The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer/7. Advertisements for Myself, The Presidential Papers, and Cannibals and Christians
Advertisements for Myself (1959), The Presidential Papers (1963), and Cannibals and Christians (1966) have been referred to in earlier chapters when they provided material directly relevant to Mailer’s novels. They are also significant as stages in the development of Mailer’s non fiction voice, which is to reach its finest expression to date in The Armies of the Night (1968).
Advertisements for Myself, the richest and most varied in content of the three, is also the most interesting in that it provides direct insights into the state of Mailer’s mind in the late 1950’s. The “advertisements” themselves treat personal experience with candor and perception reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up.” And the situation in which Mailer found himself at the time is parallel to that of Fitzgerald in his slump. Early in the book, he tells us:
I’ve burned away too much of my creative energy. . . . I may have fatigued the earth of rich language beyond repair. . . . There may have been too many fights for me, too much sex, liquor, marijuana, benzedrine and seconal. . . .
This is a painfully candid admission for a thirty-five-year old writer who has, a few pages earlier, confided the enormous extent of his ambition:
The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.
This is a book, then, not of ambitions unfulfilled, but of ambitions yet to be attained; just as Fitzgerald was to go on to a new affirmation of his talent in The Last Tycoon, Mailer was eventually to go beyond the fragmentary state of his work in 1959 to new and valid artistic forms. Advertisements for Myself serves an important function in the drive toward those later works. Mailer remarks, in “A Note to the Reader,” that “one of the purposes of this collection is the intention to clear the ground for [his next] novel.” The process of establishing an ordered form within which to present the various pieces which make up Advertisements was a project intended to provide Mailer with a clearer view of what he had done and what he wished yet to do in his writing. It provides the reader with an insight into Mailer’s artistic intentions. But something else is given concrete form here: the flamboyant public image which, since the publication of The Naked and the Dead, had served to spotlight Mailer’s career, and which tended (and still does) to obscure rather than elucidate the literary value and intentions of his work. Perhaps no writer since Hemingway has had a public image so attractive or repulsive to so many people, and so unfortunately influential in the critical reception of his fiction. To an extent, this notoriety was forced upon Mailer after the publication of The Naked and the Dead, as he laments in Advertisements:
. . . from now on, people who knew me would never be able to react to me as a person whom they liked or disliked in small ways, for myself alone (the inevitable phrase of all tear-filled confessions); no, I was a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality and status. . . . I had been moved from the audience to the stage. . . .
But to a greater extent, it is clear, Mailer lived and wrote in such a manner as to create a public personality characterized by excesses. Within Advertisements for Myself, we get a view of these excesses telescoped together like a two-hour movie of a man’s life. Thus, within a few pages, Mailer can both affirm the enormity of his ambition and confess his fears that he may already have burned out his talent. Later in the book, he makes clear why he feels it worthwhile to risk the death of his talent in the gamble to increase it through deeper self-knowledge:
. . . in admiration for Hemingway’s strength and with distaste for his weaknesses, I was one of the few writers of my generation who was concerned with living in Hemingway’s discipline, by which I do not mean I was interested in trying for some second-rate imitation of the style, but rather that I shared with Papa the notion, arrived at slowly in my case, that even if one dulled one’s talent in the punishment of becoming a man, it was more important to be a man than a very good writer, that probably I could not become a very good writer unless I learned first how to keep my nerve. . . .
After The Deer Park, Mailer was at an impasse in his struggle to become a man and a writer. Ridden with doubts at his failure in the decade following The Naked and the Dead to write the great novel he still aspired to, befuddled by his own confused mind and the drugs he had used to explore it, he found himself unable to write at all:
. . . I could not write; my mind would have fine moments, but its powers of connection were dim; my brain seemed stuffed in cotton. It was the first pause I had had in years, and it seemed to me that I was punch-drunk. In company I felt stupid. . . . I began to live with the conviction that I had burned out my talent.
It was under these circumstances that the events which prompted Mailer to write “The White Negro” occurred. Encouraged by Lyle Stuart, Mailer wrote a few paragraphs about his theory that the integration problem in the South had as its basis the white man’s fear of the sexual potency of the Negro. The piece was printed in Stuart’s monthly newspaper, and copies sent to a number of people, including William Faulkner, who dismissed it with a short note which ridiculed Mailer. Despite the fact that he answered with arrogance, Mailer was disturbed, and this led to the writing of “The White Negro.”
. . . I had been dismissed by a novelist who was to me a great writer, and in reflection from the ice of his few lines had been cast the light of how I would properly be seen if I could not flesh the bold loud air of my pronouncements with writing better than I had so far done. Like a latent image in the mirror of my ego was the other character Faulkner must have seen: a noisy pushy middling ape who had been tolerated too long by his literary betters. So I owe Faulkner the Biblical act of banishing me. Fearful of consequence, I had at last no choice but to begin the trip into the psychic wild of “The White Negro.”
If Advertisements for Myself lies at the heart of the development of Mailer’s ideas between the 1950’s and the 1960’s, “The White Negro” is indisputably the heart of Advertisements. As has been stated at the outset of this book, “The White Negro” begins with a more sophisticated and more clearly articulated statement of a theme which Mailer rendered well in The Naked and the Dead: that after the Second World War man was forced to look at his society and to recognize not only that it was a sick and perverted one, but that something in each of us was responsible for its creation, and thus that we were sick as well. In a world which reeked of totalitarianism (which, Mailer maintains, was by no means totally destroyed in the war), each man must choose whether to die a slow and anonymous death at the altar of conformity or to strike out into a bold search for individual selfhood:
A totalitarian society makes enormous demands on the courage of men, and a partially totalitarian society makes even greater demands, for the general anxiety is greater. Indeed if one is to be a man, almost any kind of unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage.
He goes on to state that the reason the Negro is the source of Hip is that he “has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.” The resultant life style of the Negro, the functional paranoia which enables him to survive and commits him to the present more than the future, have been adopted by the American existentialist, the hipster or White Negro.
Certainly Mailer cerebrates so intensely that he goes far beyond the intuitive values of the hipster. In “The White Negro,” he articulates a series of nice distinctions which clarify precisely the nature and limits of his own existential philosophy, one which shares certain basic assumptions with other thinkers but which, in its entirety is unique to Mailer. His basic premise is that one must combat totalitarianism by a commitment to constant growth through experience. The threat of totalitarianism is not merely an external one, but internal as well. At the same time that he must guard against the deadening of his individuality by the pressure exerted by a conformist society, the existentialist must beware of becoming static himself, of committing himself permanently to any idea or habit which is momentarily valid, and thus becoming, himself, totalitarian. The key idea is that the existentialist must be always dynamic, and that he must act in order to develop, rather than accept experience passively.
Mailer draws a clear distinction between the atheistic existentialist and the mystic, and himself embraces the values of the latter. The central difference lies in the attitude towards death. Where the atheist rejects any appreciation of the proximity of death because he refuses to romanticize it, the mystic sees the awareness of the presence of death as a meaningful experience.
. . . the mystic is the one finally who has chosen to live with death. . . . His inner experience of the possibilities within death is his logic. So, too, for the existentialist. And the psychopath. And the saint and the bullfighter and the lover. The common denominator for all of them is their burning consciousness which the possibilities within death has opened for them. There is a depth of desperation to the condition which enables one to remain in life only by engaging death, but the reward is their knowledge that what is happening at each instant of the electric present is their love, their action, their need.
Certainly this concept is recognizable as one of the primary motivations which inform the character of Rojack in An American Dream, as he makes repeated excursions to the edge of death in the attempt to define himself and to grow as a man.
Another distinction which Mailer goes to great lengths to draw is that between the psychotic and the psychopath. The latter term is very definitely not a pejorative one to Mailer, since he feels that the American existentialist is, by the very nature of his commitment to his own needs and his rejection of societal restrictions a “philosophical psychopath.” Further, this is a condition which must be maintained by the White Negro if he is to survive as an individual. The concept of the psychopathic state as a positive good ties in with Mailer’s idea of himself as a “psychic outlaw,” and certainly Rojack assumes this role.
Because Mailer considers the term psychopath so central to his definition of the White Negro, and because his understanding of it can be so easily misapprehended when removed from the sophisticated context within which he uses it, the salient points of his definition should be presented:
It may be fruitful to consider the hipster a philosophical psychopath, a man interested not only in the dangerous imperatives of his psychopathy but in codifying, at least for himself, the suppositions on which his inner universe is constructed. By this premise the hipster is a psychopath, and yet not a psychopath but the negation of the psychopath, for he possesses the narcissistic detachment of the philosopher, . . . extrapolates from his own condition, from the inner certainty that his rebellion is just, a radical vision of the universe which thus separates him from the general ignorance, reactionary prejudice, and self-doubt of the more conventional psychopath.
• • •
Before one can say more about the hipster, there is obviously much to be said about the psychic state of the psychopath—or, clinically, the psychopathic personality. Now, for reasons which may be more curious than the similarity of the words, even many people with psychoanalytical orientation often confuse the psychopath with the psychotic. Yet the terms are polar. The psychotic is legally insane, the psychopath is not; the psychotic is almost always incapable of discharging in physical acts the rage of his frustration, while the psychopath at his extreme is virtually as incapable of restraining his violence.
Mailer goes on to show that while the psychotic may move in and out of his insane state, the psychopath maintains a constant, long-term, antisocial attitude and is not characterized by the hallucinations and other dramatic symptoms displayed by the psychotic. The distinction, then, is one of rationality and of voluntary choice. That is, the psychopath is a sane man, living rationally in the real world, but motivated by an antisocial attitude. The “philosophical psychopath,” Mailer’s White Negro, goes a step beyond the more conventional psychopath, whose selfish needs are pursued in an antisocial but socially conditioned (hence rather trite—almost conventional) manner (such as rape). Rather, the hipster’s actions are motivated by a conscious desire to “codify . . . the suppositions on which his inner universe is constructed.” While his actions are not always rational (he is “incapable of restraining his violence”), the underlying philosophy which informs and encourages them very definitely is. He may not be able or willing to control his psychopathic state, but he does wish to understand it. Although it is not socially acceptable, it forms for him a personal “inner universe”; a dynamic system of values to which he subscribes in place of externally imposed societal values. Thus, Mailer himself and his more recent fictional protagonists, Rojack and D.J., attempt to establish their own inner worlds, by means of which they can survive on the outskirts of society.
The idea that “the psychopath at his extreme is virtually . . . incapable of restraining his violence” makes it clear that Rojack’s murder of his wife is intended by Mailer as more than a mere expression of desperate rage. It is the index of his psychopathic state, one which Rojack must struggle to understand through seeking further dynamic experiences, no matter how fearful. Rather than take the easier path of allowing society to define him within its terms by confessing his guilt and accepting society’s evaluation of him, its prescribed punishment, and, implicitly, its forgiveness, Rojack elects to take the frightening trip into his own soul and to come to terms with his psychopathic state by defining it in his own terms.
At the beginning of An American Dream, Rojack is not particularly courageous, nor does he have a clear idea of the state of his own psyche. What is it that prompts him, after some vacillation, to avoid societal judgment after the murder? Perhaps the answer lies here:
The strength of the psychopath is that he knows (where most of us can only guess) what is good for him and what is bad for him at exactly those instants when an old crippling habit has become so attacked by experience that the potentiality exists to change it, to replace a negative and empty fear with an outward action, even if . . . the action is to murder. The psychopath murders—if he has the courage—out of the necessity to purge his violence, for if he cannot empty his hatred then he cannot love, his being is frozen with implacable self-hatred for his cowardice.
As a psychopath, then, Rojack murders Deborah because he has reached one of those crucial points to which Mailer refers. Afraid and empty, tied to the habit of Deborah and reduced by her power over him to a passive and negative life which he is on the verge of ending, he instinctively acts, and thus begins to change his life. And it is this act of murder which, as Mailer has prescribed, purges his violence and hatred and unfreezes his being so that he can love Cherry. The very act of murder gives him the added courage he needs to lie to the police, and thus to commit himself to the series of further actions which will lead him to self-knowledge and salvation.
The series of confrontations with hostile people which is the means by which Rojack grows in strength and understanding has been dealt with at length earlier. But some further understanding of how central such a path of development is to Mailer’s view of life (and of how long he has felt thus) may be gained by his statement in “The White Negro” that:
. . . life is a contest between people in which the victor generally recuperates quickly and the loser takes long to mend, a perpetual competition of colliding explorers in which one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same (pay in sickness, or depression, or anguish for the lost opportunity) but pay or grow.
Rojack is the victor in a series of crucial collisions with other people, and this is why he grows throughout An American Dream and emerges as a whole man. But the most recent of Mailer’s books will show that he has not developed this view of human conflict only in his fiction; ii is applicable to his own life as well. In The Armies of the Night, Mailer, as narrator and protagonist, will be shown to undergo a series of confrontations with other people and with his own fears which parallels that of Rojack.
I have emphasized earlier that Rojack’s greatest strength grows out of his love for Cherry, a love characterized by a fertile sexuality which is described in heavenly terms. The idea of “good” sex as an ideal to be sought by the existentialist figures in “The White Negro”; and since Mailer’s emphasis on this ideal has been attacked by some critics, it may be fair to quote his statement:
At bottom, the drama of the psychopath is that he seeks love. Not love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it. Orgasm is his therapy—he knows at the seed of his being that good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him.
Mailer goes on to stipulate further that the hipster must “find his courage at the moment of violence or equally make it in the act of love.” This is the “good time” of which Sergius speaks at the conclusion of The Deer Park (N) as the source for new hope in human life. The concept is more clearly defined in “The White Negro” than it was in The Deer Park, but even here it is only the embryo of the far more hopeful idea which takes form in An American Dream: that the good time and the good orgasm are only momentary goals which are transcended by the passion and fertility of a courageously selfless love. Thus it is clear that while many of the themes Mailer develops in An American Dream are the direct products of his definition of the American existentialist in “The White Negro,” he has continued to develop and refine his personal philosophy. The mature statement of An American Dream that love for one mate can represent the greatest single positive hope for the individual brave enough to earn it, is a significant departure from the more cynical theory of the apocalyptic orgasm expressed in “The White Negro.”
It has repeatedly been emphasized here that Mailer’s psychopath/existentialist/hipster is antisocial and selfish in his actions and aims. Stephen Richards Rojack, a some what more mature version of the White Negro, has been held up as an example of Mailer’s hope that the individual can survive in a corrupt and hostile society; but An American Dream criticizes that society without holding out any hope for its improvement. Perhaps a muted note of optimism may be seen towards the end of “The White Negro,” when Mailer states candidly that although the hipster, bent on releasing his hatred and violence, could easily be an elite storm trooper, it is as probable that he might recognize the necessity to work for all men’s freedom in order to gain his own:
. . . given the desperation of his condition as a psychic outlaw, the hipster is equally a candidate for the most reactionary and most radical of movements, and so it is just as possible that many hipsters will come—if the crisis deepens—to a radical comprehension of the horror of society . . . may yet come to an equally bitter comprehension of the slow relentless inhumanity of the conservative power which controls him from without and from within. And in being so controlled, denied and starved into the attrition of conformity, indeed the hipster may come to see that his condition is no more than an exaggeration of the human condition, and if he would be free, then every one must be free.
The crisis in individual freedom of which Mailer wrote in 1957 is primarily represented by the plight of the Negro. That crisis has deepened, and Mailer has continued to speak out for individual human rights. But an additional crisis besets us today, in the division of America over the war in Vietnam. In the context of his statements about personal growth through the expression of violence, Mailer states in “The White Negro” that “. . . individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the state. . . .” Mailer’s theories of violence are applied fictionally to the psyche of the American male in Why Are We in Vietnam? (in which he suggests that the personal need for violence, usually stifled by society, has been turned by that society to the more socially acceptable arena of war).
Each of these issues is to be dealt with at length in The Armies of the Night, a book which comprises an informed and sophisticated analysis of the state of American society in 1968. The narrator/protagonist is Mailer himself, a voice who articulately clarifies national problems within the context of his own theories (of violence, freedom, totalitarianism) and a character who personally faces a series of crises which help him to grow dynamically. The Mailer of The Armies of the Night is not a hipster. Like Rojack, he lives by the code of the White Negro, but does so within a somewhat more mature and sophisticated lifestyle. But unlike Rojack, he does not merely survive the experience of American society and then leave. Rather, he takes the step of personal involvement, in the desire to effect a change in that society. Recognizing as he felt the hipster might, that “if he would be free, then everyone must be free,” Mailer continues to cerebrate and to act in his own behalf; but he chooses to act on behalf of his fellow citizens as well, and in so doing ties his own destiny to that of his society. It may be, then, that hope for the individual means hope for society as well.
“The White Negro” is a piece which is central to the abiding moral and intellectual values which inform all of Mailer’s work. Its significance looms still larger when it is considered in conjunction with the works which follow it, especially An American Dream and The Armies of the Night. These books are important because they embody the structured morality by which one man lives. An American Dream does so in the experiences of a man who is one of Mailer’s most successful creations; and The Armies of the Night goes beyond this to use Mailer’s own experience without the shield of fictional distance. What is important is that this philosopher, Mailer, does not present a theory through abstractions which are reinforced only by generalized analogies to human life. Rather, he realizes his theories in his own life and performs the difficult and courageous feat of articulating both the act and the abstraction to his reader. The man of action and the philosopher become one.
“The White Negro” shows Mailer as a contemporary existential philosopher. The Presidential Papers is the application of his philosophy to topical situations. What is most immediately striking about this book is Mailer’s repeated application of the term existential to aspects of the Kennedy administration. He writes of “existential legislation,” and describes John F. Kennedy and his wife as existential hero and heroine. Mailer does not, in this book, express unqualified admiration for the Kennedys. What he does admire greatly is a dynamic quality in the personal style of President Kennedy and his wife.
The existential element which Mailer saw as a major hope for the nation in Kennedy’s leadership was a capacity for dynamic action combined with humanistic compassion. Possibly the clearest expression of Mailer’s view of John F. Kennedy at its most hopeful is in a short story entitled “The Last Night,” printed in Cannibals and Christians. The central character of the story is an American President, “perhaps not only the most brilliant but the most democratic of American Presidents,” faced with the massive moral responsibility of preserving a segment of humanity as the end of the world approaches. The story is one of courage and tormented decision, and finally of hope, for the President possesses the moral insight to make the right choice, the strength to act decisively, and the charisma to succeed “in engaging the imagination of the world’s citizens with his project,” a project which calls for the cooperation of all of humanity in sacrificing themselves to save a small representative group of survivors.
In his introductory remarks to this story, Mailer explains that:
The story was written in 1962, therefore was written with the idea of a President not altogether different from John F. Kennedy. L.B.J., needless to say, is altogether different.
This difference is the central difference between Mailer’s political writings in The Presidential Papers and those in Cannibals and Christians.
If Mailer was critical of certain aspects of the Kennedy administration in the former book, it was always criticism infused with the hope of helping to stimulate progressive action. But the more hostile tone of Mailer’s attitude toward the Johnson administration in Cannibals and Christians is set as early as the dedication to that book, which reads:
To Lyndon B. Johnson whose name inspired young men to cheer for me in public.
The sardonic reference is to a speech Mailer made in Berkeley, California in May, 1965, opposing Johnson’s Vietnam policy.
The President in “The Last Night” (and, by implication, John F. Kennedy) is portrayed by Mailer as a man constantly concerned with the question of whether his decisions and actions are good or evil. Mailer’s treatment makes it obvious that the former is true, but it is significant that the fictional President cares deeply about such moral considerations. Although it is the capacity to act existentially and to capture the people’s imagination with his style which Mailer sees as the most essential quality for a President, the commitment to humanistic ideals adds to the man’s greatness as a leader. This order of priorities established by Mailer is central to an understanding of the several stages in his attitude towards President Johnson.
Early in Cannibals and Christians, Mailer presents us with a review (written in 1964) of Lyndon B. Johnson’s book, My Hope for America. After a brief but incisive discussion of the content and prose style of Johnson’s book, Mailer seizes the opportunity to make certain observations on Johnson’s suitability for the Presidency. Simply stated, Mailer’s opinion at that time was that although Johnson was certainly better than Goldwater, beyond that he was less than might be desired, since his personal style and his vision of contemporary American problems were rather colorless and simplistic in comparison to those of his immediate predecessor. Feeling that Johnson might be unequal to meeting the challenge of the twentieth century and making America a truly great nation, Mailer makes a specific comparison of Presidential styles. He suggests that since John F. Kennedy’s death we may have:
. . . lost the clue that a democracy could become equable only if it became great, that the world would continue to exist only by an act of courage and a search for style. Democracy flowers with style; without it, there is a rot of wet weeds. Which is why we love the memory so of F.D.R. and J.F.K. For they offered high style to the poor. And that is worth more than a housing project.
With the passage of time, and the escalation of American participation in Vietnam, Mailer’s view of the Johnson administration shifted from disappointment to active opposition. By May, 1965, Mailer could say:
Silently, without a word, the photograph of you, Lyndon Johnson, will start appearing everywhere, upside down. Your head will speak out—even to the peasant in Asia—it will say that not all Americans are unaware of your monstrous vanity, overweening piety, and doubtful motive. It will tell them that we trust our President so little, and think so little of him, that we see his picture everywhere upside down.
• • •
And those little pictures will tell the world what we think of you and your war in Vietnam.
Mailer’s attitude towards Lyndon B. Johnson underwent, in 1968, another shift, one which is easily understood in terms of the importance Mailer assigns to a President’s ability to act dynamically and imaginatively. After President Johnson’s dramatic announcement in March, 1968, that he would not seek reelection and that he would immediately call a partial bombing halt, Mailer stated:
Johnson, if he does nothing else, reveals to us that he’s a man of incredible political imagination.
Even if his resignation from the Presidency was done for Machiavellian reasons, at least he’s a Machiavellian, which you couldn’t say before. And I work on the firm theory that a democracy depends upon having extraordinary people at the helm—even if they’re villains, because an extraordinary villain can sometimes create an extraordinary hero.
This theory, elaborated upon in The Armies of the Night, becomes part of a highly sophisticated and comprehensive examination of the state of American society under the Johnson administration in that book.
Neither The Presidential Papers nor Cannibals and Christians deals exclusively with political issues. Both include some poetry, most of it published earlier in Deaths for the Ladies. Both include, as does Advertisements for Myself, reprinted interviews with Mailer, in which he goes over many of the ideas developed in his books. Cannibals and Christians, like Advertisements, includes several short stories. The two areas of Mailer’s interest represented in these books which remain to be mentioned are literary criticism and sports writing.
The most interesting examples of Mailer’s views on contemporary literature appear in two essays: “Evaluations—Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room,” printed in Advertisements for Myself; and “Some Children of the Goddess,” in Cannibals and Christians. Mailer’s literary criticism is more intelligent and readable work than are most of the novels written by literary critics. Not only does he discuss his own fiction with perception and candor throughout Advertisements, he applies these qualities equally well to the work of his contemporaries. Mailer discusses the nature of criticism as much as he does the books he treats. In “Some Children of the Goddess,” he disarmingly admits his own subjectivity:
One cannot expect an objective performance therefore when one novelist criticizes the work of other novelists. But the reader is at least given the opportunity to compare the lies, a gratuity he cannot always get from a good critic writing about a novelist, for critics implant into their style the fiction of disinterested passion when indeed their vested interest, while less obvious, is often more rabid, since they have usually fixed their aim into the direction they would like the novel to travel, whereas the novelist by the nature of his endeavor is more ready to change. One need not defend the procedure used here any further than to say it is preferable to warn a reader of one’s prejudices than to believe the verdict of a review which is godly in its authority and psychologically unsigned.
Mailer is always putting forth his own idea of what a novelist should be as a man. In his discussions of contemporary novels, he deals always with the writer as much as with the book under consideration. He is sometimes admiring, often devastating, never charitable. Thus, he can say of James Jones in Advertisements:
The only one of my contemporaries who I felt had more talent than myself was James Jones. And he has also been the one writer of my time for whom I felt any love. . . . I felt then and can still say now that From Here to Eternity has been the best American novel since the war. . . .
But Mailer goes on to say that he feels Jones has dwindled in his writing because he has imprisoned his anger against society. Of Truman Capote, Mailer writes:
Truman Capote I do not know well, but I like him. He is tart as a grand aunt, but in his way he is a ballsy little guy, and he is the best writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm.
And here, too, Mailer feels that Capote’s major fault as a novelist is that he caters to society. In both of these cases, Mailer ends his remarks with the hope that Jones and Capote will fulfill the potential of their talent by combating the falsity of society.
Mailer draws upon the past to illuminate the problems of the present in literature, and he writes with surprising sophistication and perception of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Melville, James. But he writes of them with a very real personal understanding of their anguish, rejecting what he feels are the bloodlessly cerebral reactions of the academy:
There is a kind of critic who writes only about the dead. He sees the great writers of the past as simple men. They are born with a great talent, they exercise it, and they die. Such critics see the mastery in the work; they neglect the subtle failures of the most courageous intent, and the dramatic hours when the man took the leap to become a great writer. They do not understand that for every great writer, there are a hundred who could have been equally great but lacked the courage.
It is this concept of courage which motivates Mailer’s own writing and his evaluation of the writing of others. Thus, he can say of Philip Roth’s performance in Letting Go, “He was too careful not to get hurt on his trip and so he does not reveal himself: he does not dig.”
Mailer’s belief that a novelist must be a brave man, willing to bare himself to a hostile society, is clear in his own books and in his comments on the state of American letters. But the nature of the battle has shifted somewhat in the past decade, with the changing of some societal restrictions in publishing. A comparison of two statements, written almost ten years apart, reflects the change in Mailer’s view of what problems primarily beset the novelist in America. In Advertisements for Myself he lays much responsibility for the stifling of talent at the feet of society, represented by the publishing houses:
I will cease with the comment that the novelists will grow when the publishers improve. Five brave publishing houses (a miracle) would wear away a drop of nausea in the cancerous American conscience, and give to the thousand of us or more with real talent, the lone-wolf hope that we can begin to explore a little more of that murderous and cowardly world which will burst into madness if it does not dare a new art of the brave.
In Cannibals and Christians, Mailer is still aware of much that could be improved in the literary establishment and the society it represents. But he also suggests that much of the battle for artistic freedom, particularly in the realm of sexual description, has been won:
A war has been fought by some of us over the last fifteen years to open the sexual badlands to our writing, and that war is in the act of being won.
Mailer realizes here that the responsibility for an advance in American letters rests upon the novelist and not upon society. The writer is now limited more by what he is or is not brave enough to dare than by publishers’ restrictions. And the territory which must be dared, as Mailer sees it, is that of the writer’s own psyche. As early as Advertisements for Myself, Mailer was willing to brave ridicule in airing his personal fears and hopes. In An American Dream he dared the existential journey into his own psyche and maintained fictional control, structuring his own preoccupations within the credible character of Rojack. In The Armies of the Night, Mailer will go on to take an even greater risk, presenting his personality to the reader without the protective shield of fiction.
The last piece I will mention before concluding this discussion of Mailer’s three nonfiction collections is a long article in The Presidential Papers, entitled “Death.” It is a report on the first Patterson-Liston fight, but it is much more as well. Mailer gives an exciting and informed account of the fight, and he develops his subject logically and persuasively into a series of perceptive statements about the current temper of the American people. He sees this championship bout as symptomatic of the psychic problems of the people, particularly the Negroes. From this he proceeds to a discussion of boxing itself as an index of our national personality. And then, with no clumsiness in the transition, he moves to detailed discussions of violence, the Mob, voodoo, and various aspects of the human condition. Here is an example of the connections of which Mailer’s brain is capable:
But the deepest reason that Negroes in Chicago had for preferring Patterson was that they did not want to enter again the logic of Liston’s world. The Negro had lived in violence, had grown in violence. . . . The demand for courage may have been exorbitant. Now as the Negro was beginning to come into the white man’s world, he wanted the logic of the white man’s world: annuities, mental hygiene, sociological jargon. . . . He was sick of a whore’s logic and a pimp’s logic. . . . The Negro wanted Patterson, because Floyd was the proof a man could be successful and yet be secure. If Liston won, the old torment was open again. A man could be successful or he could be secure. He could not have both.
The most striking aspect of this fascinating article, simultaneously so cerebral and so concrete in its subject matter, is the constant presence of Mailer himself. From his arguments over the fight with friends and strangers in the Playboy Club, to his conversations with James Baldwin at ringside, to his climactic confrontation with Sonny Liston himself, Mailer the reporter is physically present as a character. He is brash, witty, foolish by turns, but always interesting. And it is this personal presence, developed to its peak of effectiveness, which will be seen to spark and support the narrative success of The Armies of the Night.
- Mailer 1959, p. 22.
- Mailer 1959, p. 17.
- Mailer 1959, p. 8.
- Mailer 1959, p. 92.
- Mailer 1959, p. 265. It should be clear that while Mailer admires much in Hemingway, this admiration is highly qualified. A more precise evaluation of Hemingway’s successes and failures as Mailer sees them appears on pp. 20—21 of AFM.
- Mailer 1959, pp. 331–332.
- Mailer 1959, p. 335.
- Mailer 1959, pp. 339–340.
- Mailer 1959, p. 340.
- Mailer 1959, p. 342.
- Mailer 1959, p. 234.
- Mailer 1959, p. 343.
- Mailer 1959, p. 347.
- Mailer 1959, pp. 349–350.
- This issue has been treated in my chapter on An American Dream.
- Mailer 1959, p. 351.
- Mailer 1959, p. 355.
- Mailer 1966, p. 384.
- Mailer 1966, p. 380.
- Mailer 1966, p. vii. The drastic difference between Mailer’s views of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations is even more clearly emphasized in a recent paperback made up of essays about the two reprinted from The Presidential Papers and Cannibals and Christians: The Idol and the Octopus (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968).
- Mailer 1966, p. 52.
- This passage is the conclusion of “A Speech at Berkeley on Vietnam Day,” published in Mailer (1966, p. 82). For a more complete view of Mailer’s position regarding American involvement in Vietnam in 1965, see Mailer (1966, pp. 67–90).
- In a panel discussion held by The Theater for Ideas, printed in The New York Times Magazine, May 26, 1968, p. 30.
- Originally published in Esquire in 1964.
- Mailer 1966, p. 109.
- Mailer 1959, p. 463.
- Mailer 1959, p. 465.
- Mailer 1966, p. 108.
- Mailer 1966, p. 122.
- Mailer 1959, p. 473.
- Mailer 1966, p. 130.
- Mailer 1963, p. 241.
- Mailer, Norman (1959). Advertisements for Myself. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons.
- — (1966). Cannibals and Christians. New York: The Dial Press.
- — (1963). The Presidential Papers. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons.