Norman Mailer and the romance of crime

Because I appreciate good writing, I have never been able to read any of Norman Mailer’s books.  I started several, but never got past the first few chapters.  So, other than to say he wrote a peculiarly turgid English prose, I am unable to judge firsthand any of his works.

Mailer died two days ago.  On reading this unflattering epitaph by Roger Kimball, a couple of observations forced themselves on me.  In his actions and statements, Mailer embodied the belief that the human race in general, and Norman Mailer as an individual, were endowed with infinite freedom, and thus could do or be anything they wished at any time.  This is the child’s dream of Protean Man.

More interestingly, the life of Normal Mailer can be taken as strong evidence that the Protean fantasy must end in the justification and glorification of crime.  The artist-tyrant —  Protean Man — will encounter lesser breeds of people who slumber at a lower stage of development.  These slumberers determine, to their benefit, what is criminal and what is lawful.  In such circumstances, violent crime becomes the heroic act of liberation of a superior soul.

In discussing Protean Man and his negation, I used a Finnish teenage murderer to illustrate the inherent problems with acting on the fantasy.  “And I’m the dictator and god of my own life,” the young killer wrote.  “I, as natural selector, will eliminate those whom I see unfit, disgraces of human race and failures of natural selection.”  He murdered eight people at his school, then killed himself.

I thought this was an incidental outcome of the infantile lusting after unbounded freedom.  But, reading Kimball on Mailer, I’m willing to reconsider:  violence may be a fundamental and necessary consequence of turning this belief into action.  And because of the strange ideological grip of Protean Man, many artists and intellectuals will applaud brutality and violence, repackaged as romantic rebelliousness.

In a drunken rage, Mailer stabbed the second of his six wives, nearly killing her.  He never served a day in prison for this act.  He then published a novel about an intellectual who murdered  his wife and got away with it.  Knifing women was clearly a sort of test of greatness for Mailer.  When a friend stabbed his mistress, Mailer exclaimed to William Styron, “God, I wish I had the courage to stab a woman like that.”

Mailer also authored a book about Gary Gilmore, a murderer, painting him in romantic tones.  According to Kimball,

. . . Mailer does not simply delve into and display the humanity of the tortured killer he wrote about: He offers him up as a kind of hero, a courageous “outsider” who deserves our sympathy as a Victim of Society and our respect as an implacable rebel. Gary Gilmore, he said, was “another major American protagonist,” a man who was “malignant at his worst and heroic at his best,” implacable in his desire for (his clinching virtue) “revenge upon the American system.”

Another murderer, Jack Abbott, was released from prison largely because of a campaign led by Mailer.  He almost immediately committed murder again.  Because Abbott had shown some talent at writing, Mailer’s support remained unshaken.  “I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent.”  Protean Man was worth any number of lesser breeds without the gift.

The way Kimball describes “The White Negro,” Mailer’s 1950s paean to “the hipster,” it could well be taken for a manifesto of the Protean craving, with all the moral inversions this entails:  brutality is heroic, while innocence is repression and cowardice.  In the essay, Mailer justified the work of another teenage killer, who had “beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper”:

one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly.

That assumes, of course, an enormous amount of ideological calculation going on within the mind of an impulsive thug.  Mailer’s hero, the hipster — his version of Protean Man, the thing he so deeply craved to be — revealed ideology in his impulses, which were invariably violent and psychopathic.  “At bottom,” he wrote, “the drama of the psychopath is that he seeks love.”  But love, for Mailer, meant orgasm.  By seeking “absolute sexual freedom,” the hipster became “a sexual outlaw.”

In fact, the hipster sounds like a child in command of grown-up appetites:

Hip abdicates from any conventional moral responsibility because it would argue that the results of our actions are unforeseeable, and so we cannot know if we do good or bad . . . The only Hip morality . . . is to do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible, and . . . to be engaged in one primal battle: to open the limits of the possible for oneself, for oneself alone, because that is one’s need.

A predictable consequence of the belief that one can do or be anything, is an obsession with oneself — one’s feelings, one’s moods and tempers — no less than an “abdication” from community life.

“I have a slight understanding of what it’s like to be half man and half something else, something larger,” Mailer said, having just finished a first-person account of Jesus.  Like the young killer in Finland, he sought to be the dictator and god of his own life.  I am not placed to judge Mailer’s novelistic talent, but his life is an easy call.  It was an infantilistic railing against the boundaries of biology and community.

He envied, protected, and justified murderers, came close — in a rare moment of living the dream — to becoming one himself, loathed women, despised the economic system that made him rich and the country that lionized him.  His chosen craft, novel-writing, is a peculiarly Western tradition, but he tore at the roots that nourished tradition because they kept him earthbound, and in his child’s dream he could fly.  Whatever the internal splendor of his soul, Mailer’s life was that of vicious little man.  The praise of fellow artists and intellectuals, in his day and on his death, is the more alarming thereby.

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