The Same as It Ever Was

So I just finished writing this paragraph, and it occurs to me that at some point I stopped writing about the past.

Mailer captures something of this revolutionary sensibility early in The Armies of the Night, when during his drunken speech he incites roars of applause by describing the American bureaucrat’s heart as “full of shit.” “He was off into obscenity,” Mailer writes, and what follows is a three-page meditation on profanity as a defining characteristic of American life. For Mailer, the aesthetic of obscenity is profoundly democratic and egalitarian, a by-product of story-telling traditions in small towns and city streets. But within the context of the Cold War, profane language — like the profane acts it represents — serves as a necessary corrective to the hypocrisies and injustices of modernization and the permanent war economy. “The American corporation executive,” Mailer writes, “who was after all the foremost representative of Man in the world today, was perfectly capable of burning unseen women and children in the Vietnamese jungles, yet felt a large displeasure and fairly final disapproval at the generous use of obscenity in literature and in public” (49). That Mailer’s opinion of the corporate executive echoes exactly D.J. Jethroe’s is no coincidence, for this selective amnesia — this sense that all is permissible so long as it is state-sanctioned, to the benefit of American markets, and hidden from plain view — is, according to Mailer, precisely why America was in Vietnam.

D.J. Jethroe, by the way, is the narrator of Why Are We in Vietnam?, the novel Mailer published just months before the March on the Pentagon in October 1967. Yeah, so that’s me engaging in some word play in that last sentence.