Thursday, March 13, 2008

Norman Mailer--"The White Negro" (1958) Part 1I was not looking forward to reading this. I have never developed much of a sense of Norman Mailer either as a great pure writer, or as one who could be trusted to hit reasonably close to important truths on any kind of consistent basis. The prospect which this particular essay presented to me seemed even more than usually wince-inducing in these regards, and by wince-inducing I do not mean in the tough and challenging way that is generally thought to be beneficial to overly comfortable and placid people. I concede that he is sometimes amusing, and I acknowledge that at least compared with the likes of me he had some genuine audacity which actually got him somewehere; he is far more frequently tiresome, and this is just in his writing. As to the general outrageousness of his life--the provocative political and social stances, the punchouts, the nine children by six different women (all legal wives at the time I should note for the sake of the bourgeois segment of my audience, though really who cares?), the greater than ordinary boasting and self-promotion--I make no claims to being, or desiring to be, a moralist, and I can appreciate what he was trying to get at. To my mind however he simply did not do an effective enough job of getting at it.

Every age has its peculiar obsessions. In many instances these fade or resolve themselves over time, but those of the 1950s are notable both for how pervasive they are in almost all the literature of the period as well as how the most emphasized and dreaded conditions--conformity, infantilism, emasculation--appear from our point of view to be far more advanced in our own time than they were in that decade, which, indeed is now frequently hearkened back to as an era where traditional independence, maturity and masculinity were both flourishing and expected of every adult male. It is true that the ordinary men of that era seem from a distance to have been collectively a little tougher, have been more likely to have and be willing to use guns, been more comfortable exercising authority, been more adept at mechanics and other basics of home maintenance such as plumbing and electrical wiring (women seem to me to complain about their men's lack of this a lot nowadays). It is often claimed that there was a generally stronger work ethic among men at this time, though I am skeptical of this; there were many more physically demanding, industrial-type jobs in the economy of that time, which gave the appearance of an overall much more industrious society, though it seems on the surface that white-collar professionals work a lot harder today, or at least with more visible strain, than they did in the 50s. It is worth noting, I think, that many critics of today's society enthusiastically promote the idea that military service functioned in the past as an antidote to infantilism and emasculation, and serves the same purpose today for the statistically small percentage of men who still respond to their nation's call to arms. I am not certain however that military culture in many instances does not exacerbate these conditions for such men as are molded by it. A far greater percentage of men in Norman Mailer's generation, including himself, had been in the army--in a colossal war, no less--than in almost any other. These same men then moved on to the 1950s, which to men of my generation (though only, I assure you, in moments of weakness when they are especially bored) looks like a veritable sexist paradise, and perceived the forces of emasculation to be devouring their very innards. My guess is that because nearly everyone had been in the Army, that this A) did not confer any special status or feeling of manliness on most of the men who had been in it, and B) tended to expose men's shortcomings vis-a-vis other men in a harsher, more open manner than is ordinarily the case in civilian life. One of my grandfathers was born in 1923, the same year as Mailer, and was also a WWII combat veteran, but he never referred to this experience as having made him a more virtuous or even a braver than usual man, and certainly no one seems to have regarded him as such. My other grandfather, whom I never met, received a Purple Heart in the same conflict, but was universally regarded as a scoundrel and regarded by his own children as one of the worst people in the entire world, not worthy the name of a man at all. I do not say that his military experience is to blame for his deficient character, but he does not appear to have benefited from it much either.

With regard to the work at hand, the general premise is that the combination of societal conformity and existential angst brought upon by the horrors of World War II and the spectre of atomic annihilation has drained all the vitality and courage out of mainstream white America, and that if such people want to reclaim a portion of their souls they are going to have to adopt something of the more dangerous approach to life which in Mailer's view only black men in America have in any appreciable numbers. As a composition it is a bit of a mess. Mailer does not present his ideas at all in a clear way, which, considering the heavy air of dubiousness which surrounds even most of the more intriguing ones, is crippling for his purposes. By the standards of any author who wrote clean and precise sentences--Swift, Addison, Turgenev, DeMaupassant come immediately to mind--Mailer is a terrible writer. He is, as I acknowledged earlier, sometimes amusing, but I cannot make out why anything he did is considered literature. His thought and his writing are not tight; his ideas wander. For example his formulation that the ideological oppressions of the Cold War era had made being a radical so risky that everyone had become afraid to proclaim any radical positions I found to be rather awkward; I had always considered that putting one's neck at risk was implied in the definition of being a radical. Similarly a sentence like "Indeed if one is to be a man, almost any kind of unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage" seems to me not to be harmonious in any of its parts. "Disproportionate courage" I don't like as a condition for either being a man or taking an unconventional action--one has courage that is worth something, that is based on some kind of core principle that it cannot waver from, or one doesn't. The construction of the sentence also suggests that being a man consists entirely in taking unconventional actions, which strikes me as a confusion of two separate problems. Mailer's conception of what it is to be a man, as far as I can tell, is that it is actually an escape from normal life, that it is not in itself a normal condition, but is achieved by "new kinds of victories" which "increase one's power for new kinds of perception" and the avoidance of "the wrong kind of defeats", which "attack the body and imprison one's energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people's habits, other people's defeats, boredom, etc." I know where he is coming from with this, and certainly many people in America, including me, perceive the struggle of life to be in fact as he has described it; however the man who views every action or non-action in terms of victory or defeat, strength or decay, admits to having no essential, semi-permanent self at all. It is this that is the problem, and one isn't going to find that hanging out and doing unconventional things with hipsters, or blacks, or French people or anybody else if it hasn't been developed to any extent before.

There are many more such overstuffed sentences which could be examined for a wide range of incongruities of language and thought, but I will spare you them here. The "jazz is orgasm..." sentence is one, the observation on the atheist's "eschewing the limitless dimensions of profound despair has rendered himself incapable to judge the experience" is another. As the essay goes on, one begins to take it all as more or less equally goofy

I guess I will do two posts on this. I feel I ought to write some comments about the later parts of the essay.

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