My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Earlier this month, we heard vague and possibly unsubstantiated rumors that a major publisher was scuttling a book by Norman Mailer because a staffer had been offended by the title of his notorious 1957 essay “The White Negro.” This semi- or pseudo-controversy reminded me that I’d never actually read an entire book by Mailer, though I’d done much browsing in his egotist miscellany Advertisements for Myself (1959), where I’d first read the offending essay years ago.
Today’s left identitarians, confronting an embarrassingly explicit early version of their own worldview, understandably object to that manifesto of the 1950s “hipster.” Mailer defines the figure of the white man as Beat Existentialist walking the mean streets of Cold War America at its coldest and contemplating an emancipatorily psychopathic act in supposed imitation of “the Negro,” who “has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries,” who
could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm.
Such prose today feels like it might peel the paint from the walls. As Geoff Shullenberger reminds us, Mailer’s most distinguished African-American contemporaries decisively rejected his vision:
Lorraine Hansberry, Ralph Ellison, and especially James Baldwin (an erstwhile Mailer friend and admirer)…objected most of all to Mailer’s celebration of the supposed sexual potency and liberatedness of black men, which they viewed, plausibly, as reiterating the racist stereotypes of the “square” white America Mailer claimed to reject.
Hansberry, Ellison, and Baldwin were humanists of great cultivation—Marxist, liberal, Christian—but Mailer’s argument, uncomfortable as it may make us in its phrasing today, and much as we can detect its troubling modernist provenance (Freud, Lawrence), was arguably ahead of its time as a proto-postmodern celebration of the decentered subject resisting modern domination through the aleatory flows of his bodies, pleasures, languages, and desires.
In Mailer’s offensive verbiage, we discern the late bell hooks’s “Postmodern Blackness” and the Afropessimists’ permanently enslaved anti-subject jamming all circuits of a state and civil society nexus founded on the libidinal enjoyment of vampirizing his vitality. A gender-swapped Sula, accompanied by a plague of robins, struts between his lines; so it’s no surprise to find Toni Morrison at The National Book Awards Ceremony in 2005, allowing for his “almost comic obtuseness regarding women and race” but nevertheless championing Mailer as a “worthy adversary” and a “true original”—and then literally hanging a medal around his neck. How could Morrison garland this would-be Bluebeard? (And when it comes to Mailer’s nearly murderous misogyny, Tomiwa Owolade informs us that Didion, Oates, Steinem, and, yes, Baldwin didn’t especially object. Which is no excuse, only contextualization.) I assume she believed—as I do—that no matter what we might have been told by the suddenly recrudescent “2014 Tumblr Girl,” literary merit is not judged in courts legal or moral.
To think about Mailer’s literary merit, then, I found a copy of his classic The Armies of the Night (1968) in my apartment and read it. Subtitled History as a Novel / The Novel as History and written in the third person, this is a fictionalized nonfiction account of Mailer’s participation in a march on the Pentagon in Fall 1967 to protest the Vietnam War alongside other literary luminaries like poet Robert Lowell and critic Dwight Macdonald. The ’60s literary ferment of New Journalism, gonzo journalism, and the “nonfiction novel,” in which writers like Capote, Wolfe, and Didion also figured, obviously influenced Mailer’s experimental pirouette across the fiction-nonfiction line and back again; and Mailer, with his strong sense of the American literary heritage, also drew on a tradition of documentary and reportage in American realism going back to Twain, Crane, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.
The book’s first section, which takes up more than three-fourths of the whole, gives us “History as a Novel”: an absorbing, eloquent, and often hilarious modernist novel following the literary celebrity Norman Mailer and the minute movements of his consciousness from his hesitant agreement to join the march through his arrest for deliberately crossing a military police line as a public gesture of solidarity with the protestors. The brief second section, “The Novel as History,” leaves behind the personal to document the organization and events of the entire march, for most of which the imprisoned Mailer was absent. Except for his reflections in this part on the conflict between the Old and the New Left, which was dramatized more dynamically in the first section, “The Novel as History” can be skimmed—unless you are actually a historian.
For literary purposes, “History as a Novel” is what commands our attention, not least because of its central character, the cantankerous, offensive, and charming Mailer, a Whitmaniacal ego so vast it threatens to contain all of America, even when he’s telling us about how he drunkenly missed the urinal and pissed on a hotel’s bathroom floor. In this book, he calls himself, in Whitmanian catalogue,
a warrior, presumptive general, ex-political candidate, embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hard-working author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives, amiable bar drinker and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter…
One of the roughs, a kosmos! (I note that the wife tally would eventually come to six.) This, I think, is what Adam Gopnik meant when he called The Armies of the Night “a poem,” in the same way that certain other American nonfiction classics—Letters from an American Farmer, Walden, The Souls of Black Folk, Slouching Towards Bethlehem—seem to chant or sing rather than to argue or reason. Moreover, as Toni Morrison said, Mailer is often wrong, even to the point of affront; but his positions are never predictable, unintelligent, or without interest. Even at their worst, they are powerfully expressed; at their best, they are often prescient because observant, as Gopnik also notes.
Gopnik, though, writing in the throes of 2018, overpraises Mailer for writing about “a recognizable Trump-era caste” of rural whites. When Mailer speculates about the inner lives of the largely southern white working-class military, police, and government officials he meets, the results are if anything more fantastical or projected than his reveries about African-American subjectivity, just the usual horror-movie staple about repressed evil in the hinterland:
Enough of the old walled town had once remained in the American small town for gnomes and dwarves and knaves and churls (yes, and owls and elves and crickets) to live in the constellated cities of the spiders below the eaves in the old leaning barn which—for all one knew—had been a secret ear to the fevers of the small town, message center for the inhuman dreams which passed through the night in sleep and came to tell their insane tale of the old barbarian lust to slaughter villages and drink their blood….
Gnomes? Elves? Talking spiders? Southern Gothic is one thing, but this is too far a flight of fancy even for the nonfiction novel. In any case, the villages of Vietnam were designated for slaughter by “the best and the brightest,” not by some insect pogrom spirit of the sticks.
No, Mailer’s triumph is ambivalently, ambiguously to observe and describe the changes in his own milieu. He sees the emergence of an entirely different “recognizable Trump-era caste” than poor whites—that of a radical political left entirely subsumed by the cultural concerns of the professional middle class. Mailer observes this coup from the insightfully slanted perspective of “a Left Conservative” who “tried to think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke.” His Burkean fidelity to the organic and the sublime allows Mailer to understand why the Old Left, with what he calls its “logic of the next step,” i.e., its credulous faith in progressive history, was unable to answer the needs of an affluent consumer society ever more managed by technocratic experts.
Such a society will dialectically call forth from itself a rebellion of the instincts and emotions like the one hymned in “The White Negro.” This is why Mailer pledges his loyalty on the march not to the Old Leftists of his own generation but to the hippies playing rock, smoking pot, and handing out flowers, in their sandals and flower crowns, looking “at once like Hindu gurus, French musketeers, and Southern cavalry captains.”
Their aesthetic revolt seems to him an antidote to the technocrat “totalitarianism”—his usage of this word, by the way, is in line with Arendt’s—which “render[s] populations apathetic” through “the destruction of mood.” Denouncing deodorant as a symbol of the administered society, he prefers the hippies’ fragrant radicalism to their parents’ anodyne liberalism, which in a memorable passage about the party that greets him on his arrival in Washington, he judges fully complicit in the society symbolized by the fearsome, empty techno-war idol of the Pentagon:
His deepest detestation was often reserved for the nicest of liberal academics, as if their lives were his own life but a step escaped. Like the scent of the void which comes off the pages of a Xerox copy, so was he always depressed in such homes by their hint of oversecurity. If the republic was now managing to convert the citizenry to a plastic mass, ready to be attached to any manipulative gung ho, the author was ready to cast much of the blame for such success into the undernourished lap, the overpsychologized loins, of the liberal academic intelligentsia. They were of course politically opposed to the present programs and movements of the republic in Asian foreign policy, but this political difference seemed no more than a quarrel among engineers. Liberal academics had no root of a real war with technology land itself, no, in all likelihood, they were the natural managers of that future air-conditioned vault where the last of human life would still exist.
To be honest, I’ve had just this thought at just this type of party. Yet Mailer also understands, if dimly, that the college students in revolt, the ones who chant slogans on the prison bus because, as “bright kids” rather than jocks, “they had never traveled on a high school victory bus,” will become the powers-that-be someday. Likewise, Mailer’s “almost comic obtuseness” about race in several no doubt offensive passages contrasting the protest’s Black Power presence (“I’ll kill you, Whitey, burn baby”) with the “Negro liberals” he’d known at the 1963 March on Washington, nevertheless manages also to register the coming identity politics that will fracture the left as much as anything else.
Though he ends his nonfiction novel on the lyrical, triumphant note of hailing the hippies’ American “rite of passage” through protest, a similar “rite” as earlier generations (including his own) had enjoyed on the frontier or at war, the uneasy feeling lingers that these flower children will inherit the very five-sided structure they’d vainly wished to levitate off the earth. Still, his peroration on America—a place where “God was present in every man not only as compassion but as power”—is a welcome reprieve from today’s left, who seem as if they can hardly say the name of the nation without spitting.
In the end, then, Mailer’s most effective protest against sterile, murderous totalitarianism is his literary performance of his own chaotic, witty, irreducibly physical, irrepressibly philosophical, careeringly poetic personality. The true armies of the night are the roiling forces in his vast body and soul. While I was left wondering if an actual novel—a fictional novel—would feel thin and unpeopled in comparison to this song of his self, I came away from this book with little doubt about Mailer’s literary merit.