Norman Mailer in HisTime 2

The summa of these meditations was “The White Negro” (1956). The essay is notorious for a passage in which the case of two eighteen-year-olds murdering a candy-store owner is proposed, without much qualification, as an example of “daring the unknown.” (“One enters into a new relation with the police,” as the essay ex¬plains.) Irving Howe, who published “The White Negro” in Dissent (it was reprinted in Advertisements for Myself [1959]), later expressed regret for having chosen to run it, as a “scoop” for his little maga¬zine, rather than reject it for its endorsement of violence. (The best move lies close to the worst.) Mailer may have offered the piece to Howe with a view precisely to forcing such a dilemma on him; he regarded the American left as a culturally backward bunch that needed a shot of the morally outrageous. But “The White Negro” was not merely a provocation. It was a claim to turf. “I wrote it,” Mailer said almost thirty years later, “with tremendous fear and agi¬tation and great difficulty. … If I wanted to be a great writer—and by then being terribly fortified both by success and failure, I ab¬solutely wanted to be a great writer—then I’d found a place where perhaps I could do it. I felt I had perceptions about these matters that I’d never read in anyone else’s literature.”
The argument of “The White Negro” is built up from the propo¬sition that American Negroes (by which Mailer means, of course, American Negro men), by virtue of their alienation from main¬stream American society, are natural existentialists (they have “exis¬tential synapses”), and thus have better orgasms. They appreciate as well the cathartic effects of violence (“individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the State,” the essay suggests). The white American who would imitate them—the white Negro—is the Hipster. His goal is to be “with it.”
To be with it is to have grace, is to be closer to the secrets of that in¬ner unconscious life which will nourish you if you can hear it, for you are then nearer to that God which every hipster believes is lo¬cated in the senses of his body, that trapped, mutilated, and nonetheless megalomaniacal God who is It, who is energy, life, sex, force, the Yoga’s prana, the Reichian’s orgone, Lawrence’s “blood,” Hemingway’s “good,” the Shavian life-force; “It”; God; not the God of the churches but the unachievable whisper of mystery within the sex, the paradise of limitless energy and perception just beyond the next wave of the next orgasm.
To which a cool cat might reply, “Crazy, man!’’
Mailer soon dropped the language of Hip (which was just the jargon of beatniks and jazz musicians). Over the years his enthusi¬asm for real violence was largely replaced by an enthusiasm for play violence—bullfighting, football, and, especially, boxing. As celebrity was visited upon him, his political animus relaxed. But “The White Negro” has remained the well from which his thought is drawn. What The Time of Our Time reveals (and this is the surprising part) is the extent to which Mailer has spent forty-five years occupying the ground he staked out in 1956. He is a man—in 2002, he is possi¬bly the last man—of the 1950s.
Mailer is commonly regarded as a man of the 1960s, for it was in the sixties that he enjoyed his most productive and popular run as a writer: he published two novels, An American Dream (1965) and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967); two volumes of essays, The Presi¬dential Papers (1963) and Cannibals and Christians (1966); two works of reportage, The Armies of the Night (1968) and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968); and a collection of poems, called Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters) (1962). He also turned his novel The Deer Park into a play, wrote and directed three movies, and ran for mayor of New York City. (He did not finish last.) He had good rea¬son for considering it his favorite decade. But he was not really af¬fected by anything that happened in the sixties. He had entered the decade with his own style of political radicalism and his own brand of sexual liberation already worked out; he did not have much to learn from the counterculture or the New Left. The war in Vietnam did not take him by surprise: it was exactly the sort of technocratic insanity he had been predicting since 1948. And the general attitude of “anything goes” was, he must have imagined, just the attitude he had prescribed in “The White Negro.”
But it was not. In the end the social movements of the sixties were the undoing of every tenet of Mailer’s radicalism, for they were not, despite appearances at the time, radical movements. They were liberal movements. Their purpose was to make life fairer by clearing away exactly the sort of mumbo-jumbo about race and sex that Mailer built most of his worldview around. The civil rights move¬ment discredited the primitivist myth of black sexuality; the sexual revolution tried to get the language of sin out of talk about sex (“free love” was pretty much the antithesis of any notion of sex Mailer ever had in mind); gay liberation established homosexuality as some¬thing other than a heterosexual deformity; and women’s liberation debunked the metaphysics of the orgasm. Mailer had gone to great lengths to mystify biology. The sixties demystified it. “Anything goes” did not mean that all is permitted on the understanding that the wrong move will cost you a piece of your soul. It just meant that all is permitted.

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