Mailer and the Almighty

Norman Mailer was a master of provocation, even if many of his thoughts - including those in his final book on God - were plain silly.

Alan Miller

Topics Culture

The passionate, aggressive, at times antagonistic and violent, melancholic and melodramatic 84-year-old writer Norman Mailer passed away on 10 November. While it is highly fashionable for today’s critics and biographers to obsess with personal lives rather than an artist’s work, Mailer made it difficult sometimes to consider one without discussing the other. Alongside the a-changing times that were increasingly preoccupied with the individual, his unabashed ambition and determination to be at the centre of attention was surely a catalyst for him developing a style that came to be referred to, by Tom Wolfe and others, as ‘the new non-fiction’ (1).

Mailer fancied himself as a literary giant, and his best work is up there with the great American writers of the last 100 years. But his last book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation demonstrates his many weaknesses, too.

An uncommon life

Mailer, born Norman Kingsley in 1923, first gained literary recognition and success in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead, the first of many doorstep-sized novels, this one building on his limited experience of the war in the Pacific to create what Time magazine described as the ‘best novel yet about World War II’. Others were equally flattering. Over the next six decades, Mailer penned more than thirty books, as well as directing, acting in and producing independent films and running for mayor of New York.

In his passions, he represented much of the America he wrote about. He was brash and could be enormously arrogant; he loved jazz and sport, particularly boxing; he was fascinated with sex, violence, celebrity and death. His journalism was often regarded as being far better than his fiction and, indeed, it was for his ‘journalistic-novels’ that he won his two Pulitzer prizes.

The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History emerged out of a series of articles he penned for Harper’s and Commentary magazines. In the book, he used the character ‘Mailer’ to recount events around the 1967 anti-Vietnam war march on the Pentagon, with fiction and non-fiction intertwined. Later, in The Executioner’s Song, the story of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore who requested to be executed by the state of Utah while on death row in 1976, Mailer used what he believed was a style that reflected the idiosyncracies and tones of the characters. He called it a ‘true-life novel’.

Never the shrinking violet, he cast himself as the reigning champion of his contemporaries and had flaring fallouts with several of them, as well as verbally heated ‘debates’ with feminists like Germaine Greer. He didn’t shy away from physical altercations, offering to head-butt or arm wrestle opponents (2).

While he adored Hemingway and Faulkner, he, like many others, realised one couldn’t drink and fight one’s way to the dizzying heights of the greats. Some have argued that The Naked and the Dead is better than A Farewell to Arms, although – toe-to-toe, as they say – Hemingway transformed the novel and how we all read and understood the language. It would be difficult to make a similar claim for Mailer. Indeed, he was always aiming for that ‘great American novel’ which seemed to elude him.

On the other hand, Mailer was a man prepared to admit to banging out a bad book to pay the child support and the taxman. Even in the case of that book, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, he was ready with the self-congratulatory pat on the back as he went on to say ‘but instead the style came out and that saved it for me’. (3)

Mailer was a master of the provocative but silly assertion. In his 1957 essay, The White Negro: Superficial Reflections of the Hipster, he presented the notion that violence was in some way an existential act and attempted to package the real murder of a shop owner as some kind of agit-prop experiment in ‘daring the unknown’ (4). While he flirted with a somewhat romanticised view of the violent protagonist, his experience with Jack Henry Abbott soon ended this predisposition. A prison inmate whom he helped gain parole, and whose letters to Mailer were published as In the Belly of the Beast, Abbot stabbed a waiter to death in downtown New York a few weeks after his release.

In many ways, Mailer was like an enchanted child, inquisitive and questioning, demanding and temperamental, sharing his views through his work and playing out his ideas in the public sphere. Mailer believed it was difficult to ever be a ‘regular writer’ after his early success and recognition. Alongside names as familiar as Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and William Styron, he earned his acclaim, particularly through his journalistic contribution – although he experienced his share of panning from critics alongside the adulation.

Mailer co-founded The Village Voice in 1955 with his friends Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher hoping that it would add some ‘speed to the moral and sexual revolution’, although his partners seemed more concerned with running a successful business (5). It was here that he really began establishing his voice journalistically.

Mailer on God

Throughout his long career, Mailer returned again and again to the question of God. Until his thirties, he was an atheist who had read Marx and Nietzche and was heavily influenced by the turbulent Sixties – although more as a hedonist than a revolutionary. His view of God and the devil played out in numerous writings, such as his 1963 work The Presidential Papers, where he tells us: ‘Ultimately a hero is a man who would argue with the Gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision.’

In 1965, Mailer developed his theory of how God and the Devil targeted certain individuals in history (a theory which displayed a similar vulgarity for ordinary people as The White Negro). Thus, in An American Dream, he displayed his early thoughts: ‘I decided the only explanation is that God and the Devil are very attentive to people at the summit. I don’t know if they stir much in the average man’s daily stew, no great sport for spooks, I would suppose, in a ranch house, but do you expect God or the Devil left Lenin and Hitler and Churchill alone? No. They bid for favors and exact revenge. That’s why men with power sometimes act so silly.’

In 1995, in The Gospel and the Son, some were outraged that he was attempting to present himself as some kind of demi-god – although stylistically it had many of the elements he had developed while writing about Monroe, Oswald and Picasso. Earlier this year, The Castle in the Forest, his first novel in a decade, retold the early life of Adolf Hitler from the point of view of a devil sent to cultivate Hitler’s potential for evil.

The last word

There has been a recent trend for secularists to stick the proverbial boot into religion and God – as though somehow we were witnessing a resurgence of religious fervour (6). Quite the reverse is true, with religion – and belief itself – held as being symptomatic of wrong-thinking. Without realising it, the atheists bashing religion are projecting their own concern at the absence of any kind of moral web and meaning in their own lives.

So I was fascinated to see what Mailer was going to come up with in his final book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, in which Mailer engages in a series of conversations with academic Michael Lennon about the nature of God and his ‘belief system’. Over three years and several scheduled interviews with Lennon, who was clearly mesmerized by Mailer the icon, we get a deluge of banal platitudes and meaningless statements.

In his introduction, Mailer writes that he is very proud to have been an atheist for 30-odd years and, ‘how much more difficult and honourable I then considered that to be, rather than having a belief in an All-Mighty divinity’ (7). We fast discover that Mailer does not actually believe in an almighty divinity, at least not one that is all-knowing and all-powerful. Rather, Mailer’s God is a pared-down version of the omnipotent and omnipresent, an altogether more harried and stressed type of God that is in dubious battle with the devil – who could have been an earlier accomplice gone awry, or not – and one who, rather than being a lawmaker, is, of course, an artist.

Mailer believed basically that in the contest for good and evil, the latter is winning out. In particular, it is in the ascendancy due to one very particular aspect of our lives: technology. So, he informs us: ‘It’s not too hard to argue that the gulags, the concentration camps, the atom bomb, came out of technological improvement.’ (8)

It may seem, in the West, as though things are more comfortable, but Mailer argues that if human development is measured by ‘ethical, spiritual, responsible and creative human beings, it may be worse’. Language and philosophy has suffered, too. Indeed it has, as anyone who reads this book will readily discover.

What we witness in this book is a crystallisation of all of the mumbo-jumbo remnants of opinions (to call them ideas would be to denigrate the very meaning of the word) that Mailer had picked up over the years. Maybe it was the excessive pot smoking. However, there is a thread in all of Mailer’s work, it seems to me, where, unable to really understand our times – and in particular, to be able to explain what led to the tragedy of the Holocaust – he ended up espousing a pedestrian smorgasbord-view of myths and eastern-based beliefs.

Throughout the book, Lennon makes some intelligent points, such as fascism being a reaction to the Enlightenment and Mailer ploughs on through declaring that once one accepts there is no God, ‘then totalitarianism is the ultimate direction for the Left, Right or Corporate Center’. These are commonplace bar-room reflections, thrown in with a few clangers such as: ‘Why are there volcanoes? I would answer: because God is not a perfect engineer.’ (9)

Mailer applauds Jung for his prescription for mental health, in having ‘a view of the universe that makes sense to oneself’. So this may be a ‘theory’ for one person. Unlike Tolstoy, who was more broadly committed to an set of ethical premises and beliefs that he organised around, Mailer was simply sounding off, randomly. Like much of his ranting and raving of the past, this ‘uncommon conversation’ becomes very tedious quite quickly.

The infuriating thing about On God is that it is so absolutely devoid of anything sensible to say on the subject matter that one is left wondering why it was published. The level of unsophisticated thinking is breathtaking. Mailer’s real accomplishment, as with much of his earlier work, is to take the sentiments that are pretty widespread in society and regurgitate them, somewhat indulgently. Most of what he argues is very fashionable (with the exception of Intelligent Design). God is an Artist, we are all creative (hurrah!) but we have a dark side (boo!). Those evil old hierarchical religions (and the modern corporations) can’t have their way with us (hurrah!) as they are part of the problem (boo!). And so on.

It would be sad to end a review on such a low note, so it is worth remembering some of Mailer’s other achievements.

These are politically correct times, when so many bureaucrats in the US and Europe like to impose speech codes and behaviour etiquette; when we are lectured constantly about eating, drinking and screwing. Perhaps we could do with a few more Mailer-spirited public figures. Wouldn’t it be pleasant now and again to declare to them, as his platform declared so succinctly when running for mayor: ‘No More Bullshit!’

Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon.

Previously on spiked

Emilie Bickerton reviewed a biopic of Truman Capote. Duleep Allirajah questioned why great authors – aside from Mailer – never write about sport. Andrew Calcutt discussed the influence of Mailer’s White Negro. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment

(1) See Who’s Afraid of Tom Wolfe? How New Journalism Rewrote the World, by Marc Weingarten

(2) ‘Dialogue on Women’s Liberation’ held at New York’s Town Hall on 30 April 1971 – film makers DA Pennebaker documented the exchange in Town Bloody Hall

(3) Norman Mailer, Towering Writer With Matching Ego, Dies at 84, New York Times, 10 November 2007

(4) Originally published in Dissent and then again in Advertisements for Myself

(5) Norman Mailer, by Harry Bruinius, Village Voice

(6) Particularly Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens. See Baiting the devout, by Michael Fitzpatrick; Lunging, flailing, mispunching, London Review of Books, 19 October 2006

(7) Page xvi

(8) Page 7

(9) Page 13

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