Commentary Magazine


The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing
by Norman Mailer
Random House. 330 pp. $24.95

Norman Mailer at eighty: Aquarius in winter. Aquarius is what Mailer used to call himself in the 1960’s. He does so no longer, but he has also not given up the 60’s notions that once made him the guru of countercultural radicals—and that explain why fewer and fewer people today read what he writes. So dimmed is his star that younger readers may need to be told who Norman Mailer is.

Somebody important, is the answer: the writer who in 1948 published The Naked and the Dead, the best American novel to come out of World War II, the story of a platoon trying to regain a Pacific island from the Japanese that in the telling becomes a study of the allegedly “fascist” state emerging back home. While he went on to write a half-dozen indifferent novels, plus two very creditable ones—Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) and The Executioner’s Song (1979)—his authentic talent has been for nonfiction, more than a dozen volumes of which have appeared between Advertisements for Myself‘(1959) and now The Spooky Art.

This most recent book is a hodge-podge of pieces culled from essays, interviews, and transcripts of teaching sessions and organized under the headings of “lit biz,” “craft,” “psychology,” “philosophy,” “genre,” and “giants” (meaning such novelists as Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Henry Miller, and D.H. Lawrence). Mailer’s intent is to provide an “intimate handbook” for experienced writers who, he thinks, are going to need it in the years ahead. Why? Because, he rightly argues, the serious novel got into trouble as long ago as the 1930’s, when our best writers stopped trying to give America what Stendhal had given France or Tolstoy Russia—namely, a picture of an entire society and strategies for “making it” therein; now, thanks to the triumphs of TV and best-sellerdom, the novel is in the worst shape imaginable.

True, novelists are still showing up for work each morning, but the greener ones could use some help. For starters, Mailer offers tips about how to construct first- and third-person narratives, and how to incorporate real experience into the imaginary world of fiction. (“For example, it’s not a good idea to try to put your wife into your novel. Not your latest wife, anyway”—which leaves Mailer himself five others to choose from.) But he is more preoccupied with how to deal with publishers—do not expect them to like you personally, all they care about is money—and with how to play ego-defense against reviewers (assassins of talent) and rival novelists (enemies). In this rendering, getting ready for a career as a novelist sounds more like prizefighting than like your local poets’ support group.

Mailer was once famous for comparing himself to a prize-fighter, someone who needs strength, quickness, and above all stamina. To build stamina, he often depended on drugs, getting himself to his keyboard “stoned with lush, with pot, with benny, saggy, coffee, and two packs a day.” The drugs, he claims, opened the channel between the keyboard and his unconscious. But now, when he insists on writers’ being on good terms with their unconscious, he is only ringing changes on what the great modernists—Lawrence in Fantasia of the Unconscious, or E.M. Forster in “On Anonymity”—powerfully described three generations ago. For Mailer, it is a sort of contract: he promises to be at his desk tomorrow, and his unconscious agrees “to prepare the material.” If he fails to show up, his unconscious, which has never much loved him anyway, throws him over, and only weeks of good behavior—sitting at his desk whether the words are coming or not—can reestablish “trustworthy relations.”

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Good behavior: Mailer managed enough of it to produce two masterpieces of nonfiction, the aforementioned Advertisements and Armies of the Night (1968), which is about the 1967 march on the Pentagon in protest against our war in Vietnam and which I remember reading as an undergraduate with glee, gratitude, and urgency. And it must be said that as a literary critic, advertising others besides himself and not necessarily trying to cut a world-historical figure against the might of the military-industrial complex, Mailer has often been very shrewd.

This is so whether he is discussing contemporaries like Joseph Heller, James Jones, and John Updike or precursors like Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller. Here he is, for example, on Miller’s supplanting of Hemingway in the 30’s:

Twentieth-century life was leaving [Hemingway’s] world of individual effort, liquor, and tragic wounds, for [Miller’s] big-city garbage can of bruises, migraines, static, mood chemicals, amnesia, absurd relations, and cancer. Down in the sewers of existence where the cancer was being cooked, Miller was cavorting. Look, he was forever saying, you do not have to die of this crud. You can breathe it, eat it, suck it, f—k it, and still bounce up for the next day. There is something inestimable in us if we can stand the smell.

George Orwell in 1940 had already noted this “something inestimable” in Henry Miller, whom he described, not uncritically, as maintaining a sort of happy-Jonah existence “inside the whale” while Europe was drifting toward war. For his part, Mailer bemoans neither Miller’s political detachment nor his failure to write the Stendhalian or Tolstoyan novel of society. American fiction having split into specialties, Miller chose the metaphoric sewer, which he explored in an astonishing prose—“One had to go back to Melville to find a rhetoric that could prove as noble under full sail”—that went on to influence the filthy-demotic style of Philip Roth, Erica Jong, and Mailer himself. Whether Tropic of Cancer is as powerful a book after one’s young-manin-Paris phase as it is during is another and crueler question.

Mailer is a better critic on a greater writer, Lawrence, not least because in 1971 he had to defend him against the simplicities of the feminist Kate Millett, who pronounced Lawrence guilty of objectifying and degrading the women in his fiction. Why then, Mailer asked, had large numbers of women always wanted to read Lawrence? The brief answer was that he was “the sacramental poet of a sacramental act, for he believed nothing human had such significance as the tender majesties of a man and woman f—king with love.” Not my way of putting it, certainly, but Mailer has understood Lawrence’s “odyssey” toward a kind of sexual sanity (and his odyssey toward political lunacy—worshipful submission to the undemocratic strong man, etc.) as well as any critic ever has.

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Sadly, The Spooky Art contains too little such reliable criticism. Mailer readily confesses that his traffic with drugs, and his frequently bad management of his personal and public affairs, have impaired his rational powers. He does not recognize just how bereft of wisdom or even common sense they have left him. When he suggests with a straight face that the terrorists who crashed airliners into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were “fortified by the collateral assistance of magic” (how else could they have succeeded against the odds?), or that “If a Creator exists in company with an opposite Presence (to be called Satan, for short), there is also the most lively possibility of a variety of major and minor angels, devils and demons . . . working away more or less invisibly in our lives,” he puts himself on all fours not only with the 17th-century theocrats who condemned people in Salem for communicating with evil spirits but also, on the very next page, with Hitler and other Nazis, occultists who “almost certainly believed in magic” as a tool for altering history. Whether it is angels and devils or merely networks of people working together, Mailer suspects that whenever something important happens in history—usually, something bad—there is a plot at work, and if necessary he will make one up.

Mailer’s obsessiveness is not just with the secret workings of the CIA or the old KGB but with the dark labyrinth of the psyche. He reprints here his essay on Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, the 1972 film that finally gave middle Americans a chance to go to the drive-in and watch Marlon Brando simulate copulation with Maria Schneider on the floor of an empty apartment in Paris. Last Tango‘s reamings, improvised flatulence, and mumbled opening line (“F—k God”) inspired Mailer to announce that we had reached some sort of existential edge, where “we may all know a little more of what God is willing or unwilling to forgive. That is, unless God is old and has indeed forgot and we are merely out on a sea of human anality, a collective Faust deprived of Mephisto and turning to shit.” Thomas Hardy said something similar in the late Victorian age, but without the fecal obsessions we correctly associate with young children.

Would I recommend this book to anyone who has never read Armies of the Night, The Naked and the Dead, or the few other titles I have put in Mailer’s plus column? No, they should read his best books first. Those who have read them can safely skip this one, unless, that is, they want an authorial self-portrait of intermixed “genius and lust” (to use Mailer’s title for a Henry Miller anthology). Alas, the mixture will only remind them how, from the beginning, the lust—for the occult, for conspiracy, and for personal triumph as well as for certain forms of sterile if not infantile sexuality—has predominated over the genius.

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About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers is the editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, to be published by the Free Press this month.




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