Thursday, July 3, 2008
Norman Mailer: An American Dream
"[M]urder offers the promise of vast relief. It is never unsexual. But there is little which is sexual about suicide. It is a lonely landscape with the pale light of a dream and something is calling to you, a voice on the wind." Stephen Rojack is an existential psychologist with his own television show who murders his wife, and then spends the following days wandering the city, dealing with the police, and seducing women, all the while feeling good old "fear and trembling." Two different aspects of his existential crisis need to be distinguished here: first, there is the critique of the banality, conformity, and ideological dubiousness of bourgeois everyday life, which the existential crisis reveals as absurd and perhaps overcomes. When Mailer shows the economic and racial hypocrisy of society, the mafia and racial double standard behind the law, the book is on steady, if by now unoriginal, ground. Second, there is the attempt to escape, as Stephen says, the "rational man . . . nailed tight to details, promiscuous, reasonable, blind to the reach of the seas." Unfortunately for Mailer, this second form of the existential crisis involves an immersion in the senses and the body, which for him are always marked as masculine and sexual. As a result, clumsy and embarassing sexual ideology gets spliced into elements of Stephen's crisis, interjecting the metaphysical into what should have been the escape from the metaphysical. Mailer goes so far as to ask the reader to take seriously Stephen's anxious belief that vast existential consequences are involved in choosing whether to ejaculate into a lover's vagina or ass. Even if the body and senses weren't always masculine and misogynist in the novel, this attempt to reach the body's pure "presence" seems inherently metaphysical, promising some truth or revelation if obtained. But if there is nothing there to be learned, that the only gain is from the first critical project I mentioned above, then the attempt appears as nothing more than misguided mysticism. Yet there is something valuable in the embarassing extent to which Mailer pushes the seriousnes of Stephen's crisis. Mailer goes beyond all good taste (especially in his engagement with race and gender), but wouldn't a real existential crisis also necessarily be beyond taste? My wincing while reading revealed the novel succeeded at least on that level.