More than any other living American novelist, Norman Mailer has taken to heart the belief that an artist must play the part of a hero. It is a very particular sort of hero, however, and certainly not the quiet sort. Rather, this hero is a mythmaker, one who dramatizes a culture or an epoch and, in so doing, dramatizes himself. Or is it the reverse? Mailer’s obsession with America and with himself, in any event, are twin features of the same ambition, and this is true even insofar as he tends to define his own mythic identity in opposition to that of his time and place. In this dual project of creating his own persona and also his age’s mythology, Mailer has numerous artistic predecessors, and above all in America: after all, when Walt Whitman heard America singing, he was simultaneously singing of himself. Mailer, though more polemical than celebratory, is in the same mode, and has been for thirty years.
Indeed, despite all the talk of the various stages of Mailer’s career, that heroic ambition which fused the prophet and the self-promoter has been remarkably consistent since the 1950’s. When in his short piece “An Advertisement Advertised” he remarks that Advertisements for Myself (1959) had formed the essence of his subsequent style, the statement has greater resonance than perhaps intended. For from that decade onward, an Americanized Existentialism and the example of Ernest Hemingway seem to have converged to give enduring shape to what Mailer in his introduction calls his “street debater” persona.
His oft-repeated boxing metaphorics suggest that genuine risk inheres in true artistic endeavor, that the writer is either a winner or a loser. Until perhaps very recently, though, “winning” seems to have meant not only perfecting a style or even fashioning a book but also the practical, large-scale effect of winning against society, so to speak. Pieces and Pontifications is a volume where “working without a net”—public risk-taking—is a recurrent theme, and where adopting a stance is thus often equated with political action. Such a belief in risk-taking results in the high estimation of improvising, shown for instance in Mailer’s review of Last Tango in Paris (1972), in which he chastizes the director for blending improvisation into the fixed ending of a plot. The equation between this risk-taking stance and effective political rebellion looked less specious to many in the 1960’s than it does in the 1980’s, and so the Mailer of that era seems more “political” than the current Mailer. Yet to move from the gestural politics of that time to the inward-turning self-absorption of the 1980’s required in Mailer only the tiniest modulation from heroic myth-forger to narcissist.
This is not to say that there is no conflict between the literary Mailer and the celebrity Mailer. The fact that this volume is divided roughly in half, the first half consisting of collected essays, the second of reprinted interviews, dramatizes the conflict. In fact, the longest of the “pieces,” “Of a Small, Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots,” details Mailer’s fluctuating fortunes on television, that celebrity medium par excellence.
In that piece, Mailer records his growing realization that television is not an appropriate forum for making an impact, whether artistic or political, on the American public. The main purpose of television is to tranquilize, to leach out energy, in Mailer’s term. The “leaching out” process in turn partakes of the technology of economic and social control of which television is an implement, and to which, despite his pronouncements against the technological society, Mailer contributes. Mailer makes much of the fact that there is very little live television anymore, attributing his changed view of the medium in part to that demise. This accords with his belief in the importance of the “existential situation” which theoretically can go anywhere, but this is not the complete story. The essay makes clear that, by way of questioning the beneficence of television, Mailer is also—and primarily—questioning the efficacy of his own behavior on it.
When he said to Mike Wallace in the late 1950’s that then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower was “a bit of a woman,” he apparently expected a fell judgment of some kind to descend upon him, but none did. In one sense, he is amazingly naïve in thinking that such a remark, even on live television, would have the earth-shattering effect he wanted and expected. By the time a decade had passed, Mailer began to sense that instead of doing battle with the American public, he was merely entertaining them. He was, as he phrases it, “catering to TV addicts.” It was never a question of an existential situation where winning or losing was at stake; there was never any contest with the audience, only a show. The specific occasion for Mailer’s withdrawal from television, as both a spectator and a participant, was the famous “Dick Cavett Show” with Janet Flanner and Mailer’s archrival Gore Vidal, but Mailer’s disenchantment with the medium—and his role on it—had been growing for some time: disenchantment of which his long essay about television is an admirable record. (He was, ironically, to reappear on television a few years after the essay was published, and again on the Cavett show, after Jack Henry Abbott, an ex-convict he had befriended, stabbed a waiter in New York.) The essential point is that in addressing the matter of television, Mailer is really examining his own public image and the disturbingly cozy niche created by society for that role.
One of the best essays in this volume deals precisely with the writer’s quandaries of image-building. Entitled “Narcissism,” its ostensible topic is novelist Henry Miller, but mostly it attempts to define narcissism. Mailer points out that narcissism is not really love of self so much as simply detachment from others; the narcissist uses his relations with others, finally, to test himself, to view his own responses. The narcissist’s...
(The entire section is 2500 words.)