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January 29, 2007

Diabolos Ex Machina

Somewhere around page 60 of The Castle in the Forest, the new novel by Norman Mailer, my heart sank. Progress through the next three hundred pages or so demanded a steady effort to hoist it back into place, somehow, through sheer force of will and imagination -- to conceive some sense in which the "revelation" by the narrator about his identity could be justified, hence redeemed.

And so I tried, really I did. No reader could have been more willing to give Mailer the benefit of the doubt. A couple of times it almost seemed possible.

But by the final hours, the battle was lost. Each time we revisted the domain of Mailero-Manichean cosmological meandering, the sinking feeling would return, redoubled. (My review of the book ran this weekend in Newsday.)

When Mailer uses the essay or interview form to work out his thoughts and provocations, the result is often more artful, not to mention more cogent. The series of his miscellanious collections that began with Advertisements for Myself (1959) and ran until Pieces and Pontifications (1982) contains a lot of his best work.

So I was glad to see that John Freeman put up a short interview with Mailer yesterday at Critical Mass. Among other things, it includes one of the points he's been making over the past couple of years about democracy and eloquence -- something that strikes me as not simply interesting, but true:

Look, democracy depends -- it's very good when a democracy has a leader who speaks well. People really do take their cue from how well the leader speaks. FDR was able to turn the nation around because he spoke so beautifully. He had such command of language, such a love of language, such concern for it. The English were able to keep themselves together after losing the Empire because they had Shakespeare and they have a tradition of speaking well. And when you have a leader who speaks in dull slogans you are stupefying the mind of the country. That's his greatest sin -- even greater than Iraq. Is America is a dumber country now. The average person in America is dumber than they were in 2000.

This is overstated but he's on to something.

And now, because this is a blog -- which means total freedom from the obligation to create more than the most arbitrary transitions from one thing to another (yay! parataxis!) -- the present entry will end with a passage from Alfred Kazin that I read while doing laundry last week:

What makes this society so marvelous for the gifted rebel, and so awful, is that, lacking all standards by which to counter or question the new, it hungrily welcomes any talent that challenges it interestingly -- but then holds this talent in the mould of its own shapelessness; the writer is never free enough of his neighbors and contemporaries to be not simply agin the government but detached from it....What will become of [Mailer] God only knows, for no one can calculate what so overintense a need to dominate, to succeed, to grasp, to win, may do to that side of talent which has its own rule of being and can never be forced.

That, from an essay first published in 1959. It is reprinted in Kazin's book Contemporaries (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1962).

Posted by smclemee at January 29, 2007 1:56 PM