Academic journal article The Mailer Review

To Deliver the Metaphor: Intent and Rhetoric in Norman Mailer

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

To Deliver the Metaphor: Intent and Rhetoric in Norman Mailer

Article excerpt

NORMAN MAILER WAS THE ICONIC WRITER-PERFORMER WHO SOUGHT TO deliver, at least notionally, directions in alternate reality. He remained unabashed in his role as a game changer, consumed by reality curves he believed he was scripting; in his words, "to bend reality like a curve in a field of space"(Presidential Papers 74). In 1959 he declared he would settle for nothing less than a total revolution in consciousness. In 1963 he asserted that his literary work was the only answer to the war in Vietnam. In 1982 he submitted that he would be happy to have created a dialectic. The younger Mailer rode the wave donning mantles; Bruce Cook was to call him "the Beats' celebrity-in-residence" (93). The older Mailer was a lot more dispassionate. He had probably come to recognize that the rhetoric of the enfant terrible was more performance than revolution. In a way he was conceding: "By the time you reach your sixties, you feel as if you're in the twelfth round and you're battered" ("Twelfth" 40). He had come to accept with the passing years that the world was not as sinister as he had once imagined ("Twelfth" 47). Notwithstanding, the revolution wasn't quite over, and the war games were very much on. In a sense this battle-preparedness, as it were, continued to inform much of his writing. The Mailer trademark shades of the hipster, existential anguish, walpurgisnacht, kinetic energy was relentlessly fashioning protagonists and fabulating experiences. The uncanny mix of the heroic and the ridiculous had come to stay. Mailer's compositions were moving centre stage. Today, sixty four years after The Naked and the Dead, the politics of being continues to turn with the day. Traces from a lifetime of writing have carried over. Indeed, Mailer seems to have nudged the reader into passageways that open up imaginings of reality. To borrow Jean Luc Nancy's term, the reader confronts alterity, "the most classic of God's aporias" (11).

Mailer had observed in Advertisements for Myselfthat the most terrifying confrontation for his contemporary was the "terror before the romantic"; he speculated that weakening presence and diminishing accord of life posed serious threat to the romantic spirit, and this indeed was a matter of shame (382). Intimidated by shame and terror the Mailer protagonist contemplates walls closing in. He decides to run. In that moment of seemingly pure dread he supposedly apprehends the probability of unmapped spaces. He searches for gaps seeking passageways he must have once traveled in memory. Stephen Rojack (The American Dream) climbs the parapet wall and walks the length, for as Tony Tanner points out, Rojack must "negotiate the edge where the worlds meet" (363). Ridiculous, no doubt, but romantic, if this is to be Rojack's leap of faith: from war hero and politician to the knowing self. D.J. (Why Are We in Vietnam?) heads for the Brooks Mountain Range for a naked confrontation with nature. He talks to the Arctic Lights and comes to grasp the essence of violence. D.J. seeks to acknowledge the power that is dormant within him; with this comes the release of energies and the coalescing of the subjective, the impulsive, and the anarchic. As Mailer claims in The Armies of the Night, "the good Christian Americans needed the war or they would lose their Christ" (212). It was important for Mailer, supposedly within parameters of romantic-existential traditions, that the individual becomes aware of his own presences. Mailer's assertion in Advertisements: "one must be able to feel oneself one must know one's desires, one's rages, one's anguish, one must be aware of the character of one's frustration and know what would satisfy it" (341), comes full circle in Armies where Mailer admits that in Vietnam America sought to rectify its imbalances, providing in the use of napalm bombs the index of the collective instability of the nation (211).

For Mailer the metaphor was gaining importance. He remarks in the case of Vietnam, "I trusted metaphor in that novel to a degree I've never trusted before. …

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