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…

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