The Heavyweight Champion

I have the flu. Or something — some wicked stomach bug that scythed through our family this weekend, leaving a trail of wreckage (or, more to the point, vomit). But apparently this is no impediment to updating your blog.

I spent last weekend at a symposium on Norman Mailer, and I’ve been thinking about it since. My own paper was called “Mailer’s Sound,” and it was about Mailer’s sound. The sound of the prose of “The White Negro,” the importance of sound to hip subcultures, the philosophical principle (sound = experience vs. meaning = prose) at stake when literary types like Mailer and Kerouac started to “discover” hipness as some new kind of intellectual cause. It was weird talking about Mailer when he was right there in the front row, wearing a goose-down vest and hunting boots. He seemed very frail — his son John Buffalo Mailer had to help him in and out of his wheelchair, and Mailer, deaf, tottering on two canes, and easily winded, was obviously having to pace himself. But he still has this great deep growl of a voice, and his public reading of his upcoming novel (which somehow has already made it up on Youtube) and the more private reading he gave of his “Why Are We At War?” was kind of touching, in a lion-in-winter sort of way.

The big question that came out of my own panel was what’s happened to the “public intellectual.” Who on the present-day literary scene can raise the same claim of being an arbiter and prime mover of The Culture that people like Mailer did? Is it even theoretically possible to make this kind of claim anymore? My feeling is that it isn’t. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t talented writers out there –one of the comforts of this otherwise cheerless weekend has been Chuck Klosterman’s book of essays, “Chuck Klosterman IV.” But there isn’t the same sense of a common culture for which any one intellectual could set the tone — something Klosterman himself writes about in his essay on Johnny Carson. If you want a taste of what it was like as recently as the late 1960s, check out this Canadian TV show that features Mailer and Marshall McLuhan locked in deep intellectual debate, sounding at times kind of ridiculous, yes, it must be admitted, but carrying on a discussion in full confidence that nothing could matter more than the outcome. Mailer belonged to an an age when every every piece of writing, every act as a public intellectual, was carried out in the belief that the stakes were always very high.

What does this have to do with music? Nothing much. I’m comfortable with the idea that not everything a musicologist might care about will be musical. My big thing is the intellectual history of the thirty years after WWII — from which point of view Coltrane or Leonard Bernstein (say) will obviously loom large, but then why arbitrarily restrict yourself to only musical figures? You can’t understand the cultural life of those years unless you read Norman Mailer or Marshall McLuhan (for ex.), which means you can’t understand Coltrane and Bernstein.

Mailer and McLuhan are both figures that morons think they can comfortably dismiss. People just kind of forget about McLuhan, but Mailer comes in for a lot of ignorant bashing. OK, fine, Mailer’s written some indifferent stuff over the years. But Mailer at his best is the heavyweight champion. Here is one passage, chosen more-or-less at random from the huge recent anthology of his work, “The Time of Our Time.” It’s a description of Benny Paret’s death in the boxing ring:

Paret died on his feet. As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before, he gave some little half-smile of regret, as if he were saying, “I didn’t know I was going to die just yet,” and then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him. He began to pass away. As he passed, so his limbs descended beneath him, and he sank slowly to the floor. He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship that turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping a wet log.

Suckaz gotta recognize. There’s a reason Mailer is the only New York Intellectual name-checked in a hiphop song.*

What this passage (and innumerable others) is about is existential courage — of the boxer who lives with the knowledge of death, and the writer, too, who sets loose sentences (and actions as a public persona) without knowing whether they will lead to glory or ignominy. Which is why there has never been a major artistic figure as willing to make a total fool of himself. Even Mailer at his worst is still risking something, which is more than you can say for pretty much everyone else. The NYT book review this morning has a back-page essay on how writers just don’t mix it up any more. Mailer is an obvious exception. He catches flak from both sides: genteel herbivorous academic/literary types make their prim “who farted” face whenever Mailer says what’s on his mind, and blowhards like Dennis Miller think they can front him off. Back in 2003, when Mailer criticized the Iraq war, Miller wrote “I know as much about Norman Mailer as I do about Mary Quant. I think they were both kinda hot for a few minutes in the ’60s.” Mailer, he writes, is now “irrelevant.”** You wish, Mr. Miller. In fifteen years the only thing anyone will remember about Miller is his squeaky voice making lame, unheeded wisecracks during his short tenure as a Monday Night Football commentator. In a hundred years people will still be reading Mailer. And he will still be the heavyweight champion of the postwar 20th century.

*Talib Kweli, “Get By”: “Ask Him why some people got to live in a trailer, cuss like a sailor/I paint a picture with the pen like Norman Mailer”

**We heard a lot of talk like that from the Right back then, didn’t we?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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