MIDWAY : Farewell to Mailer

When the world speaks with one voice, it almost invariably gets it wrong. Thus, Norman Mailer, who died on Nov. 10, has been hailed as a great, if flawed, American writer, a pre-eminent chronicler of the 20th century. But it would be closer to the truth to characterise him as an arch-conservative who pulled off a stunning confidence trick.

Mailer hated authority, homosexuality, women and almost himself, producing fiction and essays that would be comically bad if they did not display addictions to violence and abusive sex. He was in his 40s when the movement against the Vietnam war brought a younger generationon to the streets; having established his credentials with his World WarI II novel The Naked and the Dead, Mailer marched with draft-resisters and wrote about it in The Armies of the Night.

Then as now, few on the left cared that he was a hysterical opponent of contraception and abortion: “I hate contraception... it’s an abomination.” It was left to one or two feminist writers, notably Kate Millett in Sexual Politics, to point out the contradictions that disfigured his work. Millett regarded Mailer as “a prisoner of the virility cult”, a man whose “powerful intellectual comprehension of what is most dangerous in the masculine sensibility is exceeded only by his attachment to the malaise.” That malaise often expresses itself in domestic violence.

Mailer did not actually kill any of his wives (unlike the French philosopher Louis Althusser, but he stabbed his second wife twice in the neck and his fourth accused him of beating her. His fascination with hyper-masculinity drew him to boxing; it also resulted in tragedy when Mailer was instrumental in securing the release of a convicted killer.

Irresponsibility on such a grand scale does not exclude someone from the status of heroic outsider, a category also available to self-destructive rock stars. But the most telling comparison is with Mailer’s near-contemporary Betty Friedan, who wrote sourly in 1963 that homosexuality was spreading across America like “a murky smog”.

More reactionary than great writer, Mailer, a faux-radical, used the taboo-breaking atmosphere of the 60s as cover for a career of lifelong self-promotion.