Norman and the Rats

My mind is clearer now
At last, all too well
I can see
Where we all soon will be.

If you strip away
The myth from the man
You will see
Where we all soon will be.

“Heaven on their Minds,” from Jesus Christ, Superstar
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

English: Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair Intern...
Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair International, 1988 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “The Naked Novelist and the Dead Reputation,” Algis Valiunas offers an essay that has to be one of the better-written post-mortems of Norman Mailer that is not a panegyric. Rather than lionize the man because of his work, Valiunas considers the man and the art together. If you are not a fan of Mailer and his work, the article is unsettling. If you are a fan, it should be.

After slogging through The Naked and the Dead, I never picked up any of Mailer’s later writings, and Valiunas has all but ensured that I won’t. Leave aside the critic’s obvious distaste for his subject and Commentary’s implicit agreement. Valiunas describes not a misunderstood genius wrestling with his shortcomings, but an unapologetic hedonist with an unmeasured streak of sociopathy. He shows us Mailer the confirmed narcissist, a habitual philanderer who knifed his second wife, lionized the hoods who killed a 50-year old candy-store owner, and advocated jousting tournaments to punish juvenile delinquents.

What is troubling about all of this is not that it makes Mailer’s writing worse than it might be otherwise. Valiunas tries to make a case that Mailer’s character flawed his writing, but he tries too hard: the worst he can muster about Harlot’s Ghost is:

Mailer has a real fascination with the world’s great secret machinery, and he is willing to give the intelligence agents he portrays, who are naturally great villains to his friends on the Left, the chance to present their anti-Communist case without undue irony directed at their insensate evil.

Still, Mailer cannot control his sheer boyish vulgarity. … Mailer sees himself as writing for the ages, like Hugo describing the Battle of Waterloo or Tolstoy the burning of Moscow; but at the climactic moments, his efforts prove to be potboiler swill served on a bed of journalism.

Even for a detractor, that’s grasping at straws. Suffice to say that if Mailer is worth reading, he is worth reading with his character flaws fully in mind. Indeed failure to do so – or failure to condemn his flaws as such – risks conflating the man and his art. This is Valiunas’ biggest bone with Mailer, and mine as well. It was less the puerile prurience of his prose than the fact that when we lionize a man, we make of his character an idol for ourselves and, worse, our youth. Valiunas writes:

He fancied himself one of the big thinkers, and most of his ideas were not only bad but appalling; for he lived largely for the body’s pleasures, actual and vicarious, and adopted ideas that serviced those pleasures. T.S. Eliot remarked that a great writer creates the taste by which he is appreciated; Mailer helped create the moral confusion amid which he was glorified—not quite what Eliot had in mind.

And herein lies the problem with the aesthetic objectivists who protest that the art and the artist must be considered separately. When we do that, we fool ourselves into thinking that the artist separates himself from his art. This is nonsense; art, especially good art, is more than technique. It is the transmutation of an idea, a picture, or a feeling through the mind and soul and passion of the artist into symbolic expression. Even if we ascribe to the artist the purest of motives, the work itself is a vector of its creator’s essence.

If Mailer was a great writer or even a good one, it is because he poured himself into his work, and so when we consume his work, we consume his essence. We have two choices in that case: either take the work unknowingly and allow yourself to be subtly but importantly changed by it, or take it in the full knowledge that it is the work of a moral ogre, and that it must be read as such.

To do less is to surrender ourselves to the song of the Pied Piper, to agree to be led as a society to our undoing because we cared more about the sweetness of the music than what was in the mind of the musician as he played.

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