Right now, Norman Mailer is punching a chump in heaven

Phil Ford

Norman Mailer has died, and I'm feeling sadder about it than I would have thought . . .  sadder than I usually feel when an old and successful artist dies. Mailer represented an ideal of the irresponsible writer at a time when the obligation to be responsible — to be sensitive, to mind our manners, to watch what we say, to strike the right tone, to pay all the necessary obeisances to the institutions and leaders that administer Our Interests, whatever they may be — has become the duty of all. Mailer believed that a writer's obligations were to the free, articulate, individual intelligence alone, and however inconsistent he may have been throughout his life, he remained consistent in this. He was the great American existentialist, at all times aware of the individual's freedom and willing to meet his own freedom with the fullest possible assertion of will. Which meant that he could be an egoist, a pig, a clown, and a poseur. But he was always irresponsible, and the world would be a better place if we had a few more people like him. A great many things can be said against irresponsibility, but its seeming opposite — what we now mean by "responsibility" — means only a sad, bovine timidity that makes strong writing and thought impossible. George Orwell once commented that real literature can only be written by people who aren't afraid. Norman Mailer was never afraid.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Right now, Norman Mailer is punching a chump in heaven

  1. Jonathan says:

    Re your penultimate sentence: OK. Point taken. I take off my hat. Be comforted, or as they say in African pidgin, “make you be easy.”

  2. Michael says:

    You really think Norman Mailer is in heaven? Read this for a contrary opinion: http://pajamasmedia.com/xpress/rogerkimball/2007/11/10/norman_mailer_a_dissenting_vie.php

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Well, Mailer was probably more likely to believe in heaven than I am (which isn’t saying much), so the title’s intended to be a bit ironic. As for the Roger Kimball thing, well. Having Roger Kimball call your prose style “pretentious” is like being called ugly by a hagfish.

  4. I prefer to think that Roger Kimball is, in fact, a very ambitious piece of performance art. Involving a bow tie.

  5. Michael says:

    Rather than resorting to ad hominem arguments , you might try responding to some of what Kimbell adduces in making his point. Unless you think the substance of the article is unassailable. My point is that it is worth asking the question of whether or not a man like Mailer ought to be celebrated, just because he wrote a few decent (?) books, but was otherwise a nihilistic jerk who stabbed his wife.

  6. Phil Ford says:

    “My point is that it is worth asking the question of whether or not a man like Mailer ought to be celebrated, just because he wrote a few decent (?) books, but was otherwise a nihilistic jerk who stabbed his wife.” This is itself an ad hominem remark, and so is every one of Roger Kimball so-called arguments. In the 1980s and 1990s the New Criterion did valuable work in defending art from a sentimental academic leftism that judged art on the artists’ personal morality. Hilton Kramer was forever pointing out the absurdity of (say) cutting Joseph Conrad from a curriculum (he was said to be a racist) and substituting lousy activist writing. But Roger Kimball was no Hilton Kramer; his role was to be the New Criterion’s hachet-man, the guy who wrote the coarser, more bluntly ideological stuff, and boatloads of it, because it’s the stuff that’s easy to write. It trades in outrage and in the received opinions of its audience, and it is willing to sacrifice principle to score a political point. Which is what is going on here. Norman Mailer is a bad writer because he was a bad man who stabbed his wife. How, exactly, is this an argument about prose? How is this different from the left ideological criticism that conservative intellectuals are supposed to oppose on principle? There’s no point in debating Kimball because he’s not a good-faith interlocutor. His supposedly aesthetic principles always turn out to be political ones. If Mailer had done a Dos Passos and had had a late-life conversion to, say, George W. Bush’s foreign policy, I’m sure Kimball’s article would have celebrated him as a tortured witness to history, a la Whittaker Chambers. There are no aesthetic principles to be debated here, and not even interesting political ones. There’s just the usual high-school stuff: Mailer is not One Of Us, and so he must be mocked and smeared.
    What dignifies Kimball’s kind of “argument”, though, is the notion that Mailer’s claim to fame is merely the allure of his trangression, which is catnip to liberal intellectuals. Someone has to say the emperor has no clothes! Someone has to take a stand for artistic values against the uncritical celebration of criminality! Kimball sets up the rationale for this purpose from the start: “The news that the novelist Norman Mailer died earlier today at the age of 84 has already elicited little hagiographical murmurs.” He published this 12 hours after Mailer’s death and had clearly written it ahead of time, saving it up for Mailer’s demise. There had been no time for hagiographic murmurs. Kimball didn’t observe them, he just assumed they would develop in due course, and he could run this well-worn trope. Only the expected murmurs failed to materialize: the obits were pretty skeptical, even outright disrespectful, and intellectuals on the left side of the dial were no more apt to cut Mailer slack for the wife-stabbing than Kimball was. So what we have here is yet another example of contrived outrage, and a contrived stance of a lonely voice dissenting from a brutish orthodoxy. Kimball isn’t interested in making arguments, he’s playing to the received opinions of his audience — something rather evident in some of the comments. For ex., “I’ve never read Norman Mailer. I used to be embarrassed to admit that. Not anymore.” Thank you, Roger Kimball, for letting me have a literary opinion without all the bother of having to read any books.

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