Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Prescience of Mailer's Marxism: Socialism or Barbary Shore?

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Prescience of Mailer's Marxism: Socialism or Barbary Shore?

Article excerpt

The history of the last twenty years may be divided into two decades: a decade of economic crisis, and a decade of war and the preparations for war--

I was a dog on a chain, and the radius circumscribed a world in which I was able to provide for many of my wants and most of my needs.

--Barbary Shore


Reading the first passage above, we can see that it provides an excellent description of the first half of the last century: economic crisis followed by war and preparations for war. If we reverse the chronology to first war and war preparations followed by economic crisis, we also have an excellent description of this new century, at least so far. My point is that these lines which were descriptive of the past contain a surprising prescience and timeliness. Further we should notice that crisis, war, and relative economic stability followed by a new cycle correspond to the Marxist analysis of capitalism.

On the other hand, the second passage allows Norman Mailer to metaphorically describe how he perceived the second half of the last century, with its relative economic security that combined with a limited sense of freedom--after all, a dog on a chain may think it is free to roam, only to get yanked back. This second quotation articulates Norman Mailer's critique of American society contained in the majority of his writings that attempt to describe the decades in which he lived. A recurring motif in almost all of Mailer's writing has been that technological and economic abundance created new and diminished modes of a meaningful life, a position that Mailer's version of existentialism and Marxism share. Mailer consistently argued that massive corporate power and expanding consumerism corrupt the human spirit, bleed away our freedom and limit our creativity. Mailer's version of existentialism challenges these features of American society. Earlier in his career, however, Mailer explored the explanatory and revolutionary ideas of Marxism to challenge these same features. However, after Barbary Shore (Mailer's second novel), Marxism, for Mailer, seems largely precluded. Barbary Shore represents Mailer's most explicit engagement with Marxism and his only fictional expression that overtly defends Marxism. Yet, I argue that it contains real insights into the past, present and possibly the future.

Barbary Shore functions as a seminal moment when, as a thinker and writer, Mailer considers historical and political options that may again attain relevance for our times and for the foreseeable future. Because Mailer generally shifted interest away from Marxism in his later works, I also believe the novel represents a turning point where Mailer presents certain political alternatives in sharp, apocalyptic fashion, and then reaches an impasse, resulting from a sense that Marxism fails or at least proves inadequate as a philosophy of freedom to challenge the limitations that Mailer finds in society and the world. As a result of this impasse, Mailer's subsequent writing and radical stance toward modern life turned from explicit Marxism to existentialism and religious spiritualism. (2) However, Mailer always remained a rebel against the status quo. Therefore, Mailer never turned to religion in a fundamentalist Christian or New Age manner as did so many others who viewed Marxism as the "God that Failed" and claimed disenchantment as an excuse to turn inward or make peace with society. However, the dichotomy between the early Marxist Mailer and the later Mailer never really represents an absolute division. A close reading of Barbary Shore reveals the nature of this political barrier: the corrosive nature of Stalinism destroys the possibility for successful working-class struggle and subverts hope by diverting it into support for a totalitarian set of regimes that mask themselves in the framework of a false Marxism. Barbary Shore also shows how old barriers no longer stand. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.