The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer/2. Barbary Shore
Barbary Shore (1951) is of more interest as a stage in Mailer’s development than as a artistically effective work in itself. Certainly it fits easily into a treatment of the five novels, dealing as it does with the two basic issues with which Mailer always concerns himself: the state of American society and the problems of the individual in it. But the second novel, for several reasons, marks a faltering in Mailer’s progress. This is not to say that it is a retrogression, for though it falls short of the artistic success of The Naked and the Dead, Barbary Shore represents a step in the direction of an increasingly nonderivative art.
Perhaps Barbary Shore can be better understood in light of the circumstances under which it was written, and of Mailer’s own retrospective understanding of the book. In Advertisements for Myself, he tells of the several years following the publication of The Naked and the Dead, during which Barbary Shore was written:
Once it became obvious that The Naked and the Dead was going to be a best seller . . . a depression set in on me.
• • •
. . . I was blasted a considerable distance away from dead center by the size of its success. . . . My farewell to an average man’s experience was too abrupt . . . there was nothing left in the first twenty-four years of my life to write about; one way or another, my life seemed to have been mined and melted into the long reaches of the book. And so I was prominent and empty, and I had to begin life again. . . .
• • •
Willy-nilly I had had existentialism forced upon me. I was free . . . I could seek to become what I chose to be, and if I failed . . . I would have nothing to excuse failure. I would fail because I had not been brave enough to succeed. So I was much too free. Success had been a lobotomy to my past, there seemed no power from the past which could help me in the present, and I had no choice but to force myself to step into the war of the enormous present . . . setting out by myself to cut a track through a new wild.
. . . I could as well have described the years which followed the appearance of The Naked and the Dead by saying that I traveled scared . . . ridden by the question . . . which I was forever asking of my self: had this first published novel been all of my talent? Or would my next book be better?
In a sense, I may have tried to evade the question by writing Barbary Shore, but there was no real choice. If my past had become empty as a theme, was I to write about Brooklyn streets, or my mother and father, or another war novel (The Naked and the Dead Go to Japan) was I to do the book of the returning veteran when I had lived like a mole writing and rewriting seven hundred pages in those fifteen months? No, those were not real choices. I was drawn instead to write about an imaginary future. . . . But Barbary Shore was really a book to emerge from the bombarded cellars of my unconscious, an agonized eye of a novel which tried to find some amalgam of my new experience and the larger horror of that world which might be preparing to destroy itself. I was obviously trying for something which was at the very end of my reach, and then beyond it, and toward the end the novel collapsed into a chapter of political speech and never quite recovered. Yet, it could be that if my work is alive one hundred years from now, Barbary Shore will be considered the richest of my first three novels for it has in its high fevers a kind of insane insight into the psychic mysteries of Stalinists, secret police men, narcissists, children, Lesbians, hysterics, revolutionaries—it has an air which for me is the air of our time, authority and nihilism stalking one another in the orgiastic hollow of this century . . . and yet much of my later writing cannot be understood without a glimpse of the odd shadow and theme-maddened light Barbary Shore casts before it.
There is much in what Mailer says to help us understand Barbary Shore. To begin with, there is a good deal of Mailer himself in his protagonist/narrator, Mikey Lovett. Like Mailer, Lovett is deprived of a past and committed to the present, but in his case the situation is more drastic, and therefore more symbolically significant. For Lovett has literally no past: he is an amnesia victim, a product of the war who is thrust with no emotional connection whatever into a nightmarish postwar world. The tone of the novel and of his personality is set in the very first paragraph of the book:
Probably I was in the war. There is the mark of a wound behind my ear, an oblong of unfertile flesh where no hair grows. It is covered over now, and may be disguised by even the clumsiest barber, but no barber can hide the scar on my back. For that a tailor is more in order.
When I stare into the mirror I am returned a face doubtless more handsome than the original, but the straight nose, the modelled chin, and the smooth cheeks are only evidence of a stranger’s art.
The reader is immediately presented with a wealth of fairly standard symbolic leads. A classic product of the war, Lovett has not merely been deprived of his past, but literally, physically, scarred as well. His identity is irrecoverable because his face is not his own. He stares out at a strange world from behind a mask which is artificial, the “art of a stranger” at that. Although he has not returned from war physically impotent (as does Sergius in The Deer Park) his scar is “unfertile flesh.” Finally, his preoccupation with the mirror will be echoed later in a tendency to psychic narcissism.
Lovett, forced into a commitment to the present, is the embodiment of Mailer’s preoccupation with his own existential situation at the time. Because of the admitted paucity of external experience upon which Mailer could draw, the novel is set in a vacuum of psychic experience, within which the painfully obvious symbols of alienation and emotional bankruptcy are garishly highlighted. Yet the novel, in drawing its characters and locale from the real world, in taking for its central message the very real political problems of a real country, purports implicitly to treat human life in realistic terms, and cannot therefore be accepted simply in terms of allegory. It is in the attempt to deal with such problems as alienation in bald symbolic outline while simultaneously developing credible characters and also presenting a lengthy political diatribe, that Mailer overreaches himself. The structure and tone of the novel are inconsistent and ineffective because of a lack of integration, and finally Barbary Shore is neither successful allegory, successful fiction, nor successful polemic.
Mikey Lovett, armed with five hundred carefully hoarded dollars and the desire to be a novelist, seeks the opportunity to live, as Mailer did while writing The Naked and the Dead, “like a mole.” To this end, he is led by an acquaintance to a shabby boarding house in Brooklyn Heights, where he becomes enmeshed in a nightmarish set of relationships with the five other inhabitants of the building.
Showing foresight similar to that he used in The Naked and the Dead, Mailer limited himself, in the second novel, to a narrow physical setting and a small number of characters. But two elements of the conscious self-limitation which helped make the first novel effective are absent in the second. First, Mailer was admittedly unable to draw his subject from an area he knew well from personal experience. Although the sense of being cut off from the past, the awareness of existential choice, and the involvement with contemporary politics are part of Mailer’s personal experience, they had not yet been thought through when he wrote Barbary Shore. Consequently, deprived of the benefit of unhurried retrospection, Mailer seems to deliver these thematic preoccupations to the reader only partially assimilated, with the result that the book is lumpy in style, structure and resolution.
The second (and possibly more significant) departure from the successful formula used in The Naked and the Dead involves novelistic structure and narrative voice. The clearly derivative qualities of the first novel in this regard have been pointed out in the preceding chapter. Yet one of the most striking characteristics of Mailer’s fiction is the novelist’s progression towards an increasingly individual art. Barbary Shore, no matter what its shortcomings, is a first step in this breaking away from previous influences. Abandoning the comfortable devices available to the omniscient third person narrator of his first novel, Mailer chose to write Barbary Shore in the first person. This decision was a necessary one. Feeling cut off from his past, Mailer could not express himself in the idiom and form of that past. The considerable difficulty he experienced in creating a credible first person voice which would fit his prose style becomes centrally important in understanding The Deer Park (in which it reaches a peak) and An American Dream (in which it is momentarily resolved). This is one area in which, as Mailer himself realizes, Barbary Shore casts light upon the work which follows it.
Mikey Lovett sets out, as did Mailer, “to begin life again . . . to force [himself] to step into the war of the enormous present . . . setting out by [himself] to cut a track through a new wild.” Although he remains essentially alone, he is not by himself for long. The series of intertwined relationships into which he is drawn begins with the landlady, Mrs. Guinevere. Mikey’s initial conception of her is that given him before he has seen her, by Willie Dinsmore, the casual acquaintance who has occupied the room Lovett is to live in. He is the only character in the book besides the six inhabitants of the house, and after performing the function of introducing Mikey into the house, he leaves and does not reappear. He is so patently a device that even Mailer, through Mikey, remarks on it:
I suppose even a magic box must have its handle. Yet once the box is opened, I wonder if it is too unreasonable that the handle is then ignored. I am more concerned with the contents. If I begin with Willie Dinsmore, it is because he served as a handle; and I who was to serve for so long as the sorcerer’s apprentice, forgot him quickly.
Dinsmore is a leftist playwright who sees the world in terms of a simplistic understanding of the class struggle. He is equally simplistic about people:
Like so many writers he had very little interest in people, and if they could serve his didactic demands, a pigeonhole was all he required. I had been installed immediately in the one he undoubtedly labelled Post war Problems.
It is a measure of Mikey’s naïveté (which is accentuated by his diminutive first name and the pronunciation of his second, “love it”) that despite his recognition of Dinsmore’s shortcomings as a character analyst, he accepts the man’s simple evaluation of Guinevere: “Guinevere’s a nymphomaniac.”
Sexuality is to play an important part in the relationship between Guinevere and Lovett, as it does with all the relationships in the book, but it is significant that these two never sleep together. Appearances are never proven true in this book. Between Dinsmore’s statement and Guinevere’s surprisingly attractive initial appearance, Lovett is caught in his first external involvement (a unilateral one at that):
I was startled. Dinsmore had poorly prepared me. She was quite pretty, at least to my taste, pretty in a flamboyant, cootchy way, so that my first impression was of no more than a fabulous crop of red hair and a woman beneath, waggling her hips. Undeniably short and stout, her limbs were nevertheless delicate, her face was not heavy, and her waist, respectably narrow, tapered inward from her broad shoulders in an exaggeration which was piquing.
And later, he thinks of her as:
A jewel. But set in brass. This morning she had sported a house dress and covered it with a bathrobe. . . . Yet there had been opera pumps on her feet, her nails had been painted, her lipstick was fresh. She was a house whose lawn was landscaped and whose kitchen was on fire.
The nymphomaniac. As I was about to fall asleep for the first time in my new room, I realized that I wanted to take Guinevere to bed.
Mikey is, finally, the only resident of the house (except Guinevere’s little daughter, Monina) who does not take her to bed. In a series of vulgar, but knowledgeably coy confrontations, she teases and refuses him, ultimately proposing that he spy on the other boarders for her. Lovett’s indignant refusal places their subsequent dealings on a cooler footing, but by this time he has become involved with the other boarders.
McLeod, Lovett’s next acquaintance, is perhaps the most important character in the book. A wry, cynical man who works in a department store, he describes himself as a self-educated “Marxist-at-liberty,” claims never to have travelled beyond New Jersey, and leads a life of monastic isolation:
In everything he did there were elements of such order, demanding, monastic. He was unyielding and sometimes forbidding. Dressed in the anonymous clothing of a man who buys his garments as cheaply as possible. . . . And his room, clean as any cell could have been in our aged mansion. . . .
He is ultimately revealed to be, first, Guinevere’s husband, and second, a former high-ranking international communist operative sought by the American government.
McLeod is primarily significant in terms of Mikey. In their talks, as mutual distrust very gradually fades, McLeod assumes the role of tutor to Lovett's tyro. It is through him that Mailer is able to introduce long passages of Marxist theory, but it is more important that after much confused vacillation Mikey’s loyalties are directed entirely to McLeod. It is Mikey’s progress toward under standing and embracing McLeod’s theories (and finally of accepting the responsibility of carrying them on) which represents the central movement of the novel.
The two thematic levels of the novel, individual and social, are focused almost exclusively in Mikey’s two major preoccupations: sexual communication and Marxism, respectively. The first part of the book deals primarily with the former, the last part with the latter; and it is the shift from one to the other on Mikey’s part that embodies what resolution the novel offers.
Just as Guinevere and McLeod are not what they first appear, Leroy Hollingsworth, secret policeman and grand inquisitor, presents a very deceptive first impression. Invited casually into Hollingsworth’s room for a beer, Lovett finds it “unbelievably messed.” In contrast, Hollingsworth himself is so neat that Lovett observes, “He seemed to have no relation to the room.” The fact is that Hollingsworth seems to have no relation to the situation and setting at all. He is described in terms of the Norman Rockwell vision of the typical American boy, and it is significant that at no point in the subsequent revelation of his true role is it suggested that his appearance or manner are falsely assumed:
He was obviously from a small town; the talk about the weather, the accent, the politeness were unmistakable signs. The simple small-town boy come to the big city. . . .
The features were in character. He had straight corn-colored hair with a part to the side, and a cowlick over one temple. His eyes were small and intensely blue and were remarked immediately, for his nose and mouth were without distinction. He was still freckled, which made me wonder at his age. I was to learn later that like myself he was at least in his middle twenties, but there must have been many people who thought him eighteen.
. . . he was in considerable contrast to his room. It seemed wrong for him. I had a picture of the places in which he had slept through his boyhood: a bed, a Bible, and in the corner a baseball bat perhaps. As though in confirmation, the only decoration upon his wall was a phosphorescent cross printed on cardboard. It would glow when the lights were out.
In light of Hollingsworth's later role in the novel, this description is significant. Mailer seems to be saying, as he does repeatedly in the later books, and as he did in The Naked and the Dead, that the primary threat of totalitarian takeover in this country lies in internal fascism. His choice of Hollingsworth, a blonde, blue-eyed boy/man whose features are “without distinction” suggests that secret policemen do not spring full blown from the ground, bearing fangs and truncheons, but appear naturally from the ranks of the populace when governmental policy requires them. The physical characteristics of Hollingsworth are in themselves slightly chilling, for they conform not only to the American stereotype but to that of the Nazi “master race” as well.
Hollingsworth is lacking in intellectual distinction as well as physical. Though cunning in his tenacious hounding of McLeod, he betrays no real understanding of political or moral issues, is aggressively anti-intellectual, and sees both international and personal issues in terms of black and white. His ultimate commitment is to expedience, and towards the book’s end he is ready to desert his country for personal gain. He is, finally, despicable be cause he is so unquestioning in his assurance that what he does is right. This attitude is early demonstrated in his attitude towards sex. In his sexual dealings with Guinevere, with Lannie (a female boarder who moves in after Lovett), and with a waitress he picks up while drinking with Mikey, he is vulgar and sadistic. In his first conversation with Lovett, he reveals an offensively lewd preoccupation with sex:
“Do you know any good books I could read?”
“What kind do you mean?”
“Oh, you know.”
• • •
“What kind of books do you want?” I asked again.
“Well. . . .” He seemed hesitant. “In the Army there was an awful lot of literature that I liked. You know things with the facts of life in them. . . . I don’t remember the titles, but there were you know things about American fellows and girls. The real stuff though. You know the way we feel.”
I mentioned several of the major novels which had been written by Americans between the two wars. This seemed to satisfy Hollingsworth.
• • •
“And there's lots of real things in them, isn't there? I mean, you know, . . . foolish girls, and boys who are willing to . . . to take a chance.” He grinned.
“You’ll probably find some.”
“I’m really surprised they print things like that. I wonder if they should allow it. Atheistic things, and the Bolshevists, I understand, write for them a lot.”
“Oh, for them, you know.”
• • •
“I’ve been in New York two months,” he said suddenly, “and do you know I haven’t found any of the evil quarters.”
• • •
He leered at me suddenly. “I’ve had some interesting experiences with the lady downstairs. Mrs. Guinevere. She’s a fine lady.” The leer was shocking.
Even were he truly what he purports to be, a minor clerk in a large Wall Street firm (a cover whose fitness for a representative of reactionary interests is obvious), the character of Hollingsworth would be a devastating indictment of the “average” American, with his stag-film view of sex, his unquestioning dedication to the status quo, and his comfortable Christianity, which demands nothing of him but token commitment to outward show. The symbol of this (a strikingly effective touch which prefigures Mailer’s later preoccupation with “plastic” falsity in the American material culture) is the “phosphorescent cross printed on cardboard,” which “would glow in the darkness when the lights were out.” Even the universal symbol of selflessness and brotherly love is, in Hollingsworth’s world, a shoddy, mass-produced ornament, perhaps as significant to him, but certainly no more so than a hand-painted novelty tie decorated with a phosphorescent nude. The cross, one must assume, glows mute witness to every act of unfeeling seduction and self-righteous persecution which its owner perpetrates.
Enter Lannie, directly into Mikey’s room, seeking someone who can rent her a room. She, like Lovett, proceeds to become involved with the other residents. But it is Mikey to whom she comes first, and he becomes immediately involved by finding Guinevere and interceding on Lannie’s behalf with the fiction that she is a friend of his.
Lannie is somewhat mad, living within a nightmare world of her own. She is tormented, inconsistent, railing, nearly incomprehensible but often frighteningly perceptive in her visions of human brutality and betrayal. After a brief sexual contact with Lovett, unsatisfactory to either and conceived in terms of vainly attempted communication on his part, Lannie consciously and eagerly seeks abasement at the hands of Hollingsworth in an episode which is not presented to the reader but left to be inferred from her later mutterings. Late in the novel, she is revealed suddenly as the aggressor in a sexual affair with Guinevere. The sexual alliances in this novel are without exception sordid, one-sided in motivation, and significant primarily in terms of negation rather than affirmation. There is no enjoyable sex, no sex for love, no real communication between sexual partners. Further, the several revelations of previously accomplished sexual contact to which neither the reader nor Lovett have been witness (such as Lannie and Guinevere, Lannie and Hollingsworth, McLeod’s role as Guinevere’s husband) lend a further sense of surreptitious mystery, making the sex seem more sordid and increasing the sense of intricate machinations beneath the surface.
It should be obvious at this point that Guinevere is a sort of hub about which the other characters revolve on the sexual level. This is not to say that she is in control of them except on occasion, but that she represents a pivotal point which they all touch at some time. Her name may assume some significance here. Although, as we are to discover, her last name is legally McLeod and her given name is Beverly, she is referred to always as Guinevere, and only occasionally as Mrs. Guinevere. She explains at one point to Mikey:
“I’ll tell you,” she said, “I was born Beverly Guinevere, but when I was on the stage, I just used to call myself Guinevere, you know one name like Margo or Zorina. And I like it, I keep it, you know it’s not like other names.”
“You were on the stage?”
She nodded profoundly.
“What plays?” I asked.
“Oh, I was in burlesque, I was a queen. Boy, they used to go for me.” [My italics]
The symbolic value of the name Guinevere is underlined not only by her previous profession of burlesque “queen,” but also by such devices as “. . . the hem of her purple velvet wrapper swished luxuriously along the floor.” It is an indication of the sordid state of our times and our society as Mailer sees it, if Beverly Guinevere is to represent our royalty.
With very little difficulty, other Arthurian parallels fall into place. Guinevere’s lover is Lannie, too close to Launcelot to be ignored as coincidence. And finally, who is to be Arthur? The role is assigned by Mailer, not to McLeod the husband, but to Leroy, the king, Hollingsworth, inheritor of a new world where mediocrity, expedience, and narrow-minded ignorance rule. And if the point is not yet clear enough, we have Guinevere’s statement about Hollingsworth, whom she takes as a lover and with whom she agrees to betray McLeod and seek a new life: “Sometimes I think he’s the son of a prince, now I don’t mean that exactly, but you know, a magnate, or a . . . a potentate, and that he’s living here in disguise.”
For Guinevere, sex is a marketable commodity. Not only does she use it to play upon Lovett and the other boarders, but she has made her living displaying herself as a sexual object in the past. Her ambitions for the future hinge upon a simple, cynical, and perhaps frighteningly accurate conception of the American dream. Like many ignorant, cynical people who feel they have seen much of life, she feels she has something important to tell the world. At one point she proposes to Lovett that he perform the necessary but mechanical (as she sees it) task of writing up a semi-autobiographical love story which she feels would be a sure financial success in Hollywood. The story, presented in full by Mailer, is no more than a particularly sordid soap opera, with the emphasis more on lust than sentimentality.
Another of Guinevere’s schemes is to make her daughter, Monina, a child star in Hollywood. To this end, she attempts to keep the child a baby as long as possible; but Monina, despite her lisping baby talk, is perhaps too much her mother’s daughter. At the age of three, she is all too aware of her own sexuality, and attempts to gain male attention through a parody of striptease, revealing a body which is “virtually a miniature of a girl of eighteen.” Monina is a perverse child, strangely reminiscent of Hester Prynne’s daughter Pearl, in The Scarlet Letter. Not only does she embody the sins of her mother and threaten to duplicate them, but she calls attention to certain of Guinevere’s indiscretions by perversely parroting private and revealing exclamations she has heard from her mother. Again, it is Monina who, like Pearl, reveals to the reader the identity of her incognito father, McLeod.
If most of the human relationships in this novel are informed by a tawdry sex without love that underlines the distance our culture has travelled from the ostensible nobility of the Arthurian age, not all the characters are satisfied with (or unaware of) the lack of meaning in it. Unlike the other characters, Mikey Lovett is truly desirous of sex as a means of communication. In this aim, he is continually frustrated. The abortive encounters with Guinevere and Lannie will be seen later to acquire some symbolic import when, late in the book, it becomes clear what these characters represent. At this point, however, they serve the function of throwing the discouraged Mikey back into the isolation of his own mind. Repeatedly, he drags up visions from his murky past, some of which may be vague memories from before his accident, some merely fantasies. Several of these are sexual in nature, and one, presented early in the narrative, is of particular significance in understanding the nature of Mikey’s character and quest:
Across the blur of the past, I have a memory which returns over and over again, and I am almost certain it happened. Perhaps it was during a furlough from the Army, although that is not important. I knew a girl then who was in love with me and I very much in love with her. We spent a week in a tourist home at some seashore resort, and that week provided more happiness and more pain than I could have thought possible. For the girl love had always been difficult . . . but I adored her so completely, so confidently, that my admiration seemed to accomplish everything. The room we shared burgeoned for her. She came to love her flesh, and from there it was but a step to loving mine. We lay beside each other for hours on end, brilliant with new knowledge. I had discovered magic to her and reaped the benefit; I could shine in the reflection of her face. . . . She blossomed in that week, and I was so proud of myself. We were very close. We fed upon one another. . . . We lived under the shadow of the war and perhaps that furnished its spice.
While I was with her I was very happy, but the moment I had to talk to someone else, an agony of shyness beset me. To order a meal from a waitress became a minor ordeal. . . .
• • •
When we parted, and I believe I never saw her again, she whispered a phrase not devoid of literary ambition, “Mikey, you know the room is the trap of the heart,” and the extravagance of the words was not completely without meaning.
This is one of the few memories I possess, and I offer it for what explanation it may provide. If I lived in a close relation with the few people I knew in the rooming house and became progressively less capable of doing without them, there is after all a precedent. I was a dog on a chain, and the radius circumscribed a world in which I was able to provide for many of my wants and most of my needs.
Mikey’s alienation, then, is not merely a function of his amnesia or any other scar of war, though the former is certainly a symptom and a symbol of it. Nor is complete alienation a state which he chooses to embrace, for his statement makes clear his need to relate to his fellow boarders.
Other memories and fantasies, less explicit in significance, are related by Lovett periodically, and it is never clear even to him which of them are rooted in actual history and which proceed from sheer subconscious invention. All are somewhat nightmarish, and one particularly Kafkaesque scene, related in the first chapter, is worthy of mention:
I see a traveller. He is most certainly not myself. A plump middle-aged man, and I have the idea he has just finished a long trip. He has landed at an airfield or his train has pulled into a depot. It hardly matters which.
He is in a hurry to return home . . . he hails a taxi . . . settles back comfortably in the rear seat.
• • •
The cab is taking the wrong route!
What shall he do? It seems so simple to raise his hand and tap upon the glass, but he feels he dare not disturb the driver. Instead, he looks through the window once more.
The man lives in this city, but he has never seen these streets. The architecture is strange, and the people are dressed in unfamiliar clothing. He looks at a sign, but it is printed in an alphabet he cannot read.
His hand folds upon his heart to still its beating. It is a dream, he thinks, hugging his body in the rear of the cab. He is dreaming and the city is imaginary and the cab is imaginary. And on he goes.
I shout at him. You are wrong, I cry, although he does not hear me; this city is the real city, the material city, and your vehicle is history. Those are the words I use, and then the image shatters.
This passage is significant to Mikey’s understanding of the events of the novel, as he relates them in retrospect. The realization that history is a vehicle, one which moves so rapidly as to make men strangers in their own world, is central to Mikey’s movement towards understanding what the future demands of him. The plump, middle-aged traveller has been left behind by history, and in this respect he may be seen as representative of most men in this era of rapid and complex historical development. More particularly, considering the time the novel was written, he may be representative of the returning veterans of every country, who find that the society and ideals they fought for are really unfamiliar to them, no longer the clear-cut things they were represented as during the war. Mikey Lovett, understanding the nature of history, becomes the voice of these men, who themselves cannot comprehend and articulate.
In this role, Lovett is unhampered by ties to a life prior to the war, and the various clouded memories and visions he drags up serve to reinforce the universal nature of his jumbled experience. For example, he vaguely remembers himself as a faceless part of the American Army in Europe:
I saw all the endless children who waited for our leavings on garbage lines, all the whores we abused, the peasants we cursed because they could not understand us and we were drunk. It almost comes back, the diarrhea, the trench foot, the boots we polished, the men who got killed. The machine stopped at last, but I stopped first, and lay on my cot that summer in a Paris which might be mythical, and counted the cracks in the wall. Empires had fallen, kingdoms been reshuffled, but that was over the horizon. I played a closet drama in which the machine would let me go . . . go where?
Mikey’s recognition of the fact that he has been a faceless component in a national machine renders more significant his literal loss of his face and his identity; and his separation from that machine is the first in a series of experiences and realizations which lead him ultimately to exercise his individual will.
Again, he imagines another, earlier past for himself:
Could it not be possible that I was born in an old house in the center of a Midwestern city, the house going quietly to seed, while the distinction of being one of the oldest families became less important to everyone but ourselves? . . . Institutions altered, and with them, men, and there would be a new country club and insurance brokers who peopled it. My parents would talk about such things with distaste for they lived in the memory of an earlier world, illumined in the transitory splendor of a calendar sunset, and they would assure me that forty years ago the city was lovely, adorned by small quiet streets and brownstone stairways. . . . Spring mornings the men would walk to work, and on Sundays the entire family was in black, the quiet afternoons in the back yard annotated only by church bells.
It is a sweet picture, but it is a false shore. The only brownstone houses I ever knew were in disrepair and skived by landlords. I was born into a world which would move forever faster, and if I had to create for myself a tropical isle, I could not render it perfect, for I would always find the darkening clouds of typhoon, and hear the surf lashing the shore. It was possible to engage in such a voyage, but only to return to the hard cot beneath the dirty window of my narrow room.
So I lay there that evening while McLeod across the hall must also have stared at the ceiling, and I dreamed that I was in another room in a vast dormitory for children, and while we slept a fire had begun in the cellar and was sweeping along the dry wood of the walls and through the deep vent of the staircase. Soon it would reach the great room in which we slept and sear a passage through the door, and we would awake to the sound of children’s screams and hear our own voice.
Perhaps because Lovett is not committed to any definite personal past, he belongs to any and all of them, and is as much a product of the serene Midwestern streets as of the shabby orphanage. He is a representative figure, grown to young manhood in all regions of America, responsible for the victories and brutalities of all American soldiers. Finally, he is the spokesman for all postwar cripples, a man of his generation, cut off irrevocably from the past.
The visions and dreams, memories and fantasies, related to us by Lovett are to continue periodically through out the book. But by the middle of the narrative, he has begun to fall under the influence of McLeod, and consequently these passages become colored almost exclusively by Marxist theory and preoccupation with the history of the communist movement. Immediately after a talk with McLeod, Lovett returns to his room and imagines or remembers himself as a youthful, idealistic follower of Trotsky:
I was exhausted from the argument we had had, so pointless, so stereotyped, and so demanding upon me. I had not talked like that for how many years? And with the labor of parturition, a heartland of whole experience was separating itself to float toward the sea.
I was an adolescent again, and it was before the war, and I belonged to a small organization dedicated to a workers' revolution. . . . I was young then, and no dedication could match mine. . . . There was a great man who led us, and I read almost every word he had written, and listened with the passion of the noviate to each message he sent from the magical center in Mexico. Of all the students in the study group, none could have been more ardent than I, and for a winter and a spring, I lived more intensely in the past than I could ever in the present.
• • •
So the memory came down to the sea, and across my back scar tissue burned ever new circuits with its old pain. Things had altered this night. With a pain throbbing in my head I continued slowly home.
Lovett’s reaction to McLeod’s disturbing political talk is significant. He resists the influence it has on him, attempts to regard it as “pointless.” He is exhausted because the effort has been “demanding” upon him; and finally it must be obvious to the reader that concern with the social problems presented by the communist movement has not been pointless to him in the past, and that he wishes to retain his protective cloak of amnesia and unconcern. He is unable to do so, and it is no accident that he uses the phrase, “the labor of parturition,” to describe the painful process of bringing to light this new memory. McLeod is not a mere gadfly to Lovett, but the midwife attending the painful birth of a new conception of self, a new social involvement, in the younger man.
Realization piles upon realization, as Mikey spends increasingly more time lying on his cot, which seems to function as an analyst’s couch for his self-probings. He is too painfully honest with himself, too concerned with finding some truth and therefore some true conception of his own role in the world, to cling any longer to his blanket of darkness, and so he plumbs his mind ceaselessly. In a long passage which occurs almost at the exact center of the novel, he relates a series of thoughts which culminate in a major breakthrough. He remembers an incident of the war, in which, having crossed into the “enemy’s country” as part of the invading army, he shared with the rest of his squad the willingly sold favors of a farmer’s daughter. The incident is related in terms of the utmost dehumanization:
There was moonlight on the field, and I made love from the hip and looked across the meadow with open eyes, for I was also on guard. I never saw the girl. Above my head in magnification of myself the barrel of the machine gun pointed toward the trees, and once, hearing a noise, my fingers stole up to the trigger handle, and I was surprised to find it cold.
My ration consumed, I went back to the hay and stretched out in a nervous half-sleep which consisted of love with artillery shells and sex of polished steel. By the next afternoon we were ten miles away. . . . There are times when I have the idea I was wounded in the action which followed.
This episode marks the lowest point of dehumanization to which Mikey Lovett had been brought by the war. Part of a massive war machine, he had become himself mechanized, “making love“ mechanically without love or even passionate hatred. He is shown as an appurtenance of his machine gun, and it dwarfs him in its greater importance and potence, as it rises “above my head in magnification of myself.“ The impending victory over the enemy is implicitly robbed of moral significance by the fact that the bovine farm girl whose face he never sees responds to the invaders without hatred, fear, or any other emotion. An act which, were it accompanied by gratitude or passion, might be romanticized into a reaffirmation of the basic humanity of all people is instead shown as a matter of cold economic trade, and thus the insignificance of individual human emotion in the shadow of grinding international movement is made clear.
The fact that Lovett believes that he sustained his wounds in the action following the incident with the farm girl is symptomatic of the ultimate depth of dehumanization to which it brought him. The wounds may be real, physical ones, but the amnesia which accompanies them is obviously similar to the repression of memory experienced in cases of severe neurotic trauma. His ability to face the memory marks the turning point in a sort of auto-psycho analysis in which he has been aided by McLeod‘s proddings, and from this point on, Lovett‘s mind moves progressively (though stumblingly) toward human commitment. Immediately, his thoughts move upward from that lowest point, touching again the intermediate plateaus to which we have already been introduced, the girl of the week-long idyll and Lannie:
I may have thought of the girl at the seashore resort, perhaps I even carried a letter from her in my pocket. I know that after leaving Lannie, I brooded about that girl I would never see again, and as Lannie had recalled the farm girl to me so she could recall the other.
Where was that girl and what did she look like? I wanted her so badly I was almost ill.
But this time, in his painful reverie, Lovett comes to a crucial knowledge:
Frustration put me on the rack, and with the frustration came something worse. For I would never meet that girl, and if I did I would not remember her and she would not recognize me. And if all these impossibilities one by one were to be solved and the wheel presented a double miracle for the same chip, then undoubtedly the girl and I, having changed, would be magical no more to each other. So that was done and that was dead. There could be no solutions from the past nor duplicates found in the present, and I could have cried out in resentment against the implacability of the logic . . . whatever I was to find could not come from the past.
Lovett’s concern with the past has, finally, yielded up the inner kernel of his personal alienation from humanity and its problems. Having achieved this much, Lovett recognizes the limitations of the past, and for the first time becomes truly committed to the present as he has claimed to be from the outset. The forward movement of his now unfettered mind will not let him rest, however, and his preoccupation with present issues is ultimately to lead him to think of the future, and finally to assume the responsibility of his own role in that future.
It is interesting to note that the farm girl episode, so central to Lovett’s switch in commitment from the past to the future, is rendered in terms of the two primary preoccupations which govern his mind throughout the book: sex and international politics. In the wartime episode, sex is shown to be not an act of self-definition or even a temporary refuge from the dehumanizing regimentation of war, but a final proof of the extent to which the impersonal forces of national interest can stifle the individual personality, rendering the act of love and procreation a mere mechanical function. The memory of the seashore resort girl is recognized as an irrecoverable dream, as pleasant but as insignificant to the present as the outmoded Midwestern city of Lovett’s fantasy. Mikey dwells no longer on that girl, nor does he attempt any further sexual liaison with either Guinevere or Lannie. It is at this point, the structural center of the novel, that Lovett turns from the sexual preoccupation of the first half of the book, to the devotion to political issues which drives him thereafter.
Lying on his bed, Mikey reviews the present world situation and faces the fact that the Russian Revolution and the communist movement have changed nothing for mankind:
The proletariat which crawled to glory beneath the belly of a Cossack’s horse, the summer flies of Vyborg, I could see it all again, and know with the despair which follows fervor that nothing had changed, and social relations, economic relations, were still independent of man’s will.
Except for myself. I lived, and was it I alone, in relation to nothing? The world would revolve, and I who might exercise a will for so long as money lasted, exercised nothing dreamed away hours upon my bed.
The knowledge that larger forces in the world rob men of their power to exercise individual will does not, this time, cause Lovett to despair. He has come some distance from the state of mind he held scarcely twenty-four hours earlier when the conversation with McLeod seemed “pointless” and the world situation without hope. Mikey has begun to enter into a sense of his own potential power, as a thinker, to exercise free will and influence the world. His novel, always in the far background of the plot, no longer seems the proper vehicle for his personal mission. He has begun to understand that he must define himself through his own actions, and in this respect he begins to embody certain values of postwar existentialism as Mailer saw it.
Lovett has already begun to sense in what arena his will must be exercised, and it is no idle impulse that leads him again to seek out McLeod:
Now, the silence about me became doubly oppressive. I started up and crossed the hall to McLeod’s door, knocked upon it as if I could summon him to be present. There was no answer, and when I knocked again, the door gave before my fist, swung slowly open.
My eyes were drawn immediately to the table which had been placed in the center of the room and was bracketed by two wooden chairs which stared blankly at one another across its empty surface. Adjacent to one of the chairs was set a floor lamp so arranged that it would shine into the eyes of whoever sat on the other side of the table. Everything else had been pushed to the side.
Then I realised McLeod had vacated the room.
McLeod, too, has returned to his past in one sense, by returning to the household of his wife. But this change has been precipitated not by a domestic reconciliation so much as by a new stage in the Hollingsworth situation. The secret policeman is ready to begin questioning in earnest, and McLeod’s room will now function as interrogation chamber. In the long and closely spaced interviews which follow, McLeod is forced to relive his past, to admit his true identity as a high party official, and to agonize over the more brutal acts he has perpetrated in the name of his former cause.
At all of these interrogation sessions, both Mikey and Lannie are present, and because the latter figures as a sort of assistant persecutor, for reasons vastly different from Hollingsworth’s, her motivations should be mentioned. From the beginning, her ravings have been colored by a rented room for the first time,
. . . she had gone to the window and was playing with the fastener on the middle sash. “It’s like a finger,” she said. “Look” and crooked her hand. “When they finished the house, there were no locks for the windows, and so the builder, a cruel capitalist who later built a house at Newport, cried at the top of his lungs, ‘Cut off the fingers of the workmen, and nail them into place.’ And this is a poor workingman’s finger.” She stroked it. “It’s all that’s left of him now, his finger and his thumb.”
And later, she tells Mikey:
“The wall is so nice. I can make it anything I want. This afternoon when you left, I kept looking at it, and I decided it was Guernica, and I could hear the horses screaming.”
She lives in a world of strange visions, and she is unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, fiction from real experience. Mikey realizes this when she tells him the story of Wing Biddlebaum from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio as though it were part of her own past:
“I knew only one man who was kinder than you, and he was a middle-aged man, a teacher in a little school in a small town, and he had beautiful hands, and he used to love to touch little boys with them because the little boys were so beautiful, only he never did dare; he would keep his hands in his pockets. They used to nickname him Wing, and they treated him dreadfully.”
“Why I read that,” I blurted. “It’s a story.”
From the beginning, it is clear to Mikey that Lannie is distracted, “not wholly aware of herself,” but the extent of her madness becomes clearer in several garbled memories she expresses of time spent in a mental institution. For example:
"You see, Mikey, they were always putting me on a bed, and then there were hands and the shock. I know what they were doing because each time they gave me the shock it would leave a little less of my brain, and they wanted to render me stupid as others render fat. They hated me, and they made a record of everything they took from my brain, and there was the girl in the corner with the eyeglasses who kept writing every thing on the pad, and now it’s in some green filing cabinet. They hated me, and I loved them for their sins.”
Despite her incoherence, Lannie is often frighteningly perceptive, rounding out the gallery of horrors presented by the novel with the nightmarish visions of human brutality she seems compelled to relate, such as an execution scene in a Nazi concentration camp.
In some ways, Lannie is at first similar to Lovett. Like him, she is rootless, cut off from her personal past by the cloudiness of her mind; and like him, she is compelled to recount visions in which the line between fantasy and memory is rarely clear. But unlike him, she finds it unnecessary to distinguish between the two, and thus is willing to live in her own world, rather than attempt to connect it with reality. She will be seen later to cling to the values of a static political past rather than change her outmoded values and move forward to the future as he ultimately does. In her loyalties within the boarding house, she takes a directly antithetical position to that of Lovett. Where Mikey has rejected the shabby sexuality of Guinevere, she embraces it; and where Lovett grows to disdain Hollingsworth and respect McLeod, she aids the government man in persecuting McLeod. The logic of these antithetical commitments becomes valid within the structure of the novel when certain patterns of allegory begin to emerge, with each of the characters seen as representative of a particular ideology.
I have suggested earlier that Hollingsworth represents the unquestioning, narrow-minded fascism of the postwar era, and that Lovett is the spokesman for a confused and naive postwar liberalism. As the novel progresses, it be comes clear that the politically sophisticated but worn-out McLeod is representative of the expedient prewar com munist movement. Guinevere, defined as she is by vulgar, commercial sexuality, and committed to the grasping, materialistic values of a society whose capital is Hollywood, is all too representative of the majority of the population of that society. Mikey, in a confused groping after something to commit himself to, has attempted a union with Guinevere, only to find that what she offers is a false and shabby reward, a worthless tinsel mock-tip of love which must be paid for with one’s integrity.
If Hollingsworth and Lovett are the two possible versions of the new, postwar American, the choice open to America is a frightening one. For Hollingsworth is chosen by both Guinevere and Lannie, and the path he leads them down is a dead end, immoral, destructive, closed to anything that is good. McLeod’s ultimate rejection of Hollingsworth in favor of Lovett, and the latter’s decision to follow the guidance of the older man provide a hope which is frighteningly slender, for it is obvious that the power is with the Hollingsworths.
Why does Lannie reject Mikey but grasp eagerly what Guinevere offers? Why does she seek out Hollingsworth and oppose McLeod? The answer lies in what Lannie herself comes to represent. Lannie has been deeply involved, in the past, with the communist movement, but she is now disillusioned by the amoral inhumanity of its policies. She embodies the views of the idealistic prewar American Left, who tried to rationalize and condone Soviet domestic and foreign policy in terms of conventional humanistic morality and, finally unable to do so, renounced it. She sees McLeod as the symbol of the worst expedience in the movement, and wishes to help destroy him in retribution for the death of a utopian dream. The idol and spokesman of that dream was Trotsky, and he (although his name is never used) is a crucial pivotal point in the loyalties and hatreds of Lannie, Lovett and McLeod, and of the three distinct segments of the Left they represent. We know already that Lovett followed Trotsky’s teachings. And at the point we meet him, Mikey has lost his passion because, we may assume, of the disillusioning events following the death of the Trotsky dream.
For Lannie, Trotsky was even more important than he was to Lovett, and his murder was the unforgivable sin which has prompted her renunciation of communism and her hatred of McLeod. Revealing herself clearly for the first time, she shouts at McLeod:
“He was the man I loved, the only man I ever truly loved with heart and not with body, the man with the beard because he was a fool—a brilliant man and I loved his beard, and there was the mountain ax in his brain, and all the blood poured out, and he could not see the Mexican sun. Your people raised the ax, and the last blood of revolutionary mankind, his poor blood, ran into the carpet.”
The accusation is more valid than she realizes, for McLeod later admits that he has not merely been guilty of tacit consent but that he actually played a small part in the bureaucratic paperwork which led to the assassination. What is at issue is not McLeod’s guilt as stated by Lannie, for his later admissions reveal still greater complicity in political murders. Rather, what is central to the political resolution of the novel is the difference in reaction between Lannie and Lovett.
Her illusions destroyed, Lannie is devoid of hope for the world, and rejects any possibility for the individual to change it. She is thus in direct contrast to Mikey, who at this point has begun once again to believe in the potential of his own will, and looks to McLeod for guidance. For this she derides him:
“Oh, Mikey, I’m convinced. It’s only you who is still the fool as I was once the fool, and you will not recognize that all these years, ever since the great man sat on his piles in the British Museum and let us think there was a world we could make, when all the time he was wrong, and we’ve been wrong, and there’s no world to make for the world devours.”
“We still don’t know,” I muttered.
In her militant hopelessness, Lannie does not feel it sufficient to renounce the communist movement. In addition, she embraces (figuratively) a reactionary ideology and (literally) its representatives, Guinevere and Hollingsworth. These alliances are somewhat perverse for an erstwhile idealist and the sexual unions which symbolize them are therefore also somewhat unnatural (lesbianism with Guinevere, brutal abasement at the hands of Hollingsworth). Further, Lannie intentionally assumes the role of a passively adoring object of exploitation to each of these partners, thus fulfilling her belief that the will of the individual has no place in this world. This passivity is given symbolic depth by at least one of several metaphorical patterns which attach to her, that of the mirror. Lannie tells Guinevere late in the book:
“And that is why you love me, for I would be a mirror to you, and we escape only when we follow our mirror and let it lead us out of the forest. I can let you see your beauty, and so you will love me for I adore you and unlike the others want nothing but to lie in your arms, the mirror.”
Guinevere heard this with her lips parted, her eyes far away. Bliss animated every curve in her face. “Yes,” she murmured, “yes,” dropping her voice into a gentle reflective sigh. The nectar she tasted rolled in her mouth until she could have absorbed her tongue in the sentience of the moment. Unconsciously, she clasped her breast. If it had been possible she would have kissed herself upon the throat.
This emphasis upon the mirror may suggest another, less obvious Arthurian parallel. Lannie is a submissive figure whose love is unrequited, and who is ultimately deserted. This situation, combined with her ambiguous sexual identity and the sound of her name, may suggest that Lannie performs a dual role in the Arthurian pattern: not merely that of Launcelot, but also that of Elaine, the Fair Maid of Astolat, particularly as represented by Tennyson in “The Lady of Shalott.”
Another echo of the mirror motif occurs after the second and final episode of lovemaking between Lannie and Lovett, when she calls him Narcissus. The partial truth of that accusatory label, as well as the nature of the abortive sexual affair between the two, leads to a clearer distinction between their values.
The fact that Lannie and Lovett turn to one another at first, in an attempt to escape the pain of alienation, is no mere accident of proximity. Rather, it may be seen, on a less literal level, as the final attempt of the splintered forces of the prewar idealistic Left to reunite in some valid basis for common belief. It is a desperate attempt:
I held her in my arms, gave her my body to which she could cling, and remotely without tenderness or desire or even incapacity I performed, riding through the darkness of my closed eyes while she sobbed beneath me in fathomless desperation.
If it were love, it was also fear, and we might have huddled behind a rock while the night wind devoured the plain.
“Save me,” I heard her cry.
And it is doomed to be a vain one as well, for neither can offer what the other needs. They are proceeding in opposite directions, drawing further apart as the novel progresses. This polarity is made obvious the second time they are together sexually. Groping for some feeling outside himself, Mikey attempts to convince himself that he loves Lannie:
. . . with a pity I offered to her in preference to myself, I heard my voice say, “Don’t you understand? I think I love you.”
• • •
“Let me love you,” I pleaded. “I want to, don’t you understand?”
• • •
[She replies] “But I can’t. I can’t love you.” She tried to push me away. “I don’t like you. And you don’t need me.”
Not out of desire, but in an attempt to convince both of them of the truth of what he has said, Lovett makes love once again to Lannie, and “. . . she lay beneath me stiffly and suffered it with a smile, her face calm and patient, sweet suffering Jesus upon the cross.” The reference to Christ occurs more than once in regard to Lannie. Al ready she has spoken in terms reminiscent of Christ (see quotation above: “They hated me and I loved them for their sins.”) and this seems to be the basic characteristic of her commitment to Hollingsworth and Guinevere. Because Mikey is not sufficiently selfish, harsh and insensitive, she cannot be a martyr with him, and so she attacks him. When he repeats, with less assurance, that he loves her, she replies:
“You can’t love anybody, Mikey, for you’re Narcissus, and the closer you come to the water the more you adore yourself until your nose touches, and then you’re alone again.”
I did not want to believe this. “It’s true,” I said, “but it’s . . . it’s not true. It’s not all true.”
Certainly, this is a partial truth, but it is no more than that. Mikey’s self-involvement is one from which he hopes to escape. His involvement with his own mind is, finally, a constructive preoccupation, out of which will grow his new capacity to become involved again with mankind. Lannie is a rather perverse Christ surrogate, for in her determination to become the footstool of the most selfish reactionary elements, she cannot countenance a man who aspires to goodness and to the humanitarian ideals which have so disappointed her. In her next, unjust accusation, she even uses the terms and values of Guinevere and Hollingsworth. She tells Lovett, “You came to me because I was easy, and you thought it would not cost you any thing.”
Lannie's rejection of Lovett is mild, however, in comparison to her vitriolic attack on McLeod, in which she consciously rejects all Christian mercy in favor of an insatiable vengeance:
“I know,” she cried, “that I could sit by and watch cutthroats club you to the grave and I would shout them on, for I know that you are wholly irredeemable. I was afraid. I thought that I might have pity, that most crippling of the sentiments, or that looking into your face, I would say, he had suffered, or—and this is what tormented me most—that in helping them [Hollingsworth’s people] what did I help? But you have buried the revolution, and it is fitting that they who exist because of you, they who rise to eminence here because you destroyed the revolution there, should have the right to flay your bones. And I shall cheer them on. . . .”
This attitude is not, however, to be her final evaluation of McLeod. As the interrogations proceed, much is confessed that justifies and reinforces her condemnation of the man. But soon, mitigating and even selfless actions in McLeod’s career are revealed, and she frantically refuses to accept them as true, in her determination to cling tenaciously to the black and white system of moral values she has adopted. She is incapable of understanding the necessity for a dynamic rather than a static ethic within a history which itself is dynamic and outstrips old ideals. This is what Mikey learns from McLeod. But it is not until the very end that Lannie forgives McLeod, and by then it is too late for her to play a part in the future.
The actions, fears and fates of the inhabitants of the rooming house are symptomatic of those of mankind in this postwar world. Guinevere, asked by Hollingsworth where they should flee together after deserting both McLeod and the American government, replies, “Anywhere. To the ends of the earth. To Barbary—I like the sound of that.” And this is no idle choice, for having betrayed both personal and national loyalties, the two are stripped to their essential barbarism, with not even the flimsiest of pretensions to disguise their absolute self-interest. The title of the novel is echoed one further time, when McLeod, prophesying the series of endless wars which must inevitably be brought about by present economic systems concludes:
The war begins again with a new alignment of forces, and to the accompaniment of famine and civil war, the deterioration continues until we are faced with mankind in barbary.
This, then, is the significance of Mailer’s title. Mankind is on the shore of barbary, ready to plunge in. It is a fearsome and depressing vision.
Viewed as an allegory of the postwar world situation, the novel’s tortuous plot and symbolism become clearer. Lovett is unable to return to the past or to be satisfied with the present, unable to remain alienated from mankind but unwilling to embrace the values of Guinevere, Lannie or Hollingsworth. Rejecting the vulgar materialism of American popular culture, the static idealism of the old line Left, and the methods and values of the hard Right, as they are respectively represented by those three characters, Lovett turns to McLeod, hoping by an understanding of the mistakes of the past and of the nature of history, to influence the future. From total self-involvement and a preoccupation with the superficial human contact to be found through loveless sex, he progresses to a profound involvement with mankind. The novel carries the prophecy of postwar American fascism introduced in The Naked and the Dead a step further, evincing an even darker view of American society. But Mikey Lovett, in his movement toward positive action, represents a step towards the positive character of Rojack in An American Dream. The final commitment which Lovett makes, in accepting the responsibility of carrying on McLeod’s ideas where the older man leaves off, is brought about only at the very end of the novel, as a result of the series of formal interrogations carried out by Hollingsworth.
Once the series of formal interrogations begins, events proceed rapidly toward their resolution. Ready to unburden himself, McLeod responds with little hesitation to Hollingsworth’s prodding. The personal history which unfolds shows McLeod’s rapid rise in power and in the scope of his influence, from local to international affairs. This increase in power is paralleled by a progressive dehumanization, an increasing commitment to expedience at the expense of personal morality. The tacit acceptance of betrayal and assassination gives way to sins of commission: the physical murder by McLeod, first of an in conveniently idealistic young subordinate and then of a personal friend who becomes unable to accept the methods of the party. The degree of ruthlessness of these acts increases in direct proportion to McLeod’s own disillusionment with communist policy, prompted by a stated belief (which Hollingsworth quotes): “It is better to carry through a blunder with all one’s energy, than attempt to halt midway and retrace one’s steps.” The culmination of this philosophy is reached in McLeod’s role in the murder of Trotsky, as he painfully relates in a confession reserved for Lovett’s ear alone:
“ . . . and it’s when I think of the other one with the ax in his gray hair, and your friend Miss Madison who’ll never be able to live past that moment, and it wasn’t the direct participation of myself in it, oh, I have no concrete blood on my hands, I was just a cog in that one and arranged a passport, and smelled a little of what was to come, but you see I did nothing and all the while I was managing my infinitesimal part of the operation, working on it while I was at the height of a crisis for it was the time of the pact, and I no longer believed a minute in what had been the external and objective reality of my life.” He had begun to mutter. “This detail taken care of and that. I could have not known who it was for, and yet I knew it was him out in Mexico, and on the dark sly I was reading his works behind my barricaded door. I knew,” he shouted suddenly, “I knew. There’s the crime. No longer believing and I went ahead. I let him be murdered you see.”
And shortly afterwards, in a decision further motivated by the pact he mentions, McLeod leaves the Party. His subsequent history is related in his first brief autobiographical summary to Hollingsworth:
In 1941, left the Party. Subsequently worked as statistician for American government bureau 1941—1942. Under assumed name. Quit bureau in 1942. Since worked at odd jobs under name of William McLeod. That’s all.
It becomes apparent at this point that it is McLeod’s activity as a U.S. government employee and the circumstances under which that employment terminated which are of primary interest to Hollingsworth. McLeod goes on to elaborate:
“. . . I worked in one of the endless ramifications of the embryonic State Capitalism, a big place with thousands of people and thousands of desks, and this but the local branch, mind you.”
He went on to describe with relish how the various parts of the organism fitted together. . . .
• • •
Then, after years of regular and orderly process, something happened. “I don’t know, I can’t tell you what it was,” McLeod said, “an object of some sort or other, not too large I imagine, but it was gone, and no one knew how.”
The organism reeled from the shock and trembled to its extremities. “. . . The displacement of that little object displaced a great deal else. Cysts broke, pus spread, the blood became infected and carried the fever with it. You should have seen the giant stagger. There were guards collected at every joint and operations galore.”
Although McLeod denies it, Hollingsworth is convinced that he is in possession of the “little object,” and it becomes the central object of both Hollingsworth’s and Guinevere’s ambitions. In the hope of acquiring it for personal gain, Hollingsworth makes no official report of the progress of his interrogations. He eventually offers McLeod a deal in which the latter is to be allowed to escape in exchange for giving up the object. Hollingsworth enlists Guinevere in his cause, offering to take her away with him in exchange for her aid in convincing her husband to come across. Guinevere’s capacity for treachery and greed surpasses that of Hollingsworth. She is intoxicated by the dream that if they can deliver the little object to a foreign power, “They’d make us royalty.” But like Hollingsworth, Guinevere is loyal only to her own desires, and she soon proposes to McLeod that he sell "The thingamajig" and flee with her, leaving Hollingsworth behind. McLeod has, at this point, been flirting momentarily with the temptation of making a last attempt at a reconciliation with Guinevere, of renouncing moral responsibility in favor of the anonymity of an average American family man. The crass bluntness of her offer makes this course impossible for him to accept, and it is finally to Mikey that McLeod passes on the object and the moral mission that goes with it, after the younger man has shown himself willing and worthy to accept them.
What, then, is the “little object”? The question is never resolved. It is so very secret that no one knows what it is, and this ambiguity magnifies its mysterious significance. In this age of atomic secrets and spy stories (which, in a sense, this novel is) it could indeed be a material object: a microfilmed blueprint, a formula, or even a crucial component part. Hollingsworth and Guinevere obviously believe that this is the case (to her, it is a “thingamajig”) because both are so rooted in a simplistic system of materialistic values that they are incapable of conceiving abstractions.
Close to the end of the novel, Hollingsworth, in the passage perhaps most representative of his opinions and character, self-righteously rejects those things most valued by McLeod and Lovett: theory, individuality, and the desire to influence the future:
“We all have our different characters, and that’s true. It’s just that we mustn’t be stubborn. You’ve been an unhappy man all your life, and you didn’t want to admit it was your own fault. So you blame it on society, as you call it. That isn’t necessary. You could have had a good time, you could still have a good time if you’d realize that everybody is like you, and so it’s pointless to work for the future.” His hand strayed over the desk. He might have been caressing the wood. “More modestly. We ain’t equipped to deal with big things. If this fellow came to see me and asked my advice, I would take him aside and let him know that if he gives up the pursuits of vanity, and acts like everybody else, he’d get along better. Cause we never know what’s deep down inside us”—Hollingsworth tapped his chest—“and it plays tricks. I don’t give two cents for all your papers. A good-time Charley, that’s myself, and that’s why I’m smarter than the lot of you.” His pale face had become flushed. “You can shove theory,” he said suddenly. “Respect your father and mother.”
Hollingsworth is the corrupt and shoddy instrument of McLeod’s confession, and finally it becomes clear that the secret policeman is being used by his victim, rather than vice versa. McLeod, confused, weary and guilt-ridden, finds it necessary to confess and reevaluate his life; and so he speaks, nominally to Hollingsworth, actually to Mikey, heedless of whether Hollingsworth can or will understand the theoretical and moral issues involved. But Mikey understands and profits from the experience of McLeod, and as his conversion to these teachings becomes apparent and his loyalty to McLeod deepens, it is Mikey alone to whom the older man confides the greatest of his sins (the Trotsky episode) and his hopes and fears for the future. Finally certain that the past is significant only in what it can teach for the future, McLeod states:
“One of the small benefits I can permit myself is to spend no time apologizing for my past. It is what it is, and in the time permitted me here, I should prefer to indulge in the only meaningful defense, to transmit the intellectual conclusions of my life, and thus to give dignity to my experience. I shall not treat the past as personal history, and I will attempt to delineate what I believe to be the future, for it is only as ideas are transmitted to someone else that they attain existence.”
Hollingsworth interrupted him. “You talk like a fellow who doesn’t think he’s going to live long.”
“You misunderstand. I speak metaphorically.”
But this time McLeod has been quite literal in his meaning, for he knows now that he must die in order that his ideas may live, and it is to the mind of Mikey Lovett that he entrusts them for the future. The night after the final interrogation, in which he has agreed to surrender the object to Hollingsworth, McLeod instead leaves an envelope with Mikey, goes to confront Hollingsworth with his refusal and is killed by the latter. He thus serves as a decoy, enabling Lovett to escape just as the house is raided by government agents.
The role which Mikey must play in the future had been explained by McLeod. The hope for mankind is that both of the corrupt systems presently existing, Western Capitalism and Eastern Communism, fail, and that a new, just society be established. But for this to happen, it is essential
“. . . that the socialist theorist will once again find language to reach the many.
“That there be theorists at such a time is of incalculable importance. . . . not too many of us will be alive. Yet there must be some to participate, for revolutions are the periods of history when individuals count most. . . . It is the need to study, it is the obligation to influence those few we may, and if some nucleus of us rides out of the storm, we shall advance to the front of any revolutionary wave, for we alone shall have the experience and the insight so vital for the period. Then we shall be the only ones capable of occupying the historical stage.”
Thus, what hope there remains for mankind resides primarily in the individual intellectual theorist who can teach his fellows. Finally, the future rests upon the synthesis of the experience of McLeod and the youthful dedication of Lovett. The parallels between them lay the groundwork for their union at the novel’s end. Both have been dehumanized by involvement with international forces and each has withdrawn from the world, cut himself off from his past, attempted to avoid moral responsibility. It is only with each other’s support that the two men each regain a sense of faith in humanity’s future. Without Lovett to pass the object and quest on to, McLeod might easily have succumbed to Hollingsworth’s or Guinevere’s temptations. Without McLeod to present an alternative, the confused and groping Lovett might have listened to Lannie when she said, “Come with us. There’s no place else to be.”
The extent of McLeod’s renewal of faith in humanity’s future is made explicit in his will, contained in the envelope which he gives Lovett before going to his death:
To Michael Lovett to whom, at the end of my life and for the first time within it, I find myself capable of the rudiments of selfless friendship, I bequeath in heritage the remnants of my socialist culture.
Almost as an afterthought he had scrawled:
And may he be alive to see the rising of the Phoenix.
The commitment to humanity which McLeod instills in Lovett, and which is exemplified by the feeling of selfless friendship he expresses toward the younger man, forms the basis for some hope. It must be emphasized, however, that what McLeod teaches Mikey is not a rigid commitment to static systems or values, but a sense of the dynamic principle in human history. The loyalty he is to embrace is to mankind, but not to any country or political party or even any single political or economic theory. This is where Mikey, in his capacity to understand that history is a vehicle which allows for no stagnation but demands constant revision of one’s ideas, is truly worthy of McLeod’s trust. He is the man of the future, capable of carrying out the mission entrusted him, because unlike Lannie, he is able to realize that there is no static good and evil: that the movement of history renders these values either totally irrelevant or at best temporarily valid in relation to a specific context.
The concluding passage of the novel makes evident the circumstances under which Lovett relates the story:
So the heritage passed on to me, poor hope, and the little object as well, and I went out into the world. If I fled down the alley which led from that rooming house, it was only to enter another, and then another. I am obliged to live waiting for the signs which tell me I must move on again.
Thus, time passes, and I work and I study, and I keep my eye on the door.
Meanwhile, vast armies mount themselves, the world revolves, the traveller clutches his breast. From out of the unyielding contradictions of labor stolen from men, the march to the endless war forces its pace. Perhaps, as the millions will be lost, others will be created, and I shall discover brothers where I thought none existed.
But for the present the storm approaches its thunderhead, and it is apparent that the boat drifts blind, and the deaf shout warnings to one another until their voices are lost.
The final sentence of the novel is a repetition of the final sentence of the first chapter. It is clear, then, that Lovett recounts the story in retrospect, some time after it has taken place, and is thus aware of the significance of his experiences even in his first chapter. This impression is reinforced by other information presented in the opening chapter:
Now, in the time I write, when other men besides myself must contrive a name, a story, and the papers they carry, I wonder if I do not possess an advantage. For I have been doing it longer, and am less tantalized by the memory of better years. They must suffer, those others like myself. I wonder what fantasies bother them?
• • •
Night comes and I am alone with a candle. What has been fanciful is now concrete. Although the room in which I write has an electric circuit, it functions no longer. Time passes and I wait by the door, listening to the footsteps of roomers as they go out to work for the night. In fourteen hours they will be back.
Mailer’s statement that Barbary Shore is set in an “imaginary future” is understandable in light of this passage. It is clear that Lovett writes in a future governed by the repressive State Capitalism predicted by McLeod, a totalitarianism in whose fearful shadow men must contrive names and carry false papers. The crumbling system forces men to work a fourteen hour night shift and live in rooms where electricity is no longer available. In this society, Michael Lovett is an outlaw, recounting the events of the novel as he waits to disseminate his knowledge of political theory. Ironically, Lovett is, in a sense, a singularly credible narrator for this book, in that the interminable passages of Marxist theory which are its single greatest weakness are to be expected from the mind of an avowed theorist. Nonetheless, the book is difficult to read, involved in plot, often confused and confusing. Several overlapping but nonintegrated systems of symbology add to the difficulty without ever emerging into a clarity which might add to the novel’s effectiveness.
Finally, Mailer’s own stated intention gives us a key to where he failed, when he describes Barbary Shore as “an agonized eye of a novel which tried to find some amalgam of my experience and the larger horror of that world which might be preparing to destroy itself.” It must be concluded (and Mailer himself might concur) that the amalgam was at best a lumpy one, that he did indeed overreach himself, and that while his own psychic experience and the external reality of the world he describes each have a validity of their own, they are never smoothly blended within the novel.
In a comparison between Mailer’s first two novels, it must be admitted that the political views with which both are colored are better expressed in The Naked and the Dead, where they are often implicit and almost always integrated with the characters and situations involved, than in Barbary Shore, where they are expressed primarily in lengthy, explicit, polemical passages. Despite its glaring weaknesses, however, Barbary Shore does show evidence of some thematic progress in the direction of Mailer’s later views. The dehumanization experienced by both McLeod and Lovett because of their use as instruments of national military machinery is parallel to that dehumanization by war which Mailer showed in The Naked and the Dead. But where the first novel left such men as Red Valsen permanently bludgeoned into submission by the system and no longer hopeful of the potential of the individual, Barbary Shore suggests that if men learn from their experience, no matter how sordid, there can be purpose in it, and hope. Where Lieutenant Hearn was fated to die a pointless death, Mikey Lovett is destined to devote his life to a positive cause; consequently, McLeod’s life and death have not been purposeless. Where the first novel left the future in the hands of the Major Dallesons, Barbary Shore shows that it has been held by them and their successors, the Hollingsworths. But there is a new, distant future to look forward to for Mikey Lovett, in which they may be deposed, and if this is a flimsy vision of hope, it is better than none.
It is easy for critics and fans of Mailer alike to wish that Barbary Shore had never been published. But an informed reader could never wish that it had not been written. The novel shows Mailer at his worst: confused, lacking control and fictional discipline, often simply boring. Yet the discrepancy between his narrator and his own prose style became all too clear to Mailer through this book, and in those that followed it would narrow. The conscientious and fearful concern with America’s cultural and political shortcomings and with the dangerous and lonely path open to the individual would be expressed more cogently and powerfully. Mailer’s voice may be muted and sometimes unintelligible at this point, but it is not yet hushed.
- Mailer 1959, pp. 91–94.
- Mailer 1951, p. 5.
- It is worth noting that war is a central experience for the protagonists of each of the novels. Sergius of The Deer Park and Rojack of An American Dream are each profoundly affected by war experiences which they relate early in their stories. D.J. of Why Are We in Vietnam? goes off to war at the end of his narrative.
- Mailer 1959, p. 93.
- Mailer 1951, p. 7.
- Mailer 1951, p. 9.
- Mailer 1951, p. 11.
- Mailer 1951, p. 122.
- Mailer 1951, p. 15.
- Mailer 1951, p. 26.
- This relationship is echoed by the Sergius/Eitel situation in The Deer Park.
- This is the title by which Mailer refers to Hollingsworth in Advertisements for Myself.
- Mailer 1951, p. 29.
- Mailer 1951, pp. 31–33.
- Mailer 1951, p. 45.
- Mailer 1951, p. 66.
- Mailer 1951, pp. 34–35.
- Mailer 1951, pp. 6–7.
- Mailer 1951, p. 53.
- Mailer 1951, pp. 61–62.
- Mailer 1951, pp. 90–91.
- Mailer 1951, pp. 114–115.
- Mailer 1951, p. 115.
- In this respect and others (notably the terror evoked by the state spying on citizens) the novel is reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 (published 1949).
- Mailer 1951, p. 117.
- Like Sergius in The Deer Park, Mikey Lovett wishes to exercise his will actively, and therefore both protagonists go a step further than the passive resistance of Red Valsen. But although the conclusions of Barbary Shore and The Deer Park show Mikey and Sergius looking to the future in the determination to forge a new life, their success or failure in doing so is not a part of either book. It is in An American Dream that Mailer presents a protagonist who demonstrates the capacity to act positively and existentially within the author’s own highly individual conception of existentialism.
- Mailer 1951, p. 75.
- Mailer 1951, p. 98.
- Mailer 1951, pp. 94–95.
- Mailer 1951, p. 109.
- Mailer 1951, p. 74.
- Mailer 1951, p. 136.
- Mailer 1951, p. 152.
- The implication of a passage she writes and later shows to Mikey is that she has performed fellatio upon Hollingsworth. The act in itself is not considered perverse by Mailer in light of sexual attitudes clarified in the later works, but the passive acceptance of harsh, loveless sexual exploitation certainly is, and this is clearly such a case.
- The others, which are somewhat confused, include her momentary function as a Christ figure (dealt with briefly below), and her part in several symbolic father/child patterns, notably in relation to Lovett and to Trotsky.
- Mailer 1951, p. 186.
- Mailer 1951, p. 100.
- Mailer 1951, p. 110.
- The Christ imagery in the novel (as I have suggested above) is inconsistent and confusing. It applies most often to Lannie, but occasionally to McLeod, and even to Lovett (whose hand is raked by Lannie’s nails at the novel’s end).
- Mailer 1951, p. 111.
- Mailer 1951, p. 112.
- The two are parallel, however, as though Lovett receives a portion of the hatred Lannie feels for McLeod and the communist movement, in proportion to his involvement with them. This is one of several parallels between Mikey and McLeod.
- Mailer 1951, pp. 135–136.
- Mailer 1951, p. 148.
- Mailer 1951, p. 202.
- Mailer 1951, p. 165.
- Mailer 1951, p. 175–176.
- Mailer 1951, p. 129.
- Mailer 1951, pp. 132–133.
- The ambiguity of this word seems to reflect the ambiguity of the “little object’s” nature. It may be a material object, but it may also be the abstract object of everyone’s desire.
- This statement echoes the earlier Arthurian pattern, and there is particular irony in that today’s “royalty” achieve their position not through courage and nobility, but through greed and treachery.
- Early in the novel, Mailer has wryly shown Hollingsworth’s inability to understand even a simple metaphor. McLeod has stated, figuratively, that “poison may only be met with poison,” and Hollingsworth jots down on the list he keeps of subversive beliefs admitted by McLeod, “Advocates use of poison.”
- Mailer 1951, pp. 193–194.
- Mailer 1951, p. 195.
- Mailer 1951, p. 204.
- Mailer 1951, p. 140.
- There may be some significance in the fact that this is the first time Lovett has been addressed by his full first name, rather than the diminutive nickname, Mikey. Perhaps it is an indication that he has come to manhood.
- The passing on of one’s essence for the future is echoed clearly in The Deer Park. The idea of selfless commitment to another person looks ahead not only to Eitel/Sergius, but even to Rojack/Cherry of An American Dream.
- Mailer 1951, p. 223.
- In this sense, a parallel exists between Barbary Shore and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1941). More specifically, McLeod is reminiscent of Koestler’s Rubashov in that novel, in his revelation of a ruthless personal past, his final recognition that the future belongs to a new generation, and his willing acceptance of death after that realization.
- Such as those mentioned in footnotes . . .
- Mailer, Norman (1959). Advertisements for Myself. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons.
- — (1951). Barbary Shore. New York: Rinehart and Company, Inc. Paperback edition published 1953 by Signet (New American Library of World Literature, New York). All page references are to the Signet edition.