Saturday, August 07, 2010

Armies of the Night 4

p.127--"Mailer had then that superimposition of vision which makes descriptions of combat so contradictory when one compares eyewitness reports." Remember the hubbub during the last election about Hilary Clinton's false memory of being fired on by snipers during a trip to Bosnia?

p.138 A Fran Tarkenton reference--we always like those. The arresting marshal is described, when his rage has subsuded, as having "an intelligent, clean-featured American face, not...unlike the pleasant modest appearance of Mr. Fran Tarkenton, quarterback for the New York Giants." I only remember him at the tail end of his career with the Vikings, '76, '77 when he broke his leg late in the season and everybody figured he was finished, and the last year in '78, when the expanded schedule and a number of rule changes seemed to my young eyes to dramatically alter the league almost overnight. The Vikings of that time were very representative of the old league that was being superseded, as they had lots of really old players, an old school but conscipuously intelligent-seeming coach (Bud Grant), they played in a decrepit stadium where it was snowing and below 10 degrees for about half the season, and they were very good but always got upended by some speedier or flashier or just plain better team in the end. Naturally I liked them a great deal.

p. 139--while being transported to jail. This is a good description of how I feel (on the increasingly rare occasions) when I wake up unprompted in an immediate stillness: "...seeing objects now with the kind of filtered vision which sometimes comes to a man on drugs in the bleak hour when he is coming down--a glimpse is had of everyday things in their negative aspect, the truth of the object...stripped of all love, sentiment, or libido."

Mailer reports, after triumphing in an eye-staring contest with a Nazi, that he regularly got into such confrontations "and rarely lost them". Like much else in this writer, the line between silliness and vitality is probably crossed for the worst here. Not that Hemingway or someone else would not have written about this type of encounter, but they would have been able to load its occurrence and outcome with more literary significance than seems worth the while here.

"As the power of communication grew larger, so the responsibility to educate a nation lapped at the feet...a new had become a writer after all to find a warm place where one was safe--responsibility was for the pompous...writers were born to discover wine." The ability to genuinely educate a nation as a writer is a rare ability, and probably one that cannot be consciously cultivated any more than writing about wine or suburban angst in ways that will be meaningful and uplifting to a good cross-section of intelligent people are, to name two other examples of things many people would like to be able to do well, but few succeed in accomplishing. Good books are never, I don't think, the result of someone consciously fulfilling a perceived responsibility to educate or repudiate the mass public. They tend, if anything, to be an expression of their times' most ascendant spirits and characteristics in a form that gives them a relation to the beautiful, the eternal, the true that will crystalize the questions under consideration for a contemporary, and that a reader in a later age will be able to recognize as meaningful at whatever point in history he takes it up. If the masses don't read/relate to the world through reading in this way, I am not sure that beyond introducing the subjects in a reasonable degree during formal schooling that there is any greater responsibility to make them do so.

I have already said something of my own memories of Northern Virginia in this general period. It was very slow outside of Monday to Friday working hours, very quiet, little traffic. Government employees, much less numerous in those days then they are now, had a well-deserved reputation for being boring. Even in the 70s the D.C. area had not yet become a place where many young people came looking to do anything besides work--people in search of an exciting lifestyle were heading west in those days, especially to California and Colorado (New York was generally considered a nightmare by bourgeois people when I was a child, and I didn't know anybody who moved there in that period, though now lots of people who were young and cool and survived it consider 70s New York to have been a glorious time. But any time you are young and cool and you actually find other people who you think are young and cool to share your youth and coolness with it is going to seem glorious). My parents had friends who had an apartment somewhere very near in, Alexandria or Arlington maybe, and my parents being quite young none of these people they knew ever had any children and were still into smoking pot and so on, all of which however is quite boring for a four or five year old (there were never any toys at these places and apparently it didn't occur to my parents to bring any of ours with them) so I used to entertain myself by staring out the window of the high apartment building and counting the cars that passed through the traffic light at the intersection below. On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon you could easily count every car that passed through. Maybe it's the same now, but I get a different feeling when I am back there; it was always a depressing and psychically unhealthy place but now there is a lot of bustle and aggression and encouragement of stress whereas before it was just dead and devoid of any sense of community or culture. It was in contrast with today shockingly uncosmopolitan, certainly beneath the highest levels of the governing classes. It is actually much preferable now to what it was before, questions of whether the incredible increase in the size of the government over the last 40 years is desirable or not aside.

It doesn't require much genius these days to lay out a list of reasons why the Vietnam war was bad, as it doubtless won't require much genius 40 years from now to explain why fighting for 9+ years in Iraq and Afghanistan was a poor idea, but at the time it does take a strong amount of moral conviction to even propose that the war should not be carried on, and have anyone take it seriously. I won't lay out Mailer's case against the Vietnam conflict but I thought many of his points very good, fairly and clearly explained.

p. 186--Karl Marx's mind is described as "perhaps the greatest single tool for cerebration Western man had ever produced". Karl Marx was a legitimately interesting writer, and I have no doubt he was a remarkable man who would have made his mark somewhere under almost any circumstances. I don't have a good sense however of where he would exactly rank in the annals of the very greatest thinkers of all time.

Mailer didn't want to plead Nolo Contendere to the charges on which he had been arrested becuase it seemed squishy and defeated the purpose of the gesture but the "Legal Defense Committee" talked him out of it easily enough as he didn't feel like spending more time in jail. The lawyers always want you to plead Nolo Contendere. The right wing moralists are always exhorting people to show some magnanimity and accept full responsibility for their actions, but unfortunately the public has figured out that that just gets you slammed in court, and being squirrelly is the prudent alternative. This actually made me feel better, since Great Men and Women of the past such as Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Ben Franklin, Samuel Johnson, etc, (as well as many wicked ones such as numerous of the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials), even if, as usually happened, their case went against them, were always able to run mental circles around the professional legal class whenever they had to deal with them and expose them as having the weaker minds. But no layman in modern times that I have found has proven able to swat them down in any substantial manner.
There was a point about the prison wardens re-enacting their poor southern childhoods in their jobs that I thought was interesting. I like psychological analysis as a tool of understanding. There is art and real life in its best insights, which unfortunately most working practitioners don't seem to have the right mental instincts to recognize. I certainly seem to be perpetually re-enacting various aspects of my own childhood, namely my relations with my father and school, in both of which areas my standing was so inferior that I have never proven able to move beyond them into the life of a highly functioning and serious adult.

p 202--in jail: "They spent time idly, pitching pennies to a line in the composition floor." They take all your money from you now.

Mailer really has the habit of describing people according to what their role/type would be in television or pro football. He is more into that than comparable (i.e. other famous literary-approved) writers of his time would be. Thomas Pynchon does things like that, but it always comes across as joking, as pointing out how absurd someone or some aspect of life is.

p. 216 "He wrote of necessity at a rate faster than he had ever written before, as if the accelerating history of the country forbade deliberation." I've tried this in the past (writing quickly and without deliberation) but the results were not good. It must be a wonderful sensation to write thus and have something reasonably pleasurable and intelligent as the result.

That was the end of the "History as a Novel" section, which was the better part of the book. Now we are in the part taking the opposite tack.

p. 233 "Without one such fierce element of the fantastic, middle class life is insupportable. The same may be said of the old Left Wing life." This may be true.

p. 227 " no measure can anyone claim that the taxpayer's money is being wasted for extravagant interior decoration in the Pentagon."

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