From Project Mailer
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IN ONE Of HIS RECENT ESSAYS, Leslie Fiedler proposes that a new technology in a New World made both necessary and possible "the manufacture, the mass production, and the mass distribution of dreams.” Some of these were "dreams disguised as goods,” but of course they also reached their public dressed as art, poor and vulgar art, by and large; ”but what,” as Fiedler asks, ”can one expect of a population descended horn the culturally dispossessed of all nations of the world?"

An image to reflect in accelerating expectations, to judge by the' Ragged Dicks and Tattered Toms it favored during the first great age of mass literature in America. Alger’s stereotype of struggle-and-success, and others like it, resonated with the dreams his readers dreamed; and behind those dreams was a latch in worldly success as a measure of individual humanity that reached back past the puritans’ doctrine of the calling to the Faustian core of Protestant ethics itself. But by the time the crash of 1f29 imposed its reality on the nation, a tradition had emerged among serious novelists that set them in imaginative opposition to the stereotype of struggle-and-success. Those who published the decisive works of the twenties and thirties—Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Scott FitzGerald, John Stein- beck, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner—a1l of them took on in some significant measure the task of demythification.

They struggled and, in true American fashion, they succeeded. They succeeded so thoroughly that only the grossest hacks find rite old stereotype a challenging target anymore. But if the example of Jacqueline Susann or Harold Robbins arrests to rite success of the stereotype’s enemies, it also raises a question about its obvious persistence in the popular imagination. Has the dream of success become a reflex of the mass psyche, a subliminal myth that no longer needs to be established or nourished in the public imagination? Is it somehow infused soon after, birth, or even passed on genetically, along with stronger teeth anal longer limbs?

Such conjectures seem mild when compared to the hypothesis Norman Other broaches in his own bout with the stereotype, An American Dream. Here, a witty variant of the young man on the make is thwarted in an urban gothic melodrama that verges on vaudeville: stock characters and tacky extras abound, and the style is slaphappy with significance. Like all potboilers, it was intended to exceed the expectations of its readers, and judging by the critical response it stimulated, it was almost unanimously successful. "Mailer’s novel is bad,” wrote Stanley Edgar Hyman at the time it was published, ”in that absolute fashion that makes it unlikely that he could ever have written anything good.”' Other critics held back from this extremity, but even Mailer’s defenders were forced to the conclusion that An American Dream was a parody. For it is in many ways a shoddy and cynical performance, hacked out on schedule for serial publication, littered with barbarisms, and drastically over-motivated. It is easily dismissed on technical grounds: told in the first person, the novel relies on its hero’s rhetorical mysticism for both its narrative play and its thematic overplay. Since the ironies are at his expense, he must tell us more than he can plausibly know, which embarrasses the dream without its disguise. It also undercuts the authority of Mai1er’s hypothesis at its source. This is too bad because it’s one of his gaudier conceits that the stereotype of struggle-and-success is actually an archetype in disguise.

An upside-down archetype, one must immediately add, for the center of this novel is an inverted Oedipa1 compulsion. Just as. in Freud’s scheme, the murder of the father and incest with the mother initiated a new social order based on taboos surrounding those transgressions, so here, in An American Dream.•, Mailer’s formulation requires equally actual but reversed transgressions. Defined as she is in terms of Stephen Rojack's ambitions, his wealthy wife Deborah is the mother of his promise. When he kills her, he has the feeling he has pushed open “an enormous door." “I was as far into myself as I had ever been and universes wheeled in a dream. “ The act of murder changes the key of his consciousness and breaks him through into an archetypa1 region of the psyche. Jung describes the "instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche” as the component material of the archetype, and it is there that there novel moves, into ”the real, the invisible cooks of consciousness,” when Stephen strangles his wife.

This is the territory Mailer staked out for himself in his Advertisements, which ended with a "prologue to a long novel” that would dramatize the themes he’d been discussing—"murder, suicide, orgy, psychosis,” as he listed them. The novel has never appeared, but the promise was tentative in the first place ”I do not know in all simple bitterness if I can make it," he wrote and the prologue ends in the conditional. But the work he had in mind was to be a "tale of heroes and villains, murderers and suicides, orgy-masters, perverts, and passionate lovers.” lt was to be organized into a narrative so radically schizoid that in place of a hero it would stage a contest among three candidates for that role. And, if the prologue provides an accurate sample, it was to be written in a rhetoric extreme enough to engage its author’s insight that “we hover at the edge of an orgy of language, the nihilism of meaning fair upon us.” The novel's projected starting point was to be a party at the home of one of Mailer’s candidates, Marion Faye, the “master pimp" of The Deer Park. His guests are said to constitute “an artist’s assortment of those contradictory and varied categories of people who made up the obdurate materials of new sociological alloy.” His home is described as an old rambling mansion still "alive with every murderous sleep it had ever suffered;” a wind-beaten, dream-ridden place not far from where the first Puritans landed, ”a house which had the capacity to set free, one upon the other, the dank sore-rotted assassins in the dungeons of a family’s character." And his purposes are evidently murderous, for Marion Faye, we are told, "had come to the point in his life, as he had foreseen in terror many a time, when the 8ux of his development, the discovery of the new beauties of his self-expression, depended on murdering a man, a particular man.”

This, then, is what we can see of Mailer's program for ”discovering the psychic anatomy of our republic." Whatever it sounds like in summary, it must have seemed to Mailer a way out of the imaginative impasse which afflicted him during the composition of Barbary Shore. He wrote that book as a Marxist whose commitment was still developing but whose "conscious themes” were solidly' political. "But my unconscious was much more interested in other matters,” as Mailer once observed in an interview referring to the themes discussed in Advertisement. ”Since the gulf between these conscious and unconscious themes was vast and quite resistant to any quick literary coupling," he went on, “the tension to gel a bridge across resulted in the peculiar hothouse atmosphere of Barbary Shore.. . And of course this difficulty kept haunting me from then on in all the work I did afterward.

If this novel is what it appears to be, its hero is the image of his author, and not only as "a professor of existential psychology with the not inconsiderable thesis that magic, dread, and the perception of death were the roots of motivation." For Stephen Rojack has seen his great expectations dissipated and has reached the conclusion that he is a failure. The illusions he has lost were founded upon a moment of wartime heroism during which, possessed by some moonlight genius, he’d been able to overreach himself. This moment flourished into a term in the House of Representatives, during which he met Deborah, but his "secret frightened romance with the phases of the moon"’ drew him out of the public life and into a long professional tailspin. Rojack resembles Mailer’s first hero, Robert Hearn, who was also driven "to make the world in his own image and impose his will upon it” but was finally forced to the discovery that "he does not have the passion or the confidence or the ruthlessness it takes; his intelligence is too skeptical, his disenchantment ... too thorough.'" But he resembles more closely one of Marion Faye’s rivals for the office of hero in Mailer’s projected novel: Rojack is, in fact, the realization of Dr. Joyce, the psychoanalyst, described in the prologue as a man who had become so overextended beyond his humane means, and had so compromised his career, his profession, and his intimate honor that he was contemplating suicide." But Dr. Joyce’s thematic responsibilities have fattened over the years, for he has been fudged with Marion Faye in An American Dream with the result that Stephen Rojack can never ghost away into the lure of suicide completely, for he must also walk about in most murderous need "with a chest full of hatred and a brain jammed to burst.“ So the dualities Mailer meant to dramatize in two radically different characters must fight for dominance within the limits of one. Rojack says de finds this both exhausting and exhilarating, but he “cannot even bear to explain” how he came to resemble Shawn Sergius, the third of Mailer’s contenders for the title of hero.

Since Rojack is some distance from being ”the only creative person- ality ever to dominate television” projected in Mailer’s prologue, his talk show amounts to a harmless literary allusion. But by merging the motives of Marion Faye with those of Dr. Joyce, Mailer produces a thematic muddle, for the articulated distinction of his original design has been lost. Murder was the relationship with. death which expressed, in Marion Pune, the fundamental cannibalism to which success reduced its representatives, while the terms of Manure entailed suicide in a man like Dr. Joyce. Having combined the two impulses or one character, Mailer produces a caricature of the imaginative method by which he isolated them in the first place, a method astutely formulated by Richard Poirier: "Divide the material, argue the differences, reach a kind of stalemate and call it a ‘mystery.’ ”* What happens in An American Dream is that hip and square, atheist and mystic, murderer and suicide--all the terms of Mailer’s dialectic—stew together until the differences melt away, any- thing at all becomes admissible, and an archetype comes boiling into view. By following the course of Rojack’s crisis, it will be possible to see how all this happens.

He is a failure, then, incapable of realizing the potential of his marriage to an heiress, who despises him bitterly for his defeats. He wishes he could despise her for her wealth but knows chat he cannot completely, for it had, he remarks, “become the manifest of how unconsummated and unmasculine was the core of my force. It was like being married to a woman who would not relinquish her first lover.” That Deborah had not really relinquished her first lover she reveals just before her death. She tells Stephen she no longer loves him and remembers "the finest and most extraordinary man I ever knew. Delicious. Just a marvelous wild feast of things.” She has never told anyone about him, and she carries her secret with her when she dies; but Stephen later discovers that she was describing her father, who seduced her when she was fifteen. So Stephen has been a surrogate husband, at whom Deborah has clawed while she remained committed to her delicious father.

If Deborah is a man-caring bitch, she is also a kind of goddess. Her relationship with Stephen brings to mind the myth of Attis and Cybele, hut Deborah is not a representation of any particular Goddess in myth or legend. She possesses many of the particular qualities of female deities in Celtic and classical mythology; cataloging the many parallels and references would be redundant. It will be quicker to examine one in particular, Diana, the Roman Goddess, who is Luna in heaven, Diana on earth, and Hecate in hell.

It was Luna who presided over Stephen’s night of heroism during the war, endowing him with special powers of insight and observation and leaving him with minute and vivid memories. One of Stephen’s victims “whimpered 'Mutter,’ one yelp from the first memory of the womb, and down he went into his own blood.” The association of death, mother, and the power of the moon is thus engraved on Stephen’s consciousness, which is why, when suicide beckons to him, it is the silent voice of the moon he hears. When he visits Deborah for the last time after pulling back from the seductions of Luna, it seems to him not at all exceptional ... that Deborah had been in touch with the moon and now had the word.”

Of the other two representations of Diana, Hecate, the goddess of the streets and toads, is also the patroness of enchantments. Stephen’s example of Deborah’s power to lay a curse relates her to Hecate:

Once after a fight with her, I had been given traffic tickets three times in fifteen minutes, once for going down a one-way street, once for jumping a red light, and once because the policeman in the last car did not like my eye and decided I was drunk. That had all been in the form of a warning from Deborah, I was certain of that. I could see her waiting alone in bed, waving her long fingers languidly to spark the obedient diabolisms and traffic officers at her command.

It is into the street that Stephen casts Deborah's corpse, and she seems to linger there, where “there is ambush everywhere," to torment him after her death.

As for Diana, she is represented as tall, her hair dark ("She was a handsome woman, Deborah, she was big. With high heels she stood at least an inch over me. She had a huge mass of black hair.”) She is the goddess of the hunt and mistress of the woods. Stephen includes in his inventory of Deborah’s superiorities her skill at hunting—she considers the only suitable hunting companion for her would be”somebody who’s divine as a hunter"—and presents it in supernatural terms:

She did not see a forest like others. No, out of the cool and the damp, the scent of forest odor aromatic and soft with rot, Deborah drew a mood—she knew the spirit which created attention in the grove, she told me once she could sense that spirit watching her, and when it was replaced by something else, also watching her, well, there was an animal. And so there was.

So Deborah is a bitch and a goddess, and she's daddy's girl, and to all this Stephen is simply not equal. The opportunity she once held out to him has curdled into spite and scorn, and her witching powers represent, to a man who has steeped himself in death and dread, a most intimate threat. When she threatens him with divorce, which would leave his spirit in its torment without fulfilling his ambitions, he murders her. The killing itself is half-tantrum and half-orgasm and when it‘s done Stephen, exhilarated, equips himself for the struggle with the police and the media that will follow the death of an heiress by "giving the maid a bang."

The maid has her spirits, too. She communicates to him sexually some of her qualities: "a host of the Devil’s best gifts were coming to me, mendacity, guile, a fine-edged cupidity for the stroke which steals, the wit to trick authority.” Afterward he is capable of viewing Deborah’s corpse and feeling a mean rage more spiteful and controlled than the madness that had seized him before.

She had spit on the future, my Deborah, she had spoiled my chance ... I had an impulse to go up to her and kick her ribs, grind my heel on her nose, drive the point of my shoe into her temple and kill her again, mill her good this time, kill her right. I stood there shuddering from the power of this desire, and comprehended that this was the first of the gifts I'd plucked from the alley, oh Jesus, and I sat down in a chair as if to master the new desires Ruta had sent my way.

This mood and these desires stir in Stephen the energy and cunning he will need to get around the perils of the urban jungle into which he cases Deborah‘s body. And the city itself turns up a prize to lead him on and give him good heart. For it is on the street, in the grotesque traffic pileup that attends upon Deborah in the East River Drive, that Stephen encounters the nightclub singer, Cherry. With the swift logic of a dream, they fall in love and agree to marry literally overnight, end Stephen feels a new life beginning within him, “sweet and perilous and so hard to fol1ow.” Redemption seems to beckon them both. Stephen will become a husband and a father and do the work he has not yet attempted, turning Freud upside down in a twenty-volume work of existential psychology; Cherry will choose lady over tramp and be a wife and mother. The presence within them promises that and speaks to Stephen of “the meaning of love for those who had betrayed it” ; he understands the meaning and says, “I think we have to be good,’ by which I meant that we would have to be brave."

How brave he will need to be becomes clear to him after he is freed from the police by some unnamed intercession that can only have been the power of his father-in-law, Bernard Oswald Kelly. However well Ruta’s gifts may have equipped him for dealing with the ponce and the press, they are, he senses, unlikely to serve him very well against Kelly, from whom he must now free himself. And Cherry is not free either, it seems, for her former lover, the Negro singer Shago Martin, returns to devil her and Stephen. Given these complications, Stephen’s resolution to be brave diffuses. As he approaches Kelly’s, he feels three impulses: to return to Cherry and protect her from Shago, to go to Harlem and "pay for it” by enduring "some evil incident," and to confront and settle with Kelly. He understands that his choice in this must involve the exercise of the greatest possible courage if he is to make good on his vow to be brave. This allows him to reject his first impulse as being compromised by a desire to be with Cherry out of anxiety: "Some air of hurricane lay over my head.... She was my sanity, simple as that —and then I remembered the vow I had made in her bed.” But he doesn’t know which of the remaining impulses he fears more, Harlem or Kelly, and so lie doesn’t decide, and lets the taxi drift past Harlem. On the elevator to Kelly’s suite, though, he seems to conclude that he was in truth more frightened of Harlem. A voice inside him urges him there, and he pleads with it that he be left alone to love Cherry "some way not altogether deranged and doomed.... Let me love her and be sensible as well.” He dismisses the voice "and something departed from me, some etched image of Cherry’s face turned to mist.”

It is in this frame of mind that he begins his ordeal with Kelly. Ste- phen’s progress to this point has hem an impossibly tortuous sequence of struggles and victories. He has broken Deborah’s hold on him and kept the police, her minions, at bay. He has suffered his losses—his future on te1evision, his position at university —without panic or despair and overcome Shago to win Cherry, however provisionally, for himself. His moments with her have given him hope, however qualified, just as his time with Ruta brought him the powers he needed at the early stages of his trial. But in Bernard Oswald Kelly he faces his most formidable adversary, and it is here that the inverted Oedipal compulsion surfaces fully.

For Bernard Oswald Kelly is the father figure in Stephen's dream, the mate of the dominating mother, Deborah. And what Kelly proposes, or seems to Stephen to propose, is the completion of the taboo: incest, the pact of guilt between the murder and the mate of the victim. This is the “real thing” that Kelly speaks of at the beginning of his conversation with Stephen; this is what he has in mind when he talks of becoming friends. "I have confidence," He tells Stephen. "We’re closer than you expect.”

And they are close. Both are Manichaeans, believing in a God of pure spirit and a demiurge that reigns over matter. Both are upstarts, Kelly successful in using his wife's wealth and power, Stephen a failure, and both have had dealings with women who possess and cause them to possess magical powers. The dynamics of their meeting suggests the relationship between the heroes of the naturalistic novel and those of the novel of "moral earnestness” as Mailer describes it in Cannibals and Christians.

Where the original heroes of naturalism had been bold, self-centered, close to tragic, and up to their nostrils in their exertions to advance their own life and force the webs of society, so the hero of moral earnestness, the hero Herzog and the hero Levin in Mahmud’s A New Life, are men who repre- sent the contrary—passive, timid, other-directed, pathetic, up to the nostrils in anguish: the world is stronger than they are; suicide calls.

Behind this confrontation is the debt of guilt for Deborah’s death, and the actual subject of discussion is the portioning out of that guilt. The discussion occurs between the father and the son who has had visited upon him the elder’s sins, a point Kelly brings up himself. He makes it clear to Stephen that he has a share in the guilt for Deborah’s death because he has had a part in making it happen. "I’m just as guilty, after all,” he say's. "I was a brute to her. She visited that brutishness back on you.”

And so the meeting between the two men is an effort on Kelly’s part to seal a pact of guilt, to "bury the ghost of Deborah by gorging on her corpse.” And one of the components of the pact is the homosexual act pro- posed to Hearn by General Cummins in The Naked and the Dead. Like Hearn before him, Stephen will be unable to consent, to follow the logic of one part of his actions through. There is, though, an exchange between the two men: "Desire came off Delly to jump the murderer of his beast, and unfamiliar desire stirred in me. echo of that desire to ear with Ruts on Deborah’s corpse.” This combination of outrages—incest and cannibalism—represents an inversion of what in Freud’s analysis was the "memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions, and religion”—the ritual meal shared by the killers of the patriarch.’ Kelly’s proposition offers Stephen the opportunity to achieve in fact what lie wishes to accomplish in his great work: turning Freud on his head.

Part of the reason he cannot take this chance is that Stephen can say, with Fitzgerald, that "the very rich are different from you and me.” ln a note to the relevant chapter of Totem and Taboo Freud notes that murder and incest, offenses against the sacred laws of blood relationship, are the only ones recognized as crimes by the primitive community. In pulling Stephen within the webs of the summit, Kelly frees him from the Page of the community as it is expressed in the police stations and the tabloids. Back of all this is the Marxist orientation that ”quantity changes quality," an aphorism broadcast during one of Stephen’s television shows. Kelly theologizes along the same lines:

God and the devil are very attentive to people at the summit. 1 don’t know if they stir much in the average man's daily stew . . . but do you expect God or the devil left Lenin or Hitler or Churchill alone? No. They bid for favors and exact revenge... . There's nothing but magic at the top. It’s the little secret that a few of us keep to ourselves, but that, my friend, is one reason why it’s not so easy to get to the very top. Because you have to be ready to deal with the One or the Other, and Shae’s too much for the average good man on his way. Sooner or later, he decides to be mediocre, and put up with the middle.

Stephen is here being initiated into the secrets of the summit, but the signs are he’d prefer to put up with the middle. His inability to “pitch and tear and squat and lick, swill and grovel” with his father-in-law is connected with his inability to take the plunge at the moon’s bidding. He is unfit for the evil heroism that has been thrust upon him as a final result of his wartime moment and its attendant glimpse beyond the pale. Confronted with the expiatory completion of the taboo circle proposed by Kelly, Stephen falters and realizes he is caught in a position he cannot redeem. "I wanted to escape from that intelligence which let me know of murders in one direction and conceive of visits to Cherry in another, I wanted to be free of magic, the tongue of the Devil, the dread of the Lord, I wanted to be some sort of rational man again, nailed tight to details, reasonable, blind to the reach of the seas.”

It is this "rational man" in Stephen that has allied itself with the “1ady" in Cherry after having contracted with Ruta, the devil's thrall. After his moment with Cherry the divided nature of his commitments dawns fully upon him: "Like a petty criminal I had sold my jewels last night to the Devil, and promised them again this morning to some child's whisper. I had a literal sense of seed out on separate voyages, into the sea of Cherry's womb, into the rich extinctions of Ruta's kitchen ."

Feeling this way, Stephen cannot complete the job he has begun by murdering Deborah . He is literally of two minds, and three times in the novel we see him teeter-tottering at the edge of the abyss, drawn, in different ways each time, to perfect a relationship with suicide. Each time he draws back. Realizing the possibilities of death, he is nonetheless drawn to life. In another of Mailer's formulations, he is hip and square at once, simultaneously an atheist and a mystic.

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.

These observations from "The White Negro" supply precisely the terms of Stephen's self-division. In his wartime experience, he discovered that death is as full of possibility, is perhaps even more dangerous, and consequently more full of possibility, than life, and this discovery leads him away from the will for life, the atheist's ability to think "that death was zero, death was everybody's emptiness." This sense of things is developed further on Kelly's balcony, to the point that Stephen can feel “some part of the heavens, some long cool vault at the entrance, a sense of vast calm altogether aware of me. 'God exists,' I thought." But just as the call to seal the pact is too much for another part of him, so too something in him, some atheist, holds him back at the brink of suicide. He buckles and rebels, so that at the end of hi~ encounter with the moor on Kelly's parapet he retreats, pleading with the mystic inside that he had "lain with madness long enough." He rushes to his atheist's salvation, Cherry, only to see her die, the fulfillment of a warning from his mystic's voice on the way to Kelly's summit.

So Stephen Rojack loses the square's life by refusing the hipster's gambit, misses the sweet of fulfilled monogamy by failing to lay its corrupted Freudian ghost. It's a measure of the novel's insufficiency that the terms of its hero's defeat arise out of a subplot so clearly cooked up, so carelessly improvised, as the romance between Stephen and Cherry; but other measures have been taken, and still, others will no doubt follow. For An American Dream is the closest Mailer has come to fulfilling the great imaginative project he advertised so vividly fifteen years age. Something happened to the art of the novel in postwar America, as Joseph Heller, Mailer 's exact contemporary, might be construed as saying in the title of his second book. But so can all the rest of the returned war veterans be construed as saying, one way and another; only: Mailer among them has expressed and embodied his imaginative plight so vividly in a single work. Given the failure of postwar realism, this is probably as good a way as any to "create an image of our time which will und undoubtedly stand as authoritative for this generation."' But it also parodies the thematic conceptions which Mailer hoped would support a novel intended to carry on the work of Dostoevski and Tolstoy , Stendhal and Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, and Hemingway. And this raises the possibility that Mailer may end his career as novelist the way so many American writers before him have done, "by travestying his own style and themes," in Fiedler's words, "by mocking himself."

This page is part of
An American Dream Expanded.


1. Leslie Fiedler, "The Dream of the New," in David .Madden, ed., American Dreams. American Nightmares (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Uni- versity Press, 1970) , p. 21. 2. Stanley Edgar Hi-roan, "Norm an Mailer's Yummy Rump ," in Leo Brandy . ed., Norman Mailer: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice:-Hall, 1972) , p. 104. 3. Steven Marcus, "An interview with Norman Mailer," in Braudy, Norma1J Mailer, p. 29. 4. Ibid. 5. Fiedler, in Braudy, Norman Mailer, p. 27. 6. lhab Hassan, Radical Innocence (New York: Harperr & Row. 1996) . p. 147. 7. Richard Poirier, "The Ups and Downs of Norman Mailer," in Braudy, Norman, Mailer, p. 17 3. 8. Sigmund Freud. Totem and Taboo , in A. A. Brill. ed., The Basic writing of Sigmund Freud (New York: Modem Library. 1938), p. 916 9. John \Y/. Aldridge, "The Energy of New Success," in Braudy. Norman Mailer, p. 119.