Norman Mailer and the Cutting Edge of Style/The Naked and the Dead
|Norman Mailer and the|
Cutting Edge of Style
Robert Langbaum, writing of Mailer in 1968, after the publication of The Armies of the Night, observes that “in spite of his apparently unrealistic new style, Mailer still adheres to the large realistic tradition of the novelist as a chronicler of his time.” That is an acute point to make about the author of such seemingly (but speciously) “unrealistic” novels as An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? although it scants, I think, the degree to which Mailer’s “realism” and “unrealism” have always been held in a curious, highly idiosyncratic mixture. His celebrated discovery, toward the middle of the fifties, of the mythic force of the orgasm and the cult of visionary violence—a bundle of prophecies to which he gave the name Hip—is a discovery, as always with Mailer, not of something new and outside the scope or implications of his previous work, but precisely a discovery of tendencies and underlying metaphors in what he has already done and subsequently, an attempt to refine those implicit tendencies into a conscious, narrative and political program. Style, again, maddeningly both masks and reveals the true, primal soul of the writer struggling toward self-realization. The vocation—not the craft—of fiction is the writer’s vigilant insistence on making his developing style a continued transformation of the hidden into the revealed. Even in The Naked and the Dead, then, we can see the most anarchic tendencies of his later work to be not only present, but in large part responsible for the stunning power of that book.
When it appeared in 1948, The Naked and the Dead immediately established itself as the best American novel about World War II and a masterpiece of “realism.” Indeed, the novel’s very triumph has been a key factor not only in the author’s later difficulties with fiction, but in large-scale critical misapprehension of those later efforts. The book’s reputation as a triumph of realism and as a work quite unlike Mailer’s other novels has obscured the fact that, meticulously realistic as it often is, The Naked and the Dead is also as much a dream or nightmare vision as Why Are We in Vietnam?
The book’s title has become so famous that by now it is easy to ignore its curious implications; but they are, after all, strange and original, particularly in view of what must be the normal, unreflecting interpretation of “the naked and the dead.” Most readers, probably, understand the title to mean “the naked and dead,” that is, the blasted, stripped bodies of soldiers on a battlefield, the conventional scenery of innumerable war movies and innumerable blood-and-guts war novels. But that is not the title. It is “the naked and the dead”; that “and” implies, not an identity, but rather an opposition, between the two key terms.
Who are the naked, who the dead? If a heavy death count is one of the indices of “realism” in a war story, this book is relatively peaceful. Only four characters of any importance die in the course of the tale, the first one within the opening thirty pages, and the other three not until well toward the end of this long novel. Moreover, there are not even any battle scenes in The Naked and the Dead. The one major Japanese assault upon the invading American army is described—with brilliant indirection—not in terms of the clash of troops, but rather in terms of the violent tropical storm which washes away the American bivouacs and provides cover for the attack. Much as with Stendhal’s famous description of the Battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma, the heroic battle is over before its participants realize it has actually begun. The final American breakthrough, the massive push which ensures American control of the mythic Pacific island which is the scene of the novel, is hardly described at all, for while it is taking place, the characters who are the center of our interest are on the other side of the island, on a reconnaissance mission which, ironically, contributes nothing to the success of the invasion.
One clue to the subtler implications of Mailer’s title comes fairly late in the book, on that crucial and futile reconnaissance detail. Roth, a college-educated private in the platoon, a man already into middle age, tired, frustrated, and haunted by the specter of anti~Semitism among his fellow soldiers, has just collapsed in exhaustion. Gallagher, a blustering Irishman, strikes Roth, shouting, “Get up, you Jew bastard!” And suddenly Roth, through his exhaustion and panic, sees new vistas of terror and violence open before him:
All the protective devices, the sustaining facades of his life had been eroding slowly in the caustic air of the platoon; his exhaustion had pulled out the props, and Gallagher’s blow had toppled the rest of the edifice. He was naked another way now. He rebelled against it, was frustrated that he could not speak to them and explain it away.
Naked another way now; five words and a blow have forced Roth to a point of existential nakedness, a point where he comes face to face—not with the cosmic void—but rather with the conditional, fragile, mortal nature of his own mind and his own body, a point where the props and assurances, the style, of his normal at-homeness with himself no longer avails to mask himself from himself. And if he is naked at this moment, he is also more startlingly alive than at any other moment of his life. To be naked, then, is to be at once terribly frightened, exalted, and intimate with one’s own most intensely conscious self. And to be dead, then, truly dead, is never to have had such a moment, never to have watched the intricate style of your assurances crumble around you and then be forced to recognize what, amid the rubble of that fallen temple of normality, there is to assist in the construction of a new and stronger selfhood.
Roth’s moment of risk and panic is, indeed, a minor one, and one more heavily fraught with terror and failure than with the explosive, exhilarating discovery of a new life. But it is nevertheless an important incident. It helps us see that—among the many interrelated narrative structures of the novel—one way to read The Naked and the Dead is as a series, a carefully varied cluster, of just such moments.
Roth’s confrontation with an intimately personal void, moreover, could not be possible without the pressure of politics and so-called peacetime society. Roth is a New York Jew, Gallagher a Boston Irish Catholic; and the ironic interplay of those two hieratic American identities provides Mailer with one of his most permanent and revelatory metaphors in his ongoing exploration of the national psyche. The real war in this gigantic war novel, one feels, is not the conflict of Japanese and American troops on a trivial island, but the perennial warfare of political and personal styles of identity, of dullness with vitality, of prejudice with vision, of the existentially naked with the imaginatively dead. The war, indeed, both as historical, political fact and as metaphor, is seen throughout the novel primarily as a precipitating image—almost what T. S. Eliot once called an “objective correlative”—for this underlying, critical conflict. Since the Iliad, of course, the most valuable and greatest stories of war have been stories about precisely what the extreme, limiting situation of war does to men’s ideas of themselves, their world, and their gods. Mailer manages to sustain and enrich that ancient tradition—to create a novel which is, paradoxically, as much a novel of manners as it is a battlefield epic.
Another moment of “nakedness” in this complex sense comes to the cowardly, sycophantic Sergeant Brown as he is carrying a dying comrade back from the jungle to the beach. It is an important counterpart to Roth’s confrontation through violence, for Brown experiences his “nakedness” as an access of tender, almost feminine solicitude for the dying man (formerly one of his despised enemies) whom he is bearing. The two men exchange small talk about their families, as men often speak of anything, in the face of death, except death itself. And in a sudden rush of pity and love, Brown whispers, “Just take it easy, boy” to the dying Wilson. In that instant Brown feels the misery and failure of his life open into an exultant sense of participation and unity. It would be (and has been, in any number of sentimental war films and books) an unbearably mawkish scene, except for Mailer’s own toughmindedness about the quality and the duration of the revelation. “It could not last,” Brown realizes.
It was as if Brown had awakened in the middle of the night, helpless in the energies his mind had released in sleep. In the transit to awareness, to wakefulness, he would be helpless for a time, tumbling in the wake of his dream, separated from all the experience, all the trivia that made his life recognizable and bearably blunted to himself. He would be uncovered, lost in the plain of darkness, containing within himself not only all his history and all of the present in the ebbs and pulses of his body, but he would be the common denominator of all men and the animals behind them, waking blindly in the primordial forests.
This, it seems more and more as one studies Mailer’s fiction, is the quintessential moment—the destruction of politics and the reestablishment of a primordial, visionary politics in its place—toward which all his characters, in one way or another, strive. But, for Brown, it cannot and will not last. In Mailer’s world, a man is not only tested and refined by his moments of nakedness, he is also judged by them; and if the man’s past has been one of tiny evasions, small hypocrisies, then the moment will not endure, nor will it issue, as it should, in the creation or fabrication of a new style for living, a more embracing and heroic style of being in the world.
Continental existentialism, particularly the austere and dramatic vision of Albert Camus, obviously lies behind this elevation and mythologization of the naked moment, as does the whole intellectual inheritance of romanticism with its Rousseauistic emphasis upon the primitive nobility of man, untrammeled by the nets of social conditioning. For Mailer, the human equation is more unyieldingly moralistic than for the French existentialists and more ambiguously, problematically artificial than for the high romantics. In The Naked and the Dead and his other novels, there is something almost medieval in the ferocity with which his characters, at their crucial moments of confrontation, are judged—both by themselves and by their creator—and frozen, at the moment of judgment, into the postures of their heroism or cowardice. It is one of the many paradoxes of this highly paradoxical writer that, for all his insistence upon the protean, infinitely self-contradictory nature of human personality, no one is more rigidly un-protean in his view of his own characters. Like the damned in Dante’s Hell or the figures in an allegorical tapestry, his people are (at their best) giant figures of the states and perils of the soul in search of its own salvation. For the progress of the soul in that search we have, usually, to look to the example set by the speaking, narrating voice of the author himself and to look even more closely at the variable shape of his novelistic career. Sartre once observed of the fatality of William Faulkner’s characters that they are all amputees: they have no sense of, no possibility of, a real future. With Mailer, that psychic amputation is even more severe. His characters are all trapped within a testing and judging present, the present of the “naked moment,” which will admit the possibility of the past only as a preparation for it and the possibility of a future only as the infinite repetition of its hieratic form.
In The Naked and the Dead this highly individual quality of Mailer’s world achieves its most perfectly articulated expression: a wedding of vision and story, form and substance, which is lacking in the later novels precisely because never again does Mailer have the good fortune to write a novel about war itself, that most innately allegorical, schematic, tapestrylike of human activities. The first thing one sees, opening the book, is a map of “Anopopei,” the island whose invasion is the major, generative event of the novel. Anopopei is a dream or nightmare island; the name itself, surely, carries as many associations and memories of the language of the nursery as it does of the dialects of Micronesia. The island is shaped, as no one ever tires of saying in the book, like an ocarina: an elongated oval lying east and west, with, toward its western end, a nearly perpendicular shortened peninsula jutting into the ocean.
Maps are usually rather dull and unimportant adjuncts to works of fiction, but the shape of Anopopei is worth studying carefully, since the plot of the book will follow so precisely and with such literally strategic organization, the course of the invading army down the “mouthpiece” of this giant ocarina and thence on an eastward sweep, along the northern side of the island, until it finally breaks through the Japanese line of defense.
It is perhaps excessive to compare Mailer’s performance in the dramatic delineation of great masses of armies in movement and logistical arrangement to Tolstoy—but only “perhaps”—for if on one level The Naked and the Dead is a series of individual, existential confrontations on the part of the members of the invading army, on another, equally important level the book is a magisterially complete and convincing picture of men living and acting in the mass, a story of military invasion which is unequaled, in recent memory, in its power to convey the impression of a truly large-scale movement of human beings. The very shape of Anopopei, in this respect, is one of the most brilliant and paradoxically –“unrealistic” inventions of the novel. The island is shaped to fit a textbook case of invasion tactics, designed by the author to clarify perfectly the classical military problems of entering hostile territory, supplying one’s forces for extensive maneuvers against an entrenched enemy, and finally breaking down the enemy’s resistance and occupying the territory.
If on the existential level of personal confrontation the book is a series of instants of revelatory nakedness, on the political level it is the large-scale “plot” of the invasion and occupation of the schematic island of Anopopei. On both levels, the situation of war serves primarily to refine and clarify, through panic and urgency, the underlying qualities of everyday, peacetime personality and politics.
The “Homeric simile,” articulated in the Iliad and the Odyssey and ever after celebrated as one of the first literary techniques of the Western imagination, is an extended comparison of some act of wartime slaughter to an analogous, but idyllically agricultural or civic feature of the acts of peace. At the simplest level, for example, it may be said that a mighty warrior cuts down the hosts of his enemies as a farmer cuts down, at harvest time, the stalks of his wheat field—the point being, of course, the ironic contrast between man’s destructive and creative labors, and also, at least traditionally, the disruptive, unnatural quality of those acts of destruction. (Simone Weil, it might be mentioned in passing, wrote one of her most brilliant essays—The Iliad, or the Poem of Force—about just this classical, Homeric sense of the terminally perverted nature of physical violence.) But Mailer, whether deliberately or simply by instinct, inverts the classical formula, so that The Naked and the Dead can be read as a massive Homeric simile turned inside out. The killing, destructive activities of war are seen, that is, not as ironically deformed analogues to the acts of peacetime, but rather as ironically, horrifyingly clarified extensions of those acts. Rather than viewing war, with Homer and Vergil, as the apocalyptic cancellation of the life of the peaceful city, the polis or the urbs, Mailer presents us with a vision of war—of The War—as the ongoing, unacknowledged, and deeply nauseating condition of even the most comfortably pacific urban life. It is an inversion which, in Mailer’s later work, becomes perhaps his central contribution to the social and spiritual mythology of his time: the insight that civilized life, whatever its ordinary, daylight assurances about itself, is always, to the enlightened imagination, involved in a state of total war between the visionary naked and the visionary dead.
In The Naked and the Dead itself, Mailer rises to something like an explicit awareness of his Homeric inversion in the curious sections entitled “The Time Machine.” For each of the major characters, there is a time machine segment, usually coming directly before or directly after his existential moment of nakedness. This is an impressionistic, sometimes stream-of-consciousness tableau of the character’s peacetime life, his background, his ruling passions, his signal failures and signal triumphs. Formally, the time machine device is a rather close borrowing from the “Camera Eye” segments of John Dos Passos’s great trilogy of World War I and its aftermath, U.S.A. But the device is also distinctively “Maileresque”; it serves, again in the medieval fashion of allegorizing I have described, to deepen and consolidate the implications of what a character discovers about himself, or fails to discover, in his moment of nakedness. The political satire of Dos Passos’s camera eye, that is, is overlaid and transformed by Mailer’s own obsession with the radically personal, passional bases of politics.
Indeed, if we must locate a single flaw, a single evidence of clumsiness and apprenticeship in this overwhelmingly masterful novel, it is probably the presence of the time machine interchapters. They are obtrusive, and they do, with something of a too mechanical economy, emphasize the predeterminations, passional and political, acting upon the men of Anopopei. But even this clumsiness is, after all, more fascinating and instructive than it is bothersome. Mailer’s effort, in The Naked and the Dead, is to fabricate a myth of the war which will include at once the physical, historical details of the Pacific campaign, the political and economic origins and consequences of that war and the private, phenomenological, and sometimes mystical discoveries which that eternal warfare can generate. Such an ambitious enterprise demands a certain degree of clumsiness, a certain modicum of narrative backtracking and indirection, if it is at all successfully to make its multiple points. As an attempt to unify a public with a private vision of America, the time machine interchapters—like the novel of which they are a part—have all the strengths of their weaknesses.
The novel as a whole, then, operates on two discrete but ultimately unified levels, the political and the private, as does the division of its cast of characters. The political division, not surprisingly, is between officers and enlisted men, particularly the men of “the I and R platoon of headquarters company of the 460th Infantry Regiment.” Mailer’s treatment leaves little doubt that the tension between officers and G.I.s is simply a magnification of the peacetime conflict between the wielders of power and money and the exploited victims of those wielders. It is, in fact, a class conflict in an almost purely Marxist sense. The three most important officers are General Cummings, the commander of the invading army and a character of boundless self-knowledge and cynicism about the life—denying work which is his vocation; Major Dalleson, a blissfully unintelligent, plodding career man whose greatest talent is his ability not to think; and Lieutenant Hearn, perhaps the most important character in the novel, a sensitive, liberal intellectual who despises the power to which his rank entitles him but who cannot—till the very end of his life—break beyond that outrage to a vision of rebellion against the structures of power and exploitation. The G.I.s are headed by Sergeant Croft, the leader of the reconnaissance platoon, a man whose complex hatred for life has turned him into a cool, unthinking killing machine. Croft is feared and disliked by the other men in his platoon, among them Roth; Brown; Wilson, the easygoing, sensual Southerner whose death gives Brown his moment of transport; Gallagher, the Bostonian nearly paralyzed by his rage at the disappointments of his peacetime life; and Red Valsen, the ailing, ironically fatalistic hobo whose life up to and including his military service has been a succession of part-time jobs for the wielders of power, from which he has evolved a philosophy of clear-eyed but despairing bitterness.
This abstract division between haves and have-nots is deeply rooted in the conventions of the social-realist fiction of the thirties. But, as the popular conception of American literature has it, the advent of the war was supposed to have eliminated this sense of class struggle from the national imagination. One thinks of such representative mythologies of the war as Bill Mauldin’s “Willie and Joe” cartoons, films like Battleground or The Sands of Iwo Jima, or novels like Mr. Roberts and The Caine Mutiny. Even well after the conclusion of the fighting, the assumption remained the same: officers may tend to be a trifle pompous, even sometimes tyrannical, and enlisted men may tend to be insubordinate, even sometimes unsympathetic to the war effort—but in the end, the eminent good of making the world safe for foxhole democracy would ensure that the best of them would all pull together. Mailer—anticipating Joseph Heller’s perhaps overrated Catch-22—will have none of this. There is real courage in the precision with which he delineates, at the center of the war which was supposed to have been our liberation from the inequities of peacetime capitalist society, the persistence and triumph of those very inequities.
The political allegory of the novel, however, though strong and important, serves chiefly as a scaffolding—one might almost say an imaginative pretense—for the much more originally conceived partition of characters on the private, existential level. Here, especially in the pivotal figures of General Cummings, Sergeant Croft, and Lieutenant Hearn, Mailer defines a spectrum of personalities—or, better, a spectrum of possibilities of personality—which remains his most constant metaphor for the human, political condition.
I have said that war is the most schematic, allegorical of human activities. In The Naked and the Dead, at least, this is strikingly borne out in the ranks assigned the three men who most explicitly define the spiritual, metaphysical limits of the novel’s vision. Cummings, the general, is in absolute control of the invasion of Anopopei, and therefore in control of the lives of everyone else in the book. He is the first and perhaps the most disturbing of those self-conscious, preternaturally intelligent, horrifyingly soulless capitalists and controllers who are a permanent feature of the Mailer landscape. In him we see the epic ancestor of movie mogul Herman Teppis in The Deer Park, millionaire Barney Kelley in An American Dream, even President Lyndon Johnson in The Armies of the Night. Cummings is an evil man; and his evil consists, more than in anything else, in the deliberation and callousness with which he takes part in the dance of power and death, all the while knowing it to be a crime against the very sources of the human spirit. He is a homosexual, as we learn toward the end of the novel—not a repressed homosexual, but a deliberately abstinent one, cold husband to a frustrated wife. To enjoy even that form of love (always the most minimal and despicable, in Mailer’s basically puritan ethic) would be to jeopardize his military career and therefore the true style of his passion, the exercise of power. A fascist warring against fascists, Cummings announces to Hearn, early in the novel, his hopes for a war to outlast the war, for an era of totalitarian power of which World War II would be only the prelude. “You’re a fool,” he tells Hearn, “if you don’t realize this is going to be the reactionary’s century, perhaps their thousand-year reign. It’s the one thing Hitler said which wasn’t completely hysterical.” He continues, even more chillingly: “You can look at it, Robert, that we’re in the middle ages of a new era, waiting for the renaissance of real power. Right now, I’m serving a rather sequestered function, I really am no more than the chief monk, the lord of my little abbey, so to speak.”
This Gothic vision of the “renaissance of real power,” of a society manipulated with absolute efficiency by a gigantic cartel of power brokers, will loom larger and larger in Mailer’s later novels. It is also an important analogue—indeed, as we shall see, a direct influence—for the dark myth of a manipulated, automatized humanity in the work of Thomas Pynchon, especially in Gravity’s Rainbow, which can be read as an immense and brilliant fantasia upon the themes of The Naked and the Dead.
At the opposite end of the personal spectrum from the general is Sergeant Croft—“The Hunter,” as he is called in his time machine segment. Croft is another highly recognizable Mailer type, the first and most arresting of those unschooled, elemental, murderous Southerners whose presence and whose myth Mailer delights in. But in Croft’s case, something has gone wrong, something has soured and inverted his talent for life, so that he has become a splendidly equipped, gracefully athletic killer. If, indeed, Cummings’s wielding of power-for-death involves the exploitation and automatization of the classes he governs, Croft is the perfect victim, the perfect butt for the general’s grim plans. While Cummings is a self-conscious denier of life (his homosexuality here is a powerful metaphor for this passionate sterility), Croft is a victimized and victimizing destroyer of a life he cannot possess, cannot fully comprehend (he is a cuckold). War is the ideal sphere of action for a man like Croft, since it allows him to exercise his baffled violence without fear of retribution or the threat of having to face his own moral responsibilities.
Between themselves, Cummings and Croft incarnate a grim vision of the passional structures underlying political and social relations. Both men, finally, are among the visionary “dead” of the book’s title, the one because he has refused himself his chance for life, the other because his baffled, outraged imagination fails to grasp the chance when it is offered. And between Cummings and Croft stands Lieutenant Hearn.
It is ancient but accurate army folklore that a second lieutenant is one of the most unfortunate of human beings, contemned by his fellow officers as the lowest and most inexperienced of their number and resented by the enlisted men as their most familiar, most constant point of contact with the hateful class of commanders. Hearn, since he moves in both political spheres of the novel, is an ideal figure to become the unifying consciousness, the central moral voice of The Naked and the Dead. His progeny in Mailer’s later novels will be those tough-sensitive, aspiring novelists and manqués intellectuals who are Mailer’s most frank and probing projections of his own temperament: Lovett in Barbary Shore, O’Shaugnessy in The Deer Park, Rojack in An American Dream, D. J. in Why Are We in Vietnam? and “Norman Mailer” in The Armies of the Night. But Hearn himself is both more ambivalent than these later characters and more immediately engaging.
The most common activity for a Mailer hero is, oddly enough, watching. Despite the novelist’s enthusiasm for—indeed, cult of—action, almost all his central characters, with the exception of the murderer Rojack in An American Dream, spend the majority of their time watching and waiting to act. They strive to understand a complex situation, all the while keying themselves to the point of urgency, the critical point of understanding where action is unremittingly forced upon them.
It is an illuminating contrast to the classic situation described by the novels of Mailer’s antitype, Saul Bellow. With Bellow, as we saw in the last chapter, the definitive story is that of a man who sees chaos, the irrational, open before him in his everyday life and who then attempts, somehow, to come to terms with that apocalyptic eruption, to reconstitute the validity in his life of the traditional moral certitudes. Mailer does not so much contradict Bellow’s myth of man in society, as he inverts its terms. To the Mailer hero, the Mailer sensibility, society in its everyday appearance is a sham, a trap hiding beneath it deep and dark conspiracies, games of power and death which are subtle perils to the soul. The Mailer hero, then, characteristically enters upon a process of examination, investigation, and discovery whose final illumination, ideally, will force him into just such a shattering confrontation with the existential void as Bellow’s characters are in the business of surviving or overcoming. Mailer’s central consciousness, that is, seeks the very moment of testing and decision from which Bellow’s tales begin their exemplary voyages back to the civilized.
As befits the first of such seekers-for-the-void, Hearn goes through this process in a relatively simplified, schematic form. Caught by his rank between the two antagonistic political factions of the army, he is also acute enough to realize that that antagonism itself is the outward sign of a much more deeply rooted, perhaps epochal conflict between two possibilities for civilization, that of the totalitarian, socially engineered power games of the upper classes and that of the anarchic, murderous energies of the lower. Trapped in rank between Cummings and Croft, he is also passionately caught between their two equally life-destroying visions of possibility. Hearn is one of the existentially naked, perhaps the most fully so in the book, and not one of the visionary dead. Born the WASP son of a Midwestern merchant prince, he is the natural heir to all that attracts him and repels him in the assured, rich culture of Cummings and the raw, hunterly primitivism of Croft (and here again the schematism of the book is splendidly graphic, for Croft is, naturally, a westerner, while Cummings is an eastern seaboard product).
As the book begins, Hearn is Cummings’s special attache, the intimate and unwilling admirer of the general’s most shockingly personal reveries and confessions. At the imaginative center of the book, he rebels against the panoply of power Cummings has exhibited to him and is dismissed from the general’s staff to become the lieutenant of the reconnaissance platoon formerly headed by Croft. And if Cummings hates Hearn for his humanitarianism, his resistance to Cummings’s own sprawling dreams of total control, so Croft hates him as an intruder upon the intimate society of the platoon which the sergeant had controlled, a threat to his own untrammeled exultation in killing (just before Hearn joins the platoon, Croft has pointlessly executed a captured and weeping Japanese soldier, for the pure joy of the act). Finally—a grim enough prophecy of the fate of the civilization which has spawned them—the two complementary forces of death will destroy the central character of life and intelligence in this novel; for Cummings, in an attempt to execute his own elegant strategy for the capture of Anopopei, details Hearn’s platoon on an impossible, suicidal scouting mission on the farthest side of the island; and Croft, on that mission, deliberately falsifies a scouting report about enemy troop placement and thereby lures Hearn to his death in an ambush. It is a superb evidence of Mailer’s narrative skill that Cummings and Croft never once meet in the course of the novel—for both men are seduced by complementary ideals of pure power. Their unwitting conspiracy with each other murders the one man who, more than anyone else in The Naked and the Dead, refuses the seductions of power to live on the naked edge of intelligence and self-doubt.
But if Cummings and Croft triumph over Hearn, it is a sour triumph, since both men, by the end of the book, are forced—not to live through a moment of nakedness—but precisely to miss such a moment and to bear the realization of their failure. Croft, passionate to complete the assignment of the reconnaissance mission by scaling the forbidding heights of Mount Anaka, finally has to turn back from that ascent because of the growing mutinousness of his men and the most absurd of accidents—one of his men disturbs a hornet’s nest, sending the whole platoon fleeing back down the slopes of the mountain. And as he leaves the shore of Anopopei, he gazes at the mountain he has failed:
Croft kept looking at the mountain. He had lost it, had missed some tantalizing revelation of himself.
Of himself and much more. Of life.
And Cummings lives through an even more galling retribution for his failure of life, one which repeats on a gigantic scale the absurdity of Croft’s hornet’s nest. The invasion and occupation of Anopopei succeeds, but succeeds despite Cummings’s grandiose strategy of attack. On a day Cummings is away, organizing the elaborate naval support he needs for his operation, his second in command, the bovine Major Dalleson, discovers that American troops have broken through one Japanese position. In a reluctant and confused attempt simply to move up support for these successful troops, Dalleson finds that he has eventually moved up the entire invading army and routed the already starved, ammunitionless Japanese resistance. Like Croft, Cummings pays for his refusal of life in a costly coin: the realization of the terminal, unremitting futility of his best efforts. The last word in the novel is given to the most unlikely of all its characters, the insipid Dalleson, who still does not quite realize what he has, through the anthill wisdom of bureaucracy, accomplished. We see him planning an ultimate triviality—map-reading classes employing a pinup of Betty Grable to keep the men’s attention—and pathetically hoping, with this idea, to win some recognition, even maybe a promotion, from the powers he doggishly serves:
That was it. He’d write Army. And in the meantime he might send a letter to the War Department Training Aids Section. They were out for improvements like that. The Major could see every unit in the Army using his idea at last. He clenched his fists with excitement.
One can imagine no more magnificently, uncompromisingly bleak ending for this stunning novel; for at this point it becomes a time machine, not into the past, but opening into the future, postwar life of the American psyche. That future, implicit in the dull victory of Major Dalleson, is to be one of grim and terminal conflict between the naked and the dead whose warfare opens on Anopopei. The book prophesies precisely the manic world of visionary politics and visceral revolution which will increasingly become the landscape of Mailer’s fiction and—in the sixties, at least—the quite real landscape of American public life.
Indeed, Hearn, just before his death, achieves a privileged moment of vision which sounds, in retrospect, almost like a manifesto for his creator’s future. As Hearn resolves his relationship to the Cummingses and Crofts of the world, he also envisions a mission of revolution and resistance—one of Mailer’s most perfectly articulated moments of the coalescence and unification of the private and the political:
If the world turned Fascist, if Cummings had his century, there was a little thing he could do. There was always terrorism. But a neat terrorism with nothing sloppy about it, no machine guns, no grenades, no bombs, nothing messy, no indiscriminate killing. Merely the knife and the garotte, a few trained men, and a list of fifty bastards to be knocked off, and then another fifty.
This is, of course, partly a very young man’s vision of revolution as a glorified Boy Scout excursion. And Mailer, with one of those self-critical movements which so often save his fiction (if not his theorizing) from becoming ridiculous, has Hearn realize this and snort to himself, “Hearn and Quixote. Bourgeois liberals.” But then, having purified the style of his own vision by understanding and elevating to consciousness its very stylized nature, Hearn can continue, can complete the moment: “Still, when he got back he would do that little thing. If he looked for the reasons they were probably lousy, but it was even lousier to lead men for obviously bad motives. It meant leaving the platoon to Croft, but if he stayed he would become another Croft.”
The moral puritanism of Hearn’s final style, his insistence that one must never rest, never allow oneself the easy repetition of what seems most comforting, is one of the most finely realized moments in Mailer’s fiction; but it is also to become one of the most severe problems of Mailer’s later career. The Naked and the Dead, as bears repeating one more time, is a supreme achievement, a fable, like few others, good beyond hope; but the very sternness of its ethic makes the repetition of its triumph impossible—indeed, in terms of the code of the book itself, immoral. During the decade following its publication, Mailer was to act out the frenetic honesty of Hearn’s vision with perhaps more accuracy than he had expected or would have wished. The Naked and the Dead was followed in 1951 by Barbary Shore and in 1955 by The Deer Park. After The Deer Park, ten years were to elapse before the publication, in 1965, of his next novel, An American Dream. Before the 1964 serialization of An American Dream in Esquire, it was a fairly common—and largely unquestioned—belief that Mailer’s creative life had exhausted itself, that he was written out, a classic example of the American one-book genius doomed for the remainder of his career to search aimlessly for the greatness he had once won and lost. Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, to most readers and critics of the fifties, seemed to be successive and pathetic chapters in the decay of a once-strong talent. After the magisterial power of The Naked and the Dead, the two novels were generally received as floundering, self-indulgent, egomaniacal exercises not so much in the art of fiction as in a kind of self-appointed philosophical hucksterism—“ideological” novels in the worst, most forbidding, sense of that word.
Looking back at the two books from the vantage of Mailer’s current fame and rebirth, it is easy to believe that the critics of the fifties were simply too obtuse, too insensitive to the urgency and complexity of the writer’s enterprise to understand his brilliance. Norman Podhoretz, at the very end of the decade, in 1959, published an important essay defending Mailer’s second and third novels, arguing that, far from having waned into a minor talent, he was writing novels even richer in political and moral vision than his first great book. Podhoretz’s eloquent defense of Barbary Shore and The Deer Park is still, even in the midst of the present Mailer boom, one of the most convincing and valuable elucidations we have.
But it would be a serious mistake to overemphasize the genius, power, or perfection of Mailer’s later novels, would be, in fact, a blatant parti pris. Undeniably—and it is one of the most poignant stories of twentieth-century American literature—Norman Mailer has not yet, really, produced a work to equal the stature of The Naked and the Dead. Nor—notwithstanding the enthusiasm of his most ardent supporters—has he produced a novel in which his later-developed theories of existential, visceral politics are so convincingly articulated. His career since that book has been largely the search for a style or a set of styles which will allow him, with honesty and elegance, to act out the “neat terrorism” imagined by the doomed Hearn: a lifelong act of resistance to and rebellion against the life-denying, soul-crushing forces of dullness and orthodoxy which Mailer sees as the most serious threat to the America of the century’s second half. It is a neat—that is, a stylized—terrorism he seeks. So, precisely because of the tentativeness and guerilla-like tactics of his program, he has been forced to produce a series of novels which are, in a strange way, deliberately unfinished, self-consciously flawed, since for him once again to achieve a totally realized, totally conventional perfection would represent a kind of surrender to the forces of security against which he has set his teeth. Artists of every kind are threatened by nothing so much as by their own success, their own celebrity. And Mailer, in a mixture of courage and foolishness, has dealt with the threat of his own immense success by flaunting it, risking it against the odds of disgrace and embarrassment at every new moment of his career. The neat terrorism of the writer is his willingness to do violence to his own image, his own most widely accepted triumphs, in the interest of guaranteeing the very honesty, the very moral power, of those triumphs. If the artist has not been lucky enough to be born an orphan in the Mailer world, then he must be brave enough to murder his own encumbering ancestors—even his own previous books.