Mailer Was the Rage

I’m beginning to feel that Norman Mailer might have made a strategic mistake in recent interviews plugging his new book

I’m beginning to feel that Norman Mailer might have made a strategic mistake in recent interviews plugging his new book on writing, The Spooky Art. A strategic mistake in conspicuously low-balling his life’s work, his achievements as opposed to his once-grand expectations of himself.

He told The Times, for instance, “I may last or I may not last … part of the ability to keep writing over the years comes down to living with the expectation of disappointment.”

It’s Norman Mailer playing Woody Allen, who has also adopted this aw-shucks “my work doesn’t amount to much, etc.” strategy.

But in Mr. Mailer’s case, I have a feeling that he felt someone would step forward and respond to this low-balling by saying, “Yes, but …. ”

Yes, maybe nobody could live up to the kind of inflated notion he once had that he would “change the consciousness of [his] times” with his prose, that he’d run for President, win the Nobel Prize (remember the opening of The Prisoner of Sex, in which he’s waiting for the phone call from Stockholm?). But look what he has achieved: Even if you entirely set aside all the novels, he’s changed the face of American prose–certainly American nonfiction–with Armies of the Night (which, you might recall, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award). He wrote the closest thing to an American prose epic in The Executioner’s Song (another Pulitzer); he broke ground for every memoirist who’s put pen to paper since Advertisements for Myself. He transformed political reportage with his classic account of the J.F.K. nomination in L.A., “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” He made it possible to write about two very big things in a way they’d never been written about before in the first person: Sex and Ideas.

So, since I’m not seeing any of my betters step forward and say the requisite “yes, but … ” O.K., I’ll volunteer.

Big “yes,” to Mailer’s achievements especially for finding a way–both brilliant and comic–in Armies of the Night to write about the personal and the political, the personal and the metaphysical, the personal and the ideological, and even the personal and the theological. Especially the theological, because it’s my contention that the thing people miss most about Mr. Mailer is the theological aspect of his work, the vision of God and the Devil, the vision of theodicy, the problem of evil (my favorite subject) that runs through everything he writes, sometimes to its detriment (at times, I felt he was ventriloquizing theological speculation into his representation of Gary Gilmore’s stream of consciousness). Theological speculation with an exciting, heretical sense of sin–an acutely serious awareness of the consequences of his own sins–of the stakes in those moments of decision we all have to face, the ones that involve love, death and sacrifice. (And, by the way, his most underrated book, the one about the moon launch, Of a Fire on the Moon, said more profound and prophetic things about man and space, technology and Mystery than anything else in the past three decades.)

I’d been thinking of Mr. Mailer even before the new book, because the good people at the Medill School of Journalism in Chicago have asked me, as part of my brief “Distinguished Visitor” stint this spring, to make some remarks about “The Journalism of Ideas,” and you can’t–well, I can’t–talk about J.O.I., let’s call it, without talking about what Norman Mailer made possible.

I’ve always been fond of the title of the late Anatole Broyard’s memoir of coming to the Village in the 40’s and plunging into the literary life of his time: When Kafka Was the Rage. When I came to the Village at the tail end of the 60’s, Mailer was the rage. I’d already been turned on to his work in college, when I’d read the original 1967 Harper’s magazine version of Armies of the Night, which opened my eyes to the possibilities of nonfiction prose. (In that book, he manages to create a character–himself–who partakes of both Falstaff and Hamlet; no mean trick). And then, after I lucked out and found myself with a staff writer’s job at The Village Voice (a paper Mr. Mailer co-founded and named) and a contributing editor post at Harold Hayes’ Esquire (where Mailer had published “Superman Comes to the Supermarket”), he certainly was the rage to me. Not the only one: The contemporary nonfiction world seemed filled with people who were doing things nobody had done before, from Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Truman Capote, to unique eccentric geniuses like Terry Southern, Paul Krassner and Hunter Thompson. And, in the daily papers, a miracle three times a week: Murray Kempton!

But what appealed to me about Norman Mailer is that he managed to validate, turn into a unique art, the fusion of memoir and metaphysics, J.O.I.–and to do it with joy, with the joy of a comic novelist, to have gleeful fun with the storytelling (the aspect of Mr. Mailer’s work even more overlooked than the theological is the fact that he can be very, very funny, often at his own expense, and yet manage to be deeply thought-provoking as well).

When I was briefly attempting to teach seminars on “literary journalism” (a term I had problems with, preferring J.O.I.) at Columbia’s journalism school, I felt that I could at least accomplish something if I convinced my students to read Armies of the Night. It’s one of those books that holds up every time I reread it, often for different reasons. (The way In Cold Blood does, for instance, the latter becoming more a pure novel whose unuttered, always-present questions are about fate and theodicy–why believe in a God who permits hideous evils to happen to His most sinless true believers?)

But you read Armies of the Night (which was subtitled, a little cumbersomely, “History as the Novel, the Novel as History”), and suddenly you see how all Mr. Mailer’s superb technical gifts as a novelist–especially the ability to bring a social world into being–are brought to bear on “what happened” in history. Shot through with the superb speculative intellect of the thinker doing the writing, it’s just thrilling, pure literary and intellectual pleasure to read. The way, for instance, that Mr. Mailer manages to situate the decision whether to answer the phone at the opening of the book in a psychic, social and ideological landscapes, and the web of connections between them that simultaneously becomes hilarious and suspenseful–it’s Balzac, Proust and Walter Benjamin on a conference call. (It’s History calling.) Or the way he turns literary figures like Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald into great characters. He was one of the first and best to write about the seductions and corruptions of celebrity in an age of mechanical reproduction.

But I’m not here to do an exegesis of Mr. Mailer’s methods and prose (get it from the horse’s mouth in The Spooky Art). And I’m not suggesting his is the only way to write about ideas. Observer readers know I’m also a partisan of the less subjective methods of Lingua Franca, for instance. I just have this personal fascination with Mr. Mailer’s methods and his vision, perhaps because I’m someone who is more than slightly obsessed with theodicy (the attempt to rationalize the presence and often triumph of evil with belief in a just and loving God, the problem that Leibniz claimed he solved–a solution Voltaire famously ridiculed in Candide).

Both the origin and the fate of Mr. Mailer’s theodicy are as interesting as the thing itself. Indeed, I’ve always wondered about Mr. Mailer’s account of the origin of his vision. As I recall it, he had this vision that he has often said is at the very heart of all his work–a vision he would later channel through the voice of the pimp Marion Faye in The Deer Park, through the voice of Gary Gilmore in Executioner’s Song–while he was doing a lot of flying on the wings of Benzedrine and cannabis.

Whatever its origin in Mr. Mailer’s mind, his theodicy has a very contemporary parallel in a strain of post-Holocaust theology, post-Holocaust theodicy–a strain often attributed to the theologian Irving Greenberg. (It’s often forgotten that Mr. Mailer was one of the first non-theologians to speculate about the unconscious cultural impact of the Holocaust in the 50’s. The first sentence of his controversial essay “The White Negro” declared: “Probably we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps … upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive … in these years.”) I wondered whether Mr. Mailer had read Greenberg or about him–and whether or not it recurred to him on pot, the vision was already seeded there, so speak. And that Mr. Mailer, in his way, would prefer a Bad-Boy version of how he came to the most fundamental idea of his career, rather than admit to getting it from a guy named Irving.

What is this theodicy? You could call it God-in-struggle. It’s a response often now made to the very powerful philosophical argument against theism put forward in the 1950’s by J.L. Mackie, who argued that God could not be both all-powerful and just and loving. Because if He were all-powerful and just and still permitted the murder of, say, one million children who had no chance to sin before they were slaughtered in the Holocaust–well, such a God, such a belief, is unsustainable. How to still believe in God? One solution advanced recently (at least half-seriously) by the always-provocative thinker Jim Holt (in Slate) is to believe in a God who is “100 percent malevolent but only 80” percent effective.

Another solution, for those who want to believe in a non-malevolent God, is to say “O.K., he’s loving but not all-powerful.” In some versions, he’s just a struggling weakling (i.e., in When Bad Things Happen to Good People).

I’ll never forget what the Israeli Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer said to me when I asked him this question in his Jerusalem office while I was working on my book, Explaining Hitler. What Bauer said is that he had no use for this weakling God. He put it more colorfully, saying of this vision of a God who permitted the Holocaust: “If He’s all-powerful [and he allowed Hitler to kill a million children], he’s Satan. If he’s just but not all-powerful, he’s a nebbish.”

A nebbish? I asked.

“Well, you know, a poor chap who has to be supported, a God who needs to draw his strength from us, this is [Irving] Greenberg’s idea …. I don’t need a God like that.”

But Norman Mailer does, sort of. This is how he puts it in a 1958 interview that is reprinted in Advertisements for Myself. He called it a notion “so central and so shattering that its religious resonances … are going to dominate this coming century … it’s that God is in danger of dying. In my very limited knowledge of theology, this never really has been expressed before …. Man’s fate being tied up with God’s fate. God is no longer all-powerful … the moral consequences of this are not only staggering, but they’re thrilling; because moral experience is intensified rather than diminished …. It’s the only thing that explains to me the problem of evil … that God Himself … can abuse our beings in order to achieve His means.” He doesn’t see his God as a “poor chap”. He sees him as an amateur boxer, determined, embattled in a cosmic “Thrilla in Manila” with the Devil–but on the ropes in the last rounds. He sees his God, it must be admitted, a bit like Norman Mailer, the incorrigible pugilist. Mr. Mailer once said that the last thing he wanted to be thought of in life was “a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.” But in a way, he is–if not exactly nice at all times (though I’ve never found him otherwise the few times we’ve met), then in the way he’s made it a mission to rescue God from Yehuda Bauer’s contemptuous dismissal as a nebbish. The Ultimate Nice Jewish Boy thing to do.

He doesn’t see this as endorsing a satanic God or a weak god, but a God who is always in struggle, in a titanic struggle with the Devil–and, most importantly, a belief that every act of human courage (however you want to define it) strengthens God and weakens the Devil. And every act of cowardice has the opposite effect.

It is–and this is where people don’t get Mr. Mailer and his fascination with sin–an incredibly demanding, hyper-vigilant moralistic view of human conduct. Every failure–and he is relentless in detailing his own failures–contributes not just to lowering your own self-esteem, but to weakening God Himself! It’s self-important, some might say, but undeniably important. As is Mr. Mailer. Which is why, despite his own doubts, I think he’ll last.


I really didn’t want to trouble Mr. Mailer on his 80th birthday, but after I finished this column, I thought I ought to call him and see if he had a few moments for me to check on the importance of his theodicy–and its origin.

When I reached him at his Provincetown place, I asked him, “Am I right in thinking this vision of God and man you spoke of in that interview in Advertisements for Myself imbued your work ever since?”

“Absolutely–oh, ever since then,” he said. He told me about the circumstance of that interview: how he’d been thinking about this vision for a while but had never spoken of it in print until he went to Chicago to speak with novelist Richard Stern’s classes, and how his rapport with Stern and the presence of Mailer’s friend, Bob Lucid, had loosened his tongue.

“Had you been reading theology before?” I asked him. Not much, he answered. He said he “wouldn’t be surprised if some third-century B.C. Greek philosopher had thought of something like” that vision of an embattled God, but that it didn’t come from reading Irving Greenberg. He did, however, now recall something else that had been on his mind.

He remembered an obscure film “about, I think, Channel Island fishermen, called God Needs Man. I don’t even remember what it was about, but that title stayed with me–God Needs Man.”

But he wants to clarify something: that he wasn’t thinking of a two-sided Manichean struggle for the soul of man. That it was, for him, more complex than that–a three-way thing:

“I’ve said it in so many ways, but finally I just feel we live in a triangular relation with God and the Devil, that we’re a separate force. It’s not that we’re little puppets pushed around by an anode pole and a cathode pole. We push back on each of them. So it makes for a very complex universe, a complex moral universe, because you never know at a given moment whether you’re doing it [acting, “pushing back”] as a human or whether you’re being tricked by one or the other of two opposed deities.” Whether you’re an unknowing Agent of the Other Side. “It explains a lot to me when you look at it that way,” he said. It explains, for one thing, the kind of fascination Mr. Mailer displays for double agents and moles in books like Harlot’s Ghost.

“We push back on each of them.” That’s what I like about Mr. Mailer’s work. He’s still at odds with God and the Devil, still trying to figure out who’s tricking whom. Keep on pushin’, Norman.

Mailer Was the Rage