11 November, 2007

Obitur dictum

So, the world is one week deeper into factionalist chaos, and more importantly, the old fugger is dead. That will teach him to go licking Chinese toys, won't it? No doubt we'll have our fair share of laments and threnodies, not just for a man, but for an era that he may, or of course may not, have represented. To me he represents only that whole worthy crowd of modern American penmen whom one is supposed to admire. The old fugger has that aura—the one that makes latterday Trillings spill prose all over their pants in the NYT, LRB or TLS. I could have admired them. If I had done my MA in American literature at Oxford in 2003, I would have admired them, and would admire them still. After all, there is so much to admire. But I made my choice. I've read hardly a novel, hardly anything post-war of artistic significance for five years—and my admiration has cooled, inevitably, though I daresay not irrevocably. Our modern literature says nothing to me, despite all its bravura. It was lucky, in a way, that I read Cur Vietnam?, the fugger's best book, and for some reason the one never mentioned by commentators (here, for instance), back when I was still charmed by the modern line, back when it could still speak to me.
Mailer is one of the last Western writers to create a self-contained intellectual universe out of strong, idiosyncratic convictions about the relationship between spiritual, psychic and social existence.
Amazingly, this sentence was written before Mailer's death. It comes from a long, adulatory piece by Lee Siegel in the New York Times, only nominally about Mailer's last book, The Castle in the Forest. I'd dearly like to see someone slip it out again, under cover of dark, as part of obituary, altering only 'is' to 'was'. It could have been written at any time, and about any author. One might change 'Mailer' to 'Shakespeare' and attribute it to Harold Bloom, or slot in 'Joyce' and give it to Cyril Connolly in 1929. In 1929, Connolly wrote an opinion piece on the fragments of Finnegans Wake then appearing in Eugene Jolas's little magazine for rebels and misfits, Transition. In Connolly's opinion,
Literature is in essence a series of new universes enforced on a tardy public by their creators.
That is how one defends Joyce, and it is, I think, the only serious way of doing so. Connolly is praising experimentation against the 'bucolic and conservative' literature being produced in his England. He mentions E. M. Forster. (I once heard a snatch of Where Angels Fear to Tread on the radio, not knowing it, and took it for a child's dabblings. Connolly has a review essay called 'Where Engels Fears to Tread', wittily.) Connolly goes on to say of the Work in Progress that
This one may be a fake, but it is not from a writer who has previously given us fakes; it may be a failure, but it surely an absorbing one, and more important than any contemporary success.
I do not know whence comes the 'x's failure is better than others' successes' trope. Do you? Siegel, who hates bloggers, has this to say of Norman Mailer:
This restless vastness of Mailer's ambition (''In motion a man has a chance'') is such that his ''failures'' are seminal, his professional setbacks groundbreaking. His willingness to fail—hugely, magnificently, life-affirmingly—expands artistic possibilities.
Personally, I loathe this sort of writing, but then, it is cultural criticism in an age almost entirely lacking in serious culture, or serious criticism. I was once recruited by a young, clean-shaven Argentinian—practically the Anti-Conrad—to rewrite his application to a Harvard MBA programme. At the head of his personal statement he'd put his life motto, apparently cribbed from Norman Vaughan: Dream big, and dare to fail. I thought this was the most offensive thing that could possibly begin a personal statement. But padded with a tricolon of Disney adjectives in a New York Times mushdrip, it is, naturally, far worse. How bucolic and conservative have we become?

15 comments:

Herr Ziffer said...

It sounds a bit like my family crest: Dare to dream, and fail big.

Greg Afinogenov said...

I prefer the old lie "Sapere aude," myself, or at least "Ne quid falsi dicere audeat, ne quid veri non audeat."

I hope that future generations will remember us as the Age of the Platitude, if nothing else.

John Emerson said...

They said it couldn't be done, and we did it! Reach for the stars, go boldly where no man has gone before, dream the impossible dream, live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. Only the good die young.

So what's your problem with American culture anyway, outlander?

Michael said...

How bucolic and conservative have we become?

Enough, I suppose, to say to Norman Mailer's eulogists: "Claudite jam rivos, pueri: sat prata biberunt."

Pedro Eduardo said...

His willingness to fail must have been really, really, huge.

Mencius Moldbug said...

Sparked by the story (but wouldn't it be Abitur dictum?), my copy of The White Negro cometh.

It was only ever published as a stapled pamphlet. I don't suppose you can find one in the UK. But if you could, we could do a White Negro review contest.

Perhaps the rules should be to compare and contrast, in traditional NYRB style, WN and exactly one other book. If you can't think of a counterpart, may I suggest Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, John Stormer's None Dare Call It Treason, or Hendrik Willem van Loon's The Arts?

Conrad H. Roth said...

John, I have nothing against American culture! And nothing against American literature. My problem is mainly with snivelling ass-licking.

Michael: Claudite indeed!

Mencius: The BL has a copy, in fact it has four. So I'll take you up on it. As a counterpart, how about Wyndham Lewis' The Jews, Are They Human?

John Emerson said...

Mailer's pugilistic streak, which he probably got it from Hemingway, and which lives on in Palahniuk always seemed stupid to me. It's actually "authentic" more or less, though -- there were a lot of champion Jewish boxers during the Thirties. Nationalism of all kinds (German, Czech, Swedish, Zionist) emphasized sports during the XIXc, so it isn't even an American thing.

Anyway, to go on to my off-topic point, Norman Podhoretz also has Mailer's violent, pugilistic obsession, and I've found myself wondering whether he read Franz Fanon during the Sixties and decided to be the Fanon of the Jews: Fanon emphasized the necessity of violence for freedom struggles. Everyone else did, and it would help explain Podhoretz's bloody-mindedness. (Victor Davis Hansen is the Fanon of th honkies, of course.)

Steven Augustine said...

Mailer was the successful version of Henry Miller, meaning that he never had the time to learn how to write well (whereas Miller finally found some). He was the most compellingly camp cartoon of "The Novelist As A Creature With Intellectual Pretensions" I can think of, and several generations of slapped, stabbed, bullied, abandoned and sodomized would-be muses of would-be Mailers owe him everything they are today.

The mere fact that Mailer thought that all that ueber-butch Hemingwayismus was somehow integral to the work was a clue to A) the (im)maturity of his artistic vision and B) his fascination with stinky sex.

The Universe lost a vital source of Vitamin U (for Utterbollocks) with his passing, and I'm not being facetious when I say that the rubbery icon of his jug-eared leer will be missed. Somewhat.

Why I wasn't invited to speak at his funeral I'll never know.

Aaron Haspel said...

The bankruptcy of "dare to fail" can be more readily seen if you substitute "suck" for "fail." Mailer certainly dared to suck; but then, he had a lot of ex-wives to support.

Mencius Moldbug said...

Anything by Wyndham Lewis would make a fine counterpoint, although after a little investigation I discover that his answer seems to be "yes."

Well, duh. But where's the drama in that? Perhaps Celine's Bagatelles would be a more daring choice. That is, if you weren't such a Nazi racist already.

Mencius Moldbug said...

And of course there's always Carlyle's Occasional Discourse. It's even topical!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Emerson: and who is the Fanon of the Celestials?

Augustine: Miller wrote well at some point? News to me! Sadly the universe had already lost most of its remaining reserves of Vitamin U with the death of Dalí.

Haspel: True enough!

Moldbug: Yeah, OK, Celine's a good one. We'll go for that. Let me know when...

Sam said...

This is delightful stuff!
Siegel's review of 'Castle in the Forest' also had an unintentionally hilarious bit that went "When [Mailer] stabbed his wife at a party in 1960 and when he helped get released from prison a literarily gifted killer who then stabbed an aspiring young playwright to death, it was because he followed the wrong impulses, not the wrong ideas." I like Siegel's implication that stabbing his wife was the right idea.

(I'm lifting this from my own review:
http://openlettersmonthly.com/issue/the-poison-tree/)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Sam. Hey, we even both used the word 'adulatory'!