Judging a book by the sins of its author – My thoughts on reading Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night.

Mailer CollageStarting towards the end of the university semester, I have intermittently spent my time dipping into Norman Mailer’s wonderful account of a mass protest in opposition to the war in Vietnam and the various rallies and acts of civil disobedience that surrounded it. More than just a novelist’s account of a historical event, Mailer plays with the concepts and habits of journalism, history making the objectivity that has traditionally been strived for in the genre. To be fair this is an understatement, Mailer as the participant-journalist is the undisputed king in his own story and his competitive habits and personal insecurity lie unmasked in his depiction of the character that surround him. The book begins by telling us of the ‘news of your protagonist (himself)’ before describing himself variably as the Historian, the Novelist and the Participant (yes, he capitalised them too) and he never hesitates to shower himself with praise or belittle those he did not like (i.e. everyone except Robert Lowell). This book pioneered a new genre of journalism alongside other well known novelists of the time such as Hunter S Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote.

I won’t bother worrying much about spoilers as it is peripheral to the text, rather the appeal of the book is in its telling which is laced with dark humour and an attention to peculiar details and characters.  Central to the story is Mailer, who was already a well known writer and public intellectual, he was a prolific journalist, had written numerous successful novels and participated in numerous televised debates. He had also achieved a level of notoriety for his habits of getting into fistfights, his associations with radical New York writers and Beatniks which included being a witness attaining to the artistic merit of William S Boroughs’ book ‘The Naked Lunch’. The last element of his notoriety is not discussed in the book but was one that I stumbled upon in the blogosphere; Mailer was a violent misogynist, having stabbed Adele Morales, the second of his six wives (http://lithub.com/80-books-no-woman-should-read/).

Many authors live lives close to those they write about and likewise many authors face flack from the public who are unable to distinguish the different between them. Some examples of this are Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita or Woody Allen in anything he does, but there is a need to separate the two and in some cases it can be done. I really had trouble with this one, because it is actually a story about the author and he clearly benefits from this notoriety just while idealising the masculinity that underpins it.

Mailer’s opinion on women is somewhat confusing, he doesn’t seem to espouse any misogyny in Armies of the night, instead it manifests in another manner; his love of sex, his love of the hyper-masculine and the inability to separate the two. At one point he finds himself at odds with fellow protester Mitch Goodman as both are ‘sexologues’ of a very different nature. Goodman is of that leftist intellectual group that believes that all sex is good, all love is good and that it should be accepted equally. Mailer, on the other hand believes some sex to be abominable, shameful and downright wrong, likewise he recognises the social factor in shaping this disgust and does not want it changed – no, that’s exactly the way he likes it. He likes his sex dirty.

Mailer has a very strong moral compass, and not all of which are based upon rationality but rather very strong feelings on right and wrong. Despite this, he is willing to forgo these feelings in the pursuit of something better; guilty pleasure. For example, he hates drugs but will partake in them when paired with good sex. In a way this sounds very right, very cool and very sexy. To me it brings to mind an article I read about a gay man’s yearning for the days where Oxford Street was a gay community, separate distinct and uninvaded by trendy hetros, all of which is now dissolving as homosexuality becomes more acceptable in the mainstream. I get it, deviance is exciting and sexy – yet all people deserve to feel legitimated in their deep feelings of love irrespective of whether the sex that has been deemed ‘dirty’ by society may be (at times) better that way.

In armies of the night, Mailer is attending an anti-war rally yet the man himself loves violence, loves war and envisions himself as the leader of troops into battle; certainly he is no pacifist. In my internet research on Mailer, I found constant reference to his linking of the two concepts each of which are central to his feelings of masculinity. The young MP who arrests him is terrified by Mailer, who looks like a mad banker with his three piece, pin-striped suit and crazy Jewish curls. The MP fumbles during the arrest and shakes uncontrollably during and after the arrest leading Mailer to question his sexuality and coming to the conclusion that had he been trying he would have demolished the boy. This is somewhat ironic considering Mailer has something of a homoerotic obsession with Robert Lowell throughout the book, wondering about his physical strength, in love with the resonance of his voice and constantly amazed at the man’s complacent confidence before a crowd. Like many men today, it is his own insecurity which he needs to validate through both sex and violence. He has allocated this boundary crossing side of him with an alter-ego, which he calls ‘The Beast’ and he loves The Beast. The Beast is daring and decisive yet when does it become dangerous and when should we stop idealising it?

For me, and in many ways for Mailer, we should stop now. While he states that he loves it, he is clearly more envious and even hateful of Lowell whose quiet strength never had to sink to such lows to feel recognised. I would say that it is all good until someone gets hurt – and today, just like every other day in history, this form of masculinity has been hurting women. While the prevalence of normative masculinity means that we have to tolerate that line is certainly crossed when an individual hurts someone, especially if it involves potentially fatal force. I would be too disgusted to read OJ Simpson’s book on how he (would have) killed his wife and how is this any different? That this book does not detail his feelings on women but does so indulge us with his views on violence is no real difference as they are both interconnected in the mind of his Beast.

So would I recommend you read it? Well that’s really difficult for me to answer, but I hope history does not remember him and that teachers do not recommend him to their classes. I hope that teachers will start replacing the old sexist men are currently read in schools and create a new literary canon that is more egalitarian and gender friendly. With a fair bit of cognitive dissonance I can say that I probably won’t avoid reading him. The level of his work amazes me as does the scope of it; he has written books, made political and artsy films, published poetry and written lucid news articles that incite people to action. At least, I can be somewhat comforted by Roland Barthes in that the author is dead and while I may be taking the old critic out of context, Mailer will certainly not benefit from my purchases and as far as ethics are concerned as long as I and any future reader will be able to separate the authors twisted sense of masculinity and impart their own critique of it, then it is OK by me. Is this unlikely? Can we trust readers to be sensible? Are you confused? So am I.