Norman Mailer's death has brought out the bow ties, the tightly-wound and the closely-cropped, for whom the only noteworthy thing about Norm was that he was abnorm.
Shaggy (though with recently shaved nether regions) Christopher Hitchens wrote a sweet appraisal of his hipster friend, and lots of other people from a variety of cultural positions had good things to say about at least some of Mailer's work. Everyone noted the idiocies and worse Mailer involved himself in during a long and manic life; but the general appraisal of Norman Mailer had it that -- like this year's Nobelist, Doris Lessing, about whom UD was interviewed recently -- his long writing life represented an inspiring effort to evolve a set of personal truths, express them, and remain faithful to them; and that this fidelity - embodied in his best work - inspired many of his readers to clarify their own commitments. To follow Mailer in every particular, given the mistakes he made in his life, was impossible; but to take seriously his unembarrassable insistence that life be lived according to one's inner lights was -- at least for this reader -- unavoidable.
UD understands the pleasures of rectitude. There's nothing like a Joseph Epstein meditation on morally despicable writers (Saul Bellow, for instance) to get you going in the morning. Mulling the messiness of other people's marriages and manuscripts, the contrast between your well-crafted, and their crappy, personal life, the drink and the sex of their nights and the sobriety of your days, their braggadocio and your restraint, delights. And instructs. Burning through one Dionysian artist after another with Apollonian radiance has an excitement, for writer and reader; done well, it reconciles us to life uprightly lived.
It also misses everything interesting about us, the things to which Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and Saul Bellow and Kurt Vonnegut and Doris Lessing and Susan Sontag and many other writers draw our attention. Our vulnerability, for instance; our tendency, as we yearn toward various personal and social ideals, to be led astray by the very enthusiasm that fired those ideals. A short story like James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues captures the wounds we sustain -- and the damage we do to others -- because of our ability to imagine new lives, new worlds, more authentic forms of existence. To venture in the direction of aesthetic, political, philosophical, and personal experimentation, to wander about in the world, loose, open, unsure, narcissistic, exposes us to truth, passion, error, and ridicule.
Iris Murdoch knew how to value this venture:
'Lately I reread The Seven Pillars [of Wisdom]. I feel a sort of reverence for that book - for that man [T.E. Lawrence] - which it is hard to describe. To live such a swift life of action & yet not simplify everything to the point of inhumanity - to let the agonizing complexities of situations twist your heart instead of tying your hands - that is real human greatness...'
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