Posts Tagged ‘naturalism’

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

October 24, 2010

Norman Mailer

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

The problem with naturalism is that there are just so many ways of saying that life is futile. About a hundred years ago when God was freshly deceased in the modern mind, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane had room to ruminate about the bleak, harsh unfairness of it all without getting stuck in naturalism’s inevitable cul-de-sac. Artful naturalism can still be written (see Being Dead by Jim Crace), but novelists with a metaphysical predisposition have many more aesthetic avenues to explore than devout nonbelievers.

Unlike so many twentieth century writers who were unable to reconcile belief in an anthropomorphized deity with the carnage and horror of two world wars and the Holocaust, Norman Mailer saw the supernatural everywhere. He was a confirmed mystic who was constantly groping after salvation in his tempestuous personal and artistic life.

In The Spooky Art, a compilation of the novelist’s musings about the craft of writing, Mailer insists that an “ongoing and conceivably climactic war between God and the Devil” manifests itself in the quotidian world of human strife (307). This is no mere literary affectation. Although Mailer did not ascribe to a particular faith, he was afflicted with a mercurial temperament which sought a deity that was, interestingly, much like himself:

“I confess that I have no attachment to organized religion. I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist.”

Mailer enjoyed quoting Kierkegaard — I have a theory that Kierkegaard is more quoted than read. And he was deeply concerned with matters of good, evil, courage, and existence. Mailer argues that it is ludicrous to contemplate a universe without an active deity and some form of an afterlife (Mailer’s money is on reincarnation).

“Carnage walks the aisles of history hand in hand with philosophy. If there is no afterworld where the contest continues, then existence is indeed absurd” (148).

Sparkling literary careers have been wrought from that absurdity (see Brecht, Vonnegut, Kafka, and the Hebrew wit who wrote the Book of Job). But a diverse group of modern writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Green, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, W. H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, have been theists.

It is not surprising that the pugnacious novelist and raconteur would have an idiosyncratic approach to religion. Mailer submerged everything that frightened and confused him into a big, dark pit which is alternately seen as hell or his own subconscious. For Mailer, the two are deeply connected. He asks us to

“Suppose the unconscious has a root in the hereafter that our conscious mind does not”(138).

For a novelist, the subconscious is a magic and mysterious font “and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words” (70). Mailer, who was “always a little uneasy when my work comes to me without much effort,” liked to think of his unconscious as a “separate creature”(127, 143).

The novel Nightwood is a mad dreamy reactionary assault on society written by a brilliant, confused and obviously self-loathing woman, Djuna Barnes. In the section “Watchman, What of the Night?” Dr. Matthew Mighty O’Connor argues that night time—sleep time—is when the devil does his battling. Nightwood is a bizarre and disturbing book for many reasons, but Dr. O’Connor’s rant about sleep, “that unpeopled annihilation” in many ways explains how Mailer sees his own relationship with his unconscious (95).

…the day and the night are related by their division. The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up. Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated. The Bible lies the one way, but the night-gown the other (87).

Norman Mailer takes his craft seriously and he fears the decline of “serious” novelists such as himself because “[n]ovels that reinvigorate our view of the subtlety of moral judgments are essential to a democracy” (161). Surveying the present state of fiction in America, Mailer laments how “the smart money would bet against the serious novel”(51). (Mailer’s observation, “I don’t think Jackie Susann went to bed with Rainer Maria Rilke on her night table,” gives us an idea about his regard for un-serious novelists(49).

For Mailer, the difference between “serious” novels and bestsellers is that the latter generally do not challenge their readers:


“mega-best-seller readers want to be able to read and read and read–they do not want to ponder any truly unexpected revelations. Reality might lie out there, but that is not why they are reading”
(51).

Norman Mailer was not sanguine about the future of fiction in America, a profession that has long been plagued with “various pirates, cutthroats racketeers, assassins, pimps, rape artists, and general finks (57).” And he has even less faith in our press which produces a “[n]ausea-broth of TV pundit-heads, coming to an intellectual climax every night” (83). A co-founder of the Village Voice in 1955, Mailer is hailed as an “innovator of narrative” . Here is his portrait of the journalist’s life:

“One half is addiction, adrenaline, anecdote shopping, deadlines, dread, cigar smoke, lung cancer, vomit, feeding The Goat; the other is Aloha, Tahiti, old friends, and the free ride to the eleventh floor of the Sheraton-Chicago, Patterson-Liston Press Headquarter, everything is free.” (185).

by Richard W. Bray