Recycling Norman Mailer

Thursday is my recycle day, which means I reluctantly toss whole floors from the mounting tower of periodicals that occupy every available surface in my home.

Today I came across a November 2013 issue of the New York Review of Books in which Columbia University professor Edward Mendelson wrote a marvelous essay about Norman Mailer. I had underlined and highlighted all the way through suggesting my intention to blog about it, but alas, I read it on a ride through the rambling mountains of Mexico’s Sierra Madre where, naturally, there was a shortage of electricity.

I confess my introduction to the literary lion Norman Mailer was through his wife.

This is hardly a strange route since Mailer notoriously had a lot of wives — six of them, in fact — though I came to know him through Norris Church, the scarlet haired beauty half his age, who after his death penned the stunning memoir, “A Ticket to the Circus,” about their time together. If you want to know something distinguishing about Church Mailer, it’s this: Whenever someone would approach her at a dinner party or any other social event wanting to know, “Which wife are you?” Church Mailer would say: “The last one.”

On that count, she was right; the Mailers were married 27 years until Norman’s death in 2007 at age 84. (She followed soon after, succumbing to gastrointestinal cancer in 2010, at age 61.)

Though Church Mailer had long dreamed of being a writer, her marriage to a master of the craft proved prohibiting. Her husband hardly encouraged her; Mailer thought his wife’s writing was silly and slight, and it seems fair to say that in comparison to him, it was. In their household, the regular haunt of many famous literary friends, anything short of genius was deemed profligate and pointless. But Church Mailer’s artistry was exemplified in how she lived. Whereas he often behaved like an ape — practicing chronic infidelity, brawling, boxing and nearly stabbing his second wife to death; “Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state,” he said — Church Mailer lived admirably.  

Mailer was a man with demons, as the NYRB reminds us.

“His whole career was a search for transcendence,” Mendelson observes, echoing what his friend Mashey Bernstein claimed after Mailer’s death, when he wrote, “He was concerned with God and the Devil, Good and Evil.”

“Mailer was less interested in human beings than in the quasi-divine forces they embodied, and in the vast unconscious currents that shaped political and cultural history,” Mendelson writes. Such a notion could almost be pinned on the Jewish idea of B’tzelem Elohim, that human beings are created in God’s image and possess sparks of the divine they must work to magnify.

Mailer of course was Jewish, born in New Jersey and raised in Brooklyn, though the family was not religious. He did claim a grandfather who was a rabbi but ultimately distanced himself from religion.

“He cared nothing about modern Judaism,” Mendelson writes, “which seemed a shell emptied of its ancient visionary energies.” Still, religious systems and the concept of God obsessed him. He wrote, in Mendelson’s phrase “a curious sport of a novel” narrated by Jesus, “The Gospel According to the Son” (1997) and was excited by Jewish mysticism, limning a commentary on Tales of the Hasidim.

Mailer told Bernstein that despite his disaffection from Judaism, he promised his mother he would never write anything negative about it.

His attitude towards Judaism is best summed by Bernstein's paraphrase of an interview he did with Nextbook:

When asked, “What role has your being Jewish played in your being a writer,” Mailer replies emphatically, “An enormous role.” He picks two aspects of the Jewish experience that influenced him – the sense of history that makes it “impossible to take anything for granted” and also the Jewish mind. “We're here to do all sorts of outrageous thinking, if you will … certainly incisive thinking,” Mailer said. “If the Jews brought anything to human nature, it's that they developed the mind more than other people did.”

Mailer had great respect for minorities, and empathized with the underdog. “Minorities groups are the artistic nerve of a republic,” he once wrote. He famously befriended a convicted felon whose literary style he admired, helping to get him released from prison, only to see his goodwill shamed and squandered when that same felon subsequently murdered a waiter.

“When we act with great energy, it is because god and the devil has the same interest in the outcome,” Mailer cryptically wrote. But perhaps it explains why in the 1950s, he had a religious epiphany while high on drugs. “His atheism withered and belief took hold, belief in a god who was not all-powerful, an existential god,” Mendelson writes. Mailer’s new belief inverted the Jewish concept; rather than see human beings as sparks of the divine, Mailer wanted his God to be more like himself. He conceived of a God that was “in danger of dying….who [could] suffer from moral corruption.”

Mailer’s sense of morality is for another essay, another time. My hunch, though, is that it was just as conflicted as his religious worldview, his lust for women and his appetite for violence. As Mendelson points out, in his 1959 novel “Time of Her Time,” the main character brings a girl to orgasm by whispering in her ear, “You dirty little Jew.”

Only Mailer could turn an offensive epithet orgiastic. It’s a baffling, almost demented turn on. Was Jewish identity a form of ecstasy or revulsion? His relationship to the idea of a morally ordered spiritual universe was at best, ineffable.

He was clear only on one thing: being a writer.