Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mailer Redux

I’ve written in past posts that I would like to take the best parts of Norman Mailer's work and forget the rest. Certainly, Mailer himself made no such distinctions:

Most of my books over the years have had more bad reviews and good reviews. I’m the only major writer in America who has had more bad reviews than good reviews over the course of his writing life, so that gives me a certain pride, a feel that, you know, they keep taking their best shot and they can’t do a goddamn thing, they’re not gonna stop me. You get a little vain about it that way. But the bad thing about having a tough ego is you become less percipient. Ego is a shell, essentially, and so you start to close off experience from yourself. The ideal would be to have a light, flexible ego that’s there, that can concentrate into a given place to protect you when the going gets tough, but then it doesn’t cut off too much. At my worst, I often feel like a turtle. I just pull my head in and let it rattle off the shell. But of course, I’m not seeing a damn thing except my own darkness at that point. (Fresh Air interview, 1991)

The “rest” of what I don’t like about Mailer might be that rattling of the shell, or perhaps less flattering for its resilience, his vanity for fashion. I'm thinking, for example, of the cheap and personal shots in "Evaluations...,"  the hyperbolic launch sequence in Of A Fire on the Moon, and any of the ridiculous press conferences in which he broadly antagonized feminists. The worst of Mailer contains a style that defers first to reaction; however sharp the accusations, or reflexive the barbs, they justify himself rather than his arguments. But that worst is never free of self-consciousness. Mailer's going-by-wits always, eventually turns himself under the lens as mercilessly as his opponents (real and imagined), which leads to some of the best and most heartfelt literary apologies of the 20th century. Many can apologize so well as they err.

Rarely was the ego so unremarkably kempt between periods of brilliance as Mailer’s. When the confidence flagged, he simply went at all comers. Gore Vidal famously called it Mailer’s “metamorphosis,” and knew the best way to defeat its seriousness and indignation was to dismiss him:

I’ve been re-reading Advertisements, and between the public corrections, the literary overreaches, and the essential, self-pitying vanity, something resists that great myth of public modesty so close to my Midwestern heart. I think this is how I easily miss the best part of Mailer, what Hitchens called that willingness to risk embarrassment which made him forgivable to ex-wives and rivals, and allowed him to sit down to write or give an interview only to revise great portions of perspectives he held even a few weeks prior. Mailer was always correcting, and I think the essence of that mutability is Mailer’s willing partisanship. When politics failed him, or when he failed himself, he tacked in new directions. In this way, his subject, across so many projects, never changed. Mailer risked himself to write, look, and feel courageous—and we should all be so stubborn and ugly in our vulnerability—but cowardice was his project, the physical body’s reluctance to courage.

Mailer and critics alike never quite knew what to do with his incessant going after Hemingway—Bloom applied his anxiety of influence, Mailer suggested Hemingway hadn’t tried hard enough to change the world—by which he envied the prose and public style, while faulting the self-consciousness, or what Mailer describes less charitably as “cowardice,” that stunted his later work (From Advertisements, writing about The Old Man and The Sea: “A work of affirmation must contain its moments of despair—specifically, there must be a bad moment when the old man Santiago is tempted to cut the line and let the big fish go. Hemingway avoided the problem by never letting the old man be seriously tempted.”). I like what Clive James says about Fitzgerald’s advantage over Hemingway, that Fitzgerald could write weakness without losing his confidence: 

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway could imagine himself as an emasculated man, but he could never imagine himself as a weak one, and the idea of a strong man weakened by an emotional dependency was not within his imaginative compass. It might well have been within his life, but that would have been the very reason, for him, it was not something he cared to imagine.

Like Hemingway, Mailer is reflexively first himself, even the inventions and semi-inventions of Armies of the Night, The Fight, Executioner’s Song, etc. But like Fitzgerald, and unlike Hemingway, Mailer could suffer the lost confidence. Most often, he did so by putting down the pen, putting on a sportcoat, and wandering in front of the television monitors. He knew how to find himself there, and he was his public self until the private self got to writing again.

 Also like Fitzgerald, Mailer played himself carelessly, alternately parodying his best and worst incarnations of the politician, journalist, writer, and finally, literary lion. Mailer’s very willingness to play that range meant he commanded an audience while never quite sounding like himself (as opposed to, say, Bob Roberts-era Gore Vidal, whose best lines, whatever he said, were master classes in tone and rhetoric). He didn’t become mannered. His advertisements were for a self, and the self stood alone and in opposition. I hear in Mailer’s critique of his time a confidence against the tribe, that what is most oppressive to the creative mind is first a fidelity to those factions who mean to embarrass the heretic.

Of course, at the end of his life, Mailer tucked such turns neatly away. He argued that there were no ideas worth dying for, and like his later critiques of Hemingway, he turned his attention away from a world he no longer meant to change, to one he too easily critiqued in the margins. Consider how gamely and charmingly he meets early Oprah to talk about “winning at love” and his “notorious pass”:

Still, there were last fires. In his critique of Communism at the beginning of 1980, I hear something measured and ironic in how he repeats “Russians,” with a certain insistence to redress, in near-satire, the reflexive ideologies of faith, nationalism, and commerce he suggests they oppose:

It is my belief that the Russians—and I don’t like them at all—it is my belief that the Russians would never dare to take us over, because if they took us over, we would destroy them. Their mentality simply couldn’t sit on top of our mentality. It would be too volcanic for them. I think they would give us a wide berth. The safety of Communism, the health of Communism, is to have confrontation all of the time, is to be in a showdown with us. Their strength comes from the fact they have a huge enemy, us. And so they keep everyone in line over in Russia. If they didn’t have a huge enemy, what would they do? They would have to face their people and say, “Here are the dull products we make for you. Here are the oppressive measures we lay upon you. Here are the stupidities we try to put into your heads.” We save them by trying to be their opponent, their enemy.

Whether it followed his meaning or not, Mailer has no contempt for the listening crowd. He is talking past it. Later Mailer is used to being misunderstood, and comfortable with the caricature. He suspects, I think, the joke will eventually tell itself.

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