Monday, November 21, 2005

Norman Mailer on the "Spooky Art."

Norman Mailer, Of Women and Their Elegance (New York: Tom Doherty, 1980).
Norman Mailer, The Fight (New York: Vintage, 1975).

When everyone is sleeping in my apartment, I sometimes look in on the women who share my daily life -- not all of whom are physically present in that life -- so as to have a sense of their safety before I try to rest.

I kiss someone special (who is always with me in spirit, at least, even if she's not here in any other way). I whisper "good night." I picture her sleeping. Brushing back the hair from her forehead with my finger tips, I make sure that she has enough covers. Then I close the door to her room in my mind. I do the same for the two women who are, materially and empirically, very much present.

As of this writing, my daughter is fifteen years-old. It requires all of my calculation and no small talent for inducement to persuade her to do the right things: get enough sleep, study, but not so much that she forgets to have fun with her friends, feel confident about herself, as a talented and strong young woman, assert her independence. This is my fondest wish for all of the people that I love. Find a way to be free, or just to "be."

There are so many forces at work to harm her: making her feel guilty about eating normally, making her suffer for not resembling some impossible sexist ideal, burdening her with values and opinions that are not her own which fashion or oppressive power dictates must be hers, denying her the opportunity to form her own beliefs and values, to make her own choices, leaving her to develop a mature unique identity, informed by the love and encourgement we give her, but which is entirely her own.

Her mother is my best friend, among other things. I find myself offering her the same kind of moral support all the time. In some ways, she needs it more than her daughter. In sleep, both of them acquire an ease and relaxation in facial expressions that is only possible for those who are untouched by the evil in the world. Neither of them has any capacity for malice or hatred, nor much experience with such things. Thank goodness. "Goodness" is the right word for both of them. I make no such claim for myself.

At about 2:00 A.M., last night, I was sure that both mother and child slept soundly. I was surfing t.v. channels, when I came upon the National Book Awards ceremony on c-span 3. Toni Morrison introduced Norman Mailer, recipient of a "Lifetime Contribution to Literature" award. Mailer moves a bit more slowly now, but was fiercely articulate and elegant in his comments, having lost none of his acuity and talent for rabble rousing. He is Muhammad Ali in his final years as champ. Mailer now makes up in poise and class, in other words, for any loss of quickness. Never take him lightly.

Mailer's favorite fighter and one of the most admired artists of the twentieth century must be Muhammad Ali. Mailer (me too!) would like nothing better than to be a literary Ali, "roping the dopes" of the literary establishment. In fact, Mailer is more like Rocky Marciano or Joe Frazier: committed to a work ethic, pounding away at the body of his manuscripts, so as to bring them to submission.

Gore Vidal is more like Ali, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee -- and what a bee! In both Vidal and Ali, one experiences the pleasure of seeing a creator who is also creating himself, where form is substance, both in the work and persona. After one sentence, you know it is Vidal's prose; after the first few seconds of Ali dancing in the ring, you know whether he will win the fight and how he'll do it, through the imposition of will. Part of what's great about those two men, Vidal and Ali, is that their genius is so obvious that it cannot be missed, as is their delight in being who they are.

Part of the fascination in Mailer's persona comes from the dialectic of master and slave, in himself, the struggle of a man of great gifts who is also burdened with powerful talents for self-destruction, the tensions between his enormous capacity for love and creativity, against his powerful, often justified rage and energy. With Mailer -- and most men of stormy and uncompromising natures -- the love wins ... provided that he finds a form of creative expression that is satisfactory to him. Picasso, Mailer, Hemingway, Beethoven, Foucault, Robert Downey, Jr., and some others, are men of genius whose lives amount to a walk on the edge of a precipice. There are women I place in the same category: Silvia Plath, Germaine Greer, Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone Weil, Melanie Griffith, maybe Kate Winslet. There is a woman I love very much that should be included in this list.

There is a metaphor that is at the center of much of Mailer's thinking about writing ("the spooky art," he calls it) and about the challenge of getting at the truth in oneself by finding the right words. It is the idea of a confrontation with one's "fundament." In other words, the notion of passing through a wall of flame -- like Siegfried in search of his love -- to find the ultimate mysteries at the core of one's identity. At the conclusion of his essay on the first Ali/Frazier fight, Mailer writes:

Ali got up, Ali came sliding through the last two minutes and thirty-five seconds of this heathen holocaust in some last exercise of the will, some iron fundament of the ego not to be knocked out, and it was then as if the spirit of Harlem finally spoke out and came to rescue and the ghost of the dead in Vietnam, something held him up before arm-weary triumphant near-crazy Frazier who had just hit him the hardest punch ever thrown in his life and they went down to the last few seconds of a great fight, Ali still standing and Frazier had won. ...

Whatever you may say about Mailer, I think it's only fair to recognize that he has done this more than once: achieving a face-to-face encounter with his true self and paying the price for it.

"Self," the "I," most of all, "ego" ... these are the words that are essential to Mailer's thinking. Mailer needs to assert himself against an indifferent and even hostile universe. He needs to win recognition, a place among his best contemporaries -- Roth, Bellow, Vidal, Styron, Updike, Baldwin, Morrison, Mary McCarthy and maybe a few others -- while remaining gentle and protective towards those who are weaker and more helpless than himself. This is Mailer's conception of the writer's task. Maybe this idea is important to all of his ethical thinking. See Cannibals and Christians (New York: Pinnacle, 1966), pp. 183-193 (reviewing The Group).

This is to make the writer, as a literary adventurer, a kind of knight-errant in quest of damsels in distress to rescue and dragons to slay. Vidal suggests that, as we live in a jaded age, it may be best to slay the damsels and rescue the dragons. Consider this revealing paragraph from Mailer's masterpiece on the Ali/Frazier epic:

There was one way in which boxing was still like a street fight and that was in the need to be confident that you would win. A man walking out of a bar to fight with another man is seeking to compose his head into the confidence that he will certainly triumph -- it is the most mysterious faculty of the ego. For that confidence is a sedative against the pain of punches and yet is the sanction to punch your own best. The logic of the spirit would suggest that you win only if you deserve to win: the logic of the ego lays down the axiom that if you don't think you will win, you don't deserve to. And, in fact, usually don't; it is as if not believing you will win opens you to the guilt that perhaps you have not the right, you are too guilty. ...

Now apply the insight in this paragraph to literary creation, to writing. You must believe that you will write that novel as you sit down to do so.

Forget the politically correct bullshit. "Isn't he celebrating violence?" No, Mailer is celebrating what violence or any other great challenge demands of human beings, which is also what few of us are capable of providing easily: authenticity of response. This is a celebration and value which is found in Christianity, by the way, and is not gender-specific. The philosopher whose ideas are most illuminating on this subject is Hegel, as evidenced by Charles Taylor's recent work and some of the writings of Drucilla Cornell concerning legal interpretation.

Mailer is saying that some of us, on rare occasions, facing great threats to ourselves or even death, achieve a measure of grace and peace by centering ourselves in our indestructible capacity for love and in the compassion that we feel for others, thereby becoming or achieving our best selves, our full humanity -- however briefly -- as we protest against and resist an inevitable final destruction. "A man [or person] can be destroyed," Hemingway says, "but not defeated."

Authenticity is meaning. Selfhood is what endures and prevails because it is undefeatable. Here is Sylvia Plath, struggling against madness and writing in her journals, Boston 1958-1959:

Monday, July 7. I am evidently going through a stage in beginning writing similar to my two months of hysteria in beginning teaching last Fall. A sickness, frenzy of resentment at everything but myself ... . I lie wakeful at night, wake exhausted with that sense of razor-shaved nerves. I must be my own doctor. I must cure this very destructive paralysis and ruinous brooding and daydreaming. If I want to write, this is hardly the way -- in horror of it, frozen by it. The ghost of the unborn novel is a Medusa-head. ...

If you do not understand that the "demon" Plath sometimes speaks of in her journals and that she faced, fought, and to whom she ultimately lost her life, so as to produce her work -- that this demon is exactly what a man faces before going into battle, or into a courtroom where he is in great peril, or facing someone physically bigger and stronger in a fight, then you should not regard yourself as any kind of literary critic. This demon exists for all of us and is only incidentally associated with the loathsome or despicable individuals we may encounter in our lives, since few of us will actually experience ultimate evil. I have had such an experience of evil and do not wish it on anyone. ("Terry Tuchin, Diana Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture.")

Plath is Ali. Her typerwriter is Joe Frazier. She knows what parts of herself she must face to produce her best work as well as the cost to her psyche of doing so. She did it anyway. And now we have her work. I call that genius. Or was she just being typically "macho"?

Do not allow the moronic, "femi-Nazis" and man-haters, in search of something to hit men with, wielding Plath's books like clubs, to fool you: Sylvia Plath is a great poet. And she was as brave as any man who ever walked the earth. A fierce custodian of her talent, she paid the ultimate price to produce her wonderful books. She deserves the honors that she receives for the greatness of her human achievement. I will make certain that my daughter knows her work. I urge any man who has the balls to do so, to read Silvia Plath, then try to do your best work.

Do not allow the idiots who are sometimes loudest in expounding the feminist cause to fool you about the truth of feminism. They're usually right on the merits of social issues, feminist gal-pals, but you must never admit to it, so you'll piss them off. They're so dumb and one-dimensional that they fail to recognize that they're preaching to the converted and (like the French in World War I) shooting at their own troops. Maybe a great way to get them angry is to compare and demonstrate the parallels between Mailer and Plath. Hey, guess what I've just done?

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