Lean over on the bookcase.
If you really wanna get straight,
Read Norman Mailer
Or get a new tailor.
– Lloyd Cole, “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?”
Sometimes Norman Mailer looks to me like George Bush, Jr. after an all-night bender at Yale. That’s where the resemblance stops, I think. Mailer counts among the greatest novelists of the Beat Generation of the 50s and 60s, writers you recognize by virtue of their anti-traditionalist stances and their expressly abusive relationships with drugs, sexual freedom, and oriental philosophy. These writers emerged during a time of great war fatigue. Then, suddenly, right around the Red Scare, they evolved. They took a leap of faith and went all in on the pons asinorum of the American counterculture of the 60s and 70s. Habits and preferences aside, the “beat” are to be lauded for having shown us to ourselves. In so doing, they helped us exit that ugly Cold-War quagmire called the Vietnam War (1955–75).
Mailer represents the best of the American Left—I mean the formerly anti-illiterate American Left, the passing of which we must mourn. That American Left was equitable in its rebellions and equally patriotic. It salvaged for us the essential flame of American liberty, the blinding light of our own democratic honor. It could be counted on to object if our overlords tried to coerce us into doing what we knew in our hearts was wrong. Thus, it’s not only ominous but also dispiriting to watch the New Left stray from its line. Mailer shows that it’s prepared to shred the principle of unity by dissent. Its politics now search for ideas to justify ex post facto an aging mess of a mass movement. Mailer saw this coming. He wrote about it. If you still know people who read (I do not), then he might be the only reason you shouldn’t worry.
Mailer’s controversial, no doubt. As such he was an exemplary rebel, a first-class citizen of the freest republic on earth. And he decided to march on a government that had lied to him about Vietnam. Not little white lies, mind you; deep, dark lies, lies destined to fester over time if not met head-on. Today’s heirs of that same Left cluck too loudly over a government they once taught us to despise. It’s worse: they do this right when we’ve hatched another level of government, one enraged and stupefied by its own technological steroids.
Too many in today’s Left reject patriotism, once their greatest asset. They flirt with a nihilistic form of disobedience that has no knowable civic goal. They think only to lash out against those who stand against them. They’re cynics, and no light of reason dissuades them from a mission they can’t describe without recourse to jargony neologisms nobody understands. In some traditions, the Minotaur is blind. It’s hard to see a future beyond the walls of your own maze.
The journalistic “beats” were what readers of Alexis de Tocqueville—who punctuated his analysis of us with suggestive, allegorical storytelling—ought to recognize as a kind of North American costumbrismo. The exceptional aspect of Mailer’s style, however, is himself. Thus, he overweights both the agonizing and comical limbs of our American egos. His echoes of our earliest writers parallel the surly, insectoid treasures of his frankness. And it’s always open season on his contradictions, like Poe in a deer park or up a tree. You can gouge away at him all you want. But you’re too late; he already knows he’s wrong. It’s a uniquely hot brand of melancholy.
Tocqueville pointed out by way of Descartes that, in a hyper democracy, the individual is the only yardstick by which we approach anything under the sun. This melts our nation’s sociopolitical labyrinth into a maddening blob. Implied, as a matter of course, is attention to the circumstances of each individual citizen’s struggle for freedom. But we can’t manage all that, so implied, too, is a syrupy and bloody shipwreck resulting from the inability to access wisdom greater than our own. It’s worse than that. On the one hand, a hyper democracy makes the individual the most vital part of a powerful engine of wealth creation, but at the same time it erases from your mind the ability to connect with other people. And that’s tragic. If you do it right, your heart becomes your head, and vice versa. Oftentimes the only way you know you’re free in a hyper democracy is when you find yourself utterly alone. As Mailer put it, writing about himself in the third-person: “He had come to decide that the center of America might be insane.” That’s a mighty decision when you’re trying to be the center.
Readers need to recognize a phase of late-romanticism in the “beats,” a species of national fatalism, a zeal for domestic reform wrapped up in a desire to leave the world. The costumbristas were, after all, early romantics, if no longer rationalists then at least lingering idealists. In Spain, the romantic movement reached its zenith in the disillusioned modernism of the Generation of 1898. The “beats” share with them a sense that the corruption of the soul is the most horrifying cost of national expansion. The self-deceptions of adventurers have a downside; over-adventure tears us apart. The Spanish writer most akin to Mailer is Miguel de Unamuno, not because of his style but because he took the pulse of a nation on the brink of an implosion.
In structural—no, let’s say architectural—terms, the “beats” laced their novels with the art of the historical report, and as if to make up for that, they added beastly doses of autobiography. They sought out the kind of sociological truth that can only be had in close proximity to events, in the heat of a moment, and they sensed (correctly) that an asymmetrical approach reveals life better than any phlegmatic white paper produced by a think tank or a government agency. The report was already there, you see; the trick was figuring out how to make it interesting. Besides, the old way of addressing a society was already dead on arrival.
It might surprise his own fans that Mailer despised Egyptian architecture. Pyramids, obelisks, monuments, bleh. The Pentagon is a giant cow patty across the Potomac from Washington. More surprisingly, neither did he find Georgian buildings suitable. They were never enough for his hangovers, which were like napalm obliterating the foliage of his brain. Napalm needs room. Circa 1967, Mailer suddenly preferred something classical and Southern, an awkward and improvised style, but an unguarded bubble of grandeur that somehow punctuated the poorest and least free part of a nation he still loved. I used to think Mailer had New Orleans in mind, but more likely are Monticello or the University of Virginia.
It must be your call, dear reader, but for me Mailer was awesome. His muse was ill, but she was still crossing some bridge to kick him in the rump or else behead him. His gift was hunting down, finding, and then deliberately charging at what Thucydides called stasis, what Apuleius—the greatest ancient novelist, writing nearly six centuries after the greatest Greek historian—would finally describe as our “moral earthquake.” What Thucydides, Apuleius, and Mailer saw, what they knew from experience, was that for a crisis to be truly historical, social, and political in its implications, it must mark its own trauma, coming and going like a hurricane.
Mailer also had a gift for generic innovation, but even that was part and parcel of his approach to the hard-to-handle issues of his day. His “iterative process” highlights—circles, even—the expanding ironies and discomforts that define and then inhabit the American soul. So long as just one of these manages to stay fashionable, his novels will send it signals. These will hurt. And not in a trite, sentimental way, but, rather, existentially, in your chest, maybe even your loins. The Naked and the Dead (1948) posits tactical chaos as a strategic metaphor for the dehumanization of war. It eschews the signs of military triumph we might have expected from a nation that thought itself on the rise, if only because no others were left standing. An American Dream (1965) shutters a social ideal inside a crisis. The Executioner’s Song (1979)—which won Mailer the Pulitzer Prize for fiction back when such prizes had value—underlines that agonizing instant when freedom requires us to apply death and destruction in the name of life. Mailer leaves honest readers with a sense that longing for justice is not enough to achieve it.
When reading Mailer, keep in mind that his life and work are no more exempt from contradiction than our own. If he’s most painfully lost in the pretext of an elitist, at least he looks up, unlike so many intellectuals. However, although he may advocate for the common man, and though he can speak to him publicly in an animated and vulgar way, he almost never writes to him. To this Texian, for example, Mailer reads like the quintessential Yankee lugging around his superiority complex like a giant whale. You sense he’d like to beat you over the head with it, except he can’t get it off his own back. Should we help him? I think he hopes we will, if only for our own sake. Why else would he note, almost sheepishly, that Southerners make great soldiers because we’re unmoored from History? Maybe he secretly read Robert Penn Warren when he tired of Robert Lowell. I wager Walt Whitman made him gag. I could be wrong.
The length and dynamism of Mailer’s sentences are like problems in search of solutions. His playful, roundabout vocabulary in paradoxical conjunction with so much moral urgency can be tiring, his challenges hard to internalize, hard to shift over into your long-term memory. The message of his style is that if we don’t like it, then we must improve ourselves until we do. “F*ck you!” he writes gleefully. Mailer says this to any American who dares not to understand; ergo, it’s his favorite phrase. His prose is a kind of national scourge layered with curious details that can only mean something once you’re flayed. I imagine his novels might be pedagogical riggings someday. A kind of dentistry, they’re necessary because no one among us is going to understand him without pain. For that, his books are indispensable. More conservatives need to read them. You’re better for them. They clarify things.
Whatever Mailer says, and whatever is said about Mailer, he’s a writer who exhibits himself like few then or since. He’s a model of sincerity, as well as of some weird, professional passion. He wears his writing on his shoes. Stuff sticks to it; maybe that’s why it’s always screaming for reform. If not precise, his novels are at least tangible, sensibly true. That makes him utterly American, neither Covey nor Dimmesdale. His arrogance, his jocularity, so irritating in relation to so much serious subject matter, are just the opportunity costs of his sincerity. Thus, it’s hard to imagine Mailer speaking to a foreigner. He’s too gregarious, too happy to be hostile; he’d be handicapped in that arena. For that reason, I imagine he’d still attempt it. Egotistical sincerity is the only salve for History’s carbuncles. Tocquevillian, but also quixotic. A pure pirate. Argentine economist and philosopher Walter Castro once told me that he thought liberals live broken dreams. Reading Mailer will show you what he meant.
Anyone interested in (re)viewing the evolution of American politics over the last fifty years should read The Armies of the Night (1968). I’ve been glossing it here. In nocturnal armies, dear reader, you’ll find a tactical, moral, and rhetorical lesson on how to steer a political movement past a fanatical fantasy and onto a patriotic dream (cf. DQ 1.19). But be prepared for heartbreak, because once that dream comes true, and it will, another challenge awaits. The trick is always knowing how to recognize your own corruption. You have to be able to seize that moment when your allies no longer want you. That’s when you go. To quote Captain Viedma: “I jumped over to the galley opposite, which, disengaging from the one that had rammed it, prevented my own soldiers from following me. Thus, I found myself alone among my enemies, whom I could not resist, for they were many” (DQ 1.39). Are they your enemies? Perhaps they’re just new ones.
Mailer grasped that, at some point in the future, it would no longer be good for the Left to be adrift in search of ideals. You could say he turned Hoffer’s The True Believer (1951) into a novel. If you prefer, he took Muhammed in Dante’s Inferno and forced each half of him to address the other: “Each side is coming face to face with its own conception of the devil!” he wrote about that fateful day in late October 1967. And today we’re still living out Mailer’s intuitions about the consequences. “Maoists not for nothing these Blacks!” he wrote parenthetically in his story about the march. He didn’t mean to discredit their grievances, not even their ideological likings, but rather to point out the risk of sticking so many metaphorical daggers through the hearts of white allies. (Snowflakes not for nothing these Whites!) Jefferson knew that you can only stab agonizing affection so many times before it wilts like an orchid in Iceland. Shelby Steele saw this when merely ashing on their carpets made college administrators slump over their desks.
When white people fawn over black people for no reason other than to virtue-signal, then surely black people can be forgiven for thinking themselves deities. Jupiters instead of Pompeys, they imagine pillars turning into clouds behind them, and they approach a stage they can no longer be denied. This is surely proper. Mailer didn’t mean that the attitude he saw in blacks that day wasn’t ideologically justified; he meant that they were bound to be deluded into a superiority complex by so many cloying white people. Lowell, to his credit, intervened at one point with commonsense, bursting a Maoist bubble that had presumed to gambol about with a bullhorn.
It’s not healthy for the Left to be so isolationist, so unwilling to debate. Encourage them to rediscover their heroes. But the rule is you can only point to Mailer if you’ve read him yourself. If it turns out they (or you) don’t like him, then they (or you) should get a new tailor, switch political parties, and change your address. Having read Mailer—as closely as can be expected of a white, Southern heterosexual struggling to nail down his own male superiority complex by way of a hopeless love affair with a Roman goddess in the vicinity of Nîmes—I can now see why the American Left think themselves progressives, liberals, and pacifists. They’ve slumbered into what they used to hate. They’ve assumed our apathy, a party to past purities, peaceful wars, and (I’ll say worst of all) censorship. The great irony of any nation’s political trajectory is that from time to time one band must find some unforeseen way to get the other to remember its own truth. If, every now and again, you can’t see the grace and glory of your neighbor, how are you to find a future together? Mailer describes American democracy as the “pulsations in the progression of a caterpillar,” not two speeding bullets.
Mailer also saw that democratic honor always needs a new rite, a way to resuscitate our native enemies in the guise of something they’ve forgotten how to be. For democracy to work, we must respect our shared past and admit the possibility that the opposition’s ideas might be right on occasion. And when their ideas are neither tempered nor reasoned, we must object. When we no longer care to do that, we quicken our dissolution regardless of anybody’s motives.