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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

The Teleology of the Unconscious: The Art of Norman Mailer

By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in Critic, November-December 1973, and reprinted in New Heaven, New Earth.

Here is the real core of the religious problem:
Help! Help!

William James
in Varieties of Religious Experience

Unloose my stasis.

D. J. in Why Are We in Vietnam?

Norman Mailer's efforts to dramatize the terror of the disintegrating identity have largely been mistaken as self-display, and his highly stylized, poetic, image-making structures of language have often been mistaken as willful and perverse hallucinations, instead of countermagic. Though I disagree with nearly every one of Mailer's stated or implied ideas, I am always conscious in reading his work that the stasis he dramatizes is a vast, communal tragedy, and that one does not eradicate suffering by declaring that it does not exist or that it fulfills a cosmic design not yet available to us. He is a prophet of what might come to pass but that—perhaps because of the intensity and outrage of his own prophetic voice, among others—might never be a real danger to us, as our civilization moves into a contemplation of its own future, a bypassing of the apocalypse imminent in An American Dream in favor of the "ego-less," "atmosphere-less," "spooky" realm of the intellectualized spirit so beautifully described in Of a Fire on the Moon. He has never advertised himself as any kind of saint, but he aspires to a kind of native American clownish-savage innocence, the skeptical but horrified sensibility that could "get into" the workings of both Huck Finn as he contemplates the idlers and loafers who sadistically torture animals, and those idlers and loafers themselves; or, indeed, the kind of sensibility that could resurrect for us another Huck, in D.J. of Why Are We in Vietnam?—a boy who somehow embodies the blackness of Jim in himself, or the nervous white "experience" of blackness, and who, teamed with another version"of Tom Sawyer, is leaving in the morning for Vietnam. Yet, saintliness, apart, Mailer still shares with another "prophet" of our time, Allen Ginsberg, the obsession of needing to dramatize the self in order to make the self truly public, communal, as well-trampled as a public park, and as democratic:

I am the defense early warning radar system
History will make this poem prophetic and its awful
silliness a hideous spiritual music.


Like Ginsberg, Mailer is obsessed with the need to trust his own deepest instincts, all the "omens," "hallucinations," "dreams," "visions," "breakthroughs," and varieties of magic translatable into language; he has said that the "unconscious ... has an enormous teleological sense" (Advertisements for Myself, p. 328), and all of his serious writing is an attempt to locate suitable images for the expression of an incandescent vision, which at times seems too white-hot, too brutal, for him to force into an aesthetic structure. He would therefore, and not immodestly, classify himself with those to whom the "selfness" of the "self" is no longer very significant—the "mystics, psychopaths, existentialists, saints, lovers, bullfighters" who are not made impotent but rather inspired by the possibilities of imminent death.1

I would like to examine Mailer's faith in the "teleological unconscious" as a revolt against what he sees to be the cancerous magic of the totalitarian mass-democracy and as an expression of his own intellectual stasis, which is symptomatic of a far-reaching malaise of the spirit: as passionate now as when Donne feared the "New Science," but no longer as necessary. Mailer's most important work is Why Are We in Vietnam?—an outrageous little masterpiece—and his most poetic, prophetic work is Of a Fire on the Moon, so a concentration on these books should help to illuminate Mailer's enormous autobiographical venture, a "self" in search of an author.

The Time of His Time

An evil time: "syphilization" (D.J.'s term, Huck Finn by way of James Joyce and Burroughs) has somehow come between us and the instinctive tenderness that should be ours, making fathers and sons small concentrations of murder, murderers united in order to sublimate the domestic murders they truly desire, and making men "killer brothers" instead of lovers. This time of dark, cancerous, wasteful magic is characterized by enormous "democracies" in which the mass media, mass morality, mass consciousness itself exist somehow outside of the individual, yet with the power to control him. Such a totalitarianism is, then, not political so much as spiritual. The air is filled with bland shouts, a mixture of radio and television voices, anonymous slogans and whisperings of commercialized love, commercialized hate, which the boy D.J., "Disc Jockey to America," imitates in this record of his own disintegration.

He is eighteen at the time of this "broadcast"— " ... America, this is your own wandering troubadour brought right up to date, here to sell America its new handbook on how to live, how to live in this Electrox Edison world, all programmed out, Prononzo! ... " (p. 8) —but the crucial event of his life occurred two years before, during an Alaskan safari when he experienced a Godly visitation. Mailer's belief in the possibilities of visions, and the need for us to face them—horrific as they may be—makes of Why Are We in Vietnam? an aesthetic equivalent of those clever plastic advertisements that seem to say one thing when viewed from a certain position and quite another when we walk a few feet farther. Thus, the novel is darkly comic and "obscene" the first time it is read, but every subsequent reading reinforces its tragic message.2 Mailer must have considered alternate endings for the work, possibly a flash into the future that would reveal D.J., Ranald Jethrow Jellicoe Jethroe, a victim of the same killer instinct that seems to have electrified him into a new life—in other words, a corpse being shipped back to Dallas. But I think his decision to limit the work in this way makes it more deadly, for the reader is forced to interpret "D.J." as a voice at loose in the world, not a historical event; for me, at least, the destruction of D.J. is a foregone conclusion, since he is already destroyed as a human being.

In City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970 (New York, 1971), the English critic Tony Tanner theorizes that there has been in American literature, along with its establishment of a realistic and at times "documentary" literary tradition, an "intermittent sense of the futility of pretending that the putative exactitude of words can ever measure up to the exact mystery of things" (p. 27). One could direct Tanner to the absolute confidence of an Emerson, a Thoreau, or a Whitman, but the tradition he is most concerned with is a darker one: how Melville drifts into silence, how Faulkner assigns heroism to those who merely "endure" (but assuredly do not write novels), how two decades of American novelists express doubts concerning the very existence of the world, let alone their value in it. Because an intelligent, abstract vision of the whole seems no longer possible, or not aesthetically imaginable, we are left with fragments—particles—books that are self-conscious "cities of words" and that ricochet off one another more often than they do off reality: " ... forgive D.J. for acting like Dr. James Joyce, all junkies are the same, you know. Follow the hunt" (p. 126).

Mailer seems to me by far the best of the novelists who have constructed "language-systems," because he does so without the coyness, the small-boy innocence and cunning we flinch at in other, less disturbed novelists who are largely American sons of Nabokov, Borges, and Beckett; his maniac broadcast by way of D.J. (or D.J.'s alter ego somewhere in Harlem) is meant to be a real broadcast, a real communication to the public, and its hysterical scatology and obscenity are probably its most important message. Later I will discuss Mailer's intellectual Manichaeanism, and his habit of erecting Aristotelian First Principles from which he descends to syllogistically logical but empirically illogical (in fact outrageous: see The Prisoner of Sex) deductions; here, I want to concentrate on the hypothetical existence of the "totalitarian" system, and what it demands of its sensitive victims.

It has always been characteristic of utopias or dystopias (in life as in literature) that they attempt to control history through a rewriting of the past, into book-packaged trompe l'œil forms of the type Winston Smith, in Orwell's 1984, was creating, or in fantastic poetic myths of the type Plato suggests in The Republic: a totalitarian poetry that would banish all other poetry. What is even more deathly for the individual is the System's control of his brain through the control of language, for if Benjamin Whorf and other linguists are correct,3 one cannot have a thought without an adequate word or group of words to express it. Reality exists; death exists; injustice exists; I exist; and yet, without language, such forms of existence are totally inaccessible. (It might be parenthetically stated-and in an essay on Norman Mailer this is hardly a distraction-that the word emasculate has no corresponding "female" term; to realize this is to realize the ubiquitousness of forms of totalitarian thought-control.) Through the systematic control of language, the tyrannical powers at the center of the modem anonymous state seek to enclose the individual, to make him (in Marcuse's eerie metaphor) one-dimensional, like a playing card seen from the side. Mailer believes, and has believed for many years, that our civilization was founded on the "Faustian urge to dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect," and it is appropriate that his Texans, yearning for a return to a near-primitive state of hunting and risking death, are well equipped with powerful weapons and helicopters: the means by which the human being becomes a murdering machine in the very process of seeking his own salvation.

To assert himself against the oppressive language-system, then, the individual must be a kind of artist; he must attempt the creation of his own special language. To create a mythology in order to escape being enslaved by someone else's has been, perhaps, the dynamic urge behind much art, at least art created in a time of social confusion. Yet the irony is that D.J. can draw his language only out of the excremental flow all around him, and approximate its deadly desacralizing of the world in his own head (the entire novel is told as he and his friend Tex are enduring a "going-away" dinner in Dallas): exactly the opposite in effect, but similar in strategy, to D.J.'s counterparts who chant mantras several thousand times a day to purify themselves of the soiled world, their heads shaven, their faces beatific; the Hare Krishna devotees who alarm and mystify shoppers in large Western cities.

Mailer stated in The Armies of the Night that he felt most like an American when he was "naturally obscene," and so, after years of keeping obscene language out of his work, he decided to return again to a use of obscenity: "so discovering everything he knew about the American language," but also asserting Mailer as Mailer, a defiant American son setting himself against his bland elders. Here, it seems to me, Mailer characteristically underestimates himself,4 inviting us to take D.J.'s language as "very literary in the best way" (Mailer's words) when, in fact, the dynamic core of Why Are We in Vietnam? is a plea for help, for a real language, for an adult sensibility that will save D.J. from the hell inside his head. For the real message of the novel is that a belief in a tyrannical System forces an intelligent person to regress to personal and racial aggressions of the most infantile sort, through which glimmerings of a vital intelligence may be seen (as if the wasted genius of Swift, "dying from the top down," occasionally expressed itself in the old Swiftian language) —the obscenity without this intelligence being simply tiresome, dead.

To be a mature adult in our society, one usually surrenders the privileges and limitations of adolescence; but to get back into a more vital self, as Twain and Salinger (in all his works) have shown, one must sometimes go back into adolescence, though with a conscious adult sensitivity. It must always be the adolescent as Antiadult, not the adolescent as Preadult, who has the power to analyze, to judge the adult world. It is true, obviously, that adolescents do express judgments, many of them negative, on the adult world, but they do so without having been adults; Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield, Alex (of A Clockwork Orange—another "city of words"), and Mailer's boy are adults-as-adolescents, vehicles for adult writers who feel, for reasons that may be psychological as well as literary, that they must go back in order to possess the freedom to tell what they see of the truth. The childhood and early adolescence of boys is characterized by a fascination with obscenity and other taboos, as if the expression of such things were a magical shortcut into adulthood, as well as a way of defining their powers and setting them apart from girls. (When the "girls" appropriate this language, the "boys" are demoralized and frightened—as Mailer is shocked by the militant women and their exuberant use of obscenity; see The Prisoner of Sex.) In our culture this behavior is probably normal, or at least it is commonplace; only when it persists into adulthood does it become peculiar, and of course one symptom of a disturbed mind is an obsession with filth. Mailer seems to be suggesting that the "poetry" of our troubled, self-despising time is D.J.'s medley of voices, and that the regression of the adult into the adolescent is a doomed defiance. Certainly, in The Armies of the Night, he is very honest about his own aesthetic disdain for the "drug-vitiated jargon-mired children" all about him—involved in a mass protest movement that, like the Space Program and its egoless components of men and machines, somehow excludes Mailer and the entire Romantic tradition of the inventive imagination. In Cannibals and Christians Mailer remarks: " ... the obsession of many of us with scatology is attached to a disrupted communication within us, within our bodies" (New York, 1966; p. 320), and—though we should guess it from his work—he believes that sex would be "meaningless" if it were divorced from "guilt" (The Armies of the Night, New York, 1968; pp. 34-35). All this is to suggest that Mailer's being is totally divided, that he is fighting a heroic war with himself, living out the metaphor-into-mythical-role of the artist as creator/destroyer: for he tries to interpret his own inclination for destruction in terms of a general dying of culture, saying that, "it becomes more excruciating each year for [artists] to perform the civilized act of contributing to a collective meaning. The impulse to destroy moves like new air into a vacuum ... ." (The Presidential Papers, p. 228). What is destroyed is not the culture, of course, or the invisible totalitarian system, but the artist himself.

E. M. Forster said of Ulysses that it covered the universe with mud—an unfair judgment, surely; but Why Are We in Vietnam? covers the universe with excrement, that is, the universe of the imagination. And then? Then? The act of adolescent defiance only turns back upon itself, for like the black rioters in our American cities some years back, the adolescent must then live in the universe he has tried to destroy; magic fails, D.J. goes to Vietnam because that is the next (metaphorical) stop, and he must shiver with the knowledge that "no man cell in him can now forget that if the center of things is insane, it is insane with force ... " (p. 143). Mailer's pessimism is deeper than that of William Burroughs, whom he admires, and his writing is far more significant, for it is connected to a vital daylight present that only fades away, at its extremes, into the underground.

Mailer's "Paradise Lost"

Our time may induce symptoms of paranoia in highly energetic men, for millions of years of evolution have provided them (I use this pronoun quite deliberately—not "us") with instincts meant to preserve and swell the species, to dominate highly visible earthly creatures, including women; to fulfill themselves through conquest. And now the animal enemies are largely vanished, some of them extinct forever; the most dangerous are noW microscopic, and it takes not only technological equipment but years of training to slay them ... and women, the mystical "Other," the tabula rasa upon which ascetic or lover or madman may flash his own poetic vision, are now challenging the basic fabric of the dominant/dominated society ... and the real enemies are abstract, mere "ideas" involving the economics of poverty, the mathematical hieroglyphics of the stars, an entire scholarship of nature that the romantic artist—trusting to "instinct," abhorring "reason"—cannot share. Why Are We in Vietnam? and James Dickey's Deliverance (novels so similar that their titles might be exchanged, to the honor of both) are extremely poignant expressions of a vanishing sensibility, which attempts a restatement of manhood in ritualistic acts, far from a civilized urban existence that has made so difficult the isolation and slaughter of enemies. Both novels deal with the fear of man's possible tenderness for other men, the denial of the male as possible lover (Dickey has set up this denial in such terms as to render it irresistible, and his homosexual villains seem to deserve the savagery they receive—in fact, Deliverance should be required reading for anyone who thinks the sexual revolution is going to be an easy one) and his apotheosis as killer. Dickey's male ideal is so brutal that one half wonders if Dickey might not be Mailer's model for D.J.'s friend Tex ("full of daddy-love, Tex got that mean glint in the eye for which Texans are justly proud and famous"), while D. J. himself is the more Mailerian, possessing a sweet meanness ("D.J. has got the sweet smile of my-momma-loved-me-and-I'm-sweet-as-a-birthday-cake kind of mean look")—the two of them a "natural hunting couple." In one of Dickey's most powerful poems, "The Eye-Beaters," the poet-narrator experiences a vision similar to the "vision" D.J. and Tex have of the Beast God:

... Beast, get in
My way. Your body opens onto the plain. Deer, take me
into your life-
lined form. I merge, I pass beyond in secret in per-
versity and the sheer
Despair of invention my double-clear bifocals off my
reason gone
Like eyes. Therapist, farewell at the living end. Give
me my spear.5

Give me my spear! The poet surrenders to an ancient, archaic shape of himself, in "despair of invention" to show him a way forward into his own adult future.

Mailer has written movingly of Beckett's Waiting for Godot that it brought despair to the surface, the despair of the twentieth century over man's "impotence" when he attempts to alter history; this essay of 1956 assumes an additional meaning when it is juxtaposed with Of a Fire on the Moon of fifteen years later, when Mailer is forced to realize—and with characteristic honesty pursues his realization to its furthest implications—that not everyone felt the despair of impotence, not everyone was paralyzed like Beckett, not every expression of the imagination had to be couched in dark, passive, deathly terms. Mailer stands in the "first cathedral of the age of technology," brooding over the Space Program, and he is forced to admit that he must recognize that the world was changing,

that [it] had changed, even as he had thought to be pushing and shoving on it with his mighty ego. And it had changed in ways he did not recognize, had never anticipated, and could possibly not comprehend now .... Yes, this emergence of a ship to travel the ether was no event he could measure by any philosophy he had been able to put together in his brain.

(Of a Fire on the Moon, Boston, 1969; pp. 57-58)

The revealing phrase here is any philosophy he had been able to put together in his brain: for it tells us how strongly Mailer is committed to a pastoral past, a magical realm in which one has not the need to learn, to study, to train oneself in the complexities of his civilization. The romantic believes that visions will sustain him, that great works of art will spring spontaneously out of his unconscious; he hates and fears "reason" because that seems to him Faustian and evil.

The paralysis of the imagination suffered by contemporary romantic writers grows immediately out of the accelerated pace of the world and their own diminishing capacity to register it; but more importantly, it is a natural result of a faith in themselves as isolated "egos" burdened, if male, with the need to conquer, and if female—like Sylvia Plath—terrified of the prospect, seen as inevitable, of being conquered. In Mailer's case he has constructed an entire body of work around a Manichaean existentialism, a combination of two deathly pseudophilosophical propositions. He asserts a belief in a limited God, a God Who is a "warring element" in a divided universe and Who may somehow be using man in His struggle to impose upon the universe His conception of being against other conceptions. When God finally appears, as He does at the climax of Why Are We in Vietnam?, this God cannot surprise us, as He does Mailer, when He turns out to be a prehistoric version of "God." Men create God in their own images, do they not? And Mailer has surrendered entirely the uses of the imaginative intelligence, mistaking a faith in the conscious for a denial of the unconscious.

His desire to awaken a sense of "dread" in man has its roots in a firm belief in the absolute existence of Evil, as a process of waste or "cancer" in the universe, and from this belief it is a logical step to balanced oppositions of God/Devil, Imagination/Technology, Male/Female, and the other strenuous substitutions of metaphor for unclassifiable processes of reality that may be as simple as "body vs. mind" and "romantic vs. classic," or as bewildering as "sex vs. religion" or "murder or homosexuality vs. cancer" (four of sixty-five paired items in "The Hip and the Square" of many years ago). He seems to understand fully the self-destructive nature of his predicament, though not the means to transcend it:

... his genius brain can grope ultimates and that's not for every short-hair butterball in town, no, figure this, the electricity and magnetism of the dream fief is reversed—God or the Devil takes over in sleep—what simpler explanation you got, M.A. expert type? nothing better to do than put down Mani the Manichee, well, shit on that, D.J. is here to resurrect him ....

(p. 172)

But the effort to resurrect the dead Manichaean gods or to reaffirm the romanticism Hemingway seemed to represent (see the "Aquarius" section of Of a Fire on the Moon) involves so willful a distortion of one's adulthood as to make the surrender to primitive impulses inevitable.

But even if Mailer could put aside his belief in God and devil, the terrorization of man by the forces of evil "waste," he has other severe intellectual doubts. For at the very heart of Why Are We in Vietnam? is this memory, which springs out of D.J.'s unconscious mind during the Alaskan hunt, when he and his father are together:

... D.J. is shivering on the death in this hot-ass vale of breath, cause each near-silent step of his toe on the tail sounds a note, chimes of memory, angel's harp of ten little toes picking out the blows of Rusty's belt on his back, he five years old and shrieking off the fuck of his head, cause the face of his father is a madman ass, a power which wishes to beat him to death—for what no longer known—a child's screaming in the middle of, and so interrupting, a Hallelujah Sir Jet Throne fuck? nobody know now, D.J. just remembers the beating, screaming, pleading ....

(p. 137)

In this passage Mailer comes very close to assigning D.J.'s fate to a witnessing of the classical Primal Scene, when D.J. was a child of five; he has suppressed his terror and hatred of his father, Rusty, and a decade later the "collective father and son" are able to spare each other only by concentrating their savagery on a nine-hundred-pound grizzly bear. Surely this is a miniature society—a "syphilization" of two:

Whoo! Death is on him, memory of a father near to murdering the son, breath of his own murder still running in the blood of his fingers, his hands, all murder held back, and then on the trail came a presence, no longer the fear of death but concentration, murder between the two men now came to rest, for murder was outside them now, same murder which had been beaming in to D.J. while he thinking of murdering his father, the two men turned to contemplate the beast.

(p. 138)

This is a demonic voice of Freud, telling us that all of culture grows out of the Oedipus complex; that civilization is its own discontent, and man can never be saved. In "Why War?" and other essays, Freud brings to this subject a gravity and wonder Mailer does not achieve, trying as he is for rapid, manic flashes of insight. Is man absolutely determined by his earliest experiences, and is man as a species "determined" by what his earliest ancestors underwent? Freud's deterministic psychology, based largely upon a pathological model, has evolved by way of European existentialist philosophy and American "humanistic" psychology to the point at which it is possible for the late Abraham Maslow to suggest, quite seriously, that a "transhuman psychology" must be begun-and by that Maslow meant a psychology for the next phase of human evolution. Mailer and other contemporary writers have cheated themselves cruelly of intellectual growth by their romantic assumption that "truth" will come to them out of the air or will float up to them out of the deepest parts of their own brains: no wonder Mailer as Aquarius is ill at ease in the Apollonian cathedral.

Ultimately, there may be no psychological truths—only philosophical propositions. And one of these is the proposition Passion is superior to Intellect. That is, and always has been, a philosophical proposition. Passion has no language.

But if one accepts, as Mailer does, the dead weight of psychological determinism that renders a healthy boy like D.J. nearly without volition, there is nothing to do but follow the symbolic hunt through to its predestined conclusion. D.J., fearing he will "somnambulate long enough to beat in Rusty's head" because his father has selfishly taken credit for killing the bear, wakes his friend Tex and the two of them escape from the adults' camp. He is relieved forever of the burden of love for Rusty, the father who is more juvenile than his son: "Whew. Final end of love of one Son for one father." And now they head for the "icy vise of the magnetic north," going back to "Aurora Borealis cause it is the only mountain of heavenly light."

This section of the novel contains some of Mailer's finest writing, and hints at the kind of work he may do someday in a long, leisurely, complex novel in which the warring parts of his personality are wedded, a poetry of wholeness and unities: the projected long novel "in the style of Melville," perhaps. It is a very self-conscious and literary purification ceremony that the boys perform, but beautifully rendered, in such clean prose that we may believe we are reading about this for the first time. Indeed, most of the self-mocking literary allusions fade away; as we get deeper into the symbolic core of the novel, which is reminiscent of Moby Dick and Faulkner's The Bear and innumerable aspects of D. H. Lawrence, we seem to be approaching a transcendent, holy place where obscenities are forgotten in the presence of twelve Dall rams on an outcropping of snow, and wolves, squirrels, Arctic flowers, berries, sunlight, mice, sparrows, hares, caribou that are "a convention of antlers ... fine and unbelievable as a forest on the march."

Weaponless, the boys pitch a tent and try to sleep. But J. D. is "afraid of sleep, afraid of wolves, full of beauty, afraid of sleep, full of beauty ... " and he senses a secret near to him, some mystery, knowing "the meaning of trees and forest all in dominion to one another and messages across the continent ... the great sorrow up here brought by leaves and wind some speechless electric gathering of woe .... " A King Moose approaches. But the boys are remote, very separate from nature and from each other, like "two rods getting charged with magnetism in electric coils." In referring to Lawrence's Women in Love, especially Chapter Twenty and the conclusion, I am not suggesting that Mailer is sub-Lawrentian, but that he is very much like D.J.—a medium, a medley of voices—and that the fear of Gerald Crich for his friend Birkin's proffered love comes back to us again in D.J. and Tex, who cannot even touch each other. And, certainly, Gerald's icy death in the Arctic of his own soul, the death of the mechanical ego whom even—even!—a woman will despise, must be in Mailer's consciousness throughout.

The boys cannot surrender their opposition to each other, they are not to be joined in any mystical union—D.J., at least, has been ruined for this by his earlier disgust for his father-and so their vision of God is no more than the "wild wicked ... intelligence" D.J. has already seen in the dying bear's eyes, the promise of Baby, you haven't begun:

... God was here, and He was real and no man was He, but a beast ... and secret call: come to me .... For God was a beast, not a man, and God said, "Go out and kill—fulfill my will, go and kill," and they hung there each of them on the knife of the divide in all conflict of lust to own the other yet in fear of being killed by the other ... and the lights shifted, something in the radiance of the North went into them, and owned their fear, some communion of telepathies and new powers, and they were twins, never to be near as lovers again, but killer brothers ....

(pp. 202-4)

So the Alaskan hunt ends and the boys are united with the men, all of them flown back to Fairbanks in planes that "led the way into the new life smack right up here two years later in my consciousness," as D.J. sits at his farewell dinner. Tomorrow, "Tex and me, we're off to see the wizard in Vietnam .... This is D.J., Disc Jockey to America turning off. Vietnam, hot damn." So the novel ends; but the novel does not answer the question, "Why are we in Vietnam?"

The problem is that Mailer substitutes metaphors for reality, but he does so in such a quick, deft, passionate manner that we cannot always see how he has blurred his central issue. The sheer momentum of his inspired writing carries us onward, and D.J.'s self-mockery seems too contemporary to be a vehicle, ultimately, for Spenglerian despair: the novel is more archaic, in fact, than Mann's Magic Mountain, which also ends with a representative young man passing into the anonymity of war. But Mann offers a variety of interpretations that assure us of some measure of freedom of choice, a hope that we are superior to Hans Castorp if for no other reason than the fact that we have read about him, and he has only experienced his fate. In Mailer's novel, however, we are led to suspect that D.J.'s consciousness is also Mailer's, and that the vision of God in the Arctic is Mailer's unquestioning metaphor for the ultimate God of mankind—not just the God one might conceivably expect, given the circumstances of a hunting expedition and a mindless and passive acquiescence to "nature." It might seem paradoxical that Mailer, whose novels are so lively, is in fact a writer of static conditions; the issue is not sheer muscular response to stimulus, which is not even a measure, always, of life, but a human and intelligent and willful method of perception, which accepts or rejects sensual stimuli and makes of them an arrangement not dissimilar to a work of art. Yet Mailer has prescribed for himself so limited an omniscience (I use this phrase deliberately) that if, on page 15 of An American Dream, Rojack-Mailer believes the roots of motivation to be "magic, dread, and the perception of death," we know there cannot be a transcendence of this existential vision but only an affirmation of it; just as, realizing the grave human limitations of all the Dallas adults, and assuming a Newtonian determinism in the universe, it is necessary that D.J. be "up tight with the essential animal insanity of things" (p. 70). Only when the "animal insanity" passes into him and a kind of cold magnetic "telepathy" of the Arctic night electrifies his soul is he integrated, given a power more deadly (because far less human) than Rojack's. Richard Poirier, in a thoughtful study of Mailer, believes that it might be necessary for Mailer to "remain the embattled embodiment of ... two worlds" in order to continue writing, and he assigns to Mailer a position higher than that of, say, Bellow, because of Mailer's "partiality for those moments where more is happening than one can very easily assimilate."6

However, a recent book, Existential Errands, suggests that the intoxication with sheer unassimilated reality may bring permanent harm to an ego ever sensitive to new, distending shapes of reality, believing itself to be most "human" when involved in making movies "without retakes," where improvisation is an attempt to match the unrehearsed drift and flow of ordinary life. In the end the teleological force of the unconscious will bring us only to ... ordinary life. Mailer's romantic existentialism may account for some of the most exciting moments in his writing, but it is an excitement that does not last, for his positing of himself in a universe that is a mere cascade of matter is a self-hypnotizing curse; this accounts for his interest in Burroughs' fiction, which deals with all kinds of addictions, and in which the "addict" is the archetype for human behavior. Yet in Burroughs' omniscient mind, casual relationships are easily obliterated and a random "flow" or "field of consciousness" appears to us in a vacuum, timeless, extrapolated from an elemental universe but receiving its meaning when applied, like any fable or fairy tale, to the immediate world of newspapers and headlines. Mailer is trying for more than this, much more. There is no other way to account for D.J.'s nervous apologies to the counterconsciousness that may be operating its own disc jockey program out of Harlem: Mailer knows, and wants to state clearly, that he has not the proper claim to a truly devastated, magical "perception of death"—not so long as one black man exists in America. Any effort to resurrect dying or dead Manichaean gods can be, from Mailer's point of view, a feat of imagination he somehow has not earned. The "genius brain" of Mailer and D.J. crams itself with phenomena that appear to have the spontaneity of a consciousness-in-the-making, believing that an awareness of extremes, a submergence in the chaos of impenetrable mystery, is a necessary initiation into Time, a cosmic Time that has nothing to do with ordinary time. Yet the fallacy is—and I say this with utter admiration for the way Mailer uses it—that he has forced into his imagination an "other" style of life, one he has not experienced but believes he should, one he cannot imagine, and he assigns to this counterconsciousness the power to defeat the white, Faustian, "committee" civilization that is his own—the civilization that has made Mailer possible, especially the "Faustian" Mailer of all the books published under that name. For, considering again his definition of our culture—that it is founded upon the Faustian urge to "dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect"—we see that this is a precise definition of the truly serious novelist. Mailer believes there is something evil about the urge in men to subject time to their will; yet this "evil" is at the very basis of great art. Existential art, in which the protagonist achieves his identity only through enduring the phenomenal flow and resisting any intellectual relatedness to the objects of his perceptions, is quite another thing: and Mailer, with typical American ambition, is not content with this. Yet his energetic Manichaeanism forbids a higher art.

Initiation, then, brings the protagonist not to newer visions, more complex and future-oriented images of his own power, but to a dead end, a full stop. The territory one lights out for is not Rojack's unexplored West or even the Byronic wilds of the Yucatan (one is reminded of Byron's temporary indecision over whether to go to a pastoral "South America" where the peasants were all noble and gentle or to go to Greece), but Vietnam: a full stop. When Rojack muses that the "arid empty wild blind deserts" of the West are producing a new breed of man, he is taking up again the passionate certainty Lawrence expressed so beautifully in Women in Love—that the life force is inexhaustible, though man as a species may die out.

But D.J. remains "marooned on the balmy tropical isle of Anal Referent Metaphor," and Mailer, who survives him, carries on the romantic tradition he has him- , self, rejected by telling us that Muhammed Ali is "the very spirit of the twentieth century."

Therefore, stasis. Therefore, the celebration with increasingly defensive and feverish language-structures of archaic rites, events in the history of man that were once deeply meaningful initiations into a future—but are now pseudoreligious reminders of something dimly felt, because never experienced. Mailer, in dramatizing this predicament, is speaking for a multitude of voices—or perhaps the voices are speaking through him? A casual reading of Why Are We in Vietnam? reveals the presence of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Lowell, William Burroughs, Hemingway, Faulkner, Melville, Twain, Sterne, Swift, Beckett, Céline, Kafka, Pynchon, Hawkes, Gass, Barth, Proust, Burgess, Freud, Roth, Selby, Genet, Bellow, Lenny Bruce, Borges, and Lawrence, and of course Mailer of the self-interviews and Advertisements, Mailer-as-Juvenile voicing his disgust at Mailer-as-Adult. None of these voices are disguised, the novel is an intentional literary event of magical telepathies (what Mailer is picking out of the air waves that swirl so violently around him), and it is a healthy acknowledgment on his part that he is not and has never been an original writer, but only deluded by the contemporary prejudice for Originality. Great art is communal, and "originality" is a term applied only to the uses which superior personalities make of all that is rich and unsynthesized in their culture.

Yet, one of the few writers whom Mailer doesn't echo seems to me a true brother of his: John Milton. For with Milton we have the feat of genius forcing into an outmoded cosmology his own creative energies, his "vision" of magical powers and minimally intelligent human creatures, everything structured, a hodgepodge of Mailerian "freak activities," the politics of power contracted to an essentially domestic tension and then maniacally expanded to include, and to explain, the entire preCopernican universe. But Milton, of course, transformed his own need for a totalitarian wholeness into great art, and Mailer, resisting the artist's need to transcend his material, to be finally and unashamedly totalitarian (if no other gentler, Jamesian term can be found), approaches the threshold of greatness but does not cross over.7

Mailer's fears in Of a Fire on the Moon that the humanistic, liberal tradition of the imagination that he represents, or believes he represents, do not prevent him from entering into a kind of mystical union with the very "rootdestroying" people who are his subject. The book has many beautiful, extremely moving passages, moments of sheer psychic tension in which one participates, almost breathlessly, sensing how Mailer's mind is about to move in one direction or in another—or in another—and who can say but that the NASA expenditure did not justify itself when Mailer gazes at photographs of the moon and theorizes about Cézanne? Whether Cézanne "is" the father of modern art hardly matters, but that the unCézannelike Mailer can come to this vision of man's need for a "search into the logic of the abstract"—and that, so poetically, Mailer can record a possible answer to the question of why we are in Vietnam or anywhere, without seeming to realize it:

" ... we're going to the moon [Neil Armstrong, one of the astronauts, answers in reply to a question] because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges." He looked a little defiant, as if probably they might not know, some critical number of them might never know what he was talking about, "It's by the nature of his deep inner soul." The last three words came out as if they had seared his throat by their extortion .... "Yes," he nodded, as if noting what he had had to give up to writers, "we're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream."

(pp. 46-47)

Armstrong, who seems superficially to be one of the "ego-less" components of a vast machine, but who is in fact as individual and as unique as Mailer himself, is speaking through Mailer to us: and he is giving voice to a newer consciousness, one which accepts for better or worse the fact that, in evolution, the old unconscious is now being taken up consciously, deliberately, in a Faustian manner if no other word will serve—that, even at its worst (Vietnam), it is an expression of a teleological striving, half-unconscious, half-conscious, that can account for its disasters as for its victories without recourse to archaic, fixed, prehistoric assignments of Good and Evil. If one must be romantic, then he may speculate upon the psychology of machines—or he may "behold the world again as savages who knew that if the universe was a lock, its key was metaphor rather than measure" (p. 415).

Given such a vision, Mailer surely has his finest work ahead of him; it will be interesting to see if he can put aside his nihilistic bifurcation of human nature, which he has quite needlessly projected outward onto civilization, and come to see how he might share his desire to "effect a revolution in the consciousness of our time" with a multitude of others, not competitors, or "killer brothers," but awakened adults involved in a common search for the "logic of the abstract."


  1. See Mailer's well-known essay "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster," in Advertisements for Myself, pp. 281-302. This rapid cataloguing of totally disparate types of human beings is typical of Mailer, and unfortunately it is a tendency in his thinking that has discouraged many serious readers; that Mailer should neglect to see the primary difference between "mystics and saints" on the one hand and "psychopaths, existentialists, lovers, and bullfighters" on the other testifies to his total immersion in time, in the stimulus-response rapidity of time as measured by a slightly fast-running clock. The crucial distinction between these two categories of human beings is, of course, the transcendence by the former of the "existentialism" of the temporal world.

  2. One can only be puzzled by the general reluctance of critics to take the novel seriously, as if such aggresive psychopathic wit as D.J. displays were not a significant poetry for our time. Even the advertising for the English edition of the novel degrades it, and might well have been written by D.J. himself: ". . . the zaniest, funniest, most penetrating, fizziest novel of the year." Mailer's own advertisement for The Deer Park (published in the Village Voice back in 1955) is more dignified.

  3. An error of oversimplification, perhaps. The highest forms of art, including the mystic's experience, all soar beyond the brain's capacity to record in simple linguistic terms. One has to possess a language in order to define an experience, not to have it; visual art, music, even our personal sketchy dreams, rely minimally or not at all upon language. Einstein evidently "felt" his complex intellectual theories for some time before translating them into any language at all.

  4. As when he classifies himself as a "Left-Conservative-revolutionary," or calls our attention to his increasingly peripheral relationship to the events he writes about, with the title Existential Errands.

  5. In The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (Garden City, New York, 1970), p. 55.

  6. Richard Poirier, Norman Mailer (New York, 1972), p. 124.

  7. In Last Advertisement for Myself Before the Way Out" Mailer analyzes his private dilemma and that of the era's in these frank lines: "When I come to assess myself, and try to measure what chance I have of writing that big book I have again in me, I do not know in all simple bitterness if I can make it. For you have to care about other people to share your perception with them, especially if it is a perception which can give them life, and now there are too many times when I no longer give a good goddam for most of the human race" (Advertisements, p. 411). Mailer's art is an autobiographical dramatizing of his interior war, the conflict of "selves," the murderous self in perpetual pursuit of the creative self, which he cannot help but project outward upon the rest of us. Hence, the dynamic concentration of father-son murderers or twin killers in Why Are We in Vietnam? and its mysterious exclusion of feminine "evil" (Mailer's deepest fear). If the mystic cannot integrate his many voices, his fate is to swerve sideways or down, not to ascend.