The best writer of his generation addresses the pews.
Norman Mailer — theoretician of the Hip, herald of the New Left, hard drinker and drug user, inventor and early practitioner of the “new journalism,” scourge of feminists and courtly lover of women, candidate for mayor of New York, belligerent and pugnacious prophet of psychic freedom, the man who made literature of female orgasms and anal sex, literary gladiator, exhibitionist and self-publicizer and Jew — is not a simple man.
The preeminent writer of his generation (even if he does say so himself), Mailer is a complex and subtle person, someone who is always, even at his most sincere, self-consciously playing a role — aiming at something. The need for maintaining private intentions and for creating (and then managing) one’s public self is among the things we learn from him.
So when Mailer, who has had very little to say to or about the Jews, signed on to speak five nights in a row to Jewish audiences in Los Angeles, I had to wonder: What’s the angle?
The most obvious answer is bucks. Mailer appeared because they paid him many thousands. After all, when you have five ex-wives, your need for money tows you along behind it. (Feminist Germaine Greer once called Mailer an “alimony slave.”)
But Mailer could pull in a boodle for a week‘s writing if he wanted, too. And there are many audiences. Why the Jews?
Apparently, Mailer has been considering and reconsidering himself as a Jewish writer. In fact, according to him, he never stopped. “Being Jewish is the center of energy in my writing,” he told a packed synagogue on the first night. “I‘ve never written a paragraph that wasn‘t steeped in my own form of being Jewish,” he went on. “I spend some time every day thinking about being a Jew.”
So, then, all those years of putting on the Irish so thickly that many readers didn’t even know he was Jewish were apparently only that — a put on. “I’ve been away too long,” he sighed later at an impromptu press conference.
Well, I’ll buy it: Mailer is a Jewish writer. Those final pages of Armies of the Night, for example, in which Mailer the missionary incites America to give birth to its own true, sexy Christian self — only a Jew would dare the prophetic voice that way. Who but a Jew would play messiah to the Gentiles?
But that still doesn’t mean that Mailer has anything to say to or about the Jews. His lecture, in which he reported, for example, that there are Hasidic rabbis who acquire status according to the “beauty and sexiness” of their wives, demonstrated a fair level of Jewish ignorance. Nor did he show much understanding of Jewish sensibilities. Talking to reporters, he allowed that Jesse Jackson, then being puffed as presidential timber, was an anti-Semite, but expressed the expectation that Jews would rise above mere self-interest. Huh?
But if Mailer wants to include himself among the Jews, I for one accept him immediately as a kind of Jewish younger brother in need of learning, just as I have long embraced him as literary elder brother and teacher — the one who by fearless originality shows me how to free my own blocked energies. Yes, Mailer, let there be commerce between us.
But what I cannot understand is why this most theatrical of writers would choose to cloak himself in utter blandness for the evening. Is that what he thinks being Jewish among the Jews requires?
“I’m on good behavior,” he promised his audience in the huge synagogue sanctuary, and he certainly was: no expletives, no bourbon and no single remark that was new, controversial or fully interesting. He spoke desultorily on his chosen subject “Why Is It So Hard to Write?” and read from his work. He played to the house, uttering small self-deprecating jokes, and the audience, apparently also on good behavior, laughed along with him. They even applauded when he sidestepped controversial questions about Israel. (The next night, at another synagogue, however, Mailer lapsed into so great an indifference that, according to several reports, many people walked out.)
After the lecture, chatting with the press, Mailer takes his hearing aids out of his ears, remarking that he won’t need them in close quarters. Dressed in a pin-striped, three-piece blue suit, his white mane cut short, he is still very handsome, still a presence, though he looks, except for the glint in the eyes, less like an author than an aging corporation executive.
The question recurs: What is he doing here? “Organized religion is the prison of the human spirit,” he wrote many years ago. Has he changed his mind? No, religion can be a prison, he acknowledges, one in which “the Fundamentalists are the wardens.” But the more “moderate” religion of this Conservative synagogue may represent “the armies of the spirit.”
This behavior is too good. This “moderate” synagogue more logically represents the conventionality of style and thought that Mailer has for so long rejected with all the brilliant force of his talent. Moderation is hardly Mailer’s strong suit anyway. “My pride,” he said after he stabbed his wife, “is that I can explore areas of experience that other men are afraid of.” How did he get from there to lauding the spiritual might of the bourgeoisie? What’s the angle?
Mailer has in the past condemned himself for retaining the “taint” of the “one personality he found absolutely insupportable — the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.” Frayed edges of that rejected personality have, despite Mailer’s management, often shown through in the tremendous need for approval he has exuded. So that is another reason why Mailer might butter up the Jews: he wants to be loved by his parents.
But my hunch is that something larger than the need for either money or reassurance is going on. In his old age, Mailer must be looking hard at what he has accomplished and where he has fallen short, worrying if his work will last and where he should put his attention now.
If Mailer is indeed running scared, as the distractedness in his manner and his repetition of old ideas suggests, then searching out and reexamining the ultimate sources of his own energy may prove an appropriate therapy. And if he is also seeking subject matter that will commend him to Eternity, the Jews, who, after all, hold private and protected acreage there, are a good place to start.
As always with Mailer, we will not know his motivations and intentions until he writes and tells us about them, and I look forward to that. But — as always with Mailer — we won’t know for certain even then.