The White Negro/2
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It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist — the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war, relatively quick death by the State as l’univers concentrationnaire, or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled (at what damage to the mind and the heart and the liver and the nerves no research foundation for cancer will discover in a hurry), if the fate of twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. In short, whether the life is criminal or not, the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory or planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat, where he must gamble with his energies through all those small or large crises of courage and unforeseen situations which beset his day, where he must be with it or doomed not to swing. The unstated essence of Hip, its psychopathic brilliance, quivers with the knowledge that new kinds of victories increase one’s power for new kinds of perception; and defeats, the wrong kind of defeats, attack the body and imprison one’s energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people’s habits, other people’s defeats, boredom, quiet desperation, and muted icy self-destroying rage. One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel) one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.
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. So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries. But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knife-like entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation — that post-war generation of adventurers who (some consciously, some by osmosis) had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War. Sharing a collective disbelief in the words of men who had too much money and controlled too many things, they knew almost as powerful a disbelief in the socially monolithic ideas of the single mate, the solid family and the respectable love life. If the intellectual antecedents of this generation can be traced to such separate influences as D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Wilhelm Reich, the viable philosophy of Hemingway fits most of their facts: in a bad world, as he was to say over and over again (while taking time out from his parvenu snobbery and dedicated gourmandise), in a bad world there is no love nor mercy nor charity nor justice unless a man can keep his courage, and this indeed fitted some of the facts. What fitted the need of the adventurer even more precisely was Hemingway’s categorical imperative that what made him feel good became therefore The Good.
So no wonder that in certain cities of America, in New York of course, and New Orleans, in Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles, in such American cities as Paris and Mexico, D.F., this particular part of a generation was attracted to what the Negro had to offer. In such places as Greenwich Village a ménage-à-trois was completed — the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger. In such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro had stayed alive and begun to grow by following the need of his body where he could. Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm. For jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, “I feel this, and now you do too.”
So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.
To be an existentialist, one must be able to feel oneself — one must know one’s desires, one’s rages, one’s anguish, one must be aware of the character of one’s frustration and know what would satisfy it. The over-civilized man can be an existentialist only if it is chic, and deserts it quickly for the next chic. To be a real existentialist (Sartre admittedly to the contrary) one must be religious, one must have one’s sense of the “purpose” — whatever the purpose may be — but a life which is directed by one’s faith in the necessity of action is a life committed to the notion that the substratum of existence is the search, the end meaningful but mysterious; it is impossible to live such a life unless one’s emotions provide their profound conviction. Only the French, alienated beyond alienation from their unconscious could welcome an existential philosophy without ever feeling it at all; indeed only a Frenchman by declaring that the unconscious did not exist could then proceed to explore the delicate involutions of consciousness, the microscopically sensuous and all but ineffable frissons of mental becoming, in order finally to create the theology of atheism and so submit that in a world of absurdities the existential absurdity is most coherent.
In the dialogue between the atheist and the mystic, the atheist is on the side of life, rational life, undialectical life — since he conceives of death as emptiness, he can, no matter how weary or despairing, wish for nothing but more life; his pride is that he does not transpose his weakness and spiritual fatigue into a romantic longing for death, for such appreciation of death is then all too capable of being elaborated by his imagination into a universe of meaningful structure and moral orchestration.
Yet this masculine argument can mean very little for the mystic. The mystic can accept the atheist’s description of his weakness, he can agree that his mysticism was a response to despair. And yet . . . and yet his argument is that he, the mystic, is the one finally who has chosen to live with death, and so death is his experience and not the atheist’s, and the atheist by eschewing the limitless dimensions of profound despair has rendered himself incapable to judge the experience. The real argument which the mystic must always advance is the very intensity of his private vision — his argument depends from the vision precisely because what was felt in the vision is so extraordinary that no rational argument, no hypotheses of “oceanic feelings” and certainly no skeptical reductions can explain away what has become for him the reality more real than the reality of closely reasoned logic. 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 of the present, exactly that incandescent 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 good or bad for them, good or bad for their cause, their love, their action, their need.
It is this knowledge which provides the curious community of feeling in the world of the hipster, a muted cool religious revival to be sure, but the element which is exciting, disturbing, nightmarish perhaps, is that incompatibles have come to bed, the inner life and the violent life, the orgy and the dream of love, the desire to murder and the desire to create, a dialectical conception of existence with a lust for power, a dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence for it sees every man and woman as moving individually through each moment of life forward into growth or backward into death.
- Here Mailer introduces his protagonist—the Hipster. Among critics of Mailer’s work, some have taken issue with his characterization of the Hipster arguing that the Hipster, as Mailer describes him, never existed, while others have concluded that Mailer’s Hipster is Mailer himself, or more specifically, a romanticized or idealized version of himself. Readers have also noted that this Hipster is exclusively male. That is not completely accurate. Mailer does later on suggest that female Hipsters exist, yet his consistent characterization of the Hipster as male resonates with the male-bonding which characterized the Beat Generation figures like Kerouac and Cassady who rejected middle-class domesticity and the Protestant work ethic and set out on the road in search of kicks and sexual conquests. All those early Beat characters were Hipsters, even if their conception of what it meant to be Hip were not always consistent with Mailer’s.
- Mailer alludes to David Rousset a concentration amp survivor and author of L'Univers concentrationnaire, translated as A World Apart, one of the first studies of the Nazi concentrations camps.
- Mailer’s hipster resists the “slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled” because he senses that such emotional repression causes “cancer,” or any number of other psychosomatic illnesses that threaten a healthy human being in the process of personal growth. Throughout his career, Mailer used cancer as a metaphor for the inevitable result of the contaminating influences of the modern world.
- The Hipster must abandon the relative safety of conformity; he must, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, “live dangerously,” to dare to live according to his own set of values.
- He has made the conscious decision “to divorce [himself] from society, to exist without roots”; i.e., he has committed to live as an outcast, without societal or familial ties, in order to “set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self,” to live a life devoted to personal growth and self-fulfillment; he is on a “journey” which is “uncharted” because it is existential in nature, a process of discovery, a journey with no known destination because the destination is not the point; the journey is all. Recall Kerouac in On the Road: “‘Where we going, man?’” “‘I don’t know, but we gotta go.’”
- Mailer’s use of the term “psychopath” is problematic. Basically, a psychopath is a person with a chronic mental disorder who exhibits abnormal, sometimes violent behavior. The psychopath is distinguished from the sociopath, a person with a personality disorder which manifests itself in anti-social behaviors and attitudes and a lack of conscience. Neither term is much used by mental health professionals today. Mailer’s Hipster seems more like a sociopath in the sense that his behavior is often anti-social, but the problem with applying either of these labels to the Hipster is the word “disorder” which pathologizes his rebellious behavior; quite the opposite, Mailer regards such behavior as healthy and necessary for growth. In any case, Mailer will later qualify the label “psychopath” and then reject it altogether.
- Mailer begins to use Hipster slang—Hipsterspeak, “with it” and “swing”; more on this below.
- Victories and defeats here result from either summoning the courage to seek out new experiences, to overcome inhibitions to action, to “live dangerously,” while defeats result from failing to rise to the occasion, the invitation to seize the moment, and suffering the inevitable pangs of “self-destroying rage.” As we shall see, Mailer sees personal growth through rebellious action as central to the Hipster’s ethos.
- Mailer here presents a simple alternative: “One is Hip or one is Square.” He clearly regards the Hip and the Square as binaries without considering that the Hip and the Square might exist on a continuum with degrees of Hipness and Squareness between the two extremes.
- In Mailer’s use, a totalitarian society is one in which there is only political party. Totalitarianism is roughly synonymous with dictatorship. Examples of totalitarian societies in Mailer’s era would have been China and the Soviet Union, the other global superpowers along with the United States, and the same is roughly true today, except that the Soviet Union is now Russia. However, during Mailer’s era many believed that both Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S. were controlled by the same corporate interests that funded their campaigns in exchange for legislation which furthered corporate interests, and both parties were socially conservative, so one could make the argument that the U.S. could be considered a totalitarian society, or at least, as Mailer puts it, a partially totalitarian one, if it is indeed possible to be partly totalitarian.
- Mailer seems to equate totalitarianism with the institution of slavery. To the extent that slave owners exercised absolute power over the ones they enslaved, you could say that the system of slavery was at least metaphorically totalitarian while the U.S. government itself was ostensibly, at least, democratic, though not as far as slaves who were denied the right to vote were concerned. Mailer sees the presence of Africans or, later, African-Americans, as the source of Hip because of the “disproportionate courage” they have displayed in living a marginalized existence under a system of oppression.
- An Austrian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who worked with Freud, Reich (1897-1957), and was the author of many clinical works, including The Function of the Orgasm (1942). He fled to the U.S. when the Nazis came to power. His eccentric and controversial theory of orgone energy, and the phone-booth size orgone accumulators he invented, got him into legal trouble and he was sent to federal prison where he died. Mailer was influenced by Reich’s ideas about sexual repression and character armor, and built his own orgone box.
- In the wake of the recent killings of African-Americans, Mailer’s statement seems ominously familiar. As it relates to the Hipster, Mailer’s remark suggests that African-America have truly accepted the terms of death. Facing an uncertain future and wishing to unburden themselves of the past, they live only for the present, just as the Hipster seeks to do.
- Many critics have found this characterization of the lives African-Americans racist, both condescending and patronizing, and by the standards of the 21st century it certainly is. We can situate Mailer’s observation here about the “art of the primitive” in an earlier era, the Harlem Renaissance, during which “Negrotarians” like Carl Van Vechten celebrated the “primitivism” of African-American culture, and we can trace the lineage of this “noble savage” to the Romantics.
- Mailer had read the psychologist Wilhelm Reich, whom he mentions above—a Freudian psychologist who coined the term “Sexual Revolution” and who believed that through orgasm individuals could release repressed reserves of psychic energy which could heal them psychically and give them access to untapped human potential.
- A synapse is a structure that permits a neuron (or nerve cell) to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron. The phrase “existential synapses” is, of course, a metaphor, as is “white Negro”.
- This is Mailer’s thesis, the meaning of his title. Mailer suggests that by relating to the oppression, the marginalization, the carnality, and the creativity of African-Americans, a select group of disaffected, disillusioned, and alienated white men had become “urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts,” a new way to frame the “facts” of their own existence.