February 17, 2023
By: Norman Mailer (1951)
How can one describe Pierrot? It is impossible to understand him; one may only tell stories about him. Yet with every move he makes, he creates another story, so one cannot keep up. Pierrot is an original; he is unlike anyone else on the face of the earth.
I can describe how he looks. He is now nineteen, and of average height. He has dark hair, regular features, and a very pleasant smile. There are times when he grows a moustache, and there are times when he shaves it off. During those periods when he sports a few hairs beneath his nose, he looks a year or two younger; when he strips it, he is nineteen again. I suspect he will look nineteen a decade from now; what is worse I often have the suspicion that he looked the same when he was born. Pierrot will never change. He is absolutely predictable in the most unforeseen situations.
He is the son of my friend Jacques Battigny, who is a professor of Romance languages at a university in New York, and never were a father and son more related and less alike. Jacques is a gentleman of considerable culture; as a representative French intellectual it is somewhat intolerable to him to pass through experience without comprehending it rationally. He demands order in every corner of his life. It is his cross that Pierrot is the eternal flux.
Father and son are thesis and antithesis. Put another way, Pierrot is Jacques turned inside out, the clothes-dummy of an intellectual. He has all the attributes of the French mind except its erudition; his greatest joy is to approach logically large bodies of experience about which he knows nothing. The first time I met him, Pierrot spoke to me for hours; he mentioned in passing, Marx, Freud, and Darwin; Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Sartre; Lawrence and Henry Miller; Nietzsche and Spengler; Vico and Edmund Wilson; Jean Genet and Simone de Beauvoir; Leon Trotsky and Max Schachtman; Wilhelm Reich, Gregory Zilboorg, and Karen Horney. There were two hundred other names of varied importance, and I do not believe he used a word which had less than four syllables. Therefore, it took some time for me to realize that Pierrot was an idiot.
5 In the hours between, he husked my brains. What did I think of Mr. Aldous Huxley? Pierrot would inquire, and long before I had reconstituted my recollections of Huxley’s work and delivered them in some organized form, Pierrot was wondering how I evaluated Mr. Thomas Stearns Eliot. It seemed to me that I had never met an adolescent who was more intelligent: the breadth of his queries, the energy of his curiosity, and the quick reception which shone in his brown eyes, were quite impressive. Chaplin and Griffiths, Jackson Pollack and Hans Hofman, did I like Berlioz and had I heard Benjamin Britten? Pierrot was tireless. Only when the afternoon had passed and my wife felt obliged to invite him for dinner, did I begin to suspect that Pierrot did not contribute as much as I.
A few minutes later in response to a discreet inquiry or two, Pierrot confessed to me with relish that he had never seen a single one of the pictures he mentioned, nor read one of the authors we spoke about. “You understand,” he said to me, “it is so depressing. I want to amass the totality of knowledge, and consequently I don’t know where to begin.” He sighed. “I look at the books on my father’s shelf. I say to myself, ‘Is it in these books that I will find the termination, or even the beginning, of my philosophical quest?’ You understand? What is the meaning to life? That is what obsesses me. And will these books give the answer? I look at them. They are paper, they are cardboard. Is it possible that the essence of truth can be communicated to paper and ink?” He paused and smiled. “Reality and illusion. I think about history, and I wonder, ‘Does Marxism take proper account of history?’ Someone was telling me to read Engel’s Marriage and the Family. Would you recommend it? I am very interested in the subject.”
He was absolutely tireless. As dinner progressed, as the dishes were washed, the brunt of conversation shifted from my tongue to Pierrot’s. He sat with my wife and me through the evening, he discussed his ambitions, his depressions, his victories, his defeats. What did I think of his parents, he wanted to know, and immediately proceeded to tell me. Pierrot’s mother had died, and his father had married again. Georgette was ten years younger than Jacques, and Pierrot found this disturbing. “You understand,” he said to me cheerfully, “I look for love. I search for it in the midst of my family, and I do not find it. Between Georgette and me there is an attraction, I ask myself whether it is maternal or physical? I should like to bring matters to a head, but I am a virgin, and I should detest it if I could not satisfy her. Is it true that one must serve the apprenticeship of love?” Long before I could have turned an answer, he bad forgotten his question. “And then I wonder in the privacy of my thoughts if what I really seek is the conquest of Georgette, or if I am looking for her only to be my mother. I should like her to hold me close. You understand, I am masochistic. I feel so many things.” He held his breast. “I am an infant and I am a lover. Which is my nature? Which do I desire to satisfy? You realize, I want to be close to my father, and yet I am repelled by him. It is like psycho-analysis. I think sometimes I wish to live ménage à trois, but then I decide I am destructive and desire to live in isolation. Is it man’s nature to live in isolation? I feel so lonely at times. I wish to communicate. Communication is a problem which interests me. Does it you?”
At one o’clock in the morning, after numerous hints had failed, I was obliged to tell Pierrot that he must go home. He looked at me sadly, he told me that he knew he bored me, he left with an air of such dejection that my wife and I were ashamed of ourselves, and felt we had turned a waif into the streets. The next time I saw his father, I apologized for this, and was cut short.
“Apologize for nothing,” Jacques shouted. “The boy is a monster. He has no conception whatsoever of time. If you had not put him out, he would have stayed for a week.” Jacques held his head, “I shall certainly go mad. There is nothing to do with him but to be completely rude. Listen to what has happened.”
10 The story Jacques told was indeed painful. Battigny the senior is a lover of books. He loves to read, he declaims on the art of reading, he loves bindings, he loves type, he loves books separately and together. It seems that Pierrot was once talking to a friend of Jacques’s, a somewhat distinguished professor. The professor, taken with the boy, loaned him a copy of Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s essays. It was not a first edition, but it was an old one, and of some value, beautifully tooled in leather, and handsomely printed. “Do you know how long ago that was?” Jacques demanded of me. “It was two years ago. Pierrot has kept it in his brief case for two years. Has he ever read a page?” The answer was that he had not. He had merely kept it, and in the course of keeping it, the cover-board had been sheared and the spine exposed. I screamed at him,” Jacques said softly, “it was indecent. I told him it was two years he had kept it, and he told me no, it was only a short period. He cannot comprehend the passage of time. He is always about to dip into the book, to study it here and smell it there. It is shameful.
“It is intolerable,” Jacques cried. “He torments have talked to his English teacher at high school. He asks her if he should study Beowulf, and he cannot even pass the examinations. I do not care if he does not go to college, I am not a snob about it, but the boy is incapable of doing anything with his hands. He cannot even learn a trade.”
I was to discover that Pierrot could not even learn to say yes or no. He was quite incapable of it, no matter o what brutal lengths I pursued him. Once in eating at my house, I asked him if he wished some bread and butter.
“I do not know,” Pierrot said, “I ask myself.”
“Perriot, do you want bread and butter?” I cried out.
15 “Why do you wish me to eat?” he asked dreamily, as if my motive were sinister. “One eats to live, which supposes that life is worth while. But I ask myself: is life worth while?”
“Pierrot! Do you want bread and butter? Answer yes or no!”
Pierrot smiled sheepishly. “Why do you ask me a yes-and-no question?”
One could say anything to him, and he enjoyed it immensely. He had been making advances to my wife for quite some time. No matter how she teased him, scolded him, or ignored him, he persisted. Yet once, when I took a walk with him, he launched into a long description of my virtues. I was handsome, I was attractive, he was stirred by me. And with that he pinched my bicep and said, “You are so strong.”
“My God, Pierrot,” I said in exasperation. “First you try to make love to my wife, and then you try to make love to me.”
20 “Yes,” he said morosely, “and I succeed with neither.”
His father finally drove him from the house. He gave Pierrot two hundred dollars, and told him he was to find a job in the city and learn to live by his own labor. Jacques was penitent. “I am so cruel to the boy. But what is there to do? I cannot bear the sight of him. Have you ever watched him work? If he picks up a hammer, he smashes his thumb. He lays down the hammer, he sucks his finger, he loses the hammer, he forgets why he needed it in the first place, he tries to remember, he ends by falling asleep.” Jacques groaned. “I dread to think of him out in the world. He is completely impractical. He will spend the two hundred dollars in a night on his bohemian friends.”
Only a father could have been so wrong. Pierrot had the blood of a French peasant. The two hundred dollars lasted for six months. He lived with one friend, he lived with another; he lunched with an acquaintance and stayed for dinner. He drank beer in the Village; he was always to be found at Louis’s, at Minetta’s, at the San Remo, but no one remembered when he had paid for a drink. He was pretty enough to be courted, and he had frequent adventures with homosexuals. They were always finding him in a bar, they would talk to him, he would talk to them. He would tell them his troubles, he would confide, he would admit warmly that he had never discovered anyone who understood him so well. He would end by going to the other’s apartment. There Pierrot would drink, he would continue to talk, he would talk even as the friend removed his shirt and apologized for the heat. It was only at the penultimate moment that Pierrot would leave. “You understand,” he would say, “I want to know you. But I am so confused. Do we have a basis to find a foundation of things in common?” And out he would skip through the door.
“Why do they always approach me?” he would ask in an innocent voice.
I would make the mistake of being severe. “Because you solicit, Pierrot.”
25 He would smile. “Ah, that is an interesting interpretation. I hope it is true. I would love to make my living in an antisocial manner. Society is so evil.”
He lived with a girl who was a fair mate for him. She had a tic at one corner of her mouth, and she was a follower of Buddha. The girl was trying to start a Buddhist colony in America. It was all mixed somehow with a theory about the birth trauma which she explained to me one night at a party. The reason armies functioned in combat was because the noise of battle returned the ordinary soldier to the primal state of birth. At such a moment his officers came to represent the protecting mother, and the soldier would obey their will even if it meant death. She was proud of the theory, and snapped at Pierrot when he would attempt to discuss it with her.
“A wonderful girl,” he told me once. “It is a most exciting affair. She is absolutely frigid.”
It seemed that if he dropped his shoes upon the floor, she would not allow him to approach her. “There is such uncertainty. It recaptures the uncertainty of life. I think about it. People meet. Lives intersect. It is points on plane. Would you say this is a fit topic for philosophical investigation?”
In the course of events the Buddhist threw him out. At any rate, metaphorically she threw him out. The affair ended, but since Pierrot had no place to live, he continued to stay with her while he looked for another friend to give him a bed. During this period he came to me to ask if I would put him up, but I refused. After making these requests, he would look so forlorn that I hated myself.
30 “I understand,” he said. “One of my friends who is analyzing me by hypnosis has made me see that I exploit everyone. It is the influence of the culture, I would think. I have become very interested in the movements of political bodies. I see that previously I adopted too personal an attitude. What is your opinion of my new political approach?”
“We’ll discuss it another time, Pierrot. I’m awfully sorry I can’t put you up for the night.”
“It is all right,” he said sweetly. I do not know where I shall sleep tonight, but it does not matter. I am an exploiter, and it is only proper that people should recognize this in me.” He left with a meek forgiving look. “I shall sleep. Do not worry about me,” he said as the door closed.
Five minutes later I was still trying to put the matter from my mind when the doorbell rang. Pierrot was back. All night he had had a problem he wanted to discuss with me, but in the interest of our conversation, it had completely slipped his mind.
“What is it?” I asked coldly, annoyed at having been taken in.
35 He answered me in French. “Tu sais, j’ai la chaude-pisse.”
He nodded. He had been to see a doctor, and it would be cleared up. There would be a wonder drug employed. “Not by one of your friends, I hope?”
No, this was a bona-fide doctor. But he had another problem. The ailment had been provoked by the Buddhist. Of this, he was certain. At the moment, however, he was engaged in an affair with a young married woman, and he was curious to know whether he should tell her.
“You certainly should.” I grasped him by the shoulder. “Pierrot, you have to tell her.”
40 His brown eyes clouded. You understand, it would be very difficult. It would destroy so much rapport between us. I would prefer to say nothing. Why should I speak? I am absolutely without morality,” he declared with passion.
“Morality be damned,” I said. “Do you realize that if you don’t tell the girl, you will have to see the doctor again and again? Do you know how expensive that is?”
He sighed. This is what he had been afraid of. Like the peasant brought slowly and stubbornly to face some new and detestable reality, he agreed dourly. “In that case, shall tell her. It is too bad.”
Lately, I have hardly seen Pierrot. His two hundred dollars has run out, and he is now obliged to work. He bas had eleven jobs in four months. I could not hope to describe them all. He has been let go, fired, dismissed, and has resigned. He was an office boy for two days, and on the second day, pausing to take a drink, he placed his letter basket on the lip of the water cooler. Somehow—he is convinced it is the fault of the cooler—the water ran over the papers. In attempting to wipe them, he dropped the basket, and the wet paper became dirty. Signatures ran, names became illegible, and to the fury of the officer manager, Pierrot did not attempt to excuse himself but asked instead why Americans were so compulsive about business correspondence.
He also worked in a factory. He was very depressed after the first day of work had ended, and called me up in such a mournful voice that I felt obliged to see him. He was tired, he was disgusted. “I hold a piece of metal in my hand,” he said to me, “and I touch it to an abrasive agent. Slowly square corners become round. Eight hours of such work I suffer. Can this be the meaning to existence?” His voice conveyed that he expected to continue the job until the end of time. “I search for my identity. It is lost. I am merely Agent 48.”
45 At this point I rose upon him in wrath. I told him that he had two choices. He could work in order to live, or he could die. If he wished to die, I would not attempt to discourage him. In fact, I would abet him. “If you come to me, Pierrot, and ask for a gun, I will attempt to find you a gun. Until then, stop complaining.” He listened to me with enormous smile. His eyes shone at the vigor of my language. “You are marvelous,” he said with admiration.
The very last I’ve heard is that Pierrot is soon to be drafted. Some of my friends are very upset about this. They say that the boy will be a mental case in a few weeks. Others insist that the army will be good for him. I am at odds with both of them.
I see Pierrot in the army. He will sleep late, curled in a little ball beneath his blankets. He will be certain to miss reveille. About eight o’clock in the morning he will stumble drowsily to the mess hall, his mess gear falling from his hand, and will look stupidly at the cook.
“Oh,” he will say, “oh, I am late for breakfast.”
“Get out of here,” the cook will say.
50 “Oh, I go.” Pierrot will nod. “I deserve to miss a meal. I have been negligent. Of course, I will be out all day on a march, and I will be very hungry, but it is my fault. And it does not matter. What is food?” He will be so unhappy that the cook no matter how he curses will scramble him some eggs. Pierrot will suggest toast, he will induce the cook to heat the coffee, he will engage him in a philosophical discussion. At eleven o’clock, Pierrot will leave to join his training platoon, and at two in the afternoon he will find them. Hours later, at retreat parade, the inspecting officer will discover that Pierrot has lost his rifle.
That will be the beginning of the end. Pierrot will be assigned to K.P. for three days in a row. By the first morning he will so have misplaced and mis-washed the pots that the cooks will be forced to assist him, and will work harder than they have ever worked. By evening the mess sergeant will be begging the first sergeant never to put Pierrot on K.P. again.
The army cannot recover from such a blow. K.P. is its foundation, and when cooks ask to remove men from that duty, it can take only a few days before every soldier in the army will follow the trail blazed by Pierre Battigny. I see see the army collapsing two months after Pierrot enters it.
At that moment I hope to influence the course of history. Together with such responsible individuals as I may find, I will raise a subscription to send Pierrot to the Soviet Union. Once he is there, the world is saved. He will be put in the army immediately, and before his first day is over, the Russians will have him up before a firing squad. Then Pierrot will rise to his true stature.
“I ask myself,” he will say to the Russian soldiers, “Am I not miserable? Is life not sad? Shoot me.”
55 At this point the Russians will throw down their arms and begin to weep. “We do not enjoy ourselves either,” they will sob. “Shoot us, too.” In the grand Russian manner, the news will spread across the steppes. Soldiers everywhere will cast away their weapons. America and Russia will be disarmed in a night, and peace will come over the earth.
They will build a statue to Pierrot at the corner of Eighth Street and MacDougal. New generations will pass and spit at him. “He was Square,” they will say.
- ↑ A story about a social misfit, “Pierrot” or “The Patron Saint of MacDougal Alley” is more satirical than Mailer’s other stories of this time. Pierrot is a disaffected drop-out, perhaps a satire of the rebels of the period, like the beatniks and Mailer’s own white negro, who Mailer parallels with the figure of Pierrot (see below). Instead of inspiring others to rebel against the evils of society, Pierrot just infuriates and frustrates those he encounters, like the narrator. While Mailer’s narrator sets us up for a tragic ending which characterizes his other stories of this time, he instead imagines the insufferable Pierrot, saint-like, bringing an unlikely peace to the world. In his advertisement for the story, Mailer writes, “it is about a Beatnik who arrived too early to know his name” (394).
- ↑ Mailer, Norman (1980) . "The Patron Saint of MacDougal Alley". The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer. New York: Howard Fertig. pp. 154–162. Written in 1951, this story was first published in World Review as “Pierrot” in 1953.
- ↑ Pierrot is a male character from French pantomime with a whitened face, white costume, and pointed hat. He is a melancholy figure who competes for the love of Columbine, but loves her to Harlequin, his rival. Pierrot has come to symbolize suffering, with only the moon for a friend or lover—a cold surrogate for the lost Columbine. Wikipedia adds: “Pierrot’s character developed from being a buffoon to an avatar of the disenfranchised. Many cultural movements found him amenable to their respective causes: Decadents turned him into a disillusioned foe of idealism; Symbolists saw him as a lonely fellow-sufferer; Modernists made him into a silent, alienated observer of the mysteries of the human condition. Much of that mythic quality still adheres to the ‘sad clown’ in the postmodern era.”
- ↑ Battigny is likely based on Mailer’s real-life friend and mentor Jean Malaquais, a Marxist intellectual who translated The Naked and the Dead into French. Mailer later remarked that Malaquais “had more influence upon my mind than anyone I ever knew from the time we had gotten well acquainted while he was translating Naked.”
- ↑ Minetta Tavern is in Greenwich Village on MacDougal Street.
- ↑ The San Remo Cafe was a bar at 93 MacDougal Street at the corner of Bleecker Street in the New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village. It was a hangout for Bohemians and writers
- ↑ “You know, I'm piss hot.” The suggestion here is that he has gonorrhea, an STD infection that can cause burning in the genitals.
- ↑ Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) deals with Mailer’s experience in the army during World War II. In addition, Mailer has several other stories with a similar setting, but it is most akin to three other stories he wrote in 1951: “The Paper House,” “The Dead Gook,” and “The Language of Men.” While each of these stories is unique, they generally share darker endings precipitated by the realities of war and the individual failings of the characters. “The Patron Saint of MacDougal Alley” shares the tone of these other stories, but has a lighter ending with characterizes his later short fiction.
- ↑ K.P. duty means “kitchen police” or “kitchen patrol” work under the kitchen staff assigned to junior U.S. enlisted military personnel. “K.P.” can be either the work or the personnel assigned to perform such work.
- ↑ MacDougal Street is a one-way street in the Greenwich Village and SoHo neighborhoods of Manhattan, New York City. MacDougal Alley is a private cul-de-sac owned jointly by the residents of Washington Square North to its south and West 8th Street to its north, for whom it was created in 1833 for their stables. According to Wikipedia, MacDougal Street has been called “the most colorful and magnetic venue for tourists on an evening outing in the Village.” It has been the subject of many songs, poems, and other forms of artistic expression, and has been frequented by numerous famous individuals.