Norman Mailer cannot be canceled
The satyr is a mythological figure known for his permanent erection and his unabashed pursuit of pleasure. In 1993, American illustrator Edward Sorel drew three heavyweights of literature in satyrs, to accompany an essay by James Atlas titled “Obscenity Laureates”: John Updike, Philip Roth and Gore Vidal. Icons of obscenity, they wrote novels in the late ’60s that questioned propriety around sex, and are all highly voidable, by today’s standards.
But someone who more clearly embodied the figure of the satyr, and is in the process of being canceled, was Norman Mailer. According to an article by Michael Wolff in the Peg, plans to publish a collection of Mailer essays for the centenary of his birth next year have been scrapped by his publisher Random House. Wolff writes that a junior staff member was offended by an essay written by Mailer in the 1957 titled “The White Negro,” in which Mailer described the revolutionary potential of blacks in a slightly frightening way. But it’s unclear exactly why the Mailer book was canceled. In any case, you can always read the “The White Negro” on Contestation magazine.
The essay values âârebellion. It is about wanting “to separate from society, to exist without roots, to undertake this unexplored journey in the rebellious imperatives of oneself”. Mailer was repelled by anything bourgeois or conformist; he loved jazz, which, he writes, made “a knife-edge in culture.” The main character of “The White Negro” is the “hipster”, whose Mecca was Greenwich Village in New York, and who tended towards existentialism. Mailer was a hip philosopher, which constituted a “threesomeÂ»Composed of the bohemian, the young delinquent and the negro. The Hip was the marriage of black and white, but it was “the negro who brought the cultural dowry”.
James Baldwin called the essay “slumming,” but he also admitted that Mailer took Hip more seriously than Jack Kerouac’s cocky and condescending ensemble. Indeed, Mailer wrote that “the too civilized man can be existentialist only if he is chic, and quickly deserts him for the next chic”. But âto be a true existentialistâ¦ you have to be religious, you have to have a sense of ‘purpose’â. Black Americans had this goal because they were so marginalized in society; they lived fully because life was on the limit for them.
The essay is not particularly offensive. He relies on crude stereotypes about blacks to advance his arguments, but this is not Turner’s Diaries. If anything goes really cancel Mailer is not outrage but indifference. How many people under 40 still read his work today?
In his day, the satyr was never marginalized by the American cultural establishment. In fact, her career was made possible by the fact that postwar America opened the door to things she previously considered threatening. Mailer was a straight white male, and so the cancellation of his essay collection could be seen as another strike against an enduring hierarchy. But he was also Jewish, and when he was growing up, many of America’s top universities, like Harvard and Yale, had quotas that limited the number of Jews they accepted.
This is how Mailer became the Don Juan of the literary world: Alfred Kazin once described him as the “Rabbi of the fuck”. Norman Podhoretz said he was “extremely concerned about the issue of manly courage”. Mailer liked to fight with strangers and fight with fists. This fueled his fame. By 1960 he was firmly established as a public intellectual, but he wanted more drama, more violence. That year, he decided to run for mayor of New York. In November, at a party to celebrate his candidacy, he stabbed his wife Adele Morales and nearly killed her. Morales refused to press charges and Mailer was ultimately granted probation and a suspended sentence.
He is getting away with it not only legally but socially. Rather than canceling it, many of his contemporaries supported it. James Baldwin sees Mailer’s violence as a form of emancipation: “It’s like burning down the house to finally free yourself from it”. Lionel Trilling, one of America’s most eminent critics, saw it as a “Dostoevkian ploy”, a way for Mailer to “test the limits of evil in itself”. In 1969, Mailer decided to run for mayor of New York. He was encouraged to do so by his friend, feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
Mailer’s relationship with women is therefore not straightforward. Kate Millett tried to make it believe, in her book Sexual politics: she condemned him for misogyny. In response, Mailer wrote “The Prisoner of Sex” for Harper’s magazine, in March 1971. Her dispute with the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, he wrote, was her evasive attitude towards biology. Women, because of their reproductive capacities, were the âonly link to the futureâ of men. But feminists have sought to extricate themselves from this reality. Women, he writes, “were a step, or a step, or a movement or a leap closer to the creation of existence.” Without women, men would be uprooted: what’s the point of living if you can’t pass on your genes?
Although Mailer slept with many women, he spoke out against contraception. Every kiss had meaning for him. Sex was an existential force rather than a recreational activity. And that partly explains his attraction: he scrutinized life with passionate intensity. It is insane, you think, reading some of his work. But you can’t stop reading. His seriousness can be invigorating.
This explains, I think, why Joan Didion – who was canonized as a feminist saint after her recent death – endorsed Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex”, writing that her point “seems quite right to me.” Didion herself wrote a critical essay in 1972 on feminism, arguing that the movement was becoming trivial and infantilizing: Novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who tweeted his irritation at the cancellation of Mailer’s new collection of essays, was also sympathetic to “The Prisoner of Sex,” writing that Mailer “is unabashedly in his passion for women, and one is led to believe all that ‘he says because he says it so well â.
Shameless is the perfect word for Mailer. He was invited to participate in the Town Hall debate in April 1971, sponsored by New York University and the Theater for Ideas, on the theme of women’s liberation. The panel included Germaine Greer. He was his usual abrasive self, threatening at one point, in response to public taunts, to expose himself:
“If you want me to clown, I pull out my modest little Jewish cock and put it on the table.” You can all spit on it and laugh at it, then I’ll walk away and you’ll find it was just a dildo that I left there. I didn’t show you the real one.
He has exposed himself in his writings as well, which can be convincing or embarrassing. The two are inextricable: he was constantly in danger of embarrassment because he was so naked in his passions, ambitions and insecurities. He traveled the twentieth century like a proud satyr: hideous, provocative, funny and insightful, and ever true to himself.
This might make him a good choice for our time, where the explicit is tolerated, even though the explicit we tolerate is often surrounded by paradoxes. We have the increasingly Byzantine etiquette of online dating, but we can also watch anal gangbangs with just a few clicks. Some contemporary figures are canceled because they openly believe in biological sex, while some historical figures who have promoted sex with children are celebrated.
Obscenity has been treated less hypocritically and more transparently in the past. We still have taboos; but what they are now is less and less clear. It seems Mailer isn’t blamed for almost killing his wife, but for writing an essay on black people in an overly enthusiastic manner.
He would probably be delighted. The hubbub with Random House is likely to get more people to read and read Mailer’s work; and he would rather be sharply castigated than relegated to obscurity. This attempt to bury him may undermine a more effective form of cancellation: cultural amnesia.