The Mailer Review/Volume 2, 2008/The Heart of the Nation: Jewish Values in the Fiction of Norman Mailer
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|«||The Mailer Review • Volume 2 Number 1 • 2008 • In Memorium: Norman Mailer: 1923–2007||»|
Abstract: In the past year or so, as a result of the publication of The Castle in the Forest, Mailer has tackled his “Jewish question” in a way that brings him, if not back to the “nice” Jewish boy image he eschewed many years ago, at least to an acknowledgement of that past in a way that embraces it with new warmth and understanding. Mailer’s ideology, as an American writer and social commentator, stems from both the intellectual ideas of Judaism and how these ideas make themselves manifest in our daily lives.
In the past year or so as a result of the publication of The Castle in the Forest , Mailer has tackled his “Jewish question” in a way that brings him if not back to the “nice” Jewish boy image he eschewed many years ago at least to an acknowledgement of that past in a way that embraces it with new warmth and understanding. Not that he ever really denied his Jewish past. Even though Mailer has never been considered a major figure in the canon of American-Jewish writers or as concerned about purely Jewish issues as his contemporaries Bellow, Malamud, or Philip Roth, he has never disavowed his religious affiliations. Nearly all his central characters claim some sort of Jewish parentage or ancestry, from Rojack to Harlot and, of course, Jesus. On the personal level, when several years ago I was stranded in New York on Passover and had nowhere to go for the seder, I called up Norman and asked if I could conduct one in his house. He readily agreed, admitting it would be his first seder in fifty years! During the seder, at which John Buffalo, his youngest, recited the four questions, it was delightful to watch Norman explain the Hebrew alphabet to John and read some of the Hebrew script.
Mailer encapsulates his own attitude to Judaism very succinctly in an interview he gave earlier in 2007 with Nermeen Shaikh and published in Nextbook. When she asked, “what role has your being Jewish played in your being a writer, ”Mailer replies emphatically,“ an enormous role.” He picks two aspects of the Jewish experience that influenced him, the sense of history that makes it “impossible to take anything for granted” and also the Jewish mind: “We’re here to do all sorts of outrageous thinking, if you will ... certainly incisive thinking. If the Jews brought anything to human nature, it’s that they developed the mind more than other people did.” Not surprisingly, Mailer continues in the interview to bemoan the loss of this ability owing to what he terms “cheap religious patriotism.”
None of these ideas surprises me, nor will they any reader of Mailer’s work, as they have always been part of the core of his philosophy. Mailer’s ideology, as an American writer and social commentator, stems from both the intellectual ideas of Judaism and how these ideas make themselves manifest in our daily lives. I doubt that any of us would deny that Mailer is a writer who is concerned with the spiritual nature of humankind, a writer who at the end of the last millennium can seek to bring the story of Jesus Christ to life and at the beginning of the new millennium can write with perfect seriousness about the role of the Devil in the creation of one of the greatest monsters in Western history. But his writings on the battle of Good and Evil have nothing in common with the rantings of a Hal Lindsey or with other apocalyptic and generally Christian fables. Mailer’s ideology derives essentially from a Jewish approach to life.
Just as fights between the God and Devil belong to an earlier time frame, Mailer’s Jewishness similarly echoes a more ancient time when religion was seen in a purer form. Mailer’s Jewish identity emerges not so much from obedience to the Law, the letter of the Torah, but from the spiritual underpinnings—the implications and intent of those laws— that go to the core of Judaism. There are three basic ideas in Judaism that play a prominent role in his oeuvre: 1. The concept of mitzvah; 2. the emphasis on the here and now; and 3. the prophet’s role in society. These themes are as prominent, in one form or another, in his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, as they were in his first, The Naked and the Dead.
Mitzvah is usually interpreted or translated as “commandment,” as in thou shalt or shalt not do x. In colloquial Hebrew as in Yiddish, to do a mitzvah is to do a good deed or a favor, but Mailer’s notion of mitzvah finds a clear expression in the writings of the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel who sees mitzvah as a holy action, a deed that reveals and transforms a person:
In every act we perform we assume that the world is meaningful. Life would come to naught if we acted as if there were no ultimate meaning.... Jewish observance ... consists of acts performed by the body in a clearly defined and tangible manner ... of the right intentions and of putting the right intention into action. Both the body and soul must participate in carrying out a ritual, a law, an imperative, a mitzvah.
This is an idea expressed in almost identical terms by Mailer in his seminal essay, “The White Negro,” where the “impulse to action” expresses the need to live with the demands of life and not succumb to the void:
[A] life...directed by one’s faith in the necessity of action is a life committed to the notion that the substratum of existence is the search, the end meaningful but mysterious.
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