Norman Mailer’s Combustible Ego


            I have read about Norman Mailer’s exploits for years in magazines and books. He is remembered as the womanizer, the misogynist, the disturber of the peace, the brilliant man.  He was hated and loved simultaneously.  He stabbed one of his six wives.  He ran for mayor of New York City.  These details made me think his writing would be all macho pomposity, not something that would interest me.  I was very wrong.

            I have just finished reading An American Dream, which came out in 1965 and was originally written as eight installments published in Esquire magazine in 1964.  It is a lurid story, but one only has to read a few pages to realize that this is a work of genius.  It bounces from world-wise dialogue to magnificent prose that just drips off the tongue.  I found myself reading paragraphs over and over.  Mailer is somewhat akin to Henry Miller in his obsessions, yet more combustible and bourgeois (Mailer actually wrote a book about Miller).  And within the protagonist of Stephen, lies so obviously, all of Mailer’s insecurities, paranoia, fear, weakness. 

            “I had loved her with the fury of my ego… but I loved her the way a drum majorette loved the power of the band for the swell it gave to each little strut (Mailer, 22).”

            At the start of the book Stephen murders his wife.  Like in Miller’s work, Mailer’s character is ultimately drawn to the woman he can celebrate as a goddess – a representation of the ultimate feminine ideal.  He feels he is nothing without her; that he would crumble.  His mortality is wrapped up in her – even in the way she treats him like dirt.  He is completely emasculated by her presence.

            In the aftermath of the murder and ensuing cover-up, Stephen is driven to wipe out the void by sleeping with whatever woman comes across his path.  Sex is his only solace in the aftermath of death.  But every person he meets is somehow connected back to his dead wife.  They all manage to bring up his fears – fear of loss, fear of power, fear of women, even fear of the black man, which culminates in an attack against his rival, jazz musician Shago Martin, for a nightclub singer named Cherry. 

            “Some hard-lodged boulder of fear I had always felt with Negroes was in the bumping, elbow-busting and crash of sound as he went barreling down, my terror going with him in the long deliberate equivalent of the event which takes place in an automobile just before a collision… (Mailer, 172).”

            Every character is a vessel for Stephen’s fear.  And as he charges the bull in all forms, he becomes electric with magic.  He stands on the edge, testing his own mortality simply so that he can accept it.  On the opposite end of his fear lies loss.

            At the time that this book was written in 1964, so much progress was being made so fast that the balance was thrown off kilter.  The old hierarchy that served the white man was breaking down, and as Mailer illustrates, there was a great amount of fear towards all that the white man had oppressed.  But on the reverse side, the character of Stephen initially reacts from his abusive heiress wife.  He knows the anger of the oppressed for himself.  He understands both sides, which contributes to his paranoia.  Mirrored in Stephen clenching his fist in his wife’s palatial living room, there is tension on every page that won’t let go.

            Like the character of Stephen, when I was single I often sought men who I could worship and fear.  It was the fear that drew me to them in the first place.  I wanted to conquer their overpowering charisma and become as strong as they were.  Just standing next to them, in one minute you could feel like an adored celebrity, and in the next they could say something that made you feel like nothing. They thought of themselves as Greek gods with a personal sense of mythology that must be spread to the masses via the mouth and the penis.  They desired to leave their territorial marks through mind games, disease, and numbers.  But that is a brutal simplification of the story, and I still love all of them. 

I depended on their magic to create my art.  Back then the air was filled with electricity when they entered a room.  Now the thought of being in the same room fills me with something more akin to dread.  But these world-wise, intelligent, creative genius’s all taught me how to live my life with freedom.  Looking back, I admire the intensity of my hate and my love for them.  As the main characters in the novels I write, they are held in time, when reality finds their game so tiresome. 

There is an enormous sense of relief as the character of Stephen confesses to all his failings.  In each of his outbursts, I think back and wish I had stood up to fear, not in a murderous or violent fashion, but in the wish that I could have grown into strength and vitality a little sooner in life.  I didn’t stand up to these men in my past as much as I should have because I was afraid of losing them.  I just wanted the magic to last.  But there is magic, even, in the death of a relationship. 

Why Art Will Always Be Literary



            I have just finished reading The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe and my mind is spinning with the insanity of the Modern Art world.  I’ve always loved Modern Art, but suspected that something was flawed with the movements heaped upon movements and the over-intensity of new theories at every turn.  Pieces became more a dissection of art than a complete work to be enjoyed.

            Art has always been and always will be a reflection of our culture.  The twentieth century was a story of mass consumption and the obsession with the newest, best, latest thing.  Suddenly realistic painting was not cool.  “Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art…  The idea was that half the power of realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it (Wolfe, 5).” 

So strip away the story and the vision and all the things that allow us to emotionally connect to a piece of art.  Subtract until all you have is color and unrecognizable form and absolute flatness.  Build a pile of overlapping theories that sit in the corner like dirty laundry.  Then you have the truly bohemian disease; the disease that keeps the artist from becoming a success.

            Few artists can make the leap from, what Wolfe calls, “The Boho Dance” to “Consummation.”  Few can genuinely double-track between their anti-bourgeois values while kissing the ass of the bourgeois.  But who else buys the art?

            Picasso was an enormously talented painter but so was Georges Braque.  Today we remember Picasso as the great master while Braque remains that neighbor he chatted about Cubism with.  Braque clung to his bohemian values and was never going to let go.  Picasso, however, adapted to wealth and used it to the advantage of his art.  He was versatile and knew he had to constantly evolve as an artist and a man. This is what made him great and gave him such a diverse body of work.

            Jackson Pollock, in his time, was lauded by the critic Clement Greenberg as, “the most powerful painter in contemporary America.”  But he couldn’t sell a painting, never evolved past the drip-phase, and “… one night he arrives drunk at Peggy Guggenheim’s house during a party for a lot of swell people.  So he takes off his clothes in another room and comes walking into the living room stark naked and urinates in the fireplace (Wolf, 57).”  I kind of love him for that.

            Within Pollock’s personal values also lies the art that cannot be understood without the theories that go with it.  Otherwise you might just look at his work and think, “Well, his mind must have been a mess.”  Which leads us back to where realism left off.  “Modern art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text (Wolfe, 5).” 

The difference is that in twentieth century art, only a very small group knew the text behind the art – the artists themselves and a small group of collectors.  But in realism we all have the text to bring to the art – realism is all-inclusive.  This is why it’s so hard to sell abstract art.  “They will always prefer realistic art instead – as long as someone in authority assures them that it is (a) new, and (b) not realistic (Wolfe, 65).” 

            I usually have no money to my name.  But I am still often driven to buy art, and will find a way (layaway plans) if I love something enough.  Great art tells a story that you can get lost in.  This is timeless.  The same goes for literature.  I’ve never liked Hemingway because he is an abstract writer.  He only puts ten percent of the story onto the page.  It reads so dry and empty – whereas his personal letters were full and rich and honest and true, as he would put it. 

            After all the Abstract Expressionism came the relief of Pop Art.  Art was fun again.  The paintings still had the same flatness of abstract art but with recognizable images from everyday life – American flags, soup cans, comic books, celebrities.  Collectors bought it up and who was more cutting edge or as obsessed with the rich than Andy Warhol?  His work was new, and not quite completely realistic.  The Bourgeois ate him up with a silver spoon.