Sunday, April 20, 2008

Reflections: More Mailer

One problem that I have with the mind-set that would burn books as a means to the end of establishing a “public orthodoxy” is that it is emblematic of a kind of cowardice. It is an effeminate act, a sort of intellectual nesting impulse, which wants to abide behind basalt-hard walls of cultural stasis, perched upon feathered layers of the pluperfect, hunkered down upon the finished, the thoroughly known, safely classified and encased; the self a part of the time-frozen diorama that defines it. It is, among other things, a priggish fear of the mixed metaphor.

In the introduction to his interview with Norman Mailer, Christopher Hitchens displays his admiration for Mailer’s expression of the polar opposite understanding of the cultural role of the intellectual:

Hitchens: The phrase ‘culture is worth a little risk’ was uttered by Mailer in the early 1980s, after his literary protégé Jack Henry Abbott, author of In the Belly of the Beast, had been released from prison only to slay again. I always thought that the statement itself was more important than the calamitous context in which it was uttered.

While Mailer’s personal history, as well as his literary career, shows him to be unafraid of risk-taking, aware that one can often learn as much, or more, from one’s failures as from one’s successes, this does not mean that Mailer is unappreciative of that which is rife with traditional culture:

Mailer: Culture’s worth huge, huge risks. Without culture we’re all totalitarian beasts. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the only thing that keeps us from going totalitarian, given the new world of technology, which inspires us to be totalitarian. After all, what technology promises is that we can all be control freaks. That the world is ours to dominate. The fact that we no longer have any senses left after we’ve been working at a fluorescent-lit computer for six hours, that’s by-the-by. …And culture is more than just being able to get it on CD-ROM. Culture is going into a library, and finding an old book on an old shelf, and opening it, and it has the patina of the past and maybe hasn’t been taken out in five years, and that’s part of its virtue at this point. There’s a small communion that takes place between the book and yourself, and that’s what’s disappearing.

Mailer, in fact, refers to himself as a “left conservative,” about which more in a future post.

[On a personal note, as a bibliophile who spends more than a little time searching the stacks for esoteric literary gems, I am very much attuned to Mailer’s observation concerning the “communion” between the book and the reader. When I borrow an old, long-neglected volume from the library, I always check the back to see how much time has elapsed since it was last checked out. The longer it’s been, the more special I feel my personal relationship to that book to be.]

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is an effeminate act, a sort of intellectual nesting impulse,

Okay, in order to make a point about intellectual timidity, you go sexist on us? Why does cowardice have to be "effeminate"? Ever see a female lion, bear, or dog protect its young?

As for Mailer and the whole "culture is worth risk" crap, try telling that to the family of the person that Abbott killed. Defending criminals is typical of overpraised artists who think they are above the laws, statutory or moral, of all the rest of us mere mortals.

---MS

Anonymous said...

Jeez, Rodak, thank you for opening up that ugly wound! I probably haven't thought about the Abbott thing since high school in the early 1980s. Now, for the rest of the afternoon, I'll also be thinking of PATCO, the 1982 recession, David Stockman, James Watt, "Gay-Related Syndrome" and VIC-20 computers ...

The Abbott thing was one of the first stirrings of rebellion against left-Democratic orthodoxy that I felt as a youth. At the time, that, along with John Lennon's murder and the assassination attempt on Reagan made me think about G.B. Trudeau's remark on how the 1970s was a "gallstone of a decade." After all these violent events so early into a new decade, I remember thinking that if the 70s was a gallstone, what the hell would the 80s be?

Then Duran Duran and Members Only jackets came along and I realized that we would all be ... amazingly ... sedate ...

---MS

Rodak said...

MS--
Mailer didn't defend Abbott as a criminal, he defended him as a man who wrote a book that was much praised, and not only by Mailer. Risk, by its very nature, often goes awry; unfortunately, it did in this case.
Are we going to wax so PC now, that we have to eliminate the word "effeminate" from the dictionary? Yo, bop on over to WWWtW with that plan--it may just be received with enthusiasm there.

Ever see a female lion, bear, or dog protect its young?

Yeah, and I've also seen many a human female just about piss herself over the sight of a spider walking around in a bathtub.

Artists don't necessarily think that they're above the law, although admittedly many of them are ready to risk what is at stake from transgressing it. What artists do tend to feel themselves to be above, however, is convention and bourgeois propriety. For that, most of them pay a huge price, since most artists don't gain fame and fortune in the exchange. C'est la guerre. Though they lose, I still respect their courage.

Anonymous said...

Well, I didn't expect such sexism from you of all people. I guess you've gone all "Old Testament" on me. Does that mean you'll start growing a beard, wearing a yarmulke, and end your prayers with "Thank God, I was not born a woman"?

---MS

Rodak said...

Can't do it. This is Ohio. Pulled pork is the state delicacy.

Anonymous said...

Not in Central Ohio it ain't. Remember this is Lex Wexner land, home of the billionaire Jews ...

---MS

Rodak said...

Mazel tov.