perhaps American writers inevitably prefer the Egyptian account of personal survival, as Yeats did also. Irwin, commenting on Pym and on Pierre, sees in the Egyptian resurrection a kind of Freudian displacement of the writer’s body into the writer’s book, of blood into ink. As the great Western version of the Abendland, nineteenth-and twentieth-century American literature perhaps takes on an almost Egyptian sublimity, an exaltation of cultural belatedness as the second chance of a literal life beyond death. Mailer’s Ancient Evenings yet may seem a work in Pierre’s sad class, if not quite that of Pym’s, an American vision of final sunset.

I call the American literary vision of death “belated” in contrast to the ideas of death first in normative Judaism and then in early Christianity. Post-Biblical Judaism associated the salvation of each Jew with that of all Jewry, and the third century CE sage Rab said of the world to come that in it “there is no eating and drinking, no begetting of children, no bargaining, no jealousy and hatred, and no strife.” This is akin to the quite Pharisaic reply of Jesus to the Sadducees that “when they rise from the dead they neither marry nor are married, but are like angels in heaven.” Irwin, in his American Hieroglyphics, contrasts the Jewish and Christian versions of personal immortality to the Egyptian notion of personal survival:

As the empty tomb and the vanished body evoke the Judeo-Christian concept of an immortal self that is independent enough of the body to have dispensed with even a bodily image, so the monumental pyramid and the mummified corpse express the Egyptian sense that the immortality of the personal self is constitutively linked to the preservation of such an image….

Irwin reads Poe’s Pym and to a lesser extent Melville’s Pierre and Mardi as a kind of Egyptian reversal of the Jewish and Christian understanding of death as God’s revenge for our original sin against the Father. Like Poe and Melville, Pynchon and the Mailer of Ancient Evenings participate in this reversal which, as Irwin says, “refers not to death as revenge, but to a revenge against death, the revenge that man attempts to take, through art, against time, change, and mortality, against the things that threaten to obliterate all trace of his individual existence.” Thus Melville said of his Pierre’s Maileresque attempt to write a book of “unfathomable cravings” that: “He is learning how to live, by rehearsing the part of death.”

Mailer too wishes us to learn how to live, in an America where he sees our bodies and spirits as becoming increasingly artificial, even “plastic” as he has often remarked. If our current realities, corporeal and psychic, manifest only lost connections, then Mailer’s swarming, sex-and-death-ridden ancient Egyptian evenings are intended at once to mirror our desperation, and to contrast our evasions with the Egyptian rehearsal of the part of death. Myself, I vote neither for the sage Rab nor for the vitalistic magus Mailer, but I acknowledge the strength of his crude forces and fierce thoughts.

Mailer concludes his book with an enigmatic rhapsody, in which the Ka or double of Meni the First expires, and the power of the dying heart enters the Ka of Meni the Second. That combined Ka sails toward rebirth, while Mailer-Meni declares somberly: “I do not know if I will labor in greed forever among the demonic or serve some noble purpose I cannot name.” That may be a touch grandiose, but it is thoroughly American, and perfectly Gnostic also in its aspiration to join itself to an alien God. Mailer, until now, has seemed to lack invention, and so after all to resemble Dreiser more than Hemingway, a judgment that The Executioner’s Song, an undoubted achievement, would sustain. Ancient Evenings is an achievement of a more mixed kind but it is also an extravagant invention, another warning that Mailer is at home on Emerson’s stairway of surprise.

This Issue

April 28, 1983