September 13, 2021
Bullfighting in the Village: The Late Short Fiction of Norman Mailer[a]
|“||I was working my way toward saying something unforgivable . . . my vision . . . was leading toward the violent and the orgiastic. I do not mean that I was clear about where I was going, it was rather that I had a dumb dull set of intimations that the things I was drawn to write about were taboo.||”|
Norman Mailer ended his short story-writing career by blowing up the world. “The Last Night: A Story” was published in the December 1963 edition of Esquire and provided an apocalyptic transition between a struggling artist of the 1950s and the more mature and seasoned “author who takes himself seriously.” The Mailer signing off in the pages of Esquire had discovered a new voice in Advertisements for Myself after a difficult decade had him questioning his own competence as a novelist.
. . .
The apocalyptic orgasm ending “The Last Night” propels his White Negro protagonist to inseminate the universe beyond simultaneously blowing up the world—an apt metaphor for his last short story, as his later short fiction from 1951–1962 builds up to this final release.
. . .
The pinnacle, or perhaps nadir from an H perspective, of sociostatis begins “The White Negro”: state-sanctioned violence of the concentration camps and the atom bomb that wreak a “psychic havoc” and could render both death and life meaningless. Out of this intolerable oppression, Mailer posits his rebel genius: the philosophical psychopath, the American existentialist, the Hipster, takes his cue from the African American who “has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries” and has the courage to speak with his own voice against “a slow death by conformity.” To combat the social malaise, the Hipster discovered that the
|“||only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.||”|
The Hipster eschews the contemporary world of pop-culture analysis and neo-liberal conformity and seeks the “art of the primitive . . . in the enormous present” by “relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body”: “the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm.” The Hipster’s world is the jungle of contemporary life, and he embraces subversiveness and violence to enable him “to remain in life only by engaging death” all while seeking “an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.” This “apocalyptic orgasm” is the Hipster’s gold, his fountain of youth, and “the oldest dream of power.” Yet it is elusive, since he must act in the drama of the civilized world of progress and setbacks “so that even as he drains his hatred in one act or another, so the conditions of his life create it anew in him.” The struggle is chronic, and little victories also produce defeats.
The apocalyptic organism becomes a slippery but key metaphor in Mailer’s thought at this time. It seems to echo another contemporaneous thinker’s own reaction to the the Western society of the mid-1950s: Jacques Lacan first theorized jouissance in 1953 to simply mean the enjoyment derived from the satisfaction of a bodily need, and later, after 1958, it became increasingly more nuanced, complex, and more closely associated with orgasm and taboo.[b] After 1958, Lacan distinguishes desire (a limited pleasure that could be associated with sociostatis) from jouissance which comes to be associated with transgressing the limits imposed on pleasure into the excessive—the revolting, traumatic, and/or painful. It is an extreme form of pleasure: “ecstatic or orgasmic bliss that transcends or even shatters one’s everyday experience of the world.” This is not an isolated pleasure, but one that requires opening up one’s ecstasy to another and potentially losing control of oneself—similar here to what Freud terms lust or libido, and Mailer’s portmanteau lerve, or “life-energy.” For Mailer, lerve is “the determining thing in keeping people alive and functioning despite the heavy psychic armor they carry,” making it of utmost importance in the struggle between sociostatis and homeodynamism. Like jouissance, lerve is driven by external, ecstatic encounters with others that push into the taboo, the verboten, and ultimately allow the subject to grow in a positive way. Mailer’s short fiction of this time acts as a fictional search for the White Negro’s apocalyptic orgasm that can defeat, if only temporarily, the sociostatic forces that seek to limit it.[c]
By living dangerously and confronting existential situations, Mailer’s protagonists attempt to define their identities. In Cannibals and Christians, Mailer writes: “Masculinity is not something given to you, something you’re born with, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honour.” These small battles are the crucial moments in life that define the experience of Mailer’s characters and could be likened to the search for the apocalyptic orgasm, or at least to the protagonists’ struggles to transcend their oppression. They are risky and dangerous, push beyond safe boundaries often through sexual and/or violent encounters, and are necessary for continued growth. In Norman Mailer: A Double Life, J. Michael Lennon cites Nietzsche’s work as an influence on Mailer’s ideas, particularly a section called “Live Dangerously” in Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre: “For, believe me, the secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors, as long as you cannot be rulers and owners, you lovers of knowledge!” So, Mailer’s “honor,” here, could be read as a courage to accept the challenge, to look danger in the face, and try to be ready for whatever comes next. It’s a part of Mailer’s concept of American existentialism where the outcome is both serious and uncertain that the Hipster lives by in his “uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.” Later in his essay “Some Dirt in the Talk,” Mailer writes “you are in an existential situation when something important and/or unfamiliar is taking place, and you do not know how it is going to turn out.” Living dangerously, then, defines the protagonist on his own terms—not as other external, sociostatic forces might compel him too be. The existential situation pits the protagonist against external forces, and the outcome of these small battles shapes the protagonist’s identity in subtle and profound ways.
. . .
After abandoning Lipton’s and publishing The Deer Park, Mailer finishes his short-fiction writing career with four more stories: “The Time of Her Time” (1958), “The Killer: A Story” (1960), “Truth and Being: Nothing and Time” (1960), and “The Last Night: A Story” (1962). Written after “The White Negro,” these stories pave the way for the Mailer’s ultimate Hipster protagonist Stephen Rojack in An American Dream and also illustrate Mailer’s more successful protagonists: ones who succeed in promoting their individual identity by transgressing the limits of pleasure and social constraints even if the effects are only temporary or ultimately curtailed by sociostatic forces.
Many of the texts from this time period are not short fiction in the traditional sense, while others pushed the limits of the genre, seeming to act as transitions from one state to another.[d] They, like their author, longed to be something grander, more provocative, weighty and significant. His somewhat tongue-in-cheek introduction to his 1967 collection The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer, he begins by stating that he agrees with his critics, both real and imagined, that his short fiction is nothing “splendid, unforgettable, nor distinguished,” and ends by claiming that “The Time of Her Time” and “The Man Who Studied Yoga” are “superior to most good fiction.” He is the Salesman hawking the virtues of his wares with an understated and false modesty. He is a “journeyman” who considers the short story easy to write and who “is seduced more by method than by gold or gem.” For him, “the hearty protagonist” and short story prospector, his concern is experimentation: “short stories are imperfect artifacts—various drillings, diggings, tests, and explosions on the way to finding a certain giant mine, well-advertised over the years by the prospector.”
While he might claim to be a short-story dilettante, Mailer cautions the careful reader not to dismiss his 1967 collection The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer too quickly, as there are treasures to be gleaned with careful excavation. The collection, when considered together, truly does appear as a sounding board for Mailer’s desire to push the limits of short fiction not only in form but in content. Mailer’s short fiction, particularly his later stories, are emblematic of his desire as a writer to see just how far he could stretch the genre and himself. Success, for Mailer, would come to mean being true to himself and his individual vision and not selling out to one imposed from the external world of consumerism, technology, and authoritarianism. Mailer’s later short fiction illustrates this struggle with various outcomes for his protagonists, either with them as victims of external forces set against them or them growing into more through a struggle that’s usually violent, taboo, or apocalyptic. Victories are never final, though there are some little ones that allow for a “fresh start” or a way to move forward to the next struggle. Richard Poirier sees it like this: “By sitting so frequently in self-judgment upon his past he is always implicitly proposing for himself some fresh start in the future” and that allowed his to eschew the “literary manners” of the time to write and rewrite his “persona of the perpetually embattled writer.”
. . .
- Part 2 of my articles on the short fiction of Norman Mailer.
- I’m not suggesting here that there is a direct connection between Mailer and Lacan, but it seems interesting that their similar ideas were birthed at nearly the same time.
- There are further dimensions to jouissance beyond what I cover in this paragraph that might relate here to Mailer’s early thought. A further exploration of the Lacan’s use of jouissance in the symbolic and Imaginary as well as Barthes’, Irigaray’s, Kristeva’s, Cixous’, and Žižek’s development of it in critical theory and how it illuminates Mailer’s thought could be the subject of further investigation.
- For example Mailer wrote three “stories” in 1963: “The Locust Cry” (1963) are philosophical commentaries on Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim; “Ministers of Taste: A Story” is actually two letters written to Robert B. Silvers, then editor of the New York Review of Books; and “The Shortest Novel of them All” seems to be an outline for a potential novel. While I would not want just dismiss these experimental works as not relevant to my treatment here, their significance might be more toward Mailer’s interest in pushing the boundaries of genre in his new journalism.
- Mailer 1959, p. 106.
- Lennon 2013, p. 333.
- Mailer 1959, p. 338.
- Mailer 1959, pp. 340, 339.
- Mailer 1959, p. 339.
- Mailer 1959, p. 341.
- Mailer 1959, p. 347.
- Mailer 1959, p. 352.
- Evans 1996, p. 93.
- Braunstein 2003, p. 102.
- Fink 1995, p. xii.
- Malpas & Wake 2006, p. 211.
- Mailer 2020, #506.
- Mailer 1966, p. 201.
- Lennon 2013, p. 318.
- Mailer 1972, p. 71.
- Mailer 1967, pp. 9, 13.
- Mailer 1967, pp. 9, 11.
- Mailer 1967, p. 11.
- Heyne 2000, p. 250.
- Poirier 1972, pp. 3, 4.
- Braunstein, Néstor (2003). "Desire and Jouissance in the Teachings of Lacan". In Rabaté, Jean-Michel. The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 102–115.
- Dienstrefy, Harris (1964). "The Fiction of Norman Mailer". In Kostelantz, Richard. On Contemporary Literature. New York: Avon. pp. 422–436.
- Evans, Dylan (1996). An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.
- Fink, Bruce (1995). The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
- Gordon, Andrew (1980). An American Dreamer: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Fiction of Norman Mailer. London: Fairleigh Dickinson UP.
- Lennon, J. Michael (2021). "JFK and Political Heroism". In McKinley, Maggie. Norman Mailer in Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- — (2013). Norman Mailer: A Double Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Mailer, Norman (1959). Advertisements for Myself. New York: Putnam.
- — (1966). Cannibals and Christians. New York: Dell.
- — (1972). Existential Errands. New York: Little, Brown.
- — (2020). Lennon, J. Michael; Lucas, Gerald R.; Mailer, Susan, eds. "Lipton's Journal". Project Mailer. The Norman Mailer Society. Retrieved 2021-09-13.
- — (2013). "Mind of an Outlaw". In Sipiora, Phillip. Mind of an Outlaw. New York: Random House. pp. 83–106.
- — (1963). The Presidential Papers. New York: Putnam.
- — (2014). Lennon, J. Michael, ed. Selected Letters of Norman Mailer. New York: Random House.
- — (1967). The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer. New York, N.Y.: Dell.
- Malpas, Simon; Wake, Paul, eds. (2006). The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory. London and New York: Routledge.
- Poirier, Richard (1972). Norman Mailer. Modern Masters. New York: Viking Press.
- Rollyson, Carl (1991). The Lives of Norman Mailer. New York: Paragon House.