Contradictory Syntheses: Norman Mailer's Left Conservatism and the Problematic of "Totalitarianism"

By Mantzaris, Alexandros | The Mailer Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Contradictory Syntheses: Norman Mailer's Left Conservatism and the Problematic of "Totalitarianism"


Mantzaris, Alexandros, The Mailer Review


NORMAN MAILER's SEEMINGLY PARADOXICAL POSITION of "Left Conservatism" may have its basis in certain mechanisms contained within the problematic concept of "totalitarianism." I suggest that there are two aspects to the broader problematic of totalitarianism. The first aspect has to do with what we could refer to as the historical phenomenon of totalitarianism. This phenomenon is represented by certain political regimes and/or types of socio-political organizations called totalitarian, to which are attributed a number of shared characteristics such as rule by a single party, an official ideology, and a monopoly of mass communications. From Mailer's slightly different perspective, such totalitarian regimes are thought of as suppressing the past, suppressing myth, and imposing a cowardly conformity on their subjects. Here, in short, we find the view of "a system" exhibiting certain characteristics. There is also, however, another facet to the totalitarian problematic having to do with the discourse of totalitarianism itself. From this slightly diverging angle one would observe that the discourse of totalitarianism is one whose very logic confuses political "sides" and therefore destabilizes "standard" political antagonisms. What we have here is a convergence of political opposites, the plasticity of political/ideological oppositions, and a profound ideological ambivalence.

Not everyone would readily accept the central thesis of totalitarianism's theorists, namely that the former USSR and Nazi Germany can be put in the same category. And, naturally, even fewer would accept that American democratic capitalism can itself be implicated in such a problematic category--yet, of course, that is what people like Mailer never tired of arguing.

Now, when Mailer critics discuss totalitarianism they usually refer to what I called the "phenomenon" of totalitarianism--that is, to a "system" with certain characteristics. Although there is much to be said in this area, I believe it is equally productive to approach totalitarianism as a discourse exhibiting certain paradoxical properties. In what sense is it helpful, then, to think of totalitarianism not just as a system but in the way I am suggesting--as a discourse perpetuating the political confusion that produces it in the first place? First of all, the view of totalitarianism as political confusion allows us to confirm that Mailer's Left Conservatism does not surface for the first time in The Armies of the Night, although it is there the term first appears, nor does it properly belong to Mailer's 1960s work only. Left Conservatism, in other words, is not a later stage in Mailer's ideological development. It is there from the start, in the uneasy relationship of the author of The Naked and the Dead to that book's most fascinating characters, Cummings and Croft, both of whom are fascists.

Critics have discussed this tension, starting with The Naked and the Dead as well as its development in Mailer's later works, in terms that are primarily moral, philosophical, aesthetic. Joseph Wenke, for example, has argued in his highly interesting study:

[I]t is clear that until Mailer was able to write "The White Negro," totalitarianism was a particularly intimidating and intimate enemy of his art. In addition to representing an external political threat, it presented itself to Mailer as an immediate aesthetic problem that insinuated itself into the very creation of his first three novels. (Wenke 8, emphasis mine)

The problem Wenke refers to is, precisely, the profound appeal that characters such as Croft and Cummings held for Mailer even as he was placing them on the side of the "heavies."And, in general, I think it is fair to say that this tension has been mostly discussed in terms similar to Wenke's. Indeed I sometimes have the sense that the political field has to be preserved intact in such critical efforts, as a sort of stable ground from which Mailer's course can then be observed and appraised--so that, for example, in his opening to the violent (a)morality of Croft, Mailer can be said to be moving "to the Right. …

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