Norman Mailer in HisTime

In 1998, when he was seventy-five, Norman Mailer published The Time of Our Time, an anthology of his own writing, selected by him and arranged as a commentary on American life since the Second World War. Almost all of Mailer’s books are represented in the volume, starting with The Naked and the Dead (1948), plus sev¬eral magazine pieces that had not been reprinted before. Two of the excerpted books—Ancient Evenings (1983), which is set in the time of Ramses II, and The Gospel According to the Son (1997), a retelling of the Jesus story—do not have much to tell us about postwar Amer¬ican life; but they do have something to tell us about Norman Mailer, and they help to make the volume a surprisingly coherent recapitulation of Mailer’s career.
What does Mailer think of postwar America? The answer (this is not the surprising part) is: something good and something bad. The something good is what Mailer calls “democracy,” ordinarily a term of broad application, but by which he means specifically the conditions under which moral freedom and intellectual honesty are possible. He is not under the illusion that these qualities are sustainable to the same degree anyplace else in the world. That’s the bright side of life in America. The dark side is what he calls “technology,” ordinarily a term of specific application, but which he uses broadly to mean all efforts to clean up human messiness, to find a nice, rational, hygienic shortcut to satisfaction. His shorthand term for the results of such efforts is “plastic.” Plastic, in his view, threatens freedom. It is a metaphor for creeping totalitarianism.
So far we are comfortably inside the realm of liberal middle-class culture. Everyone within that culture salutes the principles of moral freedom and intellectual honesty, and loathes the idea (without necessarily forgoing the convenience) of plastic. And this is Mailer’s problem. In a nutshell: it is possible to have a nice, rational, hy¬gienic contempt for plastic. A person can despise all the bogeymen of “technology” as Mailer identifies them in his essays and books— the military-industrial complex, the Hollywood studios, NASA, television, synthetics, high-rise buildings in which the windows don’t open—and still suffer (by Mailer’s measure) from moral cow¬ardice and self-deception. Liberals are acculturated to feel superior to technology, even as they prosper, directly or indirectly, by its suc¬cesses. In Mailer’s view, though, technology isn’t just depressing or tasteless or something to write editorials about. Technology is the devil. You don’t beat the devil by writing editorials. You can’t have a rational response to the threat of technology. Rationality is part of the disease.
Mailer spent the decade following the publication of The Naked and the Dead working this difficulty out. Though the elements of his solution were not original, their synthesis surely was. He began by biologizing the conflict between technology and freedom. The United States, he thought, was in danger of becoming just as totali¬tarian as the Soviet Union—a point he had already made in the closing section of The Naked and the Dead, where he portrayed, in the figure of a character named Major Dalleson, the postwar tri¬umph of the bureaucratic mentality. Mailer thought that American totalitarianism would emerge under the guise of what he called, in The Naked and the Dead, “conservative liberalism,” meaning that regimentation would be accomplished by subjecting dissidents to therapy rather than by sending them to Siberia or having them shot. Thus in two famous early stories, “The Man Who Studied Yoga” (1952) and “The Time of Her Time” (1959), the representative of technology is Freudianism, which paralyzes through introspection. (The man who studied yoga is able, after years of meditation, to un¬screw his own navel. He does so, and his ass falls off.) The real dan¬ger, Mailer thought, was not economic; Marx had missed the point. The real danger was psychological. Our nervous systems were being invaded. The answer was not to argue but to act.
This much Mailer appears to have picked up from his Trotskyist friend Jean Malaquais, whom he met in Paris soon after finishing The Naked and the Dead; from Sartre, whose essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism” popularized the philosophy in the late 1940s; from Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence, whose influence on Mailer’s writing soon eclipsed the influence, evident in The Naked and the Dead, of James T. Farrell and John Dos Passos; from the Baltimore psychoanalyst Robert Lindner, who wrote a number of clinical stud¬ies of sociopathic behavior, including Rebel without a Cause; and from Wilhelm Reich, who politicized psychoanalysis by erecting (as it were) the liberated sexual instinct as the antagonist of the modern state. Mailer brought Sartre and Reich together by making sex the site of existential struggle. Where he differed from Sartre and Reich (and from all his other teachers except Lawrence) was in making sex the site of metaphysical struggle, as well. The quality of the or¬gasm became a matter not only of political but of cosmic signifi¬cance. A bad orgasm—a thwarting or perversion of instinct—could lead (a Reichian idea) to cancer, which Mailer regarded as the bio¬logical equivalent of plastic. A good orgasm (an exhausting proposi¬tion, incidentally, if we are to rely on the example offered in “The Time of Her Time”) was not only a victory over the machinery of psychological oppression; it was a victory on behalf of God in his war with the devil. In short, Mailer developed a Manichean version of Sartre’s left-wing existentialism and Reich’s left-wing Freudian¬ism. Every choice became a choice between God and the devil, with the margin separating the two always razor-thin. Hence the existen¬tial frisson: to miss salvation by a hair was to risk damnation. Life was imagined as the psychic equivalent of rock-climbing (which, along with balancing on balcony railings while drunk, became a popular sport in Mailer’s fiction). “The best move,” as Mailer has liked to say, “lies close to the worst.”

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