God Bless Norman Mailer

My wife is convinced that I’m the only person in America who is grateful that C-Span 2: Book TV comes standard with basic cable service. (If the shoe fits . . .) On Saturday night, I flipped it on and was pleased to find Norman Mailer answering questions from a large audience, doing so with his typical blend of blustery arrogance and spot-on insight. He was there to discuss The Spooky Art, his latest collection of essays, but I tuned in too late and only caught the last few questions. Two of them caught my attention.

First, a man near the back of the room stood up and told Mailer that he felt “cheated.” His comment was something along the lines of, “While I’ve enjoyed your latest turn toward novels, I hate that I’ll never get to read Mailer on Clinton or Mailer on Bush, because I really cherish Mailer on Kennedy and Mailer on Nixon.” The second question-asker was more to the point: “Mr. Mailer, what is your opinion of American fascism?” I was pleasantly surprised by Mailer’s response. After first pointing out that he had, in fact, written about Clinton — and after taking several well-deserved jabs at the former President for the despicable connections between his policy in Kosovo and a certain Oval Office blowjob — Mailer suggested that, instead of addressing the issue with less care and time than it obviously deserved, he would defer to a speech he had recently delivered, which would soon be published in The New York Review of Books. From the shift of tone in his voice, it was obvious that Mailer was genuinely troubled by recent events, that he had paid them considerable attention, and that he was generally satisfied with the resulting speech.

Only in America is now available online, and it is the best piece on Bush, Iraq, religion, and America’s political troubles that I’ve read. As I’ve mentioned around here often, I’ve been a champion of Mailer’s political commentary since first reading Armies of the Night and gasping at his prescient analysis of the Cold War. Sure, he can be as subtle as a sledgehammer, but the combined weight of his experience, intelligence, and confidence strike me with a welcomed force. (As an Onion headline put it this week, “Fox News Reporter Asks The Questions Others Are Too Smart To Ask.”) Man, I’d love to see an 80-year-old Mailer hand Bill O’Reilly his ass.

One of that remarkable generation of Jewish-American authors (along with Miller, Malamud, Salinger, Bellow, and Roth, among others), and as its most explicitly political member, Mailer is, of course, intimately familiar with the long-standing and oft-troubling relationship between America’s faiths in God and country. Bush’s triumphalism has not gone unnoticed. For Mailer, Bush’s brand of “Flag Conservatism” is a natural and deeply disturbing by-product of America’s schizophrenia.

And, of course, we were not in shape to feel free of guilt about September 11. The manic money-grab excitement of the Nineties had never been altogether free of our pervasive American guilt. We were happy to be prosperous but we still felt guilty. We are a Christian nation. The Judeo in Judeo-Christian is a grace note. We are a Christian nation. The supposition of a great many good Christians in America is that you were not meant to be all that rich. God didn’t necessarily want it. For certain, Jesus did not. You weren’t supposed to pile up a mountain of moolah. You were obligated to spend your life in altruistic acts. That was still one half of the good Christian psyche. The other half, pure American, was, as always: beat everybody. One can offer a cruel, but conceivably accurate, remark: To be a mainstream American is to live as an oxymoron. You are a good Christian, but you strain to remain dynamically competitive. Of course, Jesus and Evel Knievel don’t consort too well in one psyche. Human rage and guilt do take on their uniquely American forms.

I love Mailer because of moments like this — blunt-force observations with remarkable consequences. Here’s another, where he takes a cliched symbol — in this case, plastic, which has been neutered of its metaphoric value at least since The Graduate — and wrestles from it more significance and poetic delight than I imagined possible:

Marketing was a beast and a force that succeeded in taking America away from most of us. It succeeded in making the world an uglier place to live in since the Second World War. One has only to cite fifty-story high-rise architecture as inspired in form as a Kleenex box with balconies, shopping malls encircled by low-level condominiums, superhighways with their vistas into the void; and, beneath it all, the pall of plastic, ubiquitous plastic, there to numb an infant’s tactile senses, plastic, front-runner in the competition to see which new substance could make the world more disagreeable. To the degree that we have distributed this crud all over the globe, we were already wielding a species of world hegemony. We were exporting the all-pervasive aesthetic emptiness of the most powerful American corporations. There were no new cathedrals being built for the poor— only sixteen-story urban-renewal housing projects that sat on the soul like jail.

The current tenor in D.C. seems to reflect a more general suspicion of intellectualism that is seeping across the country (much to the delight of cable news architects). Well, I’m going to say something that will sound terribly elitist to many: phrases like “that sat on the soul like jail” matter — and not just because of their content. Mailer knows precisely what effect that 64-word sentence — the one that begins “One has only to cite” — will have on his readers, just as he knows precisely how much dramatic weight will be carried by each of those seven monosyllabic words that end the paragraph. As do all good readers and writers. Despite the claims to the contrary made by Bush’s defenders, a love of and attention to words cannot be so easily divorced from a love of and attention to ideas, which is why I choke on my fist every time I hear America’s most public evangelical reduce the complex machinations of foreign policy, morality, and theology (most of all) down to good and evil. Is his world really so simple? Is his mind?

Mailer continues (and in a manner that makes me think he’d enjoy Long Pauses):

“Flag conservatives” like Bush paid lip service to some conservative values, but at bottom they didn’t give a damn. If they still used some of the terms, it was in order not to narrow their political base. They used the flag. They loved words like “evil.” One of Bush’s worst faults in rhetoric (to dip into that cornucopia) was to use the word as if it were a button he could push to increase his power. When people have an IV tube put in them to feed a narcotic painkiller on demand, a few keep pressing that button. Bush uses evil as a narcotic for that part of the American public which feels most distressed. Of course, as he sees it, he is doing it because he believes America is good. He certainly does, he believes this country is the only hope of the world. He also fears that the country is rapidly growing more dissolute, and the only solution may be—fell, mighty, and near-holy words—the only solution may be to strive for World Empire. . . .

From a militant Christian point of view, America is close to rotten. The entertainment media are loose. Bare belly-buttons pop onto every TV screen, as open in their statement as wild animals’ eyes. The kids are getting to the point where they can’t read, but they sure can screw. So one perk for the White House, should America become an international military machine huge enough to conquer all adversaries, is that American sexual freedom, all that gay, feminist, lesbian, transvestite hullabaloo, will be seen as too much of a luxury and will be put back into the closet again. Commitment, patriotism, and dedication will become all-pervasive national values once more (with all the hypocrisy attendant). Once we become a twenty-first-century embodiment of the old Roman Empire, moral reform can stride right back into the picture. . . .

More directly (even if it is not at all direct) a war with Iraq will gratify our need to avenge September 11. It does not matter that Iraq is not the culprit. Bush needs only to ignore the evidence. Which he does with all the power of a man who has never been embarrassed by himself. Saddam, for all his crimes, did not have a hand in September 11, but President Bush is a philosopher. September 11 was evil, Saddam is evil, all evil is connected. Ergo, Iraq.

I feel obliged to comment on those snippets, but mostly I just want them to be read. Mailer slips so easily into flag conservative “logic” here — coloring it all with much needed irony — which makes his moments of genuine outrage all the more powerful. Mailer on post-war Iraq (as an aside, it’s good to see that he still holds impotent liberalism in such high contempt):

Real democracy comes out of many subtle individual human battles that are fought over decades and finally over centuries, battles that succeed in building traditions. The only defenses of democracy, finally, are the traditions of democracy. When you start ignoring those values, you are playing with a noble and delicate structure. There’s nothing more beautiful than democracy. But you can’t play with it. You can’t assume we’re going to go over to show them what a great system we have. This is monstrous arrogance.

“This is monstrous arrogance.” Consonance. I love it. I wonder if we’ll ever again have a president who values the life of the mind, one who can recognize or even define consonance. Take it home, Norman:

The need for powerful theory can fall into many an abyss of error. I could, for example, be entirely wrong about the deeper motives of the administration. Perhaps they are not interested in Empire so much as in trying in true good faith to save the world. We can be certain Bush and his Bushites believe this. By the time they are in church each Sunday, they believe it so powerfully that tears come to their eyes. Of course, it is the actions of men and not their sentiments that make history. Our sentiments can be loaded with love within, but our actions can turn into the opposite. Perversity is always ready to consort with human nature.