Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Norman Mailer Today: This Essay First Appeared in Commentary Magazine in 1967

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Norman Mailer Today: This Essay First Appeared in Commentary Magazine in 1967

Article excerpt

In the late 50's, norman mailer's reputation still stood on The Naked and the Dead (1948), neither of his subsequent efforts, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), having quite convinced Mailer or anyone else that he was the major novelist he insisted he could become. By his own later account, his head was leaden with seconal, benzedrene, and marijuana: a sense of what he himself has termed passivity, stupidity, and dissipation threatened to overcome him. Only gradually, after returning to New York from Paris and giving up drugs and cigarettes, did he begin to feel that he could write once again. Then, in 1957, Mailer produced "The White Negro" an essay which restored his faith in his literary future and presaged the forms and directions that it would take.

Mailer has always professed an umbilical attachment to the Left, but since "The White Negro" the drift has been unmistakably from political radicalism toward spiritual radicalism, from an obsession with Marx to an obsession with Reich, from economic revolution to apocalyptic orgasm, from the proletariat to heroes, demons, boxers, tycoons, bitches, murderers, suicides, pimps, and lovers. And correspondingly, concern with extreme psychic states has become more important to his work than concern with extreme political states (the center having always been a bore for Mailer in all its manifestations).

It was not that eschatology replaced politics, but rather that it came to constitute a new means of diagnosis, both of personal and social plague, and that it promised answers to the crisis in which both the individual and the nation were entrapped. The criteria by which the health of a particular man (the organ) were to be assessed--his complexity, his bravery, his daring, his capacity for love--were essentially the same as those which measured the salubrity of America (the organism). Similarly, the disease which threatened both individual and state (expressed at once literally and metaphorically as cancer) evinced identical symptoms: mediocrity, uniformity, repression, and security.

Assuming the voice of religious physician, the Mailer of the 60's reveals a vision of malady and possible restoration that is profoundly radical; at the same time the terminology and conceptual foundation of his homily are Puritan to the core. God and the Devil, Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, History and Eternity are as inescapably real for Mailer as they were for Jonathan Edwards--and he has repeatedly asserted that such ultimate questions are proper and indeed necessary preoccupations for the contemporary novelist. Many would dissent, but even if we do look to the novelist for salvation, can we look to Mailer? There is, at least on the surface, an insistent buffoonery to his self-projected public image that can make it difficult to take him seriously, let alone to believe he can show us the way to redemption. Yet even a cursory examination of his work suggests that he is justified in claiming to be an intellectual adventurer of broad dimension. If he sometimes seems to be more familiar with Captain Blood than Middlemarch, he nevertheless possesses an uncanny ability to recall and make use of what he has read. If he is sometimes guileful, more often he strives for complete honesty and the subject of his work. If his thinking is occasionally wild and unsound, he is also capable of rigorously logical intellection. And if his emphasis on scatology is at times repugnant, his undeniable charisma excites interest in practically everything he writes or says or does.

Consequently, when a new work by Mailer appears, we turn to it eagerly--expectant and hopeful--especially when, as in the case of his latest novel, Why Are We in Vietnam? the new work also represents a new literary departure. By itself perhaps the most ambitious and the most difficult effort of his career, Why Are We in Vietnam? is also a crystallization and an extension of Mailer's other major productions of the 60's. …

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