Norman Mailer, a seminal figure of America’s destructive cultural left, is dead at 84.

When I was a kid, I liked Mailer a lot, and read all his books (except for his very obscure second novel). The ones that particularly stood out were An American Dream (his best written book), Armies of the Night, and Of a Fire on the Moon. Many years later I went back to his writings, and saw that even what I had thought was his best, such as The Armies of the Night, which had seemed like such a exciting, vivifying piece of writing at the time, was basically worthless, just a lot of blowhard attitudinizing.

The most enduring lesson that emerged from this re-evaluation had to do with the wrong kind of rebellion. Mailer had famously written that the sterile 1950s were “totalitarian”—a sensibility that had a lot to do with the creation of the Sixties. But how did Mailer respond to this oppressive sterility? By looking for the vitalizing truth of our culture that had been lost? No. By evoking criminality, murder (“The White Negro”), sexual adventure, perversion, and the glorification of ego and power. And so it is, I realized, with all leftist rebellion. It claims to be protesting the loss of some good. But, proving its bad faith, it doesn’t seek the good, it only seeks, in one way or another, to destroy the existing order of society, along with its good.

In the mid 1980s Ancient Evenings, Mailer’s novel of ancient Egypt, came out. I read it in its entirely, despite the fact that it is one of the worst, most incoherent, most overblown and corrupt pieces of trash ever written, but somehow I got into its slow languorous style and stuck with it to the end despite its repellent character.

At the time it was published, Mailer, who had spent many years working on this epic, declared (as I best remember), “If it’s no good, I’m no good.” For years afterward I had an occasional fantasy of running into him on the street and saying to him, “You’re no good.”

In this same period, Carol Iannone reviewed another Mailer book in Commentary. Half way through the review, Iannone remarked, in a low-key, almost passing manner, that Mailer was “evil.” Somehow the quiet, unemphatic way that the judgment was rendered, not drawing attention to itself, made it all the more definitive. Yes, Mailer was evil. There was nothing more that needed to be said about him. He didn’t have to be considered any more. His future books did not need to be talked about as though they were some important literary event. It was over.

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David G. writes:

Mailer led his life in the shadow of Ernest Hemingway. Whereas Hemingway developed characters who embodied a code of behavior whose components included machismo, physical courage, tests of character, “grace under pressure,” decency and living well without making things “messy,” Mailer’s work just de-evolved into the adulation of the anti-social. By letting the “Id” run wild, he found himself holding up figures such as Gary Gilmore, Gille de Rais and Jack Henry Abbott for adulation. In the long run, a preposterous figure.

Larry G. writes:

Here’s more on Mailer.

Paul K. writes:

I looked at the obituaries for Mailer in the New York Times, USA Today, and at the National Public Radio site. They all mention his stabbing of his second wife, and NPR describes him as “fascinated by the idea of violence,” but none of them mention what I found the most revealing and reprehensible episode in his life, his successful efforts to free the killer Jack Henry Abbot in 1981. Mailer had been very impressed with the angry left-wing screeds about prison life that Abbot had sent him and, after getting him paroled, set him up with a publisher. Things seemed to be going well for a few weeks until Abbot misinterpreted a remark from a waiter and stabbed him to death.

The self-styled tough guy Mailer, who viewed violence as liberating and authentic and cool, didn’t seem concerned that it also has real world applications.

In 1971, Gore Vidal wrote that “there has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression.” In response, Mailer head-butted him when the two met before taping a television talk-show.

LA replies:

The Abbot episode was the nadir and was most damning to Mailer. In a confrontation with the press, Mailer was unrepentant about his role in getting Abbot released from prison to murder a man and said he would do it again. This episode revealed the essence of Mailer’s mindset and the hard core of his evil. I am utterly astonished that the Times, USA Today, and NPR did not mention the Abbot episode.

A reader writes:

The New York Times online obit of Norman Mailer does indeed mention his championing of Abbot.

I am such a fan of your website that I cannot bear to be aware of any inaccuracies in it without mentioning them to you.

LA replies:

Thanks. It seemed unlikely that the Times wouldn’t mention such a notorious incident.

On a related point, though the Times in its online story did not show a photo of Natavia Lowery, the confessed killer of Linda Stein, it did show a photo of her in the print edition. However, it was a smallish photo, with the woman’s head facing down. It was much less clear than the shot used in the Daily News.

Paul K. writes:

My apologies, I realize I read the NY Times article “Mailer Made America His Subject,” by Michiko Kakutani, and thought of that as the obit. It doesn’t mention the Abbot episode.

A. Zarkov writes:

In the 1980s I can across Abbott’s book “In the Belly of the Beast” in a bookstore In Berkeley, and skimmed through it. I came across a section where Abbott claimed he had increased (I think doubled) his IQ by reading Marxism. This and the rest of the work convinced me the man was a dangerous lunatic before he killed the New York waiter. Surely Mailer must have read this book as he became Abbott’s patron. After Abbott killed again, Mailer tried to defend himself in an amazing rant about nuclear weapons testing. I failed to see the connection between nuclear weapons and enabling this killer to go free, and concluded that Mailer too was off his rocker. He kept saying that we needed to “take a chance” on people like Abbott. It seemed obvious to me that Abbott was unstable, and I’m at a loss to explain how he was ever released from prison. Didn’t anyone else bother to read Abbott’s book?

LA replies:

Mailer’s energetic (or rather demonic) defense of the idea that society must “take a chance” on someone like Abbot was the final blow that discredited him, except in the precincts of the left—and, around 2004, in the eyes of the magazine called The American Conservative, which put him on its cover and interviewed him at length. There is probably no precinct of the left that editor Scott McConnell won’t descend to, so long as he can find there a fellow Israel-hater, neocon-hater, or ally of Palestinian terrorists.

Maureen C. writes:

First, Gore Vidal said that Norman Mailer was a halfway stop on the way to Charles Manson? If ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black!

Second, I just read the New York Magazine’s interview with Norman Mailer on God, and I feel mentally mugged—or morally whiplashed. Having read the whole article, I have only a vague idea of what Mailer really thought about God or ethics. He was unable to define in any workable fashion the difference between good and evil. To summarize, he waffled along the lines of: “We need ethics; we can’t have ethics. God is in charge; God isn’t in charge. Goodness is a principle; goodness is a feeling. Principles exist; principles don’t exist.” In other words, his verbal pyrotechnics burst their (il)logical framework. In the end (see his last sentence), apparently his ethics boil down to an ethics of do what feels good in the moment.

Excerpt from New York Times interview with Norman Mailer:

Mailer: “Live in the depths of confusion with the knowledge back of that, the certainty back of that—or the belief, the hope, the faith, whatever you wish to call it—that there is a purpose to it all, that it is not absurd, that we are all engaged in a vast cosmic war and God needs us. That doesn’t mean we can help God by establishing a set of principles to live by. We can’t. Why not? Because the principles vary. The cruelest obstacle to creating one’s own ethic is that no principle is incorruptible. Indeed, to cleave to a principle is to corrupt oneself. To shift from one principle to another can, however, be promiscuous. Life is not simple. Ethics are almost incomprehensible, but they exist. There is a substratum of moderate, quiet, good feeling. Generally, if I’m doing things in such a way that the sum of all my actions at the moment seems to be feasible and responsible and decent, that certainly gives me a better feeling than if I am uneasy, dissatisfied with myself, and not liking myself.”

LA replies:

I saw that issue of New York on the stands a few weeks ago. It said something like, “Norman Mailer’s New Theology.” Now this is funny, since Mailer has been boringly propounding the same unchanging eccentric theology of his in innumerable interviews and articles since the late 1950s. Sometime back then, stoned on marijuana or some other substance, he had a vision in which God is not in charge of the universe but is in an eternal battle with the Devil, and it’s not clear who will win, and God depends on us to do good and strengthen God against the Devil, and so the universe is “existential,” meaning the outcome between God and the Devil is not determined. This may sound interesting or even kind of romantic, but it’s all garbage. God and Devil, good and evil, as is clear from the excerpt Maureen quotes, have no stable meaning. People must keep figuring out what is good and evil, and they can never be sure whether they’re doing one or the other. Which allows tons of flexibility in which the characters can imagine that their pursuit of their sexual desires may be in league with God after all and not the Devil.

Thus, in practice, the main purpose of Mailer’s theology is to justify humans’ pursuit of evil, especially a particular sexual act which was the recurrent focus of his writings starting from around 1960 and which was virtually the central theme of Ancient Evenings. His Manichean vision was really just a device to let himself and his characters commit endless transgressive acts. Mailer’s vision is centered on sex and power, or rather it is centered on sex for the purpose of power. The more you get it on, the more power you have, and the more ability you have to assist God against the Devil. At the same time, this pursuit of power via sex is also a pursuit of power over other people. In that sense it is a moral vision similar to that in the homosexual prison movie “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” in which the main character becomes powerful in his prison community by becoming sexually dominant over other men. However, that movie, strangely enough, actually did have a coherent moral vision—shown by the protagonist’s fall from power at the end—which Mailer’s wildly self-indulgent books lack.

To sum up, Mailer, imagining that he was saying something terribly original and profound, talked endlessly about a great existential Battle between God and the Devil, with man in the middle deciding the contest by his own moral choices. In reality, Mailer gave himself over to the Devil. That is something I became convinced of many years ago. Just look at his photos, with his perpetually angry, furious expression. He looks as if he has smoke coming out of his ears.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 10, 2007 02:34 PM | Send

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