Friday, August 27, 2004

It used to be -- and for all I know, still is -- extremely fashionable to hate Norman Mailer. You didn't have to know anything about him; his reputation preceded him, which was that he was Mr. Literary Macho, had an enormous ego, and thought literature was a blood sport. Sometimes you didn't have to do much more than mention his name in any kind of literary circle and someone, somewhere, would say they thought he was an asshole. In fact, I feel certain that at least a few reviews of his novel Harlot's Ghost were by people who had not even read it; they reviewed him instead.

I started reading Norman Mailer in earnest because of Kate Millet. There was a time in my early twenties when, in a streak of sensitivity, I decided to learn everything I could about feminism. My first project was Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, which I thought was excruciatingly dull and academic for at least the first few pages, which was as far as I got. I stopped reading after she started ripping into Mailer, particularly a book he had written called An American Dream. Her description made it sound far more interesting than anything she had yet said, and I well remember taking her book back and checking out Mailer's -- pretty much the opposite effect, I guess, of my original intent. I got kind of hooked on him after that; not his philosophy, whatever it happened to be at the moment, but him. Whatever else might be said about him, there's a strange integrity about him; there's a strange integrity about anyone who believes in free love and opposes birth control and has eight kids by six wives. Norman Fuckin' Mailer, as Wife No. 4 used to call him, is a good cat.

I didn't always agree with him, and I often thought his pronouncements were foolish, but he always displayed a genuinely searching intellect; there was, even, a thoughtfulness, wit, and kindliness that was missing from depictions of him in the media. It was there, too, in Peter Manso's vast (and overlong) oral biography of him, in which -- as in his books -- he towers as this larger-than-life figure who never passes up any chance for a good fight.

It was kind of like a trip down Memory Lane, in a way, to read this lengthy (and, again, overlong) interview with his son in New York magazine. (If I recall correctly, there's a letter of Mailer's in the Manso book where he brags about the size of his newborn son's dick.) Mailer is such a big talker when it comes to politics and philosophy and the soul of mankind and our dread prospects for the future, and you sense in this interview an old leftist struggling to appear as an Elder Statesman to today's youth -- 99.9 percent of whom almost certainly wouldn't know who he is. (I think it was Terry Teachout some years ago who said he had never met anyone under 40 who knew anything about Mailer. In the interview above, I'm not even real sure his Big-Dicked Kid does.) Still, as always, in every interview with him I've ever read, there are some gems. Here are a few:

Bush has one of the emptiest faces in America. He looks to have no more depth than spit on a rock. It could be that the most incisive personal crime committed by George Bush is that he probably never said to himself, “I don’t deserve to be president.” You just can’t trust a man who’s never been embarrassed by himself. The vanity of George W. stands out with every smirk. He literally cannot control that vanity. It seeps out of every movement of his lips, it squeezes through every tight-lipped grimace. Every grin is a study in smugsmanship.

LBJ knew people well. From his point of view, most middle-class people were hardly full of physical bravery. If they were going to pay their own money and come by car or bus or train to march into the possibility of being hit over the head with a cop’s club, then there had to be millions of people behind them.

The 1968 Chicago Convention: [Liberals reacted] against the open, ugly, and unforgettable spectacle of the police smashing into the front ranks of the marchers, but even more voters felt that anarchy was loose in the street, so they blamed the marchers for aggravating the cops. A great majority of Americans are very much keyed to public order. We’re a country where everyone who came here tore up old roots by leaving their home country. That creates a long-term anxiety. So in America, the reluctance to cause disturbance is always sitting there in opposition to the other big American desire—which is to express oneself, to be free and free-spoken. I can speak from my own experiences as a candidate for mayor in the New York primaries of 1969. I thought people would want what I offered. But I was opting for too much change. In politics, people want continuance. Americans don’t want their lives disturbed. That’s the basic problem with protest. It’s good for the protesters, but not always so good for the candidate you want to get in.

What they [protesters] could do is not what they’re going to be allowed to do. It won’t all be their fault. You can be damn sure Pataki and Bloomberg do not want to embarrass George Bush. If these demonstrations ever hurt Bush, and he still gets reelected, New York will be penalized in terms of receiving money from Washington. That’s one reason Bloomberg and Co. kept them from holding their protest in front of the Garden. If a million people were to walk down Fifth Avenue—which is where it should be—that could have a significant effect. Especially if it was a peaceful march. But the Republicans don’t want a peaceful demonstration with that number of bodies. One of the things about the Pentagon march back in ’67 is how peaceful it proved to be. Despite all the negative media hype that came out afterward, the second word that came, if slowly, was: “Peaceful—these people were peaceful.” The ideal is exactly to have a huge, passive demonstration. If it could take place without calamitous incidents, odds are Kerry will probably win. But a combination of riots with media coverage will give Bush a huge spike.

You want to talk about great American cities, speak of Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco. Put up your own favorites, if you have any. Los Angeles, if you must. But New York is our only world city. It does not have a hell of a lot in common with the rest of America; it doesn’t even have much to do with upper New York State. Which is why all those years ago I said, let’s separate. I saw New York as eventually becoming comparable to Hong Kong, a semi-independent city-state. For better or worse, it may yet happen.

Bad as Iraq has been up to now, Vietnam was worse. We were there in force for ten years. Fifty thousand of our soldiers were killed and 2 million Asians. What is immediately comparable to Iraq is that the logic for being in Vietnam proved false. The domino theory did not play out. Southeast Asia may have been a mess afterward, but only Vietnam turned communist, and it was well on the way before we came in. The major difference is that in Iraq we have exacerbated the two major branches of a religion that has had power over its followers for more than thirteen centuries. Communism had only been in existence for fifty years. Its historic roots were not nearly so profound. It is not the size of the casualties in Iraq so far that weighs on us so much as the prospect of a century of unending terrorist acts that we do not know how to terminate by military force. Whether this fear will work to Kerry’s benefit, I can’t say. The question is how clear will it become in the awareness of Middle America that Kerry was a combat hero and Bush was in a National Guard flight suit. It will be interesting to see how the Republicans will look to tarnish Kerry’s war record. Not all the Republicans, however. I think a minority of conservatives are ready to go for Kerry.

There are many indications that the Chinese and the Japanese are much more suited to live in a technological world than we are. Our long prosperity has one irony built into it. We have become a pleasure-loving nation. Fifty years ago, Americans were more hardworking. They still believed it was good in and of itself to work for most of your life. That’s no longer so true. In science, our college youth are weak when it comes to studying the so-called stem subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Living with technology is, after all, not always so agreeable. If one’s going to sum it up in four words: More power, less pleasure. And Americans are pleasure-loving. The majority of Chinese have not had that opportunity. Perhaps they can put up with monotony, boredom, and cruel, repetitive working environments far better than we can.

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