Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Norman Mailer--The Armies of the Night (1968)--Part 1 Norman Mailer is one of those writers that I used to hope very much would turn out not to be so good in the end, because I knew even as a teenager that if he were the model of what it took to be a great writer in our society, that I was doomed. I had always regarded him as a kind of personal bete noire, and experienced feelings of great relief whenever someone who seemed to be both well-placed and reasonably knowledgeable about literature would excoriate one of his efforts. When I finally read some of his work--the essay "The White Negro" in particular, and some of the other selections from Advertisements For Myself--I was buoyed by the idea that there was a good probability that was essentially ridiculous, though the tone was not as off-putting and sneering as I had anticipated, and there was a sense of humor in it. I was still not looking forward to The Armies of the Night, and so deeply ingrained is this ancient sense of aversion towards the man that I will probably never look forward with excitement to any Mailer book; however, I have to say it is quite a good book, or at least the first 3/4ths of it is, the "history as a novel" section. The final part, 'the novel as history', is written more in the dry style of a newspaper report and obviously is meant to make a point but is not memorable in the way the rest of the book was.

What Norman Mailer did well in this book was to illuminate and explain in a clear, considered and entertaining manner the real nature behind what he saw as the genuinely disturbing political problems in America, which were not specific policy questions so much as that the modern technological state had seriously affected people's ability to be autonomous and individual both in body and mind. One can argue that people have always been subject to mind control, through priests or the sophistication of their masters, but the idea I suppose is that in a small and isolated community a man of real strength and individuality of thought will still be able to challenge the system, which the modern mass technoculture is largely able to control and mitigate the influences of dissenting and differently alive voices. Mailer manages at least to write like a sensible person whose opposition to the government, the war and corporate domination over society has a certain not inelegant logic about it, which he was not always successful in doing elsewhere.

If you are not familiar with the premise of the book, it is an account of an actual event, a protest march in Washington D.C. that took place October 21, 1967. In the main body of his book Mailer wrote about it in the style of a novel, but the characters are all actual people (including 'Norman Mailer') and the places and events presumably the places Mailer went to and the things that actually happened to him.

Mailer introduces himself as a character by reprinting an account of the rally from the next week's Time magazine, is which he is described as "slurping liquor from a coffee mug...Mumbling and spewing obscenities as he staggered about the stage--which he had commandeered by threatening to beat up the previous M.C.--...described in detail his search for a usable privy on the premises." It continues in that same strain of bravado, expletives and scatological talk. Although Mailer disputes the accuracy of his portrayal in this article, one gets the sense that he also enjoys it. The account was further lightened for me by a Dwight Macdonald sighting--you may remember him as a New Yorker writer, and one of the more ferocious middlebrow-despisers of the 50s and 60s, though like most such people how he was able to ascend to the ranks of the highbrows where so many others have failed was always left unexplained. Anyway he seems to be quite forgotten today, though 50 years ago he was a mainstay of the New York literary establishment.

There are a lot of humorous quotes in this I am going to let pass. Ones of literary interest I will include such the description of a friend with "a profound air of defeated gloom " looking "the way J.D. Salinger would have looked if J.D. Salinger had been tall enough and beefed-up enough to play football, and had fumbled Catcher in the Rye." Norman Mailer apparently loved football by the way, at least in the 1960s (it was a lot cooler then). He refers to it quite a lot in the course of this book, and found it noteworthy to mention several times that taking part in the protest was causing him to miss watching the pro games on TV that weekend.

I've been quite depressed lately--the typical middle age ennui and sense of declining vigor, which I did not have an excessive supply of to start with--which is why my postings have been dragging somewhat. The most celebrated examples of postwar American writing, I have to admit, even when I think it is good, do not on the whole enhance my mood. I think I am not suited for the impermanence and lack of solidity of everything in modern American life, relationships, institutions, communal traditions. Norman Mailer especially I find insuperably depressing even when I have some admiration for his book. There is no identifiable pattern or rhythm or sense of rootedness to any profound idea or habit of life present in his writings. I find that very hard to take.

Back on the subject of celebrities, I thought it interesting that then vice-president Hubert Humphrey appeared at the 1967 National Book Awards festivities to address the assembled literati, where he was snubbed by a small group of protesting writers who walked out while he was giving his speech (Mailer was boycotting the event generally on principle). Writers are so far off the radar of powerful politicians and other people nowadays of course as any kind of serious force in society that the idea of their speaking at the National Book Awards--and being snubbed into the bargain--seems comical. This is also comical: "Jules Feiffer (a writer of some kind-- apparently not a pal of Mailer's) walked out with the demonstrators, then sneaked back to go to a party for Humphrey."

p.8 "Mailer hated to put in time with losers...there had been all too many years when he had the reputation of being a loser; it had cost him much." The untidy and ever-fluctuating necessity of constantly producing losers whose purpose in life is to serve as the bland and faceless opposition to the master class is the curse of America.

p. 14 "Mailer was a snob of the worst sort." After reading the Brideshead book, I assure you, Mailer only wishes he were a snob of the worst sort..."New York had certainly wrecked his tolerance for any party but a very good one." I like that line, and it's probably true. My goal for this immediate year in fact is to wrangle an invitation to some kind of New York party. I deserve it.

I going to cut it short and stop again for a few days.

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