George Alfred Schrader
Soren Kierkegaard has … provided us with an exquisitely precise description of the kind of program which Mailer has adopted for himself. Mailer calls it the "philosophy of Hip" and "good orgasm"; Kiekegaard terms it "the despair of defiance." They come to much the same thing. (p. 82)
Mailer is no existentialist—unless we are to consider his brand of self-styled "American existentialism" as an existentialist heresy. Whereas Mailer claims to be a confirmed romantic who hopes to find his destiny through Hip and "good orgasm," the European existentialists have been consistently opposed to all varieties of romanticism. Kierkegaard expressed the antiromantic orientation of existentialism pungently and succinctly in his assertion that "there is no immediate health of the spirit." Yet, it is just such an "immediate health of the spirit" which Mailer professes as the fundamental doctrine of his "existentialism." Although he is referring specifically to the psychopath rather than the hipster, what Mailer says about orgasm expresses the basic tenet of "the philosophy of Hip": "At bottom, the drama of the psychopath is that he seeks love. Not love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it. Orgasm is his therapy—he knows at the seed of his being that good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him." The very notion of "orgasm," which might be construed as a self-chosen caricature of romantic imagery, is typical of the language and point of view of romanticism. Through the deliberate and repeated use of what is ordinarily considered to be obscene language, Mailer seeks to give his version of romanticism a more virile expression. He fails to recognize, however, that in obliterating the distinction between the sacred and the profane, he deprives obscene language of its shock value. When the language of the soldier becomes the language of the schoolboy—and even of female novelists—obscenity is transmuted into a pale vulgarity. Mailer is, if he only knew it, the worst enemy of Hip. As in so many instances, Mailer must depend upon the "squares" to preserve the purity of the distinction for him.
Whereas the existentialists have been sharply critical of romanticism, charging it with naiveté, "bad faith," or both at once, Mailer wants to recover the primeval vitality of romantic passion and reestablish it in a new power and glory. His quarrel is never with romanticism as such, but with those forms of romanticism which have become effete through social domestication. The chief difference between Mailer and earlier romantic reformers is that he is more violent in his attack upon social decadence and more desperate in his advocacy of the return to primitivism. Moreover, primitive freedom, as Mailer conceives of it, is far from the serene and idyllic affair envisioned by Rousseau. Mailer's faith, he tells us, is in the essential goodness of the uncorrupted (which means socially untrammeled) vitality of man's libidinal energies. Like Nietzsche, he represents himself as an antinihilistic nihilist who is summoning us to rebellion against a society which threatens to emasculate us. (pp. 85-6)
In his search for the interesting, for unexplored possibilities of human choice, Mailer has become fascinated with antisocial and psychopathic behavior. "For I wish to attempt an entrance into the mysteries of murder, suicide, incest, orgy, orgasm, and Time. These themes now fill my head and make me think I have a fair chance to become the first philosopher of Hip." But it is not as a spectator that Mailer sought to understand Hip; he was experiencing something of a psychic rebellion (liberation?) in himself. He reports that after his unhappy experience with the publication of Deer Park something broke in him and he was "finally open to my anger."… This anger, for which Mailer had become "open," was no ordinary anger, but the defiant rage of what Kierkegaard termed "demonic despair." "Now my will was a dictator; like all tyrants it felt the urgency of the present as unendurable." (pp. 86-7)
Unlike French existentialism (the only variety with which Mailer appears to be acquainted), "Hip is based on a mysticism of the flesh, and its origins can be traced back into all the undercurrents and underworlds of American life, back into the instinctive apprehension and appreciation of existence which one finds in the Negro and the soldier, in the criminal psychopath and the dope addict and the jazz musician, in the prostitute, in the actor, in the—if one can visualize such a possibility—in the marriage of the call girl and the psychoanalyst." Mailer is surely correct in calling attention to this difference—so great a difference, in fact, as to differentiate it completely from all other forms of "existentialism." Hip, as Mailer portrays it, is, indeed, a "mysticism of the flesh," a romantic glorification of the primordially instinctual. The trouble is...
(The entire section is 2051 words.)