“Mailer’s Cosmology” by J. Michael Lennon. First published in Modern Language Studies 12 (summer 1982), 18-29; reprinted in Critical Essays on Norman Mailer, edited by Lennon (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986).

Opening of the Essay

Ever since it was concluded that Yeats’ system of cycles and gyres was not a matter of personal belief but an imaginative construction designed to buttress and justify his poetics, it has been difficult for any contemporary author to receive a fair hearing on his cosmology. Norman Mailer is a good example. Although he has introduced the “conception of God as an embattled vision which had terrified him from the hour he first encountered the thought” in almost every one of his works from The Deer Park (1955) on, most critics have either ignored his belief or slighted it, even though Mailer has stated unequivocally that “every other one of this notions had followed from that [conception].” My intent in this essay is to delineate Mailer’s cosmology, which he says “is obviously the most ticklish, dense, incomprehensible and for most readers perverted part of my thicket.”

[ . . . ] Yet if Mailer’s intuitions convince him of purpose in the cosmos, he is just as unwilling as Sergius O’Shaugnessy, the hero of The Deer Park, to believe that “the universe is just an elaborate clock.” Such a mechanistic assumption, O’Shaugnessy says, is unacceptable, because then one must agree with W. Somerset Maugham that “nobody is any better that he ought to be.” Mailer’s universe is neither clock nor chaos [ . . . .]

The most concise statement of Mailer’s belief comes from St. George and the Godfather (1972): “The world’s more coherent if God exists. And twice coherent if He exists like us.” Mailer’s most profound intuition is of a “charged and libidinous universe,” a universe he compares to a complex and recalcitrant lock whose “key was metaphor rather than measure.” Unlike atheistic existentialists who see the extra-mental world as neutral, gratuitous or indecipherable, like the forehead of the White Whale, Mailer senses meaning in the cosmos.