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{{byline |last=Gordon |first=Neil |abstract=To treat ''The Armies of the Night'' as simply an explanation of an historical period is a simplification, and it is especially relevant that the heart of this book is a meditation on the competing claims of three forms of knowing the past—the journalistic, the historical, and the novelistic. That Mailer comes down so clearly on the side of the novelistic is in no doubt. The finest writing of this book comes not in the first half of the book in which Mailer describes his actual experience, nor in the historical or journalistic analysis but, precisely, in Mailer’s descriptions of those parts of the March on the Pentagon which he did not experience. |note=This paper was presented on October 19, 2007 at Georgetown University. The conference was the “40th anniversary conference on The March on the Pentagon/''The Armies of the Night''.” |url=https://prmlr.us/mr08gord}}
{{byline |last=Gordon |first=Neil |abstract=To treat ''The Armies of the Night'' as simply an explanation of an historical period is a simplification, and it is especially relevant that the heart of this book is a meditation on the competing claims of three forms of knowing the past—the journalistic, the historical, and the novelistic. That Mailer comes down so clearly on the side of the novelistic is in no doubt. The finest writing of this book comes not in the first half of the book in which Mailer describes his actual experience, nor in the historical or journalistic analysis but, precisely, in Mailer’s descriptions of those parts of the March on the Pentagon which he did not experience. |note=This paper was presented on October 19, 2007 at Georgetown University. The conference was the “40th anniversary conference on The March on the Pentagon/''The Armies of the Night''.” |url=https://prmlr.us/mr08gord}}
I am six years older than Norman Mailer when he wrote ''On Armies of the Night''. In 1968 the year of publication, I was 10. I come to this book
from a position perhaps somewhat different from my colleagues here.
I come to it looking for an insight into the origins of my political consciousness.
I think I am not alone in this in fact, I am one of several
writers who over the past five years or so have published novels attempting and
precisely to understand what it meant to live in the politics of the sixties
and how that relates to who we are today.
It is a good way to approach this novel and Its historical insight is razor-sharp.
Take Mailer’s description of the fabled New Left, who they were, and where they
came from. His remarkable frame of reference extends from the thirties to
the late sixties; from the fine distinction between Leninists and Trotskyists to
a real experience of marijuana and Benzedrine. Therefore his ability to
show us how the New Left grew from the foundering of American radicalism
of the thirties in a set of disputatious and incompatible but nearly identical
modes of political thought. Mailer describes for us the tangle of
“Communist, Trotskyist, Splinter Marxist, Union Organizer, or plain Social
Democrat,” and how these groups finally, “succeeded in smashing the bones
of their movement into the hundred final slivers of American Marxism,
minuscule radical sects complete each with their own special martyred
genius of a Marxicologist.”{{sfn|Gordon|2008 |p=109}} He gives us access to the great disappointed hope
of the Labor Movement, in which “Communists and Trotskyites, Splinterites,
and Reutherites ultimately came to sit closer to the Mafia than to
Marx.” This precisely is the context most usually forgotten among people
of my age from which emerged the New Left.
Who were they? Mailer describes “A generation of college students
who was finally indifferent to the blockhouse polemics of the past,
and the real nature of the Soviet. It was the real injustice in America which attracted
their attention—poverty, civil rights, an end to censorship” {{sfn|Gordon|2008 |p=120}}
It is a genealogy of the New Left that, if we wish to understand who we are
as Liberals and Radicals in America today, we need to master in its details.
It is a description all the more poignant when you reflect that these
hopeful words about the New Left were written in 1967, just a couple years
before the New Left was to begin the process of self-destruction that, I would
submit to you, still casts its pall over the American Left today, its shadow of
hopelessness, of pessimism, and the sense that political engagement is, at
heart, impossible. I refer of course to that moment in 1969, just two years
later, when Weatherman took over SDS and put an end to the possibility of
real, radical social transformation in America a possibility that I will argue and
still disappoints us today.
To treat this book as simply an explanation of a historical period is
a horrible simplification, and it is perhaps most especially relevant to me,
given my experience as a novelist attempting to capture this time, that the
heart of this book is a meditation on the competing claims of three forms of
knowing the past—the journalistic, the historical, and the novelistic. That
Mailer comes down so clearly on the side of the novelistic is of course in no
doubt and the merits of this complex argument have been and will be, better
explored by my colleagues than I am able.
I would like to make one observation, that the finest writing of
this beautifully written book seems to me to come not in the
the first half of the book in which Mailer describes his experience, nor in
the historical or journalistic analysis although both of those are very fine
but, precisely, in Mailer’s descriptions of those parts of the March on the
Pentagon which he did not experience; that is, the final forty or so pages in
which he tells of confrontations between protesters and soldiers that
occurred during the night while Mailer was in jail. So he is not just writing
about an event he did  ''not''  see; he is writing about people from another generation
whom he did not know. Let’s just listen to one little quotation:
<blockquote> Night was on. The demonstrators were entering the last few hours of their march on the Pentagon. They were tired, exceptionally tired, they felt vulnerable—their aggression, their ability even to defend themselves now used up by endless calls over the hours for more adrenaline; yes, the mood was pacifistic, almost saintly, but very weak. In the night, they were all close to
each other. Quietly They were waiting. The walls of the Pentagon bulked large.{{sfn|Gordon|2008 |p=309}}</blockquote>
We are seeing, here, a great American writer at the height of his powers.
My question is, what does it mean that in a novel, or a history, of which the
the greatest part is composed of eyewitness material, that it's most beautiful,
The most convincing description is something that Mailer never actually saw?
That is a complicated question, but it is one that has been most convincingly
addressed, in my view, by W.G. Sebald in his monumental essay about
the allied bombing of Germany during World War II, ''The Natural History of Destruction''. In it, if I may simplify somewhat, Sebald suggests that the truth or falsehood of a description of a historical event is not to be judged by the
number of facts or witnesses but by the integrity and poetry of the language
of description. By this standard,{{sfn|Gordon|2008 |p=310}} ''On The Armies of the Night'' makes a huge and
durable case for the supremacy of the novelist’s empathetic imagination
over, the “mere recitation of facts.”
So for me and, I think, my peers in the effort to use fiction to understand
the past, this rich and multilayered document serves, forty years after its
publication, not only as a work of art, and not only as a deeply relevant meditation
of history and fiction, and not only as a map of our political past and
an explanation of our political consciousness, but also as a guide to ''what it means for a novelist to write well about history''; what kind of language is adequate to the task.
That is not to understate the importance, however, of the historical accuracy,
and prescience, of this book, and I would like to leave you with one example
of this.
I refer to Mailer’s description of some of the groups participating in the
March on the Pentagon in 1967, approximately half of which were religious.
He notes the presence of the “American Friends Service Committee, Inter-University
Christian Movement, Catholic Peace Fellowship, Jewish Peace Fellowship, and
Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
This struck me very forcibly because a couple of years ago, researching for a novel, I went down to the single act of political protest that one can count on
finding in America; that is, the School of America’s Protest in Fort Benning,
Georgia, which is led each year by Father Roy Bourgeois, the radical
Jesuit priest, and which attracts some 15,000 people each November. There
I saw a protest largely composed of groups like Just Faith at the Church of
the Transfiguration, The Catholic Workers League, Marymount, The Incarnate
Word Sisters, and Shepherd Progressive Action Committee.
Of course there were secular groups too and there may even have been a contingent from the new, nascent SDS, which was founded recently at my
own University campus in New York. But I think it is safe to say that there is
not a single political organization represented in the coalition that marched
on the Pentagon in 1967 which can be found, today, in Fort Benning, Georgia,
and it remains true that the durable continuity between these two protests
is the backbone of religious activists who continue to hold vigil,
today as they did here in Washington in 1967 against the brutal violence
our country inflicts upon the rest of the world.
The depressing conclusion that this fact leads me to is that since Norman
Mailer marched on the Pentagon in 1967, succeeding administrations have
remained as indifferent to dissent in America as they were when Mr. Mailer
wrote The Armies of the Night and today in Fort Benning, as 40 years ago at
the Pentagon, political protest in America remains, at heart, a matter of faith.
This paper was presented on October 19, 2007, at Georgetown University.
The conference was the “40th-anniversary conference on The March on the
===Citations===
{{Reflist}}


===Work Cited===
===Work Cited===
{{cite book |last=Mailer |first=Norman |date=1968 |title=The Armies of the Night |url= |location=New York |publisher=NAL |pages= |isbn= |author-link= |ref=harv }}
{{cite book |last=Mailer |first=Norman |date=1968 |title=The Armies of the Night |url= |location=New York |publisher=NAL |pages= |isbn= |author-link= |ref=harv }}
{{Refend}}
{{Review}}
{{DEFAULTSORT:On The Armies Of The Night}}
[[Category:Articles (MR)]]

Revision as of 14:57, 14 September 2020

« The Mailer ReviewVolume 2 Number 1 • 2008 • In Memorium: Norman Mailer: 1923–2007 »
Written by
Neil Gordon
Abstract: To treat The Armies of the Night as simply an explanation of an historical period is a simplification, and it is especially relevant that the heart of this book is a meditation on the competing claims of three forms of knowing the past—the journalistic, the historical, and the novelistic. That Mailer comes down so clearly on the side of the novelistic is in no doubt. The finest writing of this book comes not in the first half of the book in which Mailer describes his actual experience, nor in the historical or journalistic analysis but, precisely, in Mailer’s descriptions of those parts of the March on the Pentagon which he did not experience.
Note: This paper was presented on October 19, 2007 at Georgetown University. The conference was the “40th anniversary conference on The March on the Pentagon/The Armies of the Night.”
URL: https://prmlr.us/mr08gord

I am six years older than Norman Mailer when he wrote On Armies of the Night. In 1968 the year of publication, I was 10. I come to this book from a position perhaps somewhat different from my colleagues here. I come to it looking for an insight into the origins of my political consciousness. I think I am not alone in this in fact, I am one of several writers who over the past five years or so have published novels attempting and precisely to understand what it meant to live in the politics of the sixties and how that relates to who we are today.

It is a good way to approach this novel and Its historical insight is razor-sharp. Take Mailer’s description of the fabled New Left, who they were, and where they came from. His remarkable frame of reference extends from the thirties to the late sixties; from the fine distinction between Leninists and Trotskyists to a real experience of marijuana and Benzedrine. Therefore his ability to show us how the New Left grew from the foundering of American radicalism of the thirties in a set of disputatious and incompatible but nearly identical modes of political thought. Mailer describes for us the tangle of “Communist, Trotskyist, Splinter Marxist, Union Organizer, or plain Social Democrat,” and how these groups finally, “succeeded in smashing the bones of their movement into the hundred final slivers of American Marxism, minuscule radical sects complete each with their own special martyred genius of a Marxicologist.”[1] He gives us access to the great disappointed hope of the Labor Movement, in which “Communists and Trotskyites, Splinterites, and Reutherites ultimately came to sit closer to the Mafia than to Marx.” This precisely is the context most usually forgotten among people of my age from which emerged the New Left.

Who were they? Mailer describes “A generation of college students who was finally indifferent to the blockhouse polemics of the past, and the real nature of the Soviet. It was the real injustice in America which attracted their attention—poverty, civil rights, an end to censorship” [2] It is a genealogy of the New Left that, if we wish to understand who we are as Liberals and Radicals in America today, we need to master in its details. It is a description all the more poignant when you reflect that these hopeful words about the New Left were written in 1967, just a couple years before the New Left was to begin the process of self-destruction that, I would submit to you, still casts its pall over the American Left today, its shadow of hopelessness, of pessimism, and the sense that political engagement is, at heart, impossible. I refer of course to that moment in 1969, just two years later, when Weatherman took over SDS and put an end to the possibility of real, radical social transformation in America a possibility that I will argue and still disappoints us today.

To treat this book as simply an explanation of a historical period is a horrible simplification, and it is perhaps most especially relevant to me, given my experience as a novelist attempting to capture this time, that the heart of this book is a meditation on the competing claims of three forms of knowing the past—the journalistic, the historical, and the novelistic. That Mailer comes down so clearly on the side of the novelistic is of course in no doubt and the merits of this complex argument have been and will be, better explored by my colleagues than I am able.

I would like to make one observation, that the finest writing of this beautifully written book seems to me to come not in the the first half of the book in which Mailer describes his experience, nor in the historical or journalistic analysis although both of those are very fine but, precisely, in Mailer’s descriptions of those parts of the March on the Pentagon which he did not experience; that is, the final forty or so pages in which he tells of confrontations between protesters and soldiers that occurred during the night while Mailer was in jail. So he is not just writing about an event he did not see; he is writing about people from another generation whom he did not know. Let’s just listen to one little quotation:

Night was on. The demonstrators were entering the last few hours of their march on the Pentagon. They were tired, exceptionally tired, they felt vulnerable—their aggression, their ability even to defend themselves now used up by endless calls over the hours for more adrenaline; yes, the mood was pacifistic, almost saintly, but very weak. In the night, they were all close to each other. Quietly They were waiting. The walls of the Pentagon bulked large.[3]

We are seeing, here, a great American writer at the height of his powers. My question is, what does it mean that in a novel, or a history, of which the the greatest part is composed of eyewitness material, that it's most beautiful, The most convincing description is something that Mailer never actually saw? That is a complicated question, but it is one that has been most convincingly addressed, in my view, by W.G. Sebald in his monumental essay about the allied bombing of Germany during World War II, The Natural History of Destruction. In it, if I may simplify somewhat, Sebald suggests that the truth or falsehood of a description of a historical event is not to be judged by the number of facts or witnesses but by the integrity and poetry of the language of description. By this standard,[4] On The Armies of the Night makes a huge and durable case for the supremacy of the novelist’s empathetic imagination over, the “mere recitation of facts.”

So for me and, I think, my peers in the effort to use fiction to understand the past, this rich and multilayered document serves, forty years after its publication, not only as a work of art, and not only as a deeply relevant meditation of history and fiction, and not only as a map of our political past and an explanation of our political consciousness, but also as a guide to what it means for a novelist to write well about history; what kind of language is adequate to the task.

That is not to understate the importance, however, of the historical accuracy, and prescience, of this book, and I would like to leave you with one example of this.

I refer to Mailer’s description of some of the groups participating in the March on the Pentagon in 1967, approximately half of which were religious. He notes the presence of the “American Friends Service Committee, Inter-University Christian Movement, Catholic Peace Fellowship, Jewish Peace Fellowship, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

This struck me very forcibly because a couple of years ago, researching for a novel, I went down to the single act of political protest that one can count on finding in America; that is, the School of America’s Protest in Fort Benning, Georgia, which is led each year by Father Roy Bourgeois, the radical Jesuit priest, and which attracts some 15,000 people each November. There I saw a protest largely composed of groups like Just Faith at the Church of the Transfiguration, The Catholic Workers League, Marymount, The Incarnate Word Sisters, and Shepherd Progressive Action Committee.

Of course there were secular groups too and there may even have been a contingent from the new, nascent SDS, which was founded recently at my own University campus in New York. But I think it is safe to say that there is not a single political organization represented in the coalition that marched on the Pentagon in 1967 which can be found, today, in Fort Benning, Georgia, and it remains true that the durable continuity between these two protests is the backbone of religious activists who continue to hold vigil, today as they did here in Washington in 1967 against the brutal violence our country inflicts upon the rest of the world.

The depressing conclusion that this fact leads me to is that since Norman Mailer marched on the Pentagon in 1967, succeeding administrations have remained as indifferent to dissent in America as they were when Mr. Mailer wrote The Armies of the Night and today in Fort Benning, as 40 years ago at the Pentagon, political protest in America remains, at heart, a matter of faith. This paper was presented on October 19, 2007, at Georgetown University. The conference was the “40th-anniversary conference on The March on the

Citations

  1. Gordon 2008, p. 109.
  2. Gordon 2008, p. 120.
  3. Gordon 2008, p. 309.
  4. Gordon 2008, p. 310.


Work Cited

Mailer, Norman (1968). The Armies of the Night. New York: NAL.