Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Armies of the Night (2)

Yes, my production has (once again) slowed considerably of late. Obviously I should really let the site go, but the compulsion to keep the charade going, to myself if no one else, that I lead some kind of 'life of the mind', while weaker than it has been at almost an point in the last twenty-five years, is not quite extinguished wholly yet. With my new found free time I could get to know my neighbors, mentor youth (in what exactly?), volunteer in community beautification efforts and whatever else it is ordinary dull-witted but good and honest citizens are supposed to do. Eventually I assume this ongoing identity crisis will have to resolve itself and I will become fully conscious at long last of who I actually am, what I can do, and what I really want to do, and have always wanted to do. Actually I assume nothing of the sort, and expect to go on as I am now forever, such being the postmodern condition. But no one wants to hear that. "...(Mailer) had learned from years of speaking in public that an entertainer's first duty was to deliver himself to the stage with the maximum of energy, high focus, and wit--a good heavy dinner on half a pint of bourbon was likely to produce torpor, undue search for the functional phrase..." Perhaps this was my problem. I always ate before parties.

"He was shrewd enough to know that (Robert) Lowell, like many another aristocrat before him, respected abrupt departures." We all can't be aristocrats, but it would have been nice to have been schooled in (or picked up on) a few moderately attractive or interest-piquing habits at some point in one's youth. What a disaster social life is for the majority of men.

Mailer writes about sex a lot, of course. Evidently what, or the way, he writes about it, though superficially not uninteresting, kills any enthusiasm I have for continuing on the subject myself. " to Mailer's idea of it was better off dirty, damned, even slavish! than clean, and without guilt...Without guilt, sex was meaningless...Onanism and homosexuality were not, to Mailer, light vices--to him it sometimes seemed that much of life and most of society were designed precisely to drive men deep into onanism and homosexuality...Just as professional football players love sex because it is so close to football..."

There was an article making the rounds of the blogosphere last week by Camille Paglia lamenting the sexlessness of contemporary bourgeois life and culture. While I have previously identified Camille Paglia as one of that venerable school of writers who almost touchingly believes that the time and place where she herself happened to be between ages 18 and 25 or so was the last vital age of culture, learning, eros, etc, and while I thought most of her specific points in the article were rather silly, the main premise obviously is true. I have no memory of the 60s, but I do have a memory of the late 70s and 80s, and the comparison of the active virility and confidence, sexual and otherwise, of the run of 35-45 year old men of that era--who at the time were considered themselves to be rather weak compared to their own fathers and grandfathers--to those of my generation is to further emphasize just how pitiful and irrelevant most of the men my age have become. It is never entirely safe to use one's own relatives as the example, but my father was a high school teacher, as were many of his friends at the time, and while I won't say it was completely open season on female students and babysitters, to say nothing of adult women, for these guys, it was definitely not closed season, such as it is now, by any stretch of the imagination. One of my father's friends whose house we used to go to had a young female neighbor, probably 17-19 years old, who was something of an exhibitionist and when she would start prancing around in her undergarments or other scanty clothing with the shades open all the men would have to make their way over the window to have a look, regardless of their wives and children being present or not, and this was considered, as far as I could tell, natural and not unreasonable behavior. Apparently a good part of the work day for white collar men in this era was spent flirting with and propositioning the various comely females in the office, which to be honest would not be an unpleasant change from time to time from compulsively surfing the internet and maintaining a constant facade of neutered (and not only sexually) amiability. So people my age are pouring themselves into raising their children in my opinion because public life has become so sterile and boring that their only hope to somehow break through to a revivified mental and aesthetic environment is through their children's developing more regularly human intellects and personalities. But I have lost my train. I had the whole section on how men had to project authority or competence, fullness in some sense, and how this generation at 40 has been completely revealed to have very little of this in them. However I will leave that out. My ultimate point, which I noted in my earlier writings on the "White Negro" essay, is the fairly obvious observation that any society which embraced Norman Mailer's approach to sexuality in any sizable degree would be neither socially nor culturally stable enough to support itself. That does not mean that everybody ought to live as if he were a eunuch however.

Now we're up to page 34, and Mailer is contrasting the vigorous and manly section of society--soldiers, cops, football players, mill workers, politicans--which he assumes to support the conflict and Vietnam, with the "Freud-ridden embers of Marxism...the urban middle class with their...secret slavish love for the oncoming hegemony of the computer and the suburb..." Hey, he's talking about my people now. Sure, it looks like it should be a total mismatch, and I suppose ultimately it always is, but I certainly grew up drinking the Kool-Aid that the militant suburban left had, after nearly a decade of ever-waning struggle, brought the military-industrial complex to its figurative knees and put an end to American involvement in the Vietnam War. Indeed, I think that is still the official story. Yes we can.

On page 35 we're back to talking about "real orgies... with murder in the air", the MC's ignorance of which, in Mailer's opinion, at the rally the night before the demonstration, necessitates him taking over that position in a putsch at the conclusion of the sexless man's speech. There is a lot of funny material in this, I have to admit. Again, I think for my generation, because the time of our childhood and adolescence was one of rather extreme and uncontrolled public violence compared to most times in history, including today, that this fascination with introducing it into the routine of life which seems to have afflicted a lot of intelligent people in the late 1960s is one that we have largely gotten over. My readings into the much celebrated edgy sex of the 1965-1980 period as against the comparatively maligned 1950-65 era haven't convinced me that apart from increased availability, the former time was qualitatively much better, though the early baby boomers especially, one must admit, have collectively an envious ability to believe in the excitement and superiority of their own experiences, educations, abilities, etc, to other people and times. Mailer, as I will comment on further in another place, unlike most of his own generation was very impressed with the irreverence and edginess of the young hippies in this book by the way, which no one seems to have seen coming after the bland, well-behaved and at the time frequently maligned kids of the 50s.

Quotes relating to literature: "'The one mind a novelist cannot enter is the mind of a novelist superior to himself' said once to Mailer by Jean Malaquais." "'...if novelists come from the middle class, poets tend to derive from the bottom and the top.'" I think I knew or believed that already. Mailer was writing, or as it were speaking, at length about the poet Robert Lowell, who also took part in the rally, and whose patrician background and manners, combined with his talent, seemed to have an effect of awe on the normally unfazeable Mailer. He noted that a few years earlier Lowell had refused an invitation from President Johnson to attend a White House party for artists and intellectuals, the "only invited artist of first rank who had refused. Saul Bellow, for example, had attended the garden party" (nice dig at a rival by the way). Mailer admitted that he probably would not have been able to refuse such an invitation himself, though he "assured the audience he would not probably have ever had the opportunity" which provoked "hints of merriment in the crowd". The parts where Mailer admits his social and professional weaknesses, jealousies and so on have the unfortunate effect of being rather endearing after all the bombast. You think maybe he's not such a bad guy after all, that he's maybe on your side even, whatever that even is. There is something in this writing though which I cannot put my finger on which is definitely repulsive though, even though this particular book I think is quite good, and very entertaining. Maybe I will figure out what it is before I finish this.

More on Lowell: "One did not achieve the languid grandeurs of that slouch in one generation--the grandsons of the first sons had best go through the best troughs in the best eating clubs at Harvard before anyone in the family could try for such an elegant note." Mailer went to Harvard too by the way, though you wouldn't know it from this passage; obviously it was not the same Harvard that he is talking about here. I saw one of Mailer's son's on TV (C-Span) once. He appeared to be a few years younger than I am--Mailer has many children spanning several decades--and although the son had written a book of some kind, he did not have anything like the social graces or elegant expressive speech such as one would imagine a person who was the son of a famous literary author and (one would assume) had gone to expensive schools and had considerable exposure to serious intellectual company from an early age would have. If anything, he seemed to be a bit of a lout.

Indeed, Mailer loved obscenity. He claims to have come to love regular Americans while in the army in World War II, and it was primarily their obscenity that he credits with securing his affection to the type. "...the American corporation executive, who was after all the foremost representative of Man in the world today, was perfectly capable of burning unseen women and children in the Vietnamese jungles, yet felt a large displeasure...and disapproval at the generous use of obscenity in literature and in public." I suspect he believed obscenity was the primary means by which the language of the time sought and expressed truth, conventional speech having been so manipulated by corporate and political interests through mass media, etc, for its eternal horrid ends. Now of course conventional obscenity been co-opted by the authorities and had whatever vigor it once had tamed out of it, though we still have forbidden or inappropriate speech. Howard Stern, to name one obvious example, is completely uninteresting when he is being merely obscene, but will occasionally say something inappropriate that is slightly amusing.

Film reference!--"ever since seeing All the King's Men years ago he had wanted to come on in public as a Southern demagogue." That was supposed to be good (the 1949 version), wasn't it? I've never seen it. How about a link to the trailer!

Mailer stayed at the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington. Here is their current website. Unfortunately they are at the moment closed until October. Writers tend to travel in more style than I had been wont to believe.

"One may wonder if the Adams in the name of this hotel bore any relation to Henry; we need not be concerned with Hay who was a memorable and accomplished gentleman from the nineteenth century (then Secretary of State to McKinley and Roosevelt) other than to say that the hotel looked like its name, and was indeed the staunchest advocate of that happy if heavy style in Washington architecture which spoke of a time when men and events were solid, comprehensible, often obedient to a code of values, and resolutely nonelectronic."

The hotel's web page announces that the high temperature in Washington today was 101 degrees. Yikes. I am heading in that direction on Wednesday.

I can't believe how many hours over a period of about a week it took me to write this post.

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