Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Reflections of Time Past: Pattern, Time, and Memory in Norman Mailer

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Reflections of Time Past: Pattern, Time, and Memory in Norman Mailer

Article excerpt

"Home is where one starts from. As we get older The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated"

T.S. Eliot, "East Coker"

Nearly seventy years ago, T. S. Eliot wrote these words in his poem, "East Coker," published in 1935 and later a part of his masterpiece, Four Quartets. (1) Hugh Kenner reminds us that East Coker is the name of "the village in Somerset where Eliots or Elyots lived for some two centuries, before the poet's ancestor Andrew Eliot emigrated in 1667 to found the American branch of the family" (263). After Eliot died three decades later in 1965, his ashes were interred at St Michael's Church--in that same village of East Coker. In the church on a simple wall plaque are other words from that poem, "In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning." These enigmatic words seem, as Marysa Demoor has pointed out, "designed to elude death" (258). (2) Whether we see life as a manifestation of God's providence or of a more impersonal Wheel of Life, surely we could see a strange sense of recursion and return in these simple facts of Eliot's pilgrimage. (3) At times, does not life seem to fold back on itself? Or, to take up a hint from the title of Four Quartets, is not life like a string quartet or a Bach fugue, weaving a series of complex musical variations upon various themes? As Kenner suggests, Eliot's Four Quartets "traverse and exploit a diversity of timbres and intonations, interchange themes, set going a repetitive but developing minuet of motifs" (261). (4)

Did not Norman Mailer's untimely death on November 10, 2007 cause some of us to look again at the trajectory of our own lives, seeking to come to terms with his passing but also, implicitly, with our own mortality? This reflection is not to become obsessed or haunted by death--our own or others--but to examine the more positive aspects of aging, to chart the slow development of character, to find deeper meaning in the contingencies of life. This path, surely, is a crucial part of self-knowledge: in discovering character, Heraclitus tells us, we shall discover our fate. (5) I freely acknowledge that such a stance may well reflect my own advancing years. However, as James Hillman the Jungian psychologist argues, part of the purpose of our "later years" may be that we are able to explore these deeper patterns of life.

   Then we will be able to look at the decay of body and mind as more
   than affliction. We will connect it with an underlying truth we
   already feel: Something forms a human life into an overall image,
   including life's haphazard contingencies and wasted irrelevancies.
   Later years are often devoted to exploring these irrelevances,
   adventuring into past mistakes so as to discover understandable
   patterns. (xvi)

In so doing, we are reflecting on time past--to use Eliot's useful phrase from Four Quartets. In pondering the life and significance of Mailer (1923- 2007), we are persuaded to re-examine the times in which he lived and about which he so eloquently wrote. We wonder how his work will be understood in time future. In this process of reflection, I believe that Eliot's words in "East Coker" may suggest to us three useful questions. First, as each of us grows older, how do we now understand today's "strange world" and "more complicated" pattern--and how can Mailer's task as a writer help in that understanding? Second, are Mailer's own "beginning" and "end" connected, perhaps in some recursive pattern, some contrapuntal or fugal relationship, or some kind of Return? And third, what roles do pattern, time, and memory play in Mailer's work--in his significance as a writer and in his critical reflections upon American society and the literature of his times?

However, some might reasonably ask, is there a particular relevance in turning to T. S. Eliot--and specifically the Eliot of the Four Quartets to understand Mailer? I would argue that there is. Eliot, in writing the four poems that eventually made up Four Quartets, was at the height of his poetic powers, meditating upon the mysteries of time and the poet's task, and working out an understanding of his life and mortality. …

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