So last time I wrote another installment of my “Cold War Never Ended” series and tried to unravel something of the weird collective psychology surrounding the Cold War. Norman Mailer covered much of this ground in his 1957 essay The White Negro, which you probably know (if you know it at all) as an overheated and arm-waving piece on hipsters and race.*
Now, you might not give a damn about hipsters and probably find Mailer’s racial attitudes retrograde and weird, but The White Negro is still required reading, because (for my money, anyway) it is the best piece thing ever written on the Cold War as a phenomenon of mass psychology. Mailer defined the Cold War not in geopolitical terms, but as a unique event in the history of human consciousness:
Probably, we will never he able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. for the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the most minor projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our hair would be saved, but our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked, a death which could not follow with dignity as a possible consequence to serious actions we had chosen, but rather a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city; and so if in the midst of civilization—that civilization founded upon the Faustian urge to dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect—in the middle of an economic civilization founded upon the confidence that time could indeed be subjected to our will, our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop.
The phrase that sticks with me is the last one: “the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop.” If you live within an abiding awareness that human time can and probably will end, and end for no reason and to no purpose, then that finitude and absurdity infects every segment of time that we can experience. What can it mean to pursue a career, fall in love, raise children, care for gardens and pets, build a community, etc., when all these things are bracketed within an immense absurdity? What must we feel when we know that we have made this absurdity ourselves?
In these circumstances, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that you are just waiting around to die, and so anything you do feels like a distraction from the thought of death. (It has often been said that postwar consumerism was the flip side of postwar anxiety.) You do not really believe in anything, because nothing can go anywhere. Everything has the quality of dumb-show; activities feel like reflex actions, like movements made for the mere purpose of moving, not for any particular end. If there’s no future, what’s the point of doing anything now? Why work for a promotion? Why save for junior’s college fund? And yet here I am, doing things, filing reports or cooking hot dogs for the kids or taking the train to work, as if any of this will be here in 5 years, or even 5 months. The world becomes a little less real.
Under such circumstances, you’d think we’d all be running around having orgies and doing coke and murdering our enemies and generally living it up, but no, it turns out you just keep doing the usual stuff, just hanging around, waiting for the executioner to deliver the fatal blow. Maybe we would be living it up if we knew when that blow would fall, but the hellish ingenuity of the trap is that you can’t know. It might fall anytime, or never. It’s like the threat uttered by the Mystery Man in David Lynch’s Lost Highway: “In the East, the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they’re sent to a place where they can’t escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them, and fire a bullet into the back of their head.”
It turns out that, in the Cold War, the fatal shot was never fired. But how would you have known that in 1957? So you couldn’t even give yourself over to real excess. But neither could you live in a present made meaningful by its place in an unfolding pattern to be realized in the future. Mailer admired hipsters because (so he thought) they were the ones who really did live as if there was no tomorrow; they just cut through the Gordian knot by accepting the executioner’s terms. But to do that would be to turn one’s back on everything, on career, family, home, security, everything. And it turns out that not too many people have the stomach for that. Mailer saw quite clearly that the Cold War was above all a challenge to the courage of human beings, and perhaps the most intolerable thing about it was that we could see, quite clearly, that we fail that test. It’s easier to carry out a dumbshow version of our lives, to perform an unmeaning series of rote actions intended to simulate a purposeful life, than to live out the truth of our condition.
This is the psychological condition that Mailer wanted to understand. The question his essay sought to answer is the obvious one: what is to be done? How can we make ourselves at home in this impossible state? Mailer’s answer was that it was that hipsters alone could live within this collective psychosis since they were themselves “psychopaths,” which is to say, they were themselves unmoored from time, purpose, history, and conscience. I will admit that I find this thesis interesting but basically wrong, for reasons I discuss at length in my book. But for my purposes here I’m only interested in his insight that the Cold War is primarily a historical moment of mass consciousness and only secondarily a military/economic/political clash.
The Cold War never ended, and neither has this series. Stay tuned for installment no. 4.
*BTW, check out Frank Conniff (you know, TV’s Frank) pretending to be Mailer, bantering with Lord Byron (Dana Gould), and reading from The White Negro on Paul F. Tompkins’ Dead Authors Podcast. LOL, as the kids say.