November 5, 2019
Courage through Opposition: The Political Resonance of Norman Mailer
First articulated in his 1957 novel The Deer Park, Mailer’s approach to life echoes throughout his oeuvre: “there was that law of life so cruel and so just which demanded that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.”[a] One might even go so far as to call this “Mailer’s Law,” as it seems to provide a synecdoche for his career as an artist and public figure. As an exemplar of this early and oft-articulated credo, Mailer never stood still for long. Not one to rest on his laurels or to be dissuaded by critical disapproval, Mailer made strides to, as he states in Advertisements for Myself, “settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” While Mailer could be accused of hubris, his approach to culture and life exhibited a courage to grow in opposition to what he saw as the deadening forces of totalitarianism in America. Mailer viewed political challenge as the moral responsibility of the creative artist — especially the novelist — in maintaining freedom from tyranny. Mailer’s opposition resonates even beyond his death in 2007.
Even more than a decade after Mailer died, his presence may still be felt almost daily. Perhaps it’s because today’s political climate seems to echo that of the sixties, when Mailer was at his most popular and influential. His influence during a decade of upheaval, opposition, and revaluation of America, Mailer stood at the forefront. If Mailer wrote about something, that usually meant he was participating in it, thinking about it, and offering Americans alternate perspectives about everything of import. From New York City to Washington D.C., from Alaska to Vietnam, from Zaire to the moon, Mailer was there, prompting Wilfred Sheed to quip in 1971: “As Mailer goes, so goes the nation.” Mailer’s presence, while dominant, was never one expressed easy or compulsory answers to big questions, yet he always brought an oppositional view; or as William Prichard recently observed, Mailer met “head-on every sort of public, social, and political phenomenon in order to ‘war’ on them.” Mailer’s estimation of his own political penchants were also elusive if not oppositional. In 1955, Mailer writes “Please do not understand me too quickly,” providing a foundation for his contradictory left-conservatism — a stance that Christopher Hitchens suggests identifies Mailer with “a dark underside” and stands “semi-belligerently as a challenge to those who remain fixed in orthodoxy or correctness.” Mailer saw totalitarianism as the natural state of humanity that “sullies everyone who lives under it,” and therefore opposition becomes a moral imperative.
Mailer’s penchant for opposition seems germane now in the waning days of the second decade of the new millennium. Journalists trying to make sense of contemporary protest movements, from Occupy Wall Street to Extinction Rebellion, like Francis Wade in “Reading ‘The Armies of the Night’ in an Age of Youth Protest,” look to Mailer’s example for understanding “the curious art of protest, and the dance between authority and dissent.” Others long for Mailer’s voice to offer a way through the current populist movements in politics that seem to have swung the country uncomfortably to the right. In “Mailer on Trump,” Paul Baumann compares Mailer’s analysis of Barry Goldwater and his supporters to Trump and his with some striking similarities, like how Trump taps into current resentments was just the sort of “existential question Mailer had an uncanny ability to illuminate.” Baumann concludes that while Mailer was able to give Goldwater serious consideration, he would have had a field day with America’s current narcissistic president. At the time of his death, many obituaries and tributes lauded Mailer’s influence on American culture and politics and seemed to emphasize the importance of his dissenting voice that refused to allow any tyrannies an easy passage. These are summarized by Bonnie Greer in the Independent: Mailer “believed that telling the truth was the only thing a writer could and should do. Above all, he was never afraid.”
Mailer’s courage as an artist was often aligned with his tough-guy persona, based on his early interest in violence, masculinity, and dissent, and his own unfortunate real-life incidences. Later, Mailer speaks more soberly about the necessity of courage in fighting for one’s convictions. In a 1983 portrait by Marie Brenner, Mailer states “As many people die from an excess of timidity as from bravery.” A logical corollary to Mailer’s Law, timidity, repression, and conformity are often linked to cancer in Mailer’s work. In a 1979 interview, Mailer calls cancer “a revolution of the calls” that occurs when an individual lives too responsibly or too much for others. To mitigate the risk of cancer, then, one should live as genuinely as possible. While Mailer’s earlier work was more concerned with the individual and his relation to external forces that attempted to control and direct his life, cancer seems to be a metaphor for a sickness or rot within the body politic in his later thinking. Yet, the treatment remains similar: one must face totalitarianism with courage in order cut out the sickness in the country. Courage, for Mailer, is the virtue to dispel shame — the opposite of love and liberty.
Near the end of Why Are We at War?, Dotson Rader asks Mailer what he most loves about America. Mailer answers that its the freedom he has enjoyed throughout his life that made his work possible, but freedom, like democracy, is delicate, and must be fought for daily. Mailer links freedom in America to its democracy and the responsibility of citizens to undertake the necessary responsibility of maintaining it. Built of the assumption that all humans have value and that people are more good than evil, “Democracy is a state of grace,” Mailer writes, “attained only by those countries that have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it.” In other words, for Mailer, democracy is existential, always presenting new challenges, always changing, and “like each human being . . . always growing into more or less.” Democracy begins with the freedom of its citizens, but a progressive, healthy democracy depends on the ability of its citizens to meet the various forces and challenges that attempt to undermine it.
Mailer saw as his own personal responsibility the necessity to equip Americans with the tools to oppose the forces that seek to undermine their freedom. In his essay “Immodest Proposals,” Mailer maintains that opposition begins with the peoples’ “power to learn to think.” His words are chosen precisely: thinking here is not a static state, but one that must have agency and be able to encounter every new situation in a creative way. Culture, then, becomes a political force that is necessary for creating a populace that can see critical distinctions and not rely on habit or easy answers to important questions: “Consciousness is enlarged gently and delicately, yet powerfully, and it takes great literature, like great music, painting, and dance, to make that happen.” Since it’s the foundation of liberty, culture is worth “huge, huge risks.” Culture, for Mailer, tends to privilege the written word; therefore, in many ways, democracy springs from its citizens’ ability to use and understand language. In The Big Empty, Mailer opines: “I think a nation’s greatness depends, to a real extent, on how well-spoken its citizens are. . . . As a language deteriorates, becomes less eloquent, less metaphorical, less salient, less poignant, a curious deadening of the human spirit comes seeping in.” The role of the novelist becomes a political imperative: exemplify the language that gives a democracy the tools it needs to thrive.
For Mailer, “truth comes out of opposition,” J. Michael Lennon recently commented in an interview in The Village Voice. His goal, Lennon continued, was not to win arguments, but to get people to think more deeply, more critically, and more creatively about the US and democracy. If, as Mailer states, there are no authorities who have certain knowledge about reality or truth, then the novel should be an “attack on the nature of reality” in order to approach it, but never capture it, since “reality varies from chapter to chapter.” The novelist does this by testing hypotheses that often reflect difficult questions and not quick or easy answers. Through great writing, the consciousness of the populace might be expanded because literature “vibrates within you” eliciting consideration and growth. This duty of the novelist is paramount now more than ever, since the novel is in danger of becoming extinct, replaced instead by the Big Empty.
Mailer calls corporate capitalism the “Big Empty” — it’s Yeats’ contemporary manifestation of the center that cannot hold.
- Come back later to the irony of it being thought by Charles Eitel, a failed Mailer hero.
- Mailer 1957, p. 294.
- Mailer 1992, p. 17.
- Sheed 1971, p. 17.
- Pritchard 2016.
- Mailer 1992, p. 262.
- Hitchens 1997, p. 116.
- Mailer & Mailer 2006, pp. 94–5.
- Mailer 2003, p. 53.
- Wade 2019.
- Baumann 2016.
- Greer 2007.
- Brenner 1983, p. 32.
- NcNeil 1979, p. 49.
- Mailer & Mailer 2006, pp. 143–45.
- Mailer 2003, pp. 110–11.
- Mailer 2003, p. 71.
- Mailer & Mailer 2006, p. 78.
- Mailer 2004, p. 569.
- Busa 1999, p. 31.
- Hitchens 1997, p. 126.
- Mailer & Mailer 2006, p. 123.
- Brady 2018.
- Mailer & Mailer 2006, pp. 68, 70.
- Mailer & Mailer 2006, pp. 66, 98.
- Mailer 2006, pp. xv, 54.
- Baumann, Paul (March 23, 2016). "Mailer on Trump". Commonweal. Retrieved 2016-10-01.
- Brenner, Marie (March 28, 1983). "Mailer Goes Egyptian". New York Magazine. pp. 28–38.
- Busa, Christopher (1999). "Interview with Norman Mailer". Provincetown Arts. pp. 24–32. Retrieved 2019-09-15.
- Greer, Bonnie (November 12, 2007). "Farewell to a Feisty, Fearless Keeper of the Flame". Independent. Retrieved 2019-11-09.
- Hitchens, Christopher (1997). "Norman Mailer: A Minority of One". New Left Review. 22 (March/April): 115–128.
- Mailer, Norman (1992) . Advertisements for Myself. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
- — (1957). The Deer Park. New York: New American Library. p. 294.
- — (2003). Why Are We at War?. New York: Random House.
- —; Mailer, John Buffalo (2006). The Big Empty. New York: Nation Books.
- McNeil, Legs (September 1979). "Norman Mailer: The Champ of American Letters Takes All the Tough Questions on Art, Life, Death, Love, Hate, War, Drugs, Etc., from Punk Contender Legs McNeil". High Times. pp. 43–47, 49, 51–53, 55, 107–109, 111, 113, 115, 117.
- Pritchard, William (November 24, 2016). "Stormin' Norman". Washington Examiner. Retrieved 2019-10-01.
- Sheed, Wilfred (1971). "Norman Mailer: Genius or Nothing". The Morning After: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 9–17.
- Wade, Francis (August 12, 2019). "Reading 'The Armies of the Night' in an Age of Youth Protest". LA Review of Books. Retrieved 2019-09-15.