An Interview with Norman Mailer by Judy Dempsey

Judy Dempsey

An Interview with Norman Mailer


In 1962, Diana Trilling wrote of Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead as being his first and last novel to be set outdoors. Not taking into account his Armies of the Night, which is not a novel in the conventional sense, but a series of reflections and commentaries on various aspects of American life, this statement has held true until this week, with the publication of Mailer’s monumental ‘tribute’ to Gary Gilmore.

Like The Naked and the Dead, The Executioner’s Song is a history of rebellion, but the circumstances have been turned upside down. While it could be suggested that Mailer’s first novel dealt exclusively with collectives of individuals, whose destinies were determined by forces over which they had no control, the situation in The Executioner’s Song is reversed – Gary Gilmore as an individual chose his own death in spite of the collective pleas and pressures brought to bear on him before the execution. Mailer has at last brought the individual back from the war, from squadrons and from collectives, to his own self. But through suicide, what can Mailer or Gilmore hope to achieve or prove?

I don’t think the last hope is in the Rebel, and I don’t see hope going down the drain with Gary Gilmore. I’m not sure why I wrote this book; now I’m not talking about the obvious reasons – I wrote it to stay economically alive, because I’m always doing that with whatever book I write. But I, for one have other motives besides that, and they are more interesting literary motives.

I suppose, like any other literary man or woman, I’ve always played the simple game. But with Gilmore, it’s different. The point about Gilmore is that he didn’t symbolise anything for me, and that’s why I wrote the book in such detail. I think it was a rebellion against symbology, in a way. I thought, well, you can play the literary game for too long on too small a base, and I said

‘Let me put it all out there; let people see this business of human motivations, and let people abide with the sense of confusion which they’re going to endure if they’re going to get through this book’.

Let’s face it, we’re very complex people and it was some of these motivations – like execution – that I wanted to explore. I thought about Gilmore; the months of preparation before that event; dealing with the public; and succeeding to manage a great many separate affairs as they proceeded that act; and then decided this: let Gilmore – before he symbolises anything – stand there in all his complexity. Let it be the kind of book that creates other books rather than a book which is the finished work. I felt it was about time I started writing about life. I was getting further and further away from it.

Mailer’s disillusionment with Communism followed rapidly after the publication of The Naked and the Dead; it was a break only with Stalinism, and in Barbary Shore (195l), Mailer moved over to Trotskyism. In Barbary Shore, Mailer writes of the dilemma of the defeated radical intellectual and into the sixties, he was still flirting with Marxism, but with little commitment.

I really don’t have a lot of interest in politics any more. I’ll probably end up walking down the street carrying a Democrat ticket before I know it. No, I just think that left-wing politics in America never developed; they never got really interesting. You can still hear the same thing said in left-wing politics, what you heard oh, 30, 40, 50 years ago.

Yes, there are groups in the States with leftist views – the Gay Lib and Women’s Movement, but frankly, they bore me and I’m not really attracted to them; in fact, I rather dislike it; the Women’s Movement I dislike on ideological grounds apart from personal attitudes. What I dislike about it is this: there’s something wrong with the social attitude that assumes that half the people in the world are oppressing the other half; because from what I understand about oppression is a minority oppressing a majority. I mean, that’s what left-wing politics is all about – the idea is to let this majority get rid of that minority and everything will be fine. But with the Women’s Movement, well, you’re being asked to believe that there is a conspiracy among one class, called men, who enslave another class, called women. And yet they’re equal, and I find this conspiracy thesis very hard to accept.

I mean, why not look at it from this viewpoint – that men and women are asymmetrical and that they each oppress the other in marvelously clever ways – it’s been going on from the beginning of time and it will go on forever, because of the fundamental symmetry of their powers. Hence I find something slightly unpleasant with all these movements because it’s humorous. And you know, the worst of everything in the Left has always been slightly humorous, and at the same time, I find that the Left tend to be a little bigotted and a little censorious in America.

So if Mailer finds the left and the Women’s Movement dispiriting, what’s the alternative for change – how does he see the Right?

The Right? – they still remain perpetually stupid. The right-wing in America is probably by now represented by nothing but the oil interests and they’re hideous. You know, they’re responsible for all the plastic in the world. I mean, oil has two things – one of them is greed and the other is plastics – you know certain parts of the oil industry realised that profits could be made from the waste products of the oil industry, and that’s where plastics come in. Plastics are the excrement of oil.

And this is exactly where Mailer latches onto his two pet topics – cynicism with politics and disgust with the world – the degradation of humanity constitute Mailer’s view of the world. He has been railing for decades on the poverty of morality and the static nature of politics. His political novels, The Naked and the Dead and Barbary Shore, point to despair and isolation; his later writings, The Deer Park, Advertisements for Myself and Armies of the Night, while brilliantly descriptive and constructed with analysis and explanations still seek for a panacea:

Well, certainly raillery is the right word to describe my feelings. Yes, I’ve been ineffectual in politics, and it doesn’t matter. Some of the things I was fighting for in New York, when I stood for election for Mayor did materialise – the air is cleaner; but I feel that if I have anything interesting to offer still, it is probably in my writing, and so I might as well concentrate on that. I’ve always felt a certain power can come from writing.

That implies that Mailer still believes he can capture the imagination of an American audience – ‘I don’t know if you can put it like that. You can always attempt to make consciences more lively’. But that remark evades the reader. Mailer means in fact to lean on that American notion of ‘virtue’:

I’m a great believer in virtue. It’s difficult to define; French virtue dwells on roots, and the English depend on manners, but the Americans – their virtue is like the virtuous pusher who says it’s pure heroin, which means that it’s 25% adulterated. But he knows and you know that the dishonest pusher sells 50% adulteration. So you see, it’s cheating, but not cheating as badly as the others – now that’s virtue!

But one could also argue that this so called American virtue is based on guilt?

Yes, sure. America’s a terribly guilty country because it was formed by weeds; rejects; people who couldn’t make it at home. And of course there’s the war guilt also, particularly Vietnam.

To return to ’50s, it was obvious in Barbary Shore that Mailer was afraid. Greed, stupidity, mean ambition and suspicion – these were the characteristics that defined the American democratic man and woman; but also the common life of humanity had grown distinctly less human and more sinister with the passage of years. Mailer was afraid here, because he saw no alternative to the FBI and what he incessantly refers to, the Fascists.

Writing Barbary Shore at that time, I didn’t see any way out of it. I thought finally that I’d see this huge milestone grinding along and a few people would try to stop it with their fingernails, but they’d be crushed by it. It’s the only vision I had at that point. In those days in America, things were terribly grim. There was a feeling of an absolutely controlled Press and a very skillfully controlled one at that, and possibly the most controlled one of all time. And you know, Time magazine ran the world in those days, and there was no appeal from their decisions.

Oh sure, you could curse the Press and it worked, but there was a freedom of speech and there wasn’t if you know what I mean. It was terribly depressing and sometimes I felt I was yelling into the wind. Barbary Shore was written out of that despair, and it is obvious from reading it that I had a paranoiac vision of society. I seriously thought the FBI were taking over everything – now I’m wiser. In the FBI, the Irish FBIs hated the non-Irish FBIs, Kennedy comes along, and war overtook the Establishment that is, the FBI. I suppose in retrospect, the problem is never as desperate as you think.

I mentioned Mailer’s ‘panacea’ earlier: it makes its presence felt in ways related to his writing and his view of the world. Diana Trilling once remarked that Mailer’s role as a writer was more messianic than creative. Mailer however goes beyond this:

I don’t think we’re here on Earth to be Happy. I think we’re here on Earth to help God. I am a messianic writer, but I think there’s a tremendous job involved of careful dismantling which has to be done before this messianic happening; and what one must do is to cast away all the dead timber that’s lying on everyone’s brain, including my own.

This statement nearly invites the conclusion that self-annihilation is the prerequisite for the Messiah!

No, no, what I’m saying is let’s learn how to think. I’m saying the same thing that the Logical Positivists were saying. But I think they’re full of crap and they think that I’m absolutely inarticulate. I’m being serious – it’s one of the great arguments going on in the 20th century – everybody is saying to everybody else, ‘You ought to have a think’. I’m one of those people who battle on. Burgess is saying Mailer doesn’t have a Think and I’m saying Burgess doesn’t have a Think…

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