Norman Mailer Mailer, Norman (Vol. 14) - Essay

George Alfred Schrader

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Richard Poirier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[To] write history in Mailer's style requires even more strenuous efforts with language than does the writing of a novel or a play. Having more claims to preexistent forms of reality than novels do, history will give up the shape it has assumed to some other shape only under enormous stylistic (or scholarly) pressure. In the absence of such pressure, we're left to contemplate only the failure of the efforts to exert it, to study the drama of confrontation between a doughty self and resistant historical forces. (p. 168)

His books are about Mailer, to be sure, about the man as he writes history as well as about the man who tried to participate in its making. But they are meant to reveal the true nature of the historical events and issues with which he has involved himself. Similarly, while his metaphors do reveal the workings of his mind, in its probing, contradictory, fluid movement, they also, he would insist, expose the reality of America. He'll settle for nothing less. It's a heroic ambition, but except in the special circumstances of Armies, where the nature of his participation in events is beautifully synchronized with his writing about them, the ambition is seldom achieved. Mailer is more often than not the overreacher of his times.

His metaphoric and melodramatic versions of society and history are of course full of revelations; they tell us more than would a Mailer gone sane and sedate…. There is nothing more seductively entrapping than a repetitive commitment to one's own inventions. It is not the weak, but rather the exceptionally strong writer, a Mailer or a Faulkner or a Hemingway, who finds himself eventually constrained by the persuasiveness of his own fictions, his own metaphors, his own stylistic manners. These come to dominate his mind, to tether the imagination far more than the "reality" they were meant to displace.

Of a Fire on the Moon suffers precisely because he has come to believe so staunchly in the orthodoxy of what he has already written, to believe so literally in his own metaphors, and in the efficacy of his peculiar management of them. They are almost invariably laid down in pairs, for example, in a dualism, like "mystery" and "technology." Each side is imagined tied to the other in a continual struggle. As a consequence, these tensed pairings express for him the schizophrenia he finds in the country and, as a responsible part of it, in himself. But they do much more than that: their interaction is a stay against the complete disruption of the American community and of communication among its parts. In this respect, as in others, Mailer's style is a conservative rather than a radical instrument. The induced give-and-take between the factions is a necessary alternative to a more dreadful possibility: a drawing apart of the factions, the end of any dialectical relationship between them. The consequences would be either the one-dimensionality which is the condition predicted for us in Of a Fire on the Moon, or revolution, the dread eventuality in Armies. Revolution for Mailer would mean that he could no longer live within his dualisms, no longer partake of the characteristics of both sides; he would have to opt for a fragment of the country and of himself, and in the choice would be final madness. This commitment to necessary oppositions, both as a form of writing and as a form of society, has so far been given its most eloquent expression in Armies where the language shuttles back and forth over the various conflicting elements, political and stylistic, with almost unflagging assurance—but in the moon book the shuttling becomes mechanical. (pp. 168-69)

Perhaps more important than odors to Mailer as a writer is the possible demise of the verbal equivalent of odors, blasphemies and dirty words. Since World War II, obscenity has lost those enlivening powers that Mailer wistfully remembers in Armies as part of the language of his buddies…. (p. 170)

Making it one of the most anxiously, sadly patriotic books in our...

(The entire section is 1671 words.)

James Wolcott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Writing in brief, widely spaced-apart paragraphs, Mailer laces together a string of disquieting anecdotes [about condemned killer Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song], creating an atmosphere of friction and frayed nerves: fear at the heart of an empty calm.

The early chapters are suspenseful—doubly suspenseful: The reader not only waits for Gilmore's nerves to snap, but also for Mailer to make an all-trumpets-raised-in-tribute entrance as Aquarius or The Reporter or The Existential Detective. Instead, Mailer slyly—wisely—cloaks himself in invisibility and keeps a watchful distance…. He shadows Gilmore, shooting him from a dozen angles, darting in and out of the minds of his victims,...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Joan Didion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is one of those testimonies to the tenacity of self-regard in the literary life that large numbers of people remain persuaded that Norman Mailer is no better than their reading of him. They condescend to him, they dismiss his most original work in favor of the more literal and predictable rhythms of "The Armies of the Night"; they regard "The Naked and the Dead" as a promise later broken and every book since as a quick turn for his creditors, a stalling action, a spangled substitute, tarted up to deceive, for the "big book" he cannot write. In fact he has written this "big book" at least three times now. He wrote it the first time in 1955 with "The Deer Park" and he wrote it a second time in 1965 with "An American...

(The entire section is 1203 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[One] of the many edges on which Mailer has always precariously balanced his career and reputation is the edge between fiction and what we like to call (forgetting how fictive it really is) "real life." The subtitle of his best political book, The Armies of the Night, is History as a Novel: The Novel as History. And, seriously as that subtitle may have been meant in Armies, it takes on even more serious meaning in The Executioner's Song (subtitled A True Life Novel). For if "fiction" means anything at all, it means an intelligent shaping and ordering of the inchoate stuff of life itself.

He was lucky in his subject. Gary Gilmore was a loser, a violent thug who,...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

Alden Whitman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The good news is that Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song … is a superb piece of writing. It has the scope and wallop of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy; its realism contains echoes of Zola and Frank Norris and James T. Farrell; and it reaffirms the vitality and the validity of the social novel, which, having fled underground with the advent of the Cold War, has now re-emerged with incredible pulsing power. The Executioner's Song is (or should be) the occasion for rousing cheers.

In spare, detached, almost journalistic prose Mailer demonstrates that he is a master of suspenseful narration and of character building through adroit use of quotations, dialogue, and stark...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Ted Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Executioner's Song is a "plain, unvarnished tale," stitched together from hundreds of hours of interviews, about half of them conducted by Mailer, with supporting characters and bit players in the Gary Gilmore saga. The story is told from several dozen points of view….

Mixing the different voices proved to be Mailer's highest hurdle. "I was brought up not to jump from one person's mind into another," he says. "I thought that was what poor writers did when they didn't have enough imagination to find a form. But then, I thought, the shifting point of view was a 19th-century form, it went back to a time when people believed in God and the novelist could play at being the All Knowing Supreme...

(The entire section is 819 words.)

Diane Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

However powerful one finds [The Executioner's Song] there are reservations one may feel about the genre and about its social implications—if only what to make of the literary ambulance-chasing that the true-life novel encourages.

Perhaps the contradictions embodied in the idea of true-life fiction reflect Mailer's ambivalence about whether to take a journalistic or novelistic direction with this fascinating material, involving as it does both dramatic elements of love and death and matters of worldly significance. Gilmore's assertion of his right to have the death sentence carried out and the legal bases of efforts to save him, the evident failure of the penal system to do anything for or...

(The entire section is 1010 words.)