Norman Mailer and the Cutting Edge of Style/The Deer Park

From Project Mailer
Norman Mailer and the
Cutting Edge of Style
  1. Introduction
  2. The Naked and the Dead
  3. Barbary Shore
  4. The Deer Park
  5. An American Dream
  6. Why Are We in Vietnam? and
    The Armies of the Night

Barbary Shore’s description of the intimate and complicated relationship between sexual and political forms of liberation and repression is carried further, inverted and intensified, in Mailer’s next novel, The Deer Park. For if Mikey Lovett discovered the sexual underpinnings of even the most abstract political power-games, Sergius O’Shaugnessy, Lovett’s spiritual godson in The Deer Park, will discover the more disturbing presence of the power—games, the existential risks and little murders which underlie sexual passion itself.

The Deer Park belongs, on the surface, to that particularly American genre, the “Hollywood novel”; but unlike West’s The Day of the Locust, Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, or Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge, it is not primarily concerned with the effect of Hollywood and the Hollywood film upon the quality of our national daydreams or national psychoses (indeed, as I have said, Barbary Shore is in this respect a more “Hollywood” novel—in the characters of Guinevere and Monina—than is The Deer Park). Rather, The Deer Park is an exploration, through the well-established myth of “Hollywood,” of much deeper scars and deformations in the American sense of life—scars which touch the very nature of man and man’s attempts to remain civilized and courageous in the midst of a universe of death. None of the major action of the book, in fact, even takes place in Hollywood, but occurs rather in the mythical resort community, Desert D’Or, somewhere near the film capital, where the novel’s chief characters come to act out, refine, and perhaps resolve their personal and political agonies.

Mailer’s relationship to the popular film has always been one of his most idiosyncratic and important characteristics, and The Deer Park helps us see its relevance to his performance as a novelist. We have already noted how Barbary Shore utilizes, for its complex political and psychological point, the melodramatic conventions of the thriller plot. Mailer—producer, director, and star of his own homemade gangster films, and biographer of Marilyn Monroe—is distinctly a child of film culture, rather than a critic or highbrow patron of it. Unlike Nabokov, who professes nothing but contempt for the art of the film (while at the same time utilizing it extensively, as Alfred Appel shows in Nabokov’s Dark Cinema), or Graham Greene, who, though a sensitive and profound film viewer and critic, nevertheless maintains a careful imaginative distance from the vulgarity of the art, Mailer is an enthusiast—a fan. The artificial, massively popularized daydreams of the Hollywood film are for him—as for most Americans of his generation—a precondition of life in this society, not an accidental factor to be judged or ranked as “creative” or “detrimental to creativity,” but a basic part of the real landscape of our mental lives, the landscape from which creativity, if it is to develop at all, must grow. In this respect, Mailer’s sensibility is prophetic, a precursor of such highly creative uses of the popular film as those of Donald Barthelme and, particularly, Thomas Pynchon.

Just as Barbary Shore had treated New York as the scene of an existential battle for the imaginative future of America. The Deer Park uses the Hollywood phenomenon to deepen that exploration of the imaginative war for the political and sexual soul of the country. Sergius O’Shaugnessy, the hero, is—once again—an aspiring novelist, not an amnesiac, but a war veteran (this time a pilot and veteran of the Korean War), an orphan, and an impersonator. His stylized alienation is, if anything, more severe than that of the amnesiac compelled to invent his past. O’Shaugnessy, an orphan not even sure of his Irish ancestry (his name is significantly misspelled), is compelled to invent identities for himself which he cannot trust even as he invents them, not to fill a void left by the loss of memory, but rather to fill a void left by his own lack of faith in the meager identity with which he has been provided by the state. He is, then, Inauthentic Man in an even more problematic manifestation than that of Barbary Shore. As he says early in his story, “When I was twelve, I found out my last name was not O’Shaugnessy but something which sounded close in Slovene. It turned out the old man was mongrel sailor blood—Welsh-English from his mother. Russian and Slovene from his father, and all of it low. There is nothing in the world like being a false Irishman.” In the figure of the “false Irishman,” the deliberately gross and over-exuberant parody of a certain kind of street savvy, we recognize an important analogue to Mailer’s own public posturings. But Sergius himself takes his false Irishness as a cue for a lifetime of impersonation and existential disguise. Reminiscing about his life in a Catholic orphanage, he says, “They always gave me the lead in the Christmas play, and when I was sixteen I won a local photography contest with a borrowed camera. But I was never sure of myself, I never felt as if I came from any particular place, or that I was like other people. Maybe that is one of the reasons I have always felt like a spy or a fake.”

The plot of The Deer Park is largely the plot of Sergius’s deliverance from that uncomfortable feeling of being a “spy or a fake.” That is, unlike his earlier incarnation in the figure of Lovett, Sergius will not be cured of his feeling of inauthenticity, imprisonment in the pure style of existence, by the deliverance into action. He will, rather, learn the lesson of style as a mode of salvation—will become the novelist Lovett has chosen not to become, and will thereby become, for Mailer, a more viable, even perhaps a comically triumphant, compromise between the claims of pure fiction and pure politics.

Like Lovett, Sergius encounters an older man whose career has been blighted by the Red scare of the early fifties, who has been wounded in a central way by the politics of his era, and who will teach his younger friend something essential about himself. But Charles Eitel, the blackballed film director who befriends Sergius in Desert D’Or, has little of the rather simpleminded Marxist fervor of McLeod. He has, indeed, defied the House committee investigating communism in Hollywood, but he has defied it out of a kind of desperation, a last—ditch courage which has more to do with an intensely personal standard of spirit, honor, and style than with the political praxis that governs McLeod’s behavior. As Eitel reflects, late in the novel, “The essence of spirit ... was to choose the thing which did not better one’s position but made it more perilous.” This might almost be the manifesto of Mailer’s essays, both during the period of The Deer Park and later; a transformation of his earlier political concerns into the myth of a private honor, an exigent standard of moral aesthetics, which becomes increasingly the cornerstone of any “political” reformations the author or his characters can believe in.

Eitel himself, though, is finally defeated in terms of his own existential morality. An artist barred by the state from pursuing his art, he eventually capitulates to the demands of the Congressional committee, becomes a “friendly witness,” and as a reward is allowed to return to filmmaking. But this sacrifice for his art is a sacrifice at the expense of the moral athleticism, the exigent search for spiritual peril, which in this novel is the precondition for art as for life. After his return to Hollywood, Eitel’s films are only a faint and cheapened simulacrum of the radiant designs he had entertained in his exile. And the failure of his art is paralleled by the failure of his love for his wife, the beautiful and simple Elena with whom, in his exile at Desert D’Or, he had enjoyed as fulfilling a sexual relationship as any in his life (or, for that matter, as any in all of Mailer’s fiction). For Sergius, it is an instructive failure. As Eitel capitulates out of the best of motives, Sergius decides to leave Desert D’Or, breaking off his own love affair with the actress Lulu Meyers, and pursues his writing career in a voluntary alienation which is superior to Eitel’s precisely because it is deliberately chosen.

The relationship between the two men is one of the most convincing human relationships in Mailer’s novels; but more than that, it is the rich and allusive formal center of The Deer Park. Most of the book, in a feat of real technical brilliance, is concerned, not with the activities of Sergius, its first—person narrator, but rather with the life of Eitel, including conversations, sexual performances, and inner reflections which Sergius could not possibly know about, and which he is quite explicit about inventing, on behalf of the consistency of his story. In a literal way, that is, the failure of Eitel fecundates Sergius’s imagination by making him into a narrator, into a tale teller whose truth is not the simple truth of journalism but the fabrication of just such a consistent vision as Eitel’s own films will, sadly, never attain. By telling the tale of Eitel’s disaster, Sergius succeeds in inventing the tale of his own triumph. This formal relationship is more than a feat of narrative skill—it is a suggestive, and surely deliberate, parody and inversion of one of the most central American myths of the century, The Great Gatsby.

Mailer himself has written, in Advertisements for Myself, of the pressure of Gatsby upon The Deer Park, particularly in terms of the style of Sergius’s speech. “To allow him to write in a style,” says Mailer, “which at best sounded like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby must of course blur his character and leave the book unreal.” But Mailer is perhaps being disingenuous in this limited confession of influence, for it is through his oddly warped re-vision of Fitzgerald’s values that he has achieved his most effective articulation of many of his own political and personal assertions. The Deer Park is not anything so crude as a “refutation” or “satire” of Fitzgerald’s myth, but it is a central inversion or “misreading” of that myth, an argument for the values of enthusiasm, vatic madness, even of profligacy. The book went far, in fact, toward enshrining those values in at least one major wing of American writing during the fifties and sixties; just as Mailer was, around the time of the book’s appearance, involved in proselytizing the totem word for its set of responses: Hip.

“Hip” was in currency as a term for awareness, for an especially intense, nervous receptivity to whatever is going on right now, long before Mailer took over the word. Especially, of course, it had been part of the jazz musician’s lexicon. And concurrently with Mailer’s elaboration, that other crucial performer, Lenny Bruce, was even more violently expounding the implications of the term. There can be little doubt that Mailer’s essay, “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” published in 1957, two years after The Deer Park, helped establish the word and the concept as one of the dominant features in the imaginative life of the time. For Mailer, living in the age of the Atomic Bomb, Dulles diplomacy, the breakdown of conventional morality, and the ever-encroaching threats of technology, the truly sensitive artist needs to become a “white Negro”: that is, a deliberately self-chosen outsider whose withdrawal from the corporate state creatively parodies the alienation which, throughout American history, has been imposed from outside upon the Negro. To be Hip is to elect a life on this brittle edge of psychic outlawry:

The unstated essence of Hip, its psychopathic brilliance, quivers with the knowledge that new kinds of victories increase one’s power for new kinds of perception; and defeats, the wrong kind of defeats, attack the body and imprison one’s energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people’s habits, other people’s defeats, boredom, quiet desperation, and muted icy self-destroying rage. One is Hip or one is Square.

This is the “war, and preparations for a new war” which we have seen dominating the landscape of Mailer’s fiction since The Naked and the Dead, but now the concept of the war has become almost irreversibly one of private, psychic, stylized war. The Naked and the Dead have become the Hip and the Square. Espousals like this of the revolutionary (yet oddly passive) stance of Hip caused Mailer, during the fifties, to become identified as the chief novelist and theoretician of the movement then called the “Beat Generation”: the direct literary ancestors, as Mailer himself is a direct ancestor, of such major countercultural novelists of the sixties and seventies as Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, Rudolph Wurlitzer, and of course Thomas Pynchon. But Mailer’s kinship to the Beats can be easily overstated; his idea of Hip is, after all, merely an extension of the ideas of style and personality he had been developing from his first novel on.

I have already said that, for Mailer, the conflict of imagination and the unimaginative is more ferocious, more intolerant of compromise, than for any other writer of his generation—another way of saying that he is, in his prophetic fervor, the most purely romantic of recent American novelists. In fact, Eitel in The Deer Park articulates the metaphysics of Hip more precisely—and more straightforwardly in the tradition of the American and European romantics—than Mailer himself has done in his essays. One night, during a long drinking bout, Eitel tells the innocent, unread, wondering Sergius (Mephistopheles to Faust? Byron’s Ahrimanes to Manfred?) about "the savage":

Eitel made references to famous people and famous books I never heard about until that evening although I have gotten around to reading them since, but the core of Eitel’s theory was that people had a buried nature—“the noble savage” he called it—which was changed and whipped and trained by everything in life until it was almost dead. Yet if people were lucky and if they were brave, sometimes they would find a mate with the same buried nature and that could make them happy and strong. At least relatively so. There were so many things in the way, and if everybody had a buried nature, well everybody also had a snob, and the snob was usually stronger. The snob could be a tyrant to buried nature.

We recognize, in this “theory” of Eitel’s, the lineage of Rousseau, Shelley, Byron, and Baudelaire—the whole romantic myth of the untainted natural man buried under civilized hypocrisy, who only needs to be released from his state-conditioned bondage to possess once more the unfallen Garden of the human world. And we also recognize the peculiar form that myth took in such problematic cases as Byron, Baudelaire—and Oscar Wilde—the form of the Dandy, the outrageously artificial man whose artificiality is his own admission of nostalgia for and despair of a purely “natural” selfhood. The Hipster, in other words, and especially the Hipster as incarnated in the career and public performance of Norman Mailer, is in many ways simply a reincarnation of that most scandalous, dangerous, and fascinating figure of the nineteenth century, the Dandy or the Beau.

These old ideas—indeed, ideas at the heart of the modern dilemma—are rendered fresh by the context of fabricated innocence in which they are uttered. Sergius, that is, does not know how ancient or how fraught with ironies is the myth of the “noble savage,” even though Mailer does. And through the focus of Sergius’s narrative, through The Deer Park’s carefully fabricated style, the idea can, then, be reborn as the myth of Hip, or regained innocence, which was so central to the Beats’ program for a resurrection of the American imagination. It is instructive to compare this method of revivifying the romantic heritage with the hyperconscious, historically sensitized treatment of that heritage in the novels of Bellow or Barth. Mailer’s fabricated innocence, his way of using the speaking voice to circumvent difficulties of consciousness, bears important if mutated fruit in many fictions of the sixties—just as it parallels the disingenuous obscenities of a nightclub prophet like Bruce.