Monday, November 12, 2007

Norman Mailer

Obviously I do a lot more reading than these little efforts might suggest. Most of it just drifts before my eyes like so many candy wrappers and dead leaves washing along in the gutter. So the fact that Norman Mailer died Saturday may well have gone unnoticed, here. Great writers, real writers die all the time without comment from me. I hardly have an opinion about Mailer. A buffoon in the forecourt of the illgliterati. A big little dick regretting its circumcision because of the consequent lost millimeters of girth. That's not much of an opinion.

When a friend attacked his mistress with a knife, Mailer's response was, "God, I wish I had the courage to stab a woman like that. That was a real gutsy act.” Then, some years later, Mailer ... stabbed one of his wives with a penknife. He head-butted Truman Capote, for crimeny's sake. Would you catch the sarcasm if I called him a real macho man?

His calculated reflexive employment of terms like superficial and pontifications and self-advertisements in his titles fails to be either ironic or apologetic, self-aware or humble. In the light of his content material, they come off merely as cheap. We all enjoy the turning of a phrase, but we'd hope there is some purpose to it other than the sound of the words. Most of us are, after all, no longer sixteen.

In 1973 Mailer opined, "I think when a woman goes through an abortion, even legalized abortion, she goes through hell. There’s no use hoping otherwise. For what is she doing? Sometimes she has to be saying to herself, 'You’re killing the memory of a beautiful fuck.' I don’t think abortion is a great strain when the act was some miserable little screech, or some squeak oozed up through the trapdoor, a little rat which got in, a worm who slithered under the threshold. That sort of abortion costs a woman little more than discomfort. Unless there are medical consequences years later.

"But if a woman has a great fuck, and then has to abort, it embitters her."

Aside from the obtuseness of the words themselves, there is no indication that Mailer is not entirely serious. If he was being wry, it would have been a perpetual and immovable mask, making him a genius of existential dissimilitude ranking only with Lee Harvey Oswald -- who if anything other than a life-long moron, was an artist in the clay of himself rivalled by no one in the annals of brilliance save Norman Mailer. Perhaps they were the same man. Did anyone ever see them together? Mailer wrote about himself in the third person in his The Armies of the Night; maybe he did the same in his (auto-)biography of Oswald?

Mailer's views and obsessions about violence, sex and sodomy are hardly worth noticing. They were his themes. In the only novel of his that I ever attempted to read, An American Dream, assigned in the late seventies by a college English professor, we open with the strangulation of a wife, then proceed immediately to anal intercourse with a house maid -- by the same man if not upon the same woman. A work of art, no doubt.

I would hope that anyone who noticed my efforts here, and reported on them, would let my own words stand as my introduction and my conclusion. Allow me to let Mailer pronounce upon himself. One of his literary finds and causes was Jack Henry Abbott, co-prisoner with the unlamented Gary Gilmore, who wrote to Mailer from prison. Abbott was a diagnosed psychopath with a penchant for quoting Marx. Mailer helped in the publication of Abbott's letters, collected as In the Belly of the Beast, and was instrumental in bringing about his early parole into the employ of Mailer. “Culture,” Mailer said, “is worth a little risk.”

Six weeks after his parole Abbott stabbed Richard Adan, 22 years old, Cuban-American, part-time waiter with aspirations as an actor and playwright. In the heart. He died smiling. Adan had told Abbott that the restroom was for staff only. That would be really annoying. I can see Abbott's point -- motive, that is, not knife. Abbott took it on the lam for a while, and was finally apprehended working in a Louisiana oilfield. He was given 15 years to life for manslaughter. He hanged himself in prison in 2002. Interesting side note: Actress Susan Sarandon named her son, Jack Henry Robbins, after Abbott.

Roger Kimball records, "Mailer testified on Abbott’s behalf at the ensuing murder trial. Asked about Adan’s family at a press conference following his testimony, Mailer said: 'I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent.' [When] asked 'who he was willing to see sacrificed. Waiters? Cubans?' ... Mailer had no response but bluster: 'What are you all feeling so righteous about, may I ask?'" A reporter told Mailer he was "full of shit."

The mask slips. What is it that Mailer was examining for all those years, with all those words and paragraphs? Clearly not himself.

In "The White Negro" he says, "The only Hip morality ... is to do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible, and ... to be engaged in one primal battle: to open the limits of the possible for oneself, for oneself alone because that is one’s need. Yet in widening the arena of the possible, one widens it reciprocally for others as well, so that the nihilistic fulfillment of each man’s desire contains its antithesis of human cooperation."

Did you catch it? the contradiction? Not that sophomoric, almost unbearable "nihilistic" "antithesis" crap -- rather, the whenever it is possible? It is always possible to do the possible things that one feels. His qualifier is his unthinking admission of his phoniness. While urging for the savage spontaneity of the psychopath, his own inhibitions break out like nose-pimples and show him up as a poseur and liar. Pathetic.

Mailer supposes that the street thug "murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well ... violates private property ... enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly."

What can I say? God, what an idiot. The criminal knows his relationship with the police as well as the commuter knows his bus schedule. It is his role in society. Maybe the bus will be late. Maybe the criminal will be caught. Mailer was an idiot.

Everything he wrote was about words. There can be no greater insult to a writer. Certainly I cannot object to his narcissism and his stylistic effluvia. The pages of FP are filled with Rabelaisian excess. But I'm harmless. He was a macho hollow man obsessed with sodomy and impotence, who used women as a rage-pillow he could masturbate into -- toxic in his lifestyle and his social impact. If we feel any emotion about him, it will be contempt. If we must make a judgement, it is that he was a moral idiot.


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