The Mailer Review/Volume 2, 2008/"Their Humor Annoyed Him": Cavalier Wit and Sympathy for the Devil in The Castle in the Forest

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« The Mailer ReviewVolume 12 Number 1 • 2018 »
Written by
John Whalen-Bridge
Abstract: Mailer’s innovative device of having a mind-entering demon narrate backgrounds denied to us by the enclosures of history allows Mailer to conflate the epistemological realism of first person narration with the omniscience of third person. Mailer’s Hitler novel recapitulates his karmic unified-field theory of life in a number of ways. We cannot make sense of the last two decades of Mailer’s writing career without paying attention to the Castle’s cavalier wit, which is, at its heart, almost invariably alone.

“Himmler subscribed to the theory that the best human possibilities lie close to the worst.”

There is a joke about attorneys that goes like this: lots of people were on a boat, which sank in shark-infested waters. It was horrible. The sharks were tearing all the passengers to pieces as they tried to make it to shore. All the passengers were dying. Except one passenger, who was an attorney. He swam right to the shore. As he was shaking himself off, the bewildered people on the beach asked him, “How come the sharks did not eat you?” He said: “Professional courtesy, I suppose.” We don’t like attorneys, such a joke conveys, because they are not like us. They are like sharks, and we are like people. We laugh at the joke, if we do, to commune in our fantasy-rejection of lawyerly cruelty. But Mailer’s last novel, The Castle in the Forest, is organized around a very different sort of humor. Instead of laughing at lawyers to confirm our fantasy that we ourselves are not sharks, Mailer shocks readers, methodically and skillfully, with the knowledge that they are intimately involved with so much of what they—we, I should say—resoundingly reject. The undertow of laughter in this novel won’t necessarily drag you out to sea, but it will make you ask if you share qualities with what is being held up for laughter and judgment.

Mailer’s narrator in The Castle in the Forest speaks with courtesy and intelligence.[a] He calls himself “Dieter” (though it is not clear what he means to “deter”), and he has been a witness to the formation of Adolf Hitler. Dieter explains to the reader that he has been a functionary in the Third Reich, but he has been—long before he came to work for Himmler—part of the Devil’s bureaucracy, with young “Adi” as his most important case. In this way, Mailer manages to bring together the bureaucratic “banality” of evil with the attractions and powers of evil that the word banality cannot subsume.

Mailer’s final novel (2007) is a concatenation of aesthetic shocks that tells of the formation of Adolf Hitler’s character, beginning with the incestuous influences of his grandfather (about the identity of whom there has been much historical speculation), and continuing through his schooling. Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler can fruitfully be read as a companion-text to Mailer’s novel; its central question is “When and how did Hitler become Hitler?” Mailer’s novel affirms the idea that Hitler developed sociopathic tendencies by his early teens and that these were the foundation for the subsequent obsession with eliminationist anti-Semitism that would come later—but this evolution in Hitler’s darkness is not central to Mailer’s novel. Mailer builds a Hitler to explain a person attracted to murder and deceit, but anti-Semitism is not the driving force of the life Mailer imagines. Mailer does not at all exclude the idea that everything in the novel is tuned toward the Holocaust. The title “The Castle in the Forest,” Dieter tells readers in the final pages, is the translation of a death camp called “Schlossimwald” by those inmates who would not, even in the face of ultimate pain and evil, surrender their sense of irony.[1] That irony would remain a prized possession under such circumstances will shock some readers, since the phenomena of Hitler and the Holocaust are for many the very limit of irony. In the Rortyean, postmodern, and thoroughly ironic world in which we live, the Holocaust cannot be reduced to a contingent phenomena whose meaning is entirely dependent upon the subject position of the perceiver. Such a way of thinking will earn a comparison with Holocaust deniers. Mailer not only concludes with an homage to ironic camp inmates but also has Dieter-the-demon tell us that the Devil (whom he calls “the Maestro”) is a connoisseur of irony: “All this was uttered by the Maestro with characteristic irony. We never know how serious he might be when he speaks to our mind’s ear. (His voice is a cornucopia of humors.)”[2] Mailer might even be describing himself in this passage.

A New York Times article paused to note that a number of recent novels had the odd feature of including bibliographies. The bibliography of The Castle in the Forest is rich with entries on bee-keeping. Readers of the novel know it is a richly over-determined metaphor, combining elements of mod- ulated brutality and great technical skill. Bee-keeping is perhaps the central metaphor of the novel, and Mailer’s bibliography lists half-a-dozen or so specialist books on the subject. Bee-keeping signifies social order, but order as understood from an awful height, that of humans looking down on potentially profitable insects, or that of God looking down on mischievous creation. The bees themselves are ruthless at maintaining order, and they eliminate all threats to the hive without hesitation. Mailer’s Alois Hitler is presented as a dedicated bee-keeper, and the narrator Dieter—while per- haps disingenuously or even seductively warning readers not to make too much of such events!—presents several scenes in which hives are gassed or burned. Readers might wonder how exactly they could ever make “too much” of such a parallel.

As important as bee-keeping is to Mailer’s larger narrative loops, it competes in the reader’s imagination with a theme that is given equal air-time but which etches the memory more ruthlessly moment for moment and image for image: transgressive sex. Mailer stays true to his fascination with the idea that God and the Devil partake in human lives through dreams and sex acts. The reader must consider a Freudian primal scene in which young Adolf witnesses Alois and Klara in the sixty-nine position, and witnessing the fictional event makes the reader equal, in some imaginative sense, to demons like Dieter who enter minds and bodies in the most intimate situations imaginable.

Mailer’s innovative device of having a mind-entering demon narrate backgrounds denied to us by the enclosures of history allows Mailer to conflate the epistemological realism of first person narration with the omniscience of third person. By “epistemological realism,” I mean that we can only experience our own minds directly, unless we have supernormal pow- ers, and furthermore we can only draw inferences about other minds.[b] So first-person-singular narration is as close as fiction can get to what an individual person without telepathic skills can really know. Yet our success in the world depends entirely on having confidence in inferences drawn about other minds, and to develop this confidence we need to develop exactly the sort of imagination found in a convincing social novel. But in The Castle in the Forest, Mailer’s narrator is a demon from hell who takes pride in his work; the associative connection Mailer develops at length does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that all human knowing is damned, but we are privy, as it were, to the intrusions of devils much, much more than we are, in Mailer’s fictional rendition, to the mind-intrusions of angels.


  1. Both Steven Poole in his New Statesman review, “Sympathy for the Devil” (19 February 2007) and John Freeman in his Independent review “Sympathy for the Devil: Norman Mailer on His Satanic New Novel” (2 February 2007) connect Mailer’s novel and the Rolling Stones’ song in their titles. The Jagger/Richards song, which first appeared on the 1968 album Beggers Banquet, is a dramatic monologue in which Lucifer brags about his achievements, insists on commonalities between himself and his listeners, and demands courtesy if met: he is a “man of wealth and taste,” after all. All criminals are cops, all sinners are saints, and we all killed the Kennedys.
  2. I am not using “epistemological realism” in the standard way, which refers specifically to the form of objectivism in which objects exist independently of one’s own mind in support of a correspondence theory of truth. Such objects would then, presumably, be available for apprehension by subjects from various perspectives, ameliorating the ways in which contemporary, post-Nietzschean perspectivism subverts assertions about an objective world. Mailer’s attraction to what I’m calling “epistemological realism,” on the other hand, finds ways of conflating first- and third-person perspectives—such as by resorting to the epistolary novel in the omega manuscript of Harlot’s Ghost to ensure that all perceptions are grounded in the first-person-singular perspective—precisely because Mailer’s fictions do not construct worlds out of a comfortable, objectivist epistemological realism.


  1. Mailer 2007, p. 465.
  2. Mailer 2007, p. 78.

Works Cited

  • Adamowski, T. H. (Summer 2006). "Demoralizing Liberalism: Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, and Norman Mailer". University of Toronto Quarterly. 75 (3): 883–904.
  • Bosman, Julie (December 6, 2006). "Literature: Do Novels Really Need Bibliographies?". International Herald Tribune. Archived from the original on December 8, 2006. Retrieved 2020-09-10.
  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2007). Provincializing Europe:Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. New edition with a new preface by the author.
  • Gubar, Susan (Spring 2001). "Prosopopoeia and Holocaust Poetry in English: Sylvia Plath and Her Contemporaries". The Yale Journal of Criticism. 14 (1): 191–215.
  • Lennon, J. Micheal (Summer 1982). "Mailers Cosmology". Modern Language Studies. 12 (3): 18–29.
  • Mailer, Norman (1983). Ancient Evenings. Boston: Little Brown.
  • — (1965). An American Dream. New York: Dial.
  • — (2007). The Castle in the Forest. New York: Random House.
  • — (1948). The Naked and the Dead. New York: Rinehart.
  • — (2003). Why Are We at War. New York: Random House.
  • McCann, Sean (Fall 2016). "The Imperiled Republic:Norman Mailer and the poetics of Anti-Liberalism". English Literary History. 67 (1): 293–336.
  • McDonald, Brian (Fall 2006). "Post-Holocaust Theodicy, American Imperialism, and the 'Very Jewish Jesus' of Norman Mailer's The Gospel according to the Son". Journal of Modern Literature. 30 (1): 78–90.
  • Rorty, Richard (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. New York: Cambridge UP.
  • Taylor, A.J.P (1996). The Origins of the Second World War. New York: Touchstone.

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