June 14, 2021
Norman Mailer Study Guide[a]
In writing on Norman Mailer the question is not what one can write about, but rather what five-page sliver to slice from the enormous body of work he has written. More than any American writer of the 20th century Mailer assaults the intellect, conscience and imagination of the reader. If you do not agree with him you have twenty volumes of art and ideology to disagree with — certainly a remarkable opportunity to get the sense of your own ideas and values. To generally place him we might describe him as a Romantic rebel and critic of the American dream, that is, one who, as a Romantic affirms the value of life (“finally not everyone is impotent, nor is our final fate, our human condition, necessarily doomed to impotence” and “You have to assume, just as a working stance, that life is probably good — if it isn't good, then our existence is such an absurdity that any action immediately becomes absurd — but if you assume that life is good, then you have to assume that those things which keep life from happening — which tend to make complex without becoming more useful, more stimulating — are bad,”) but as a critic cannot avoid or sidestep the dark truths about the American experience. It is better to know than not know, no matter how painful the knowledge is (“Acute disease is cure,” and “Every moment of one’s existence one is growing into more or dying a little bit. That the choice is not to live a little more or to not live a little more; it is to live a little more or die a little more”).
At the heart of Mailer's criticism of America is his belief that the whole thrust of our civilization bas been to eliminate the unpredictable, to homogenize, behead and smother individualism in the name of morality (“For all too many, security was the only bulwark against emptiness, eternity and death”). Anything which helps us express what is inside of us is to be valued. If we cannot open the pores of our unconscious we have no range of action and thought to evaluate (“The logic in searching for extreme situations, in searching for one's authenticity, is that one burns out the filament of old dull habit and turns the conscious mind back upon its natural subservience to the instinct . . . For consciousness, once it is alienated from instinct, begins to construct its intellectual formulations over a void”).
Questions and Topics to Consider
- Can the artist effect change in society or only reflect it?
- What effect does the participation of the critic in events have on his recreation of them and his credibility?
- What is the method and value of the novel as social criticism vis-a-vis the method and value of journalism?
- Is creative non-fiction (such as Mailer claims to write) a legitimate genre or a bastard form and what special merit does it have?
- Is the artist merely a barometer of social change or an effector of it?
- What, precisely, are the kinds of social change effected by the artist?
- Is Mailer a stunt man of the arts or a serious dedicated thinker and mover regarding society?
- Would the world be different without the social criticism of art?
- Getting the "feel" of events (the artist) and getting the facts of events (the reporter).
- How much does Mailer's ego get in the way of his interpretation and criticism of events?
- Why is Mailer the first author since Hemingway who has achieved both popular and critical successes?
- Subjective (intuitive, supernatural, transcendental, a priori, emotional, Karmic, Romantic, Platonic) approaches to experience, life, the national experience versus objective (rational, classical, deterministic, mechanistic, Aristotelian, a posteriori) approaches to same.
- Is America a schizophrenic nation? Will it develop into a "benign totalitarian" state? Are we moving into a period of organic decline?
- Has American actuality outrun expectation? Will America be a victim of her own Faustian enterprises? Has there been a failure of nerve? Mailer is fearful all the above are happening or have happened. Is he right?
- What is the value and necessity of metaphoric language?
- Is America existential or deterministic?
- Does Mailer stress the intuitive and irrational to the exclusion of the rational?
- Does a character like Marion Faye, in continually striving to be true to his unconscious, to exercise his free will, does he run the danger of locking himself in a barbarism, a cruelty from which there is no escape?
- Does a character like Eitel represent the struggle and failure of the individual against the demeaning structures of society?
- Does America "behead individuality, variety, dissent, extreme possibility, romantic faith" as Mailer claims?
- How justified is Mailer's belief J.F.K. was an existential politician?
- Is America schizophrenic, leading a double life, the two poles being "the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and dull" and "a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lovely and romantic desires . . . which is dream life of a nation"? (Richard Nixon and Marilyn Monroe)
- Who knows best what is best for Americans: her institutions or her writers?
- Is Mailer more in the tradition of a misanthropic satirist like Swift or a life-loving poet like Whitman? Or what?
Here are some thoughts and snippets of quotations which might serve as themes or thought-joggers:
- “the American habit of testing truth simultaneously by intuition and action.”
- All Mailer's work proceeds from his Manichean cosmogony; an a priori assertion
- Do Americans have the 18th century dislike of confessional writing? Why?
- “The true work of genius should proceed out of the wants and needs of the age as well as the writer.” —R. W. Emerson. Applicability to Mailer?
- “How can a man best spend his life? By converting as wide a range of experience as possible into conscious thought.” —A. Malraux. Could Mailer be an Emersonian who has not deviated from the actual world — a non-romance Romantic?
- The distinction between fiction and non-fiction is as difficult to determine as the one between poetry and prose.
- “The only indecency known to literature is the exhibition of the author's naked ego.”
- Mailer has no real predecessors and no important disciples; he stands out of the steamy historical process, an unmistakable individual, a man we have met.
- “To rebuke magnificently is one of the duties of a great polemical writer.”
- “In the last resort language is rather the symptom of expression rather than the substance.”
- “In fiction vice is always more fertile of incident and imagery than virtue.”
- Mailer's progress: naturalism to Marxism to anarchy to existentialism.
The Armies of the Night Notes: The Novel as History
Here Mailer almost catches up with himself:
he has come to decide that if you would see the horizon from a forest, you must build a tower. If the horizon will reveal most of what is significant, an hour of examination can yet do the job — it is the tower which takes months to build. . . . Of course, the tower is crooked, and the telescopes warped, but the instruments of all sciences — history so much as physics — are always constructed in small or large error; what supports the use of them now is our intimacy with the master builder of the tower, and the lens grinder of the telescopes (yes, even the machinest of the barrels) has given some advantage for correcting the error of the instruments and the imbalance of his tower.
Of great importance—Mailer is justifying the first half of the book. He is the lens and he is explaining the quality of the glass: "the personification of a vision which will enable one to comprehend other visions better". Any study of Mailer's non-fiction must have its root in his earlier work, the 5 novels and 3 books of earlier essays. For to understand the greatness of any fully developed organism, one must be aware of the tendencies of its earlier growth. While surprising elements there will always be (Mailer's deep involvement in the events of the Pentagon march), still much of the strength of the main bole of any tree can only be understood by a look at the original cutting, stuck in the soil. Mailer’s non-fiction, given his skills and philosophy was nearly inevitable, if still surprising. Hindsight provides the principal of growth. The tree metaphor breaks down insofar as the early growth of the tree is hidden by later additions of girth and limb but we have the early books, separate and apart available for dissection. So if the tree metaphor is to prove valuable it must avail itself of a special kind of tree, a many-boled tree, with new growth always possible.
Some basic premises:
That Mailer's works since AON represent a reaction against the finely crafted novel of the sensibility. Like Ulysses and Moby Dick, Mailer provides us with ballast to counterpoise the subtle explorations of the modern sensibility. Mailer is also reacting against the novelist as craftsman. It is false and destructive to separate the artist from the man. Mailer's artistic stance is like Emerson’s: he espouses unity. The novelist who sits at the desk is the same public lout or speaker or hot shit who roars in public. The whole self sits down to write and the whole self will be revealed in the writing, not just the trained, articulate self. There are for Mailer, as with Emerson, no neutral activities, no frivolous ones. Life and writing require total engagement. To report on the March on the Pentagon without informing us of the nature of the sensibility who describes it is a cop-out, half a job. James pointed out the value of point of view and showed how the stance of the professional author could be shrouded so as to highlight the figures described. Since Mailer is describing himself the shroud, of necessity, must be removed. Yet the lessons of James are still remembered, are still invaluable. What James does for Strether, the way he reveals the growth of consciousness, the mutations of reality principles, Mailer does for himself. Because he is intimately acquainted with himself, Mailer can best know what angle to point the mirror which reflects his past. James knew Strether because he created him — Mailer has even better credentials. For we can never check on Strether with James, yet we have ways to check on Mailer.
One question we might ask is what extras do we get in this form missing from autobiography? It is simply this: Mailer, by using the third person, has said to the reader, I am going to try and look at myself objectively; I will not be more humble in my evaluations of myself than I should, nor will I spare myself by hiding my follies, vanities, weaknesses, or lusts. I understand that attempting to see oneself clearly is difficult because of the built-in myopies of self justification — but these will be apparent. The spots you see on the character will be more revealing of him because they won't be just humble admissions; they will be glaring or trivial growths or malformations in the structure of the eye itself. I will not be able to chalk up humility points as easily with my readers since I have already told them I have committed myself to their expurgation. I will get out of myself, or look back in myself as I stood at a certain point in history. Undoubtedly, there will be self-justifications despite all attempts for pure objectivity, but they will be more obvious since by my stance I have vowed to eliminate them.
Mailer is more of a transcendentalist than an existentialist, a transcendentalist by methodology, however, for Mailer, like Melville believes in evil. He is existential only insofar as he believes in the extent man's will can create a different existence. He does not be-lieve man is alone, like Sartre or Camus. This is the crucial difference. Melville could neither believe nor disbelieve and was too honorable not to try to do one or the other. Mailer out of his doubt, has created a tentative metaphysics as a buttress against the void. Far from being illusionary or precarious, it has carried him through a dozen books. It cannot be disproved, but it satisfies belief without sidestepping the question of evil, Melville's transcendentalism was ruined by the problem of evil. Mailer dreamed of a God lesser than the traditional one who would not contradict the obvious inequities of the world.
Journalism: Mailer saw that journalists failed because they did not consult their own deepest feelings about the events they reported, or if they consulted them, they suppressed them, which was worse. So Mailer hurls the Jamesian artist into the maw of events, giving that artist who was growing more and more sheltered (consider Herzog) a taste of the hot lusts and greed of power politics, and forcing the fact-oriented journalist to enumerate the quivers of sensibility be had so long tied up.
- Borrowed and modified from handouts by J. Michael Lennon.
- Crofts, J. E. V. (1962). "Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century". In Gardner, Helen Louise. John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1921). This Side of Paradise. New York: C. Scribner's Sons.
- Frye, Northrop (1965). A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York: Columbia UP.
- Hough, Graham (1963). A Preface to The Faerie Queen. New York: Norton.
- Leland, John (2009). Hip: The History. New York: Harper Collins.
- Lewis, C. S. (1954). English Literature In The Sixteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Mailer, Norman (1959). Advertisements for Myself. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
- — (1964). The Presidential Papers. New York: Bantam.
- Matthiessen, F. O. (1941). American Renaissance. London: Oxford UP.
- Spiller, Robert Ernest (1960). The Literary History of the United States. New York: Macmillan.