Norman Mailer in HisTime 3

For most of the sixties Mailer was one of the things that was per¬mitted, since anyone who seemed sufficiently far out held an ap¬peal. And Mailer was a performer, a kind of celebrity the sixties loved. At the end of the decade, though, he ran into a wall. This was feminism. Mailer took feminism to be a tool of technology, an at¬tempt to find a shortcut to sexual pleasure. Its aim, as he under¬stood it, was to give women sexual independence from men, which meant making reproduction a laboratory exercise and orgasm a me¬chanical one. He could not see that there are just different kinds of sexual pleasure and different methods of reproduction, because for him unless these matters carry cosmic consequences, the universe is absurd. If a vibrator is as good as a penis, life has no meaning. Mailer’s crusade against feminism was hopeless from the start, for he was fighting against one of the simplest and most powerful of hu¬man hopes, which is that happiness can be made a little easier to grasp. He offered some sort of truce with the movement (it was not accepted) in The Prisoner of Sex (1971) (which also includes defenses, against the strictures of Kate Millet, of Miller and Lawrence, that are, whatever one makes of the book as a whole, brilliant pieces of criticism). But he never really got it. He was done in by the clitoral orgasm.
Mailer’s best writing in the sixties, therefore, was conceived in the skeptical spirit of a critic, not in the sympathetic spirit of a con¬vert. The first half of The Armies of the Night, which tells the story of his participation in the 1967 march on the Pentagon, is almost cer¬tainly the strongest piece of journalistic writing Mailer ever did, and what gives it its sour brilliance is the author’s barely suppressed ani¬mus against all the good liberals whose arms are linked with his. As a screed against the war, The Armies of the Night is not especially distinguishable from many other writings of the time. But as a mordant portrait of the culture of the antiwar movement, there is nothing to heat it.
After The Prisoner of Sex Mailer’s projects became more dif¬fuse—a biography of Marilyn Monroe, a book on the Apollo moon landing, another on the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, a “true-life novel” about Gary Gilmore, the novel set in ancient Egypt, another one set in Provincetown, a huge unfinished novel about the CIA, and books about Pablo Picasso, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jesus. Mailer continued to cover presidential campaigns for various maga-zines, although he has not collected this work since St. George and the Godfather (1972). There are things to admire in this writing, but the intellectual approach is a little too familiar: the author divides his subject into redemptive and infernal elements, and then muses, at length, upon the possibilities. The general mystery addressed is whether events have a meaning. It is a perfectly respectable mystery to address: to uncover meaning is a reason for writing. What begins to wear the reader down is the Manichean insistence that all mean¬ings are psychic meanings, and that there are only two ultimates. “The Beatles,” Mailer once remarked (and not in the spirit of self¬parody), “—demons or saints?” There is never a middle possibility.
Thus, on the Apollo moon landing, in Of a Fire on the Moon:
To make sense of Apollo 11 on the moon, to rise above the verbiage
. . . that covered the event, was to embark on a project which could not satisfy his own eye unless it could reduce a conceptual city of technologese to one simplicity—was the venture worthwhile or un¬appeased in its evil?
On the subject of AIDS, in a magazine piece on the 1992 Republi¬can National Convention:
Was excrement a side-product of nature, offensive to some, as the Democrats would doubtless have argued, or was Satan in every¬one’s shit? Which, in turn, was a way of saying that the devil was present more often in homosexual than in heterosexual encoun¬ters—exactly the question that blazed in the divide. We are dying, said the victims of AIDS, and you have no mercy. Are you cold to our pain because we are the devil’s spawn?—beware, then, for we will haunt you. That was the question. Was the gay nation guilty or innocent, victims of devils, damned by Jehovah or to be comforted by Christ?
On Lee Harvey Oswald, in Oswald’s Tale:
It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion en¬gulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd. . . . Absurdity cor¬rodes our species. The mounting ordure of a post-modern media fling (where everything is equal to everything else) is all the ground we need for such an assertion.
One can come to feel that the reason the subjects in most of Mailer’s later books tend to be about times other than the present is that the author has lost touch with the culture. He no longer stands in oppositional or even in skeptical relation to it because he no longer quite understands it. He wishes to fight the battles of forty years ago, but no one seems to know what he’s talking about. Haven’t all those battles been won? people wonder. Do we really need to hear about orgasms again? We can hear all about them on MTV. There are, in this regard, two especially revealing late writ¬ings. The first is a review Mailer wrote in 1991 for Vanity Fair of a novel by Bret Easton Ellis called American Ps)’cho. American Psycho is famous for having been dropped by its initial publisher, Simon and Schuster, just two months before publication and at a cost to the company of $300,000, after the chief executive read it and was offended by its deadpan descriptions of the torture and murder of women. The novel was picked up immediately by Vintage Books, but it had already become a scandal, and it was universally panned. (Vintage abstained from advertising the book. It was a best-seller anyway.)

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