I really shouldn’t miss Norman Mailer. The author, filmmaker, boxer, mayoral candidate and general force of nature died in 2007. He could be a blowhard and was often overrated as a novelist. Most notoriously, he stabbed his wife–or rather one of his wives, as he was married six times. His books–more than forty of them–are rarely read anymore.
Yet Mailer was one of the last great American iconoclasts, and he has not been replaced. We now live in an era of cheap iconoclasm. Young female pop singers don’t mark entry into adulthood by changing musical styles or become more reticent, but by taking off more clothes. (Thus Beyoncé or Madonna are always doing “controversial” and “cutting edge” performances that are entirely predictable.) Bill Maher doesn’t write long novels that delve into the most uncomfortable questions about sex, violence, and the psyche: he tweets that Sarah Palin is a loser. Jon Stewart is a bad boy and a rebel who is adored and given awards by the mainstream (Mailer at least had to guts to not just mock politics, but to actually run for mayor of New York). Whereas Norman Mailer fought in World War II and at age twenty-five produced a seminal novel, The Naked and the Dead, our most famous male novelist is Jonathan Franzen, who at one point was too much of a Twinkie to appear on Oprah. Mailer was never so shy about doing television:
Mailer was no role model, of course, but he did have a courage and self-awareness that is required for true iconoclasm and which seems to be missing today. It is a very good thing that our culture has evolved from the time when Adele Morales, Mailer’s second wife, was pressured not to press charges when Mailer stabbed her with a penknife to today, when Chris Brown is shunned for assault (for the record, Mailer was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having a “psychotic episode” the night of the stabbing). From Mailer’s getting off to the shaming of Brown is progress. Yet today’s artists seem to lack the stones to confront not only the culture but themselves with any level of Mailerite fearlessness. In the documentary Norman Mailer: The American, Mailer reflects on going to jail after stabbing his wife. “It was then that I really came face to face with the depths of my rage,” he said. Again, Mailer was no hero–although by all accounts he was a responsible provider to his nine children. But he had the guts to face that he was at least part monster, and that’s more than can be said for many of today’s misogynists. You didn’t hear any self-doubt when the left, including not a few gutless men, went wilding on Sarah Palin in the 2008 election.
Again I say: it is a good thing that American culture has evolved from the time when Mailer’s brutality was defended and even celebrated. And yet, sometimes I feel that every era needs an absolutely fearless bull to charge through and shatter the pieties of the day, and in a way that goes much deeper than the Coulter/Maher dichotomy. Mailer could not only start fights, he could quote Freud. Society sometimes need a madman, a toxin to keep it awake. A rampaging ego, which in Mailer’s case was grounded in an insane work ethic (look up the list of books he wrote), can have a bracing candor which is lacking in the dithering narcissist, which is the “rebel” personality of our time.