Once, not so long ago, we would have expected Norman Mailer to die as he had lived, violently, sordidly, wildly.
Yet when the great man died this weekend at the age of 84, he died peacefully, in the company of his nine children and his sixth wife.
Of course, that he had so many children and a sixth wife speaks mutely to the author's idea that "It's not the sentiments of men which make history but their actions."
And Mailer's actions, his devices, as we all know, in varying degrees, were also fertile: A very short summary of his fame and infamy includes citations such as Village Voice co-founder, journalist, artist, Pulitzer Prize winner, Second World War soldier, brawler, mayoral candidate, wife-stabber, political activist, anti-feminist, student of aeronautical engineering, and the embodiment of machismo; or in Kate Millet's succinct words, "The quintessential male chauvinist pig."
All in all, leaving aside the knife-play, it's a thrilling résumé, at least in the days when men were men, as the song goes. Yet, a great degree of Mailer's success was derived from opposition to his masculine persona. At the height of Mailer's status as the muy macho figure in the gender/sex wars, he debated Germaine Greer in New York Town's Hall in 1971, a debate that at the time was characterized as a hog-slaughter but one that Greer's biographer, Christine Wallace, would later revise as a "mutual love-in."
In spite, or possibly because, of his astonishingly long career as a more lumpen version of the Byronic hero who is "mad bad and dangerous to know," women loved Mailer. In 1973, Jacqueline Susann made a roman à clef figure of him in Once is Not Enough: He was Tom Colt, a legendary bruiser, boozer and writer, who, when he finally beds the heroine, is revealed to have a penis the size "of a man's thumb."
"Tom Colt, the man women worshipped, the man other men looked up to ... Tom Colt the living symbol of man - with a boy's penis!" Suffused with tenderness, not revulsion, this heroine is "determined to make him feel like a man," and does.
Susann, who had the goods on everyone, may have been right, or may have been using hack psycholog.
Either way, and even with this low slam, she understood, as Greer did, that the fact that Mailer was, in her words, "no stud" only ameliorated his appeal. There is nothing quite so poignant, as one scholar said of Byron's allure, as "beauty, nobility, deformity."
In the 1990s, Mailer would go toe to toe with Madonna for Esquire and reveal himself to be, frankly, an aging man who had no idea what all this piercing and leather was about. Madonna would, conversely, treat him like a sweet, dirty old man, realizing, to her credit, that his vile reputation was as preposterous a sexual posture as her own.
But perhaps that's trying too hard to tame Mailer. He is not this easily defanged. His early writing was erotically aggressive, towards a polemic about what a man was, a definition we are still refining. The new wave of American Fratire writing, led by the sub-intellectual Tucker Max, is trying to do what Mailer did, what Robert Bly stole: To create a site that responds, in Max's words, to the way in which feminism "interacted with and affected masculinity." Yet Mailer never did field research by sleeping with "a fat chick," never banged a drum: He was always too smart, and, frankly, too masculine, to derogate and degrade women to serve a reputation he secured, fair and square, in his writing.
The problem, as Mailer once said, was that sex is never safe. That sex is impossible to regulate in the manner of a fair fight, and his acuity about this obvious fact makes one wonder why we all locked him in the pigpen for so long.
It was not only women, those leaders, as Camille Paglia has scorned, of "insular fiefdoms, intolerant of dissent," who relegated Mailer to the dustbin of American art: Cautiously respected to the end of his life, he never was able to recapture the heady days, post 1948's The Naked and the Dead, when he, at 25, rose to the lofty ranks of The Great Novelist. Such stature, unfortunately, is always reminiscent of the slaughtered member of Eliot Ness's Untouchables crew who was apparently discovered hanging with the legend TOUCHABLE - Americans, in particular, elevate their heroes in order to destroy them.
It is true that Mailer's writing career was spotty, yet even his worst books were, as Malcolm McLaren said of Sid Vicious, "fabulous disasters." His work on Marilyn Monroe, in particular, is on one hand vile (Martin Amis remarked on his second book on the big blonde, Of Women and Their Elegance, that the "Of" in the title "guarantees the vulgarity of the enterprise"); on the other hand a scorching confessional story about the tortured nature of impossible desire.
As a feminist graduate student, I was not permitted to like Mailer, because he was "offensive," a term that my colleagues used, in retrospect, the way that fascists use the word "verboten." No matter: I hated these people and always thought Millett's Sexual Politics was hot only because of the allegedly hateful passages she quoted. I remained, and remain, enamoured of his 1979 masterpiece The Executioner's Song (for which Mailer won his second Pulitzer.) In this work of non-fiction fiction, that infuriated Truman Capote, the genre's originator, Mailer tells the truth the way a poet does.
He envisions coincidence as art, art as coincidence - when the book's anti-hero Gary Gilmore is being driven to his execution, he listens to Una Paloma Blanca on the radio, and this image, of the snow-white dove (who flies over the mountains, and "No one can take my freedom away" lyrics) becomes, through the mastery of Mailer's art, pure synecdoche and symbol, a bird as freighted with meaning as Keats's nightingale.
Gilmore's lover, still in his thrall after his death, clings to such divine auguries. Then the ring he gave her to symbolize eternal love cracks. He leaves her mind then. She thinks, "he might really be dead."
This is Mailer at his most sublime, tenderly accepting the lover's need for the spiritual world; gently positing the random cruelty of the same. In his new, his last book, Norman Mailer converses with God and finds He needs us as much as we need Him.
I feel this is true. I feel bereft, also.
Mortality disgusts us, on occasion. We needed Mailer, and still do - he fought hard, he was brave, and flawed and luminous.
Mailer once said, "Every moment of one's existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit."
We have died, this month, a little more.