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.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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