Norman Mailer’s Combustible Ego

December 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

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            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. 

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Why Art Will Always Be Literary

December 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

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            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.

 

The Rape Propaganda of the Nineties

November 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

            Remember the nineties when rape and sexual harassment were everywhere?  There were all those televised court cases such as Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.  In Modern Novel class in college, every book we read had a rape scene in the first chapter.  Wherever you turned, there was some outrage over the untamable impulses of male sexuality – that evil creature that for one second is the boy next door and in the next is that gang rapist in the fraternity at 3am on a Saturday night.  The problem was that young women grew up thinking that men were evolved spineless teddy bears.  But feminism is no match for nature.

            I’d forgotten about the rape preoccupation until I read Camille Paglia’s collection of essays, Sex, Art, and American Culture.  To be honest, the book is outdated and repetitive.  But Paglia’s voice more than makes up for it and her rich knowledge from ancient history to pop culture is passionate and invigorating.  She loves to tell it like it is.  “American feminism has a man problem.  The beaming Betty Crocker’s, hangdog dowdies, and parochial prudes who call themselves feminists want men to be like women.  They fear and despise the masculine.  The academic feminists think their nerdy bookworm husbands are the ideal model of manhood (Paglia, 5).” 

Paglia embraces nature and our natural impulses to understand why we behave the way we do.  When it comes to survival in nature, you must always be aware. “Feminism keeps saying the sexes are the same.  It keeps telling women they can do anything, go anywhere, say anything, wear anything.  No, they can’t.  Women will always be in sexual danger (Paglia, 50).”

            I still hate admitting that this is true, even though I have learned from many bad experiences that it is.  And of course, Paglia tends to contradict this statement as well.  I’ve been mugged, and more humorous than scary, once I was on my way home from work in my sweats and a guy in an SUV from the suburbs mistook me for a prostitute.  He asked me how much for a blow job, and was embarrassed when I rounded the corner and entered my building.  But it still left me shaken, because he was following me in his car.

            Most recently, I was walking home from dinner and on a street corner a man asked me the time.  “10pm,” I said.  The light changed and I started walking.  He followed me for six blocks – up the bridge, over the freeway, through the dark foliage of the side streets.  My heart was pounding as I felt his presence behind me, keeping close watch on his shadow.  Then he said something, which I couldn’t hear.  I turned and snapped, “What?” 

He goes, “How would you like me to rub my penis up on you?”

“Fuck off!” I yelled, “Do you want my husband to come down here and fuck you up?  You need to respect women!”  I shook my finger at him, inflamed.

Immediately he stepped back four feet, struck by the sheer force of my anger.  He held his hands up in surrender.  Just at that point, I reached the well-lit entrance of my building where my neighbors were in the lobby getting their mail.  My hands were shaking, “That guy was disgusting.”

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” they cheerfully replied.  I tried to keep myself composed as we rode up the elevator, but as soon as I was inside my door, I melted onto the floor and lost it.  In a rage my husband ran down to the car, circling the neighborhood to find the guy – someone who could be almost impossible to recognize, slipping in and out of shadows, a faceless loner in the night.

Feminism’s biggest mistake was in denying nature, history, and the archetypes of our mythology.  Utopia doesn’t exist, and we live in a world of risk.

At some point in his journey towards maturity, the average man will reject his mother and his dependence on women.  He will join the pack mentality in a rite of passage and succumb to his most basic nature, the nature that society tries it’s best to refine and suppress.  But when a man relies on assault to overtake a woman, he becomes a pathetic figure, weak and inept, revealing all of his vulnerability as a man.  If you need to take something by force, then you will never really have it at all.

So why did the rape and sexual harassment propaganda get out of control in the nineties?  “The theatrics of public rage over date rape are their way of restoring the old sexual rules that were shattered by my generation (Paglia, 52).”  It always scares me when women want to return to an infantile, protected structure lacking in freedom.  In the end, I don’t see that this preoccupation with fear won out.  The young twenty-something women of today don’t remember a time when they weren’t equals.  Overall, they seem to be well informed, prepared and strong.

I relate to Paglia’s warrior mentality, “Rape does not destroy you forever.  It’s like getting beaten up.  Men get beaten up all the time…  If it is a totally devastating psychological experience for a woman, then she doesn’t have a proper attitude toward sex (Paglia, 64-65).”  I have experienced sexual violence, and I would have to agree with this.  It was physically and emotionally painful, and it came from the pain my attacker had suppressed.  That is the way of nature.  A pain-free world does not exist.  We must all be trained to fight, to be fit, ready for what comes.  But through it all – take the risk of being open and free to all human experience.  Lacking in fear – but full of awareness.

           

 

 

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