Mailer’s Bridge

Georgetown University Conference on the 1967 March on the Pentagon, and The Armies of the Night, October 19, 2007

In a 1948 interview published shortly after the enormous success of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer said, “It’s much better when people who read your book don’t know anything about you, even what you look like. I have refused to let Life magazine photograph me.  The fictional characters in a novel, he believed, might have only tangential relations with their creator; their ideas were not necessarily the author’s.  Three years later Mailer said that the creative work of writers “has nothing to do with what they profess, which is usually silly.”  In a 1954 essay written when his third novel, The Deer Park, was in galleys, he made another statement which indicated his views on the impersonality of the writer had not changed:  “I have developed an antipathy,” he said, “to using one’s novels as direct expressions of one’s latest ideas.”

The belief in disinterested literary creation that Mailer held during this period does not, of course, originate with him. It can be traced back to Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist to the prefaces of Henry James, back finally to Flaubert.  Until the early 60s, Mailer accepted Flaubert’s dictum that “the artist should be in his work, like God in his creation, invisible and all-powerful; he should be felt everywhere and seen nowhere.  And then art should be raised above personal affections and nervous susceptibilities.”

Mailer’s battle with the publishing industry over the supposed obscenity of The Deer Park (turned down by seven publishers) was the event that punctured what he called his “nineteenth century naiveté” and made him what he called “a psychic outlaw,” one ready to rake through all the private feelings that Flaubert believed the artist should transcend.  Mailer was now ready to link public and private.  A few years later, writing about JFK’s presidential campaign, he said, “the life of politics and the life of the myth had diverged too far; there was nothing to return them to one another.”  The October 1967 March on the Pentagon gave Mailer the opportunity to build a bridge between public event and private sensibility and say goodbye forever to the idea of the disinterested artist.

Mailer’s review of Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 memoir, Making It (written some three or four months before Armies) contains a long exordium on what he calls “that daring aesthetic vineyard where autobiography dares to become that special and most daring category of fiction which is its inner necessity.”  In the review, Mailer tells not only the story of Podhoretz’s story, but of his own as well, laying down the aesthetic principles of Armies and the three works that followed, all of which were nominated for the National Book Award: Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of a Fire on the Moon and The Prisoner of Sex. What follows is the heart of the Podhoretz review:

In 1959, Mailer wrote: “The most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view.”  Ditto for nonfiction.  Mailer’s decision to resurrect a point of view used only rarely since Henry Adams borrowed it from classical historians such as Xenophon and Julius Caesar was the masterstroke that fulfills the principles laid down in the Podhoretz essay.  Mailer’s description of himself in the third person, the third person personal we might call it, enables him to both use and transcend himself.  The third person personal gave Mailer a place to stand.  A sample passage may illustrate.  Mailer is on the phone with Mitchell Goodman, who is explaining the various demonstrations and rallies that will precede the actual March on the Pentagon.

Despite the unusual nature of Mailer’s point of view, its assumptions and purposes are apparent. Anyone familiar with the modern novel recognizes the double perspective by which modern novelists show us the world.  A fictional character, it seems, one who is ruminating, reacting, vacillating, surging before our eyes, is being presented by another figure who reflects on the reflections of the character.  But it is no simple task; the Norman Mailer who is unsure of participating in the March at the outset is not the Norman Mailer of the final pages who tells reporters “they are burning the body and blood of Christ in Vietnam.”

Mailer’s problem is illustrated by the landscape artist who tries to paint a picture of everything he is aware of—including himself painting the scene before him.  So he paints a picture that includes himself painting, only to find he needs a more inclusive view, one which contains himself painting himself in, and so on, to infinity.  Mailer circumvents this difficulty somewhat for his implicit tactic is to reveal not only Mailer the Marcher, but Mailer the writer, Mailer-now and well as Mailer-then.  The writer Mailer, observing and recreating the object-participant Mailer, is changing, growing, even as he writes about the marching Mailer.  And this marching Mailer, of course, necessarily casts light on his creator, Mailer-now.  Unlike the artist who paints the landscape before him, Mailer sets his mirrors face to face and jiggles them to see, as he once put it, if he “can trap the Prince of Truth in the act of switching a style.”

Before I lose myself in this crosshatch of perspectives, let me offer some metaphors from Armies that may ease our way.  Discussing his role as an historian of the March, he says:

The two selves (or heads) are constantly confronting each other across the narrow aesthetic gap created by the use of the third person personal point of view.  Mailer-now always has additional experience not shared by Mailer-then. And both continue to change and grow as we watch from our privileged position.

By writing about himself instead of a fictional stand-in, Mailer is obliged to write about some part of the real world as well.  Half the genius of the narrative arises from the fact that Mailer’s sight extends so clearly to the circumference of his awareness.  “The eye is the first circle,” says Emerson, “the horizon it forms is the second.”  In Armies, we see both Mailer’s eye, with its acuities and myopias, and the horizon it sweeps for us.  Mailer is therefore much more than a spelunker of his own psyche in his works of creative nonfiction.  His explorations of the self lead us closer to, not further away from, the problems of the Republic.  As Emerson notes in “Fate,” “One key, one solution to the mysteries of human conditions, one solution to the old knots of fate, freedom and foreknowlegement, exists; the propounding namely of the double consciousness.   A man must ride alternately on the horses of his private and his public nature, as the equestrians in the circus throw themselves nimbly from horse to horse, or plant one foot on the back of one and the other foot on the back of the other.”  Emerson’s metaphor explains how Mailer’s examination of himself as a participant in a momentous historical event sustains his self-scrutiny and vice versa.   It is as if Mailer turns his gaze inward until finally he sees through himself to the scene beyond.

Henry James thought autobiography to be “accurst” and although the  first person autobiographical sketches Mailer wrote for Advertisements for Myself in the late fifties indicate that his distaste was not always as strong, he finally came to agree with the following assessment of the form made by James in a letter to H.G. Wells:  “There is, to my vision,” James wrote, “ no authentic, and no really interesting and no beautiful, report of things on the novelist’s, the painter’s part unless a particular detachment has operated, unless the . . . observant and recording and interpreting mind, in short, has intervened and played its part . . .”

The particular detachment James recommends is precisely what Mailer needed to turn the aesthetic problem outlined in the Podhoretz essay into an aesthetic coup.  And Mailer knew it.  In one of his few direct utterances on the use of the third person personal in Armies, Mailer says that the idea of using it occurred to him as a result of editing himself in his film, Wild 90, in which he plays the lead.  Watching the film, he said, made him see himself “as a piece of material, as a piece of yard goods.  I’d say, ‘Where am I going to cut myself.’  It’s a way of getting psychoanalysis, I think.”

Narrative literature, as we know, bridges the subjectivity of the lyric poem and the objectivity of drama because it unites teller and told, the story-teller and the story.  Mailer’s point-of-view bridge in Armies accomplishes a richer, more exciting consolidation of the subjective and objective, and does so, paradoxically, by sundering the writer into subject and object, Mailer the writer and Mailer the Marcher.  This division of self by aesthetic fiat, the brilliant culmination of a long-evolving strategy, is the most significant decision of Mailer’s artistic career.

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