Wednesday, April 30, 2003

My brother brought the latest
vile excrescence from the violently disordered mind of Norman Mailer to my attention. The best explanation I can come up with for how completely whacked out this guy is--and I know he's 80 and senility can't be ruled
out, but he's been writing nonsense like this for decades--is a mixture of the aesthetic and the personal.

I first noticed it in a Rolling Stone interview he did in 1974. It's not online, so I have to quote from memory; but I was so appalled by it (and it took a lot for someone on the Left to appall me at the time, for I was a 17-year-old liberal Democrat) that I remember it verbatim today: He was talking about Charles Manson, and Manson's impressive behavior of responding to criticism by picking up a gun and handing it to the critic, daring the critic to kill him. "He's not a small man," said Mailer of Charlie, "Not a small man at all."

At that point in my life I was exploring ideologies and theories, and was open to even the most offensive statements from artists as legitimate aesthetic expression. And even then, when as I was as nonjudgmental as I have ever been, I thought a statement like that was contemptible. I remember writing in my journal at the time how pathetic could someone be to find Charles Manson admirable.

I didn't know it at the time, but this was only a small hint, a precursor of what Mailer would do to the world a short time later.

In 1979 Mailer, collaborating with future O.J. Simpson groupie Lawrence Schiller, wrote an entire, endless book about Gary Gilmore, a person of whom--had he been, say, a law-abiding Middle American like the motel clerk that he murdered--Mailer would taken no more notice than he would an insect. The Executioner's Song won the Pulitzer.

Immediately after the success of the Gilmore book, Mailer began to champion a real live convicted murderer named Jack Henry Abbott and used his prestige to help get Abbott released from prison in 1981. It took only two weeks on the outside for Abbott to commit another murder.

Mailer's gift of Abbott to the world was more than the usual masturbatory radical chic silliness of the type that Phillip Terzian refers to when he reminds us that Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins named their son after Abbott. It was consistent with Mailer's point of view of at least the preceding decade, and really for much longer than that. His famous essay "The White Negro" in 1959 praised the antisocial pathologies in the African American community that would inflict such appalling damage to it in the years to come.

A year after that, Mailer was drunk at a party and stabbed with wife multiple times with a kitchen knife, missing her heart by inches. Mailer's celebrity helped him escape jail, and he never seems to have comes to grips with what he did. As recently as last year he was still equivocating:

Forty-two years after the first incident, Mailer is certainly not going to let introspection disrupt the patrician calm which has settled over the Provincetown house. "It's a long time ago, and you really might say the worst elements of it have been digested over the years - by me, I mean. I can't speak for Adele. It's our children who suffered with it more than we did, when people whisper about it. All right, I deserved [condemnation], but it's them carrying the weight. Everyone alive carries the weight. It's a dull bruise. You don't go around fingering it."

The intellectual tradition in which Mailer operates is an extremely familiar one from the first half of the twentieth century. The high water mark of all this was the literature of the 1920s (Mailer was born in 1923), when the West's intellectuals were still pissed off about World War One. They produced material designed to shock not only in form (as with Dada and Surrealism) but also in content: Cynicism toward all things except that which society hated and feared most, violent sociopathy. The movement was full of glaring contradictions: It was slavishly romantic while pretending to despise Romanticism, eagerly Rousseauvian while feigning contempt for Rousseau. The violent social predator became The Noble Savage. The one title that captured the zeitgeist was Franz Werfel's play Nicht der Mörder, der Ermordete ist schuldig ("Not the murderer but the victim is guilty").

Thing was, eventually, many of them got over it, not least Werfel, who converted to Catholicism and started writing about Saint Bernadette. Eternal cynicism is a hallmark of adolescence, and people eventually started to grow up. The ones who didn't grow up died bitterly as Communist bureaucrats like Brecht, or, even worse, became university professors, or else they were named Norman Mailer.

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