The Mailer Review/Volume 2, 2008/Norman Mailer: Stupidity Brings Out Violence in Me

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« The Mailer ReviewVolume 2 Number 1 • 2008 • In Memorium: Norman Mailer: 1923–2007 »
Written by
Lawrence Grobel
Abstract: A veteran interviewer of several decades explores a range of issues in his interview with Norman Mailer, including morality, personal development, the experience of being a writer, the challenges of success, fiction vs. nonfiction, American writers, and a number of other topics.
Note: This interview originally appeared in Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001).

What can one say about Norman Mailer that he probably hasn’t already said about himself? I grew up on Mailer. His great journalism in Esquire; his incredible gift of metaphor; his surehandedness when it came to writing about taboos, superstitions, and excrement; his knuckleheaded foray into the brave new world of women’s lib. And his supreme self-confidence, focusing so superbly on himself in a book he audaciously and precisely titled Advertisements for Myself and later in Pieces and Pontifications. And, of course, his fiction, which, until recently (and even still ...) he always believed would earn him a Nobel Prize, those purely Mailer novels beginning with The Naked and the Dead when he was just 25, and then Barbary Shore, The Deer Park, An American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam?, The Executioner’s Song (history as novel), Ancient Evenings, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Harlot’s Ghost, The Gospel According to the Son.

Of all the interviews in this book, this one needed the least editing. With Mailer, conversation flows and you can chart his own comfort and discomfort zones. I had prepared many more questions than I had time to ask and he did insist that a portion of our talk concentrate on the novel he had then wanted to promote, Ancient Evenings. That wasn’t a problem for me, I read and enjoyed that long, often daring novel, and admired how he managed to get so many of his Maileresque themes into the narrative.

The Brooklyn born, Harvard educated National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning larger-than-life father of eight and co-founder of the Village Voice has survived six marriages, public feuds with Gore Vidal, William Styron, and leaders of the Women’s Movement, two New York mayoral campaigns, and a Mike Tyson-like battle with Rip Torn biting open a piece of the actor’s ear during the making of Mailer’s movie Maidstone, which he wrote and directed. He’s been at the forefront of anti-war demonstrations, he’s covered such icons as John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, Muhammad Ali, and Madonna, has poked his nose into the mysterious lives of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jesus Christ, and spent seventeen days under observation in Bellevue for stabbing his second wife at a party.

He’s been described as both a radical and a puritan; as pugnacious and gentle; as anti-establishment and part of the establishment; as a fool and a serious writer. His early success led to his alienation, which he has called a 20th century condition. He believed from the very start that a writer of the largest dimension can alter the nerves and marrow of a nation and was determined to be that kind of writer. He’s also called himself one of the most wicked spirits in American life. As far back as 1954 he claimed that marijuana was more important to him than any love affair he ever had. He called drugs a “spiritual form of gambling,” experimented with LSD and said he tasted the essence of his own death, and wrote that a man must drink until he locates the truth. As for sex, he believes that masturbation cripples and leads to insanity, considers fellatio a weakness, raises the orgasm to the ultimate act of self-realization, defines great sex as that which makes you more religious, and gives the nod to William Burroughs for changing the course of American literature with one sentence: “I see God in my asshole in the flashbulb of orgasm.” Civilization will enter Hell, he’s suggested, when no more good novels are written.

*     *     *

Grobel: Whenever there’s a brief introduction about you what’s usually included is that you ran for mayor of New York twice, stabbed your wife, and won two Pulitzer Prizes.

Mailer: That’s because there was a worm of a publisher with a hard-on who put out an ad in the New York Times listing my achievements and stuck wife stabber in the middle of ’em. Since then it’s been open season.

Grobel: How would you prefer to be introduced?

Mailer: The inimitable Norman Mailer [chuckles].

Grobel: You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself moral at all, but as a man who lives in an embattled relationship to morality. What do you mean by that?

Mailer: Morality is always on my mind. I’m always saying to myself: Am I doing the right thing or the wrong thing? I may often decide on the latter and still go ahead and do it. But there are people who are free of morality, they just never question their acts—they’re animals.

Grobel: Are you usually aware when you’re doing wrong?

Mailer: No. Wrong is often a matter of context. As that great remarker Sherwood Anderson said, ‘There is the truth of passion, the truth of virginity, the truth of violence, the truth of gentleness...’ he goes on to list all the truths there are. There’s a moment in one’s life when it’s right to be one thing or another. But you have to get into the nature of authenticity, which is a complex philosophical matter. There’s no way to go near these questions without diving deep into philosophy.

. . .