Remembering the Literary Genius of NORMAN MAILER

An Exclusive Interview from 1990

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    icon Dec 06, 2007
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“We have grown up in a world more in decay than the worst of the Roman Empire; a cowardly world chasing after a good time but chasing it without the courage to pay the hard price of full consciousness - we want the warmth of pleasure without the grip of pain, and therefore the future threatens a nightmare, and we continue to waste ourselves. We've cut a corner, tried to cheat the heart of life, tried not to face our uneasy sense that pleasure comes best to those who are brave, and now we are a nation of drug addicts, homosexuals, hoodlums, and fart-faced Southern Governors.”
-Norman Mailer 'Advertisements for Myself', 1959 
Heroic figures capable of informing and inspiring the course of action we take in life are becoming an increasingly rare commodity in American Life. 
More than any other contemporary American writer, Norman Mailer carried and epitomized a mixture of qualities - weight, substance, humor, and fluidity - to inspire me not only to embark upon a career in journalism; but to set a standard for rendering the complexities behind topics into sentence structures that celebrate the elegance of language, infused with insights that often go unnoticed in an impatient world of quick fixes and simple solutions.
When Mailer passed away last month at the age of 84 of renal failure, his body no longer capable of filtering the detritus out of his system; America lost its last Great Literary Lion, and a brilliant mind that with each shimmering sentence he wrote was more than capable of filtering away the many toxins that tended to clog the collective American psyche, leaving us with a clearer understanding from every thought he formulated in the process.
It is no secret that great artists have huge egos, and Norman Mailer certainly possessed that because he was truly a 'Renaissance Man' and more. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in aeronautical engineering and his first book, The Naked and the Dead, propelled him into the literary limelight.
His subsequent work threw him into the wind sheer of controversy and greatness. The Deer Park focused on the amorality of Hollywood and was considered obscene, and his novel Why Are We In Vietnam did not even mention the topic, but was staged entirely in Texas, filled with oil tycoons, disc jockeys, and moronic characters that deftly illustrated how a lax populace can create tragedies abroad.
But it was in the late 1960s and 1970s that Mailer's genius truly came to the fore, with works like the Pulitzer Prize winning Armies of the Night forming a foundation for the 'New Journalism' that sought to deal with factual situations in a literary manner.
With over 30 books under his belt, Mailer also helped found The Village Voice, one of the first 'underground' newspapers in the country that is still publishing today.
Mailer was hands-down the least shy and risk-averse of writers I've yet to encounter. In the late sixties he ran for Mayor of New York and published a poster of Mario Cuomo with the caption: 'If this man is elected he won't be
able to pass the urinalysis test.'
At different points in his life, Mailer was a drinker & drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a hipster existentialist, an opponent of women's liberation, and a filmmaker.
With six wives and nine children under his belt, he devoted his time between writing, lecturing, and his family, not necessarily in that order.
His most recent work, published in Playboy a week before his passing, was a meditation on God, the Devil, and the nature of Good and Evil.
Martin & Mailer: An Exclusive Interview
One of the highlights of my career publishing The Review came in April 1990. Norman Mailer was slated to speak at the Midland Center for the Arts as part of the Matrix: Midland series and I was able to secure a one-on-one interview with my long-time hero and literary mentor.
After his address to a miserably half-filled auditorium, I distinctly recall shaking his hand and nervously commenting about the empty seats in 50 percent of the forum.
“Well,” he quipped, “hopefully we came a quarter of the way to understanding each other.”
“You know, Bob, with Napalm and Agent Orange, 20 years ago I probably would have been speaking outside of the auditorium, given my involvement in the anti-war movement. But 20 years ago, I would have never been invited to speak here.”
Following our interview, he signed my copy of Advertisements for Myself with the moniker, 'Cheers - keep up the vision!'
As a tribute to both the man and marvelous lexicon of his work, what follows are excerpts from our interview. In digging the transcript up from my archive, it's astounding how true the words and warnings he issued back then still ring true today, perhaps louder than ever before.
Martin: I saw you speak in Cleveland back when I was in college and you got fairly combative with the audience.  I'm surprised that didn't happen here in Midland.
Mailer: I think a lot of people have a curiosity to hear what I say and likewise. I don't ipso facto believe people are bad anymore. I relate it to confusion, which we have a lot of these days. If I've learned anything over the years, it would be that good people work for bad systems and intellectuals don't always know a bad system when they talk about it.
Martin: A large portion of your work deals thematically between the battle of totalitarianism and freedom, specifically the tendency within America to liquidate freedom in the name of ideology while hypocritically denouncing foreign powers of doing the same thing. Do you see any rays of light in the future of America?
Mailer: More than any period in our history I sense that no one is sure of himself or herself anymore. Nobody has a firm opinion about what will happen in the future. Whatever our President is sure about in the second year of his term, he has questions about by the 4th year.
The world seems wide open but it could become more nihilistic and fracture in a thousand pieces, or it could result in astonishing new things beginning to happen. I don't see that happening here in America, though. I see it happening more in other countries. Our brains have been bombarded by the corruption of television for 30-plus years and there is always a taxi for some new train of empty thought on TV.
Martin: You recently visited Russia after the collapse of their empire. What were your thoughts?
Mailer: The most interesting thing was how strongly the Russian people related to their literature. When they said the name of a writer like Pushkin it was similar to the way people from Louisville say the name of their city.
I think the reverence Russians demonstrate towards Tolstoy and Chekhov is reflective of the fact those writers kept the Russian sense of free inquiry alive, which is manifesting itself politically today.
Hope in the United States, on the other hand, is a huge energy. Americans live in a condition of perpetual problem solving. We expect to be able to solve our problems and I think this creates some of our tragedy.
The Vietnam problem was a condition of believing we could solve a dispute that became our own. This is one reason it was such a huge shock to the American nervous system when we couldn't solve it. I also think it explains Reagan's actions in Grenada a decade-and-a-half later.
Martin: So what do you think about America's role in the world today?
Mailer: I'm more optimistic now than 20 years ago, not because of American but because of the changes I see in other parts of the world. It reminds me not to make judgments about what a country is capable of too quickly. We have a great track record for solving problems, but I think we're living off old credit.”
Martin: In Existential Errands you write a lot about the need to create a sense of moral imperative for America. Do you perceive any specific avenues of hope for breaking away from the shackles of corporate totalitarianism in this country?
Mailer: Well, the Russians forced their government to rethink its system. Here I think things will get worse before they get better. It may take another depression. We may need to go through some sort of purge before we can make any new steps because of the profound confusion in this country right now.
The Liberals have been in desperate trouble in this country for 30 years now, and the Conservatives got greedy politically because the Democrats corrupted them. The Republicans consume more than they conserve nowadays.
Like many Americans, I have a love/hate relationship with this country. I've definitely been angry with American since the Vietnam War. When I visited Russia I thought, 'What have they been doing to us for 40 years? They paint Russia as the evil empire, but upon arriving I realized I was staying in a Third World Country with Third-Rate hotels. The poorest housewife could not use the laundry soap they washed with daily. They weren't about to go marching over Europe gathering forces to invade us. Technological people know - if you look at faucets and plumbing, you can tell where a country is. This is just one example of the hysteria and misappropriation that's been going on since the Cold War.
Today, the Japanese have taken our thoughts and their engineers make better products. This is the price we pay today for the Cold War. We've impoverished ourselves through the military. We have the imaginative decadence of Madison Avenue and Don King.”
Martin: What do you think about George Bush? (editor's note: Senior, not Junior)
Mailer: Bush doesn't know what to do in the world because we are dealing with an enemy that is no longer an enemy - a burned out giant - and the American people are realizing this.
We've lost our premier position in the world because of the need we have to advance emptiness upon authority without realizing that evil cannot be improved from within.
My understanding about the nature of evil is that it eats from within. We saw Russia as a monolithic power with the force to destroy Christianity, and it doesn't match the fact. Somehow our country found within itself the keys to erode itself, which is the true revolution of Washington.
Martin:  You wrote some great books about the American Presidential elections, especially your award-winning convention coverage from 1960 through 1972. Why did you stop?
Mailer: In 1976 I was approached by Esquire to continue my convention coverage, but I found myself running to the TV all the time because I could never get close enough to anything on the Convention floor. The parties allowed electronic media to take over and I found myself running to three different TV sets all the time.
Esquire said they would get a crew to cover simultaneous aspects of the Conventions, but I thought - No, then I'm running some Sci-Fi dream machine. Plus, they Conventions haven't been that good since 1972, although my one regret is that I didn't cover the 1980 convention when Reagan first ran.
Martin: Okay, my last question. How does the original 'hipster' feel about getting older? And when is the second part of your trilogy about Western Civilization coming out?
Mailer: The first part of the trilogy started with Ancient Evenings but I don't think I will ever finish it. I don't know where I'll get the energy. It took ten years to the first one and right now I'm working on a novel about the CIA that my publisher wants by February.  I have 1900 handwritten pages so far, but its' quite difficult to research.
I find I have a lot of time to think, more than I ever have in the past. Sexually my life is great, although my biggest complaint is that some mornings I wake up and sense that my skin smells like an old tire.

That's the downside.

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