Of Friends in Tombs, or ‘Shut Up, This Fight is Making your Party’: Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer 1988

To me, Norman Mailer was one of the finest prose stylists of the twentieth century.

This excerpt is from Of a Fire on the Moon (1970, p 354):

Armstrong and Aldrin were to do an EVA that night. EVA stood for Extra Vehicle Activity, and that was presumably a way to describe the most curious steps ever taken. It is one thing to murder the language of Shakespeare – another to be unaware how rich was the victim. Future murders stood in the shadow of the acronyms.

He was also a public intellectual, an iconoclast, and a buffoon of epic proportions.

A report of a cocktail party from 1977 (related by Lennon, p 513):

[Mailer] went immediately to the living room and as soon as he saw Vidal, Janklow [a bystander] said, “He charged.” Mailer told a Washington Post reporter that he had “been looking for Gore [Vidal] six years and last night I finally found him. When I saw Gore, I just felt like butting him in the head, so I did.” Accounts vary, but it seems that Mailer threw a gin-and-tonic in Vidal’s face and bounced the glass off his head. …The hostess walked in from the kitchen, unhappy to see a fight at her party. “God, this is awful; somebody do something,” she yelled. Clay Felker, at ringside, said, “Shut up, this fight is making your party.”

Why did Mailer physically attack Vidal? Certainly it related to unkind words penned by the latter. Certainly it combined the duellist’s need for violent satisfaction, Mailer’s idea of releasing the dogs of his masculinity, and a deeper, mystic notion that unmet challenges create a psychic revolt at the level of the cell, cancer being the result.

For Christmas, I was given Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J Michael Lennon. It’s an excellent biography that, among other things, contrasts the public Mailer and the private. This blog post is not a review, but a record of thoughts I had while reading Lennon’s book.

Money in the Bank

Mailer spent his life looking for experience. He did this, in part, because the chief difficulty for the novelist is obtaining material. Douglas Adams once wrote something along these lines: “Your whole life is research for your first novel. The research for your second novel takes about a year, and is mostly spent in bookshops.”

Mailer did not spend much time in bookshops.

Graham Greene wrote:

The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.

This is half of Mailer. He complemented it with a living experiment in the pursuit of experience. Too often, he agreed to capers–like travelling to Russia on the promise of access to Lee Harvey Oswald’s KGB files–for credit in the bank of material. The drugs provided as much illumination as a lit fuse. Here is the nadir of writing The Deer Park (1955), as described by Lennon (p. 193):

Without drugs, he couldn’t write; he needed more than in the past. Along with marijuana, Seconal [a barbiturate], booze, coffee, and two packs of cigarettes a day, he began taking a tranquilizer, Miltown… “Bombed and sapped and charged and stoned,” he lurched forward through May, feeling as he had when on [war-time] patrols in Luzon.

Everything You Know is Wrong

Mailer was an existentialist, a philosophical school defined more by a push away from classic orthodoxy than the pull of well-argued alternatives. The heart of existentialism, according to Walter Kaufmann (1975, p. 75), is:

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life

Mailer valued the primacy of experience (as a truth, or something closer to it that than the truth presented by logical positivism). The richer that experience, the better. Hell-raising lives next door to this idea. Here’s Nietzsche (The Gay Science, section 283):

…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!

From the perspective of the writer, there is value in this. If experience is credit, woe betide the overdrawn. But there is some danger, as most people will recognise, in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It can lead to the somewhat bizarre statements like Mailer’s comments in this interview with William Buckley (Part 1 of 6) from 1968:

I don’t think in categories. I try to think in this way, that the world is better off if every so-called type in the world is better. In other words, it’s a better world when the cops get better and the criminals get better. It’s a poorer world when the cops are dull and the criminals are dull.

Mailer emerged at a time when a writer was seen as a transformative force. He was eager to assume the role of commentator and doer. His distance from true power frustrated him. Like Sergeant Robert Hearn in The Naked and The Dead and Menenhetet in Ancient Evenings, he wanted to be Merlin at Kennedy’s Camelot, but his overtures to Jackie Kennedy were botched. Later, his influence on the Clinton administration was negligible. Mailer’s life seems to have coincided with the decline (in America and the UK, at least) of the public intellectual. Today, our intellectuals produce BBC documentary series and tie-in books. Easy to poo-poo. But I think the younger Mailer would have seized these opportunities. He always wanted to transmit his ideas and lever change.

Technology Will Get You Nowhere

One such idea is the weakness of the artificial. There is a moment in Of A Fire on the Moon in which Mailer takes the notion of acceleration–so fundamental to rocketry–and applies it to the moon programme at large. Imagine the step from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to Tranquility Base, the Moon; this, psychically, is an acceleration sufficient to push humanity from one sphere to another. And yet the missions that follow (with the exception of Apollo 13) are both iterative and boring. The acceleration has been lost. With it, will, and with that, the moon programme itself. For Mailer, this is the treachery of technology. It appears to be freighted with possibility but this property only emphasises, once revealed, its emptiness.

The Spooky Art

There are notes in Lennon’s book about Mailer working through his manuscripts with editors, line by line, stopping at every weak sentence. While his poetry was unsuccessful in most estimations, he brought a poet’s attention to prose. Words were always read aloud. If a sentence had to be changed, this might alter its role in a paragraph or a passage, and thus change the character of the passage as a melody leads its key. The passage would be written again.

And what passages. Nothing stood between Mailer and his words. From Ancient Evenings:

My memory, which had given every promise (in the first glow of moonlight) that it would return, was still a sludge. Now the air was heavy with the odor of mud. That was the aroma of these lands, mud and barley, sweat and husbandry. By noon tomorrow, the riverbank would be an oven of moldering reeds. Domestic animals would leave their gifts on the mud of the bank–sheep and pigs, goats, assess, oxen, dogs and cats, even the foul door of the goose, a filthy bird. I thought of tombs, and of friends in tombs. Like the plucking of a heavy string came a first intimation of sorrow.

The last few pages of Norman Mailer: A Double Life, which relate to his death, are difficult to read. I was reminded of the comments that Arthur Miller made in a BBC documentary (‘Finishing the Picture,’ 2004) shortly before his death. (Miller and Mailer grew up near each other, but they never really got on, and were never going to after Mailer’s book Marilyn.) In the documentary Yentob, asks Miller what he thinks of his own death. Miller, as I recall, says:

I always think of Shakespeare and the light going out.

It takes a big tall writer like Miller to compare himself to Shakespeare. But to consider all that experience, the wick burning low before going out, is troubling. The point is to illuminate the party.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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