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I was enamored of Mailer when I was about 20 years old, although mostly for The Naked and the Dead rather than the contents of this collection. For some current research I needed to reread his controversial essay "The White Negro" which is included here. It stands up rather well, given its historical context (mid 1950s), but much of the other stuff is self-indulgent nonsense, quite suitable to a 20-year old mentality. Mailer's sad and pointless quest to be the best writer of his generation failed. Nice try.
Nov 16, 2007
A Quick-Change Artist
After the vertiginous success of his World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer's next two novels, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, were critically mauled. Advertisements for Myself (1959), a collection of stories, essays, a play excerpt, and Village Voice columns, followed in the wake of fame and disaster. The title cannily reflected Mailer's suspicion of "the little institutional lies from the print of newspapers" and mass media. Thus the volume is threaded by an autobiographical narrative or self-advertisements, and looks toward the author's incorporation of fictional techniques into nonfiction reportage in books such as The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago. This collection displays Mailer's strengths and weaknesses in all their extravagance, including his grandiose ego and ambition to "write a novel which Dostoevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner and even old mouldering Hemingway, might come to read."
In the brilliant opening sentences of "The White Negro," Mailer considers the "psychic havoc" of the atomic bomb and the Nazi extermination camps: "(W)e 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. . .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 possibility of mass death could well mean the dehumanizing extinction of personality: a chilling vision of late 20th century existence.
Given the period, the confessional tone of the self-advertisements is striking: "There may have been too many fights for me, too much sex, liquor, marijuana, benzedrine and seconal, much too much ridiculous and brain-blasting rage at the miniscule frustrations of a most loathsome literary world, necrophiliac to the core--they murder their writers, and then decorate their graves." He has a canny self-knowledge about his own prose: "To write about myself is to send my style through a circus of variations and postures, a fireworks of virtuosity. . .I become an actor, a quick-change artist, as if I believe I can trap the Prince of Truth in the act of switching a style." His ceaseless reinvention on the page would become a hallmark of his career. It may well be that "Norman Mailer" was Mailer's greatest creation.
In Mailer's desire to explore themes of "murder, suicide, incest, orgy, orgasm, and Time"--and, I would add, race--his taste for the apocalyptic, the extreme and the transgressive, he prefigured the social chaos that would engulf the Sixties.
Mailer earned few friends with his piece, "Evaluations: Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room," in which he savages contemporaries such as James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, and Wiliam Styron. More damaging, though, is his dismissal of virtually all women writers and his confession that he has "never been able to read Virginia Woolf." This is a serious flaw in a major American writer. It would've been helpful had Mailer been reminded of Woolf's assertion that "the minds of all great writers are androgynous." Shakespeare was her prime example.
What is practically indefensible is Mailer's equation between the act of writing and heterosexual masculinity, his endorsement of violence as an existential act, his linkage between cancer and personality. At times, the distinction between art and life became messily blurred--no more so than with Mailer's stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales, and his touting of the prison writings of murderer Jack Henry Abbott, who upon parole killed again. On occasion, the author's Dostoevskyan, Reichian, Manichean ideas had disastrous consequences in the world.
Having said that, Advertisements for Myself was a success on its own terms: it provoked the outrage that was its intent, a Molotov cocktail to disrupt what the author saw as the timidity and conformity of the Eisenhower years.
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