Norman Mailer discusses his writing, literature, and American life
BROADCAST: Mar. 17, 1960 | DURATION: 00:46:44
Norman Mailer discusses his writing, literary criticism, and American life. Other topics of conversation include Mailer’s thoughts on “affirmative” literary works, apathy and a lack of passion in modern life, beat writers and their reception in the United States, and many of his contemporary writers.
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Studs Terkel So many questions come up involving you, Norman Mailer, and your part in the literary, on the scene, literary scene of America. We think of what is far and away the most powerful of all World War II novels, "The Naked and the Dead". You've had ten pretty hectic years, troubled years, and yet, I feel, at least I feel as an observer, growing years. And one of the questions, this is sort of a leading question, you can take off from here in any way you feel like, where do you think the flaw has been? Not yours, not the critics, in the past 10 years after the monumental "Naked and the Dead"? I know you've had troubles with critics, differences of opinion, you've tried new approaches--and we'll come to the idea of your new approach to the novel, something you mentioned already this morning. But, what with "Barbary Shore", and with "Deer Park", where do you feel the flaw is in the approach of the critics toward your works since "The Naked and the Dead"?
Norman Mailer Well, I think to begin with, we probably have to talk about critics and book reviewers, because I would say that the critics who are more serious, or more elevated shall we say, generally [or? are?] probably, at least half of them, would feel that my later work is better than "The Naked and the Dead". It's the book reviewers who've been terribly dissatisfied with what I've done since "The Naked and the Dead" and I think a part of that, assuming for the moment that my last two books are not bad but, really, fairly good. I think that, if the fault is theirs, and I'm not the one to be able to decide whether it's my fault or theirs, but if it is theirs, I think it would come out of the way [that? the?] book reviews are written. Because generally what happens is that a man has--the average book reviewer--has anywhere from ten, to two or three books to review in a week. And they have to read them and then write reviews about them. Well, what happens, usually, is even when they write a favorable review of a book, they've rarely read more than 50 pages of the book, or else they've read three or four hundred pages of the book but they've read it in an hour or two, which means that they skip. And it's natural in something like that, when a man's doing a daily job, that what he prefers is something which is reasonably routine. So if you get a book, if you get an author who writes books of a certain sort, and they have once or twice read a book of his that they liked very much, and then the new book comes along, and it's pretty much in the same genre, then they can enjoy it. They can look through it, they can skip through it, and they can feel with a certain amount of reasonable confidence that this book is a little better or a little worse than his last book, and they can write a good or bad review on that basis. Now, it happens that my three novels have all been quite different. "Barbary Shore" was altogether different from "The Naked and the Dead" and "The Deer Park" was different from either of the first two. And I think what that does is it causes a great irritation and uneasiness in a critic and--in a book reviewer--and since book reviewers, anyway, are people who can well question the reason for their existence, since they almost always started as men who were more serious about literature than they ended up being, and, you know, they started with the idea that maybe they would write, or that they'd be serious critics, and they end up doing a work that's essentially a hackwork, they are the kind of people who generally don't like to have their authority questioned head on. And, so, if a book makes them uneasy they tend to make the natural assumption that it's the fault of the author.
Studs Terkel This matter of making them uneasy, the fact that your approach has been different in all three of your novels, leads to this question that has intrigued me--something you said this morning. You said the day of the social novel, of the broad scope, you feel, for you, has ended. You're looking for another approach entirely.
Norman Mailer Well, when I said the novel with a broad social canvas is over, I don't mean that there isn't a need for such books. I just think that it's gotten to the point that American life has gotten so enormously complex that it's almost impossible for a major writer, or writer who takes himself very seriously, to write a novel with a broad social canvas. Almost all the ones we've had in the last five years have been novels written, essentially, by slick writers, hack writers, or half-serious writers. When you think of books like, oh, "Exodus", or "Marjorie Morningstar", or--I haven't read "Advise and Consent", but I'm fairly certain it's not very good, or a book like "Hawaii", they almost always are written by men who are either hacks or half-serious writers. Because, after all, as you get older, as you get more serious about your writing, if you do, the feeling that you have over and over again is that you must not write about anything; that is, you must not finally print anything that you're not, really, reasonably happy with; where if you don't feel that you've really said something new about a subject then you just shouldn't print it. And, so, to write about a broad social canvas means that you have to have an intimate and detailed, comprehensive, and even powerful knowledge about a great many different kinds of things. Now, that's very difficult to do as you get more responsible. At the time I wrote "The Naked and the Dead", I was young enough to have a certain freshness and to not care about those parts of my book I knew well and those parts I didn't--
Studs Terkel Yet, if I may interrupt, "The Naked and the Dead"--I don't want to break your train of thought here in talking, yet, though you were young, it was so overwhelmingly powerful to me, I think to practically all the readers, they were amazed at your understanding of all the figures involved, even though you yourself did not actually participate in some of the matters, yet, your understanding. How did this--I'm curious. I'm trying to probe here the secret of creativity. How? Could you explain your understanding, "The Naked and the Dead", at that early age? And we'll come back to what you were saying a moment ago.
Norman Mailer Well, you know, as I get older I begin to subscribe to Shelley's idea that an infant is the source of all knowledge; that when we're born--it's also Plato's idea--that when we're born we know everything, and that education consists of losing what we know instinctively. There's a marvelous story about Shelley, and it's probably apocryphal, about Shelley being filled with Plato's notions, and crossing a bridge in London one day and seeing a mother with an infant in her arms and he ran over and pulled the infant out of the mother's arms and lifted the child on high and said, "Babe, speak. Reveal your unknown knowledge." But if there's a point of this, I suppose it's that I think we really know everything. I think we know an enormous amount, more than we realize we know. It's all in our unconscious. And, when one is younger, one tends to have more confidence about trusting one's instincts. One doesn't really know what one's doing, and one doesn't have a, that intimate sense of the social consequence of every line that one writes. By which I mean, I don't mean that every line that one writes is important, but rather that if you're really a good writer, and you're writing with any concern about trying to change people at all--change their ideas, change their emotions just a little bit--then every line you write, you make an enemy somewhere and a friend somewhere. And as you begin to have some experience over the years, you begin to have a sense of the kind of enemies you're making and the kind of friends you're making. And, so, there is a tendency always to censor oneself that one has to fight very carefully. And a great deal of one's creative energy goes into this inner battle between writing a book which will be--
Norman Mailer As you're older, yeah. And I think that this tends to inhibit one a bit, so that I always felt--I think anybody who's 23 or 24 knows as much as was in "The Naked and the Dead", for various reasons that I really don't quite understand, including a lot of luck, because I didn't have to worry about making a living at that time. I had enough money, you know, to work on for a year. I just had--it didn't seem to me I was doing anything at all out of the ordinary. As a matter of fact, I used to wonder for long stretches whether "The Naked and the Dead" was good enough to be printed. Then there were other times I thought it was the greatest book ever written. But, that's the--
Studs Terkel Well, that's pretty close to the--the latter is certainly closer to the truth than the former. Something you've said intrigues me very much: you said as you grow [older?] you tend to inhibit yourself. Would you mind talking--you said something about writers, so many of the writers that you know, good writers, have a tendency to self-censor. That is, would you mind touching that a bit? That you inhibit yourself?
Norman Mailer Well, it's a terribly difficult thing to talk about quickly because it, really, the quality of the censorship depends on a hundred details. One could almost--it isn't a novel I care to write--but one could literally write a most interesting and fascinating novel about a writer, about how a writer comes to inhibit himself, because the particular social restraints that enter his nervous system inhibit him are very subtle ones. He can be a [literarti?], and there can be a grand dame there with a great deal of style, and at a certain point a certain author can come up, whom the young writer likes, and the grand dame can say, "Oh, yes. That's a dreadful book." At that moment the young writer senses that if he continues imitating this older writer whom he admires greatly, ladies like that are going to be saying about him that, "Oh, yes. That's a dreadful young man. He wrote a dreadful book." And, so, something very intimate happens in the centers of his creativity, and he begins to stay away from subjects which might irritate the ladies. After all, writers are almost always fantastically frustrated snobs. I mean, one of the reasons why people become writers--there are a great many reasons--but one of them I think, certainly, is that they all have terrible social ambitions. It's one of the reasons why there have been so many marvelous novels written about social climbers, because most novelists--
Norman Mailer Most novelists are--they may never be social climbers, they may eschew it, they may deliberately do everything they can to keep themselves from climbing socially, but they always, I believe, that--oh, let's say, nine out of ten novelists have that within them.
Studs Terkel Thinking about this grand dame and the writer, not deliberate--not being wholly conscious of what, you said--you've got deep, buried deep in the recesses of his mind, is the fact that somebody of some influence may not like his book. If we may go from the grand dame to, say, publications. Is that the idea?
Norman Mailer Affirmative? What do I mean by it? Well, I guess I suppose, I mean, finally, that--oh, that's a hard one to put. Let's put it this way: that the finest minds of this century have all been obsessed with the idea that mankind may be coming to an end. The human condition has become so dreadful that time may be coming to a stop. If you take the dramatist who I think is, perhaps, the most interesting world dramatist today, Beckett, over and over in his work one has the sense of the last two people who are left on earth, or the last five, or the last one, as in "Krapp's Last Tape", and always there's a sense of the entire, vast heart of the world has slowed down and it's now--the atmosphere of his plays consists of one heartbeat, and then a terrible pause, and then possibly another heartbeat. And, so, he keeps his plays alive. [When you look at?] Ionesco's work what you find is that language has begun to break down, that people are no longer able to talk like people, they're beginning to talk like animals. The excitement of his plays is to watch the way communication breaks down. The excitement, I think, is born not of pleasure but of recognition. The point I wanted to make was that an affirmative literature today consists, I think, not of choosing subjects which are attractive but of finding something which is--well, it's to enter the horror, one horrible situation or another, and to find that something which lightens the atmosphere a little to it. Something--if you write a novel about a murderer, and you succeed in making that murderer human, so that the reason why he commits murder becomes understandable, then you've, I believe you've done something that's affirmative, because then murderers are less foreign to the minds of average people. And because they're less foreign, the people who have read that particular book have a greater understanding of the human condition. And if they have a greater understanding of [the? their?] human condition, then they may possibly be a little bit more ready to live.
Studs Terkel You used the word earlier, "recognition." The word "recognition." That Beckett, Ionesco, the men you mentioned, and you used affirmative in connection with them. I'm taken with this idea very much. Our first reaction is, here are men who say there is no hope. Yet, the fact is they have written. Was it Atkinson recently, I think, in reviewing "Krapp's Last Tape", mentioned the fact that the man did take the trouble to write it. He does want to say something, so it is not a give up.
Norman Mailer Because what they do is they illumine our depressions. There are times when all of us feel rather tenuous but profound depressions; we don't really know what it's all about, the depressions are larger than ourselves. I think those depressions come from the feeling that the whole world is becoming more and more cancerous, more and more dead. Everyone seems to be dying a bit, dying inside. And, so, at least when you have the aesthetic experience of watching that kind of inner death, that grey, that, that particular bleakness, poignant when you see, when you see it anatomized, when you can follow it, when you can extract the humor from it. What has happened is that you enter your own depression, it's opened by the work, and one may even react from it. One can, after all, come out of a theater having gone through the experience of Beckett or Ionesco, and say, "Yes, yes. They really saw how very bad it is, but somehow it is, perhaps, not quite that bad," you know. Whereas, if they hadn't written those works the depression would just deepen. I think it's precisely these healthy, affirmative works, these sentimental movies, for example, that leave everybody miserably depressed.
Norman Mailer Oh, sure. Yeah, yeah. I mean, if you see a movie that is sweet and good with a happy ending everybody leaves the theater pretty depressed because--except the young and the innocent--but anyone who knows anything leaves the picture depressed, because insofar as they believe the movie, they know that their own life isn't at all like that. And, so, they have either two choices: either they've been had, they've been cheated, which is always an irritating and depressing experience, or else if they have believed it to a degree, then they wonder what's wrong with them. They wonder why these people are so much healthier than they are. Which is part of the swindle that, I think, the movies are always putting over on us, [and? in?] popular fiction.
Studs Terkel What is your feeling, Norman? Earlier you spoke of the Beckett/Ionesco approach. That of pointing out the cancers and pointing out the fact that we are dying. We are dying. What is your feeling?
Studs Terkel Please--
Norman Mailer Well--
Norman Mailer Well, I can't expand because it'd be a thousand pages work. But, no, I just, so far as I know anything, my instinct tells me that we're coming into a terribly dangerous time. Dangerous not because it's violent but because it's not violent enough. Because it seems to me there's a terrible apathy spreading over every--
Norman Mailer Yeah. Life is becoming passionless. You know, if you start to talk to people today about such ideas as courage, honor, love, passion, even obsession, their feeling generally is, well, he's in need of an analyst. The idea of it, of courage, of bravery, is something which exists in itself as a value and has been absolutely eroded by the notion of psychoanalysis. I remember that, in "The Naked and the Dead" for example, a few young psychiatrists were talking to me about it and they telling me about the sergeant in it, Sam Croft, who climbs a mountain and pulls all the men behind him.
Norman Mailer And they said it was marvelous the way you caught his fixation on the maternal breast. Well, you know, apart from whether he had a fixation on the maternal breast or not, he also had the guts to lead all these men up the mountain. Which--and not everybody who has a maternal fixation can do that. And it's exactly this sort of, oh, what should I say, this sort of adulteration of value, this homogenization of value. This changing of the blacks and the whites into greys, which I think is almost fatal to the human condition because we may end up with an enormous number of machines which will be enjoyed by no one because no one will have enough energy, sex, or libido, or pleasure left to enjoy them. You know, they'll just--already with television we can see the apathy with which people watch even the few good shows that are on.
Studs Terkel If we can pinpoint certain facets of it. The indifference. I think you've touched the passionlessness. The indifference. Now, does this, this touches the writers, those whom you consider good writers, too? I mean, they're afraid to--earlier you said the social novel, the broad scope, you're going beyond now. You want to probe, you want to probe the human condition of the individual, is that the idea? The guy himself, the man himself. This seems to be your--or am I wrong in assuming this, what you're seeking? The guy in his own potentialities, the man in his own potentialities?
Norman Mailer Well, I'm trying to break through into a new kind of writing. It's an image that actors and painters use much more than novelists most of the time. A painter, a non-objective painter, will be obsessed with the idea that they cannot break through their inhibitions as they paint. And, so, their work has a stiffness to it, a lack of originality, a lack of themselves. Now, that involves all sorts of physical motions. Very often [they? there?] are highly gifted painters and they have an enormous amount of technique but they can't do something which they consider good and spontaneous. Now, as a writer, of course, you never have that problem. There have been people who've broken through. Kerouac has broken through. To a lesser extent Ginsburg has. There are any number of Beat writers who have broken through in the sense that they write spontaneously. Well, they happen to be very good at it. Kerouac, I think, is probably about the best rapid writer in America.
Norman Mailer Well, like a rapid chess player, you know, a chess player who has to make a move every ten seconds. He might not be the best chess player in America but he's the best rapid chess player. He could beat masters when it comes to writing quickly.
Norman Mailer No. Well, I will say, I suppose I don't, really. I think he has passages that will have lasting value because when he's good he writes beautifully, but I don't think it's--I think it's an abuse, really, of the natural, the organic quality of writing, at least for me. I mean, it doesn't matter how fast or how slowly you write something. That's not the nature of the act because you cannot get that kind of spontaneity, necessarily, onto a printed page. There are too many things that intervene. There's no need for it. If--all that's important is that the printed page have a quality of spontaneity. That may be achieved through 10 drafts of a piece. It may be achieved through years and years and years of the most grinding work, or it may be gotten in five minutes of just quick, beautiful writing. But it doesn't matter, terribly, how it was done. That's not, that is not the attitude of the reader and, properly, it's not the attitude of the reader. The reader is looking at an object which is quite inanimate. It doesn't breathe, it is only a page with print on it, so that the particular force of which the writers hand pressed on the pencil will never be caught in that type. It'll only be caught as the force of the hand is transmuted into the force of the word.
Studs Terkel I told you something this morning, in looking--not looking, I shouldn't say this--reading--I haven't finished it--advertisements for myself. I was much moved by a short story that you wrote, your earlier days, "The Death of the Gook"? "Death of a Gook"? And you wrote this in two days, you
Studs Terkel Oh, "The Dead Gook", yeah. And you wrote this in two days, you see. But I, the reader, was much affected by it. The fact that you wrote it in two days is irrelevant to me. I, this--is this what you mean, coming back to Kerouac and the speed of writing? It's the, it's what the reader feels?
Norman Mailer Well, no. What I was trying to say about Kerouac's spontaneity is that I don't think it's, I don't think it's the thing one looks for in writing. In painting, for instance, when a painter paints a canvas quickly, that spontaneity is visible. You feel the way the paint was put on. As painters say, you feel the way it breathes, the way the canvas breathes. But you don't feel that on a printed page. And--
Norman Mailer You don't. And more than that, unless you have a mind which is really the mind of a genius, it's not terribly interesting how a mind works [on? in?] its details. Most minds are much slower than the best part of themselves--that best part which has gotten by working something over, over and over and over again, until each sentence is just about as good as you can make it.
Studs Terkel Since you've mentioned Kerouac and Ginsberg, this is an oft--[as it would be?]--I hope we're not beating a dead dog here, but the element of, you mentioned two of the Apostles of Beat. Someone made a--I forget who it was--said something about "the angry young men of England who"-- so-called prototypes of Beats--are involved men, they're involved, whereas the Beats seem uninvolved. Does this, a justification, do you--they seem uninvolved, sort of a back in the womb idea for them, whereas across the waters they're specifically involved with issues of the day. Is this wrong?
Norman Mailer Well, I don't know. I think there have been two reasons why the Beats have not been involved here. One of them, I think, is not to their credit. To go back to what we were talking earlier, about censorship, there is a kind of an instinctive sense that if you stay away from politics, or if your remarks on politics are surrealistic--you know, friends of Kerouac will say, "Well, I like Eisenhower. I think he's a great man. I think he's our greatest president since Abraham Lincoln." That's, you know, it's not a serious political remark in any way at all. I don't think he even believed it except at the moment he said it. It's a surrealistic remark. He's mixing two ideas which are absolutely without relation to one another; one of them is greatness and the other is Eisenhower. And it creates a certain excitement and interest. It's as if I were to say the horse had cat's teeth. It's an interesting image but it's surrealistic. It consists of mixing, of putting in dramatic montage two objects which have no particular relation to one another. But the--so, I think that, to a degree, the Beats stayed away from politics because it's almost impossible to be radical and political in America. It's bad enough if you are radical aesthetically, which they certainly were, but that there is still a little room left for that. Not too much. One of the things that's really interesting is the enormous antipathy that the Beats aroused in the, you might say, in the more powerful centers of, or let's say in the more vested centers of literary power. I mean, really, it was remarkable--there was a--there are people who have made a career out of attacking the Beats. I mean, John Ciardi was just a mediocre poet about three years ago. Now he's got his full-page, you know, full-page pictures of him in advertisements, and there are feature stories about him, and so forth. And the only reason was is because he made, rather, a shameful career and crusade out of attacking the Beats.
Norman Mailer Oh, he was known, but he was known in the way of, you know, he was known in a small way. He was known as, as I say, as a mediocre poet. He consists, you know, he was somewhere about nine or 10 stories below someone like Dick Wilbur, who is also a poet. It's just that he led a crusade which the people who hold literary power wanted to be led. And he had a good face for it; nice, powerful, [virile?] style, probably [fraudulent?]. And as I say the, the thing about the Beats that interests me most, is that even without being at all political, they were attacked, and they've been attacked very cruelly and unfairly. And they've been put down for all sorts of ridiculous reasons. You know, I mean, they've just been maligned and slandered. There's just no doubt about it. To a degree they asked for it but [it had?] nothing to do with the way they were given it. But on top of that there's another thing, too--to go back to this other thing--which is that we can't have a, kind of a, a serious concern with politics here that the English can have. The Engl--a young English writer can really take a legitimate interest in what's going on in his country because it's in a period that, I think, corresponds to our 30s on the New Deal. But here there are no politics that are at all interesting. It--
Norman Mailer Well, politics is dull and passionless. Having to go out and campaign for--there are no issues to campaign for. There are no ideas that produce any excitement in people. I mean, the last flickers of it were over Stevenson. Some intellectuals deluded themselves that the man was a great man. Well, he may have been, he may not. I rather guess he was just a rather decent man. But, you know, he had no issu--he had no ideas that were really exciting. I haven't heard a new idea expressed by an American in public life in 15 years, maybe.
Studs Terkel You're touching on something very interesting here. We know in European countries, we know André Maurois is involved in the government in France today, he's a minister of culture. In Europe, perhaps we're touching on--do you feel there's a tradition of anti-intellectualism in America? In Europe there are writers and poets who actually seek public office and achieve public office. Rarely is that the case here.
Norman Mailer It had one marvelous thing in it. I think that's why the critics loved it. I think that's why Brooks Atkinson woke up and wrote this rave review in the middle of it. And I must say, I slept through large parts of it. In the middle of it someone on stage says, "CURSE GOD! CURSE GOD!," you see, like that, and I felt everyone in the audience, you know, all those Westchester matrons who were falling sleep just like me because, you know, they were terribly bored by it, and they were very guilty about falling asleep, because they were told that it was a marvelous play. But they woke up at that moment, you know, it gave them a great charge. They had the feeling they were in on the birth of poetry or something.
Studs Terkel If I may just [interfere?], I was wholly unmoved by the fate of J.B. In fact, I felt a great contempt for J.B., but the same week in Chicago, a week before, "The Visit" was playing. Dürrenmatt's "The Visit". Did you happen to see "The Visit"?
Studs Terkel Yes.
Norman Mailer Well, I thought it was a most interesting play. Quite well written, terribly translated. I would have felt that on my own because of the individual lines of dialogue had absolutely no bite [to them?].
Norman Mailer But, I felt that--and, you know, the Lunts were excellent in it and I think they're remarkably good actors. And this is at the end of their career. I never saw them when they were younger and I understand that they were great then. They certainly didn't hold the play down. They were [fine? fun?]. But I thought--I just felt it was done in the wrong way. I thought it was done too large a scale. I was sitting in about the 20th row of the orchestra and the play became quite remote to me. And I had the feeling that that's exactly the kind of play that should be done Off-Broadway. There should be an intimate atmosphere of evil, not a general, broadcast style.
Studs Terkel You know, the reason I raised "The Visit" in connection with "J.B." is they played in consecutive weeks in Chicago; one seemingly written--seemingly--by a cynical man, Dürrenmatt, the other by affirmative, quote unquote, man MacLeish. Yet, one was a far more moral play, to me, than the other. "The Visit" was a far more, than "J.B.". And coming back to Beckett and Ionesco again, these men, I think there's more--and I want to come back to you--there's a probing here, rather than a shallow skimming of the surface.
Norman Mailer Well, it, you know, works like "J.B." really belong to a particular vein of what I would call 'Harvard Literature'. They're written almost always by men who are exceptionally decent and genteel, men to whom nothing has ever particularly happened. They were well born. They lived well. They almost always are very nice people personally and they finally, you know, they are, they're gentlemen and they, they drift toward a literary career because it's most congenial to them and one gets one's hands less dirty there than in commerce, don't you know. And, funny, and they study forms, you know, and they're the kind of people who 30 or 40 years ago were writing five-act first plays and the star turns. And now they write long, poetic plays like "J.B." or they write novels like one that an ex-teacher of mine wrote--I'd rather not mention his name--but, at any rate, they always are works that are completely lifeless and genteel. Genteel is the core to it all. They almost never have an idea which is the least bit bothersome. They're terribly worked over and constipated and--
Norman Mailer But they also come from a part of society which is most pleasant in American life. [To wit?], precisely that genteel Harvard society where the manners in America are better than they are anywhere else. And, so, no one really has the heart to be rude to them. You know, like, if I had known MacLeish personally, I'm certain that if I had had to write a review of that play I would have tempered what I had to say because my guess is that he's probably an enormously pleasant man, personally, and you just wouldn't want to hurt his feelings. And it's amazing, you know, how certain works really achieve a great deal of importance for a year because none of the critics really have the heart to hurt the man who wrote it.
Studs Terkel Aren't you hitting something here? This matter of being afraid to hurt feel--you mentioned several [things?]--being afraid to hurt feelings, a sort of bloodlessness, genteelness. Where does involvement--let's assume politics, let's leave politics out for a moment. You are an involved man. Where is the involvement come from?
Norman Mailer Now?
Norman Mailer Well, I'm beginning to get a bit depressed because I'm beginning to have a feeling that the mass media controls so much of American life, and that Americans have become so altogether conditioned by it, that it's become impossible, even for most of the good people who are around, it's really become impossible for them to be able to regard a work separately from its context. With most Americans, the obvious and sad truth is is that they can't read a, or look at, a work until it's successful. And then they like it. They feel there's something wrong with them if they don't like it. I mean, we all have had the experience of some woman at a party saying, with a real burst of courage, "Well, I don't know. I, for one, didn't like it." You know, and she's always the one who's outspoken, and that's her particular pride, that she'll say what she thinks. It's gotten to be that the exercise of literary courage comes down to those ladies who will say that they didn't like "Exodus", or they didn't like "By Love Possessed", or they didn't like this one, or they didn't like that one. So, as I said, for the most part, the mass media really control the fate of a book, or a play, of course, or to a lesser extent, a movie. But then there are also some of the best people around are incapable of liking a book if it has the least bit of success to it. You see, the mass media, in a way, have become so enormous and oppressive a force that they dictate one's taste before one's come into contact with the work, either for or against. And on top of that they, you know as I was saying earlier today, they have a, I think, the mass media really exercise a totalitarian control over American life. Let's say that there's a psychological totalitarianism in American life, which I think is enormously pervasive. As a matter of fact, it's almost a work of art in a peculiar way because it's the first totalitarianism that hasn't had to have concentration camps, that hasn't needed a secret police of enormous power. One just sort of irons the more extraordinary passions out of people and when once everyone becomes pretty much like everyone else there isn't any terrible need to have the overt signs of totalitarianism. But that America is becoming a totalitarian country there's no doubt in my mind because I think that the first mark of totalitarianism is monotony, and dullness, and boredom. And America is becoming a dull country.
Studs Terkel Conditioned?
Norman Mailer I think it comes from an abdication of, from an abdication from danger. You know, the obsession in this country with security--I don't pretend to understand its roots altogether--but there is an obsession with security. I've seen people do everything--throw away their lives in order to have a bit of security, you know, and it's probably true that one is better off dead early than to live out a long, slow life and die of cancer, you know. And I really--if I have an apocalyptic vision it's that in 50 years the real God in American life will be destroyed, as faith in him will be destroyed. Medical science. Medical science is the only god left to Americans, you know, and about the time that one realizes that they can't find a real cure for cancer, or that the cures that they find are going to be worse than the disease, and that the country is being absolutely vitiated by cancer, and destroyed by cancer, about the time when three-quarters of the people who die in any given year will die of cancer, let's say, 40, 50 years from now, well, then medical science will be through and then there'll be a psychological crisis here.
Studs Terkel You're painting a rather bleak picture, Norman, and, yet, this is [the picture you see?]. Do you see--I use the word hope, it's a general word, a very vague word--what do you, what is the out? Is there an out? What's the way out, from, or is there a way out? Do you see a way out?
Norman Mailer Oh, I think there may be ways out but I don't know what they are. I mean, I wouldn't bet on any particular one right now. The Beat Generation seems to be slowing down just a little, but I just don't know. I mean, that's not the sort of thing one can measure. Even if one were a sociologist one couldn't measure that. Thank God.
Norman Mailer Well, I think that the thing--I don't know what everyone should believe in. It--I think that the thing I believe in is that unless the world becomes better--put it this way: that the nature of divinity, that if there is a God, that his nature is that we all have to grow, we have to increase, we have to become more than we are. We have to become more talented, more imaginative, more wild, more dangerous, more adventurous, finally. More adventurous will be the key to it all. And that if we don't, that then the human race is in danger of extinction, that the--what brought us into existence was this instinct very deep within all of us to become more than we are, and if we fail to become more than we are, every time someone fails to become a little more than they were born to be, we have a small tragedy and there's a loss to mankind [in that?].
Studs Terkel This is what you've touched on this morning. I hope [I'm?] not assuming this is your credo now, man should be more than he is. And, again, I can't ask for specifics. Or can I? I mean, for you? Let's say you, Norman Mailer, writer, creative spirit: How do you approach the idea of, the challenge of becoming more than you are?
Norman Mailer Well, the only way I know by now is just to try to find my way back to saying, always, the thing that I think is true. Now, whether I'm right or wrong in anything I say, if I can just say the thing that is true, in most cases, my idea of what's true is usually something that's quite outrageous. But if I have the courage, you know, to try to say something like that it may kick off a little life in other people. I don't know. But, at any rate, let me see if I can put it a little better--most people walk around with an enormous sense of resentment in them. They have the feeling that they--they button their lip, you know. They're mad about this and they're mad about that and they force themselves to be a little bit sweeter than they really feel. I think, if nothing else, it would be marvelous if everybody would go around being a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more violent, than they are. I think before we can begin to get a little better we've got to become a little worse. There's not enough hatred. That America, and when I think of America in the 30s, I think of it as being a place of violent hatreds, violent confrontations, excitement. And at the same time everybody believed that America was going to be a better place in ten years.
Studs Terkel Well, right or wrong, the lack of cause, causes, lack of causes, I suppose. What Jimmy Porter, the phrase he used in "Look Back in Anger", lack of causes. Do you subscribe to that? That there's a lack of a cause in our scene today?
Norman Mailer Oh, yeah. I mean, what would anyone in America die for? You know, in Korea it turned out later that 50 percent of the soldiers couldn't even shoot. They just didn't believe in it that [very?] much. It's all, you know, to a great extent it's all the fault of the mass media because America started as a most passionate country. But it also started as a country without roots and because it started as a country without roots there wasn't anything to fall back on. America's the perfect example of a--I mean, I talk about people have to become better, they can't stay the same as they are, that our nature is to grow. Well, America as a country is a country that must continually grow. America cannot afford to remain in the same place for ten years the way a country like France can. To--even France wasn't able to do that. But in France people at least have roots. They have a sense of the past. They have a sense of where they came from. In America, everybody is walking, you know, that their inner landscape, I think, is always incredibly alone. They're always alone, they're all by themselves in the middle of--they're surrounded by faces but they don't even know, really, whether essentially each face they look at is their dearest friend or their most profound enemy. We no longer even know, you know, whether our mother or father, or our creators, are our destroyers, you see. One of the things I've noticed in American life is that it's very rare to find people who really trust their friends anymore. Maliciousness has become the violence of American life. And with all of this, as I say, as I say this, the American life was a life that depended upon growth, and expansion, and passion.
Studs Terkel Something--pardon me--go ahead. There was something you said a moment ago about no roots. That is, there's no connection with the past. We think of a past, a frontier past, of the strong, rugged individual if you will, to use a cliché that has been perverted, profaned. Is there a--do you feel that a return to this idea, in some way or other, or there's no going home again here?
Norman Mailer Oh, absolutely. Well, but the way we're going to get back to it I just don't know. But I started as a socialist and I suppose that by now I'm some kind of anarchist or nihilist. I don't care, particularly, because the words don't mean that much. I'm a rebel. In a way, I suppose, I'm a revolutionary. You know, I'd be willing to see half of what we have go in order for the other half, the half that remains really be interesting, and good, and vital, and alive, and passionate. Adventurous. Dangerous. When you talk about how we're gonna get back to a rugged individualism, I just don't know. I think that the first thing that's going to happen, I'd like to see that rugged individualism exist without its historical attachment which has always been toward amassing personal fortune. Because that, of course, always leads nowhere; all it leads to is, after the personal fortunes have abused the lives of people who didn't have personal fortunes, it then leads to a kind of welfare state, or in our case, to a kind of a very benevolent state totalitarianism, you see, with a mass media that control everything. I think the, if I would guess where the first place where anything can happen is it might be in the mass media because most people who work in the mass media are haunted by the fact that they're never expressing themselves at all. Most people who work in the mass media are 85 times more intelligent than the absolute slop that they always put out. And because they're that [damn?] intelligent they're always trying to smuggle things into the mass media which are almost invariably stopped one way or another. But the fact is that the fact that there is that desire, and the fact that the mass media are so profoundly corrupt that there have been these scandals in them, means that there's a remote possibility that something may happen there. If I have a wish it's that there be 85 scandals in five days in the mass media. That would be the best thing that could ever happen to this country.
Norman Mailer Oh, well, that righteous wrath was just as false as the rest of it. No, I mean that it's just that, that if--you see, the trouble is is that people now believe almost in nothing so that about the only things they do believe in still are the few sentimental clichés which give them a little nourishment. The mark of a television play is that it will be good--if it runs for an hour--it will be good for the first 50 minutes, it will pose situations which are difficult to resolve, the audience will become interested in it, at the critical moment that issue will be softened one way or another. One will not get into the truth of it, which leaves people with a slightly flat, depressed feeling and they say, "Oh, well, that's television. Nice show." And they turn it off. We don't even begin to know what would happen if we ever had a really exciting show on television where at the end of it what happens is the audience wasn't left with something that would put them to sleep in the beginning and make them wake up about 3:00 in the morning with their mind ready to fly apart, but rather something that would disturb them, leave them full of turmoil. Maybe they wouldn't sleep that night, they might sleep better the night after.
Studs Terkel You've touched on mass media and the deadening influence of it: Where, then, will the rousing creative writing come from? If not, I assume, it comes right back to the novelist, perhaps the playwright, too? I want to touch on a new avenue [unintelligible].
Norman Mailer Oh, there are little signs of things happening here and there, then. It looks like the novel might become a little more interesting in the next few years, maybe the theater become a little more interesting. But I just don't know. I mean, I've seen these interesting little signs coming now and again over the last 10 years and nothing ever happened to them. And my feeling--and I think I'm a bit depressed at the moment--my feeling, I think, would be that things have got to get a good bit worse before they're going to get better. Because until, really, a sizable minority, or even a majority of the people, feel that they really are being swindled, and they really begin to sense that they're being swindled, in the most immediate way, which is that there are no satisfactions in their lives, they're going to put up with this, with this absolute slop. They'll put up with it because it's better than facing the fact that the world not only is a dangerous place but eternity may be even more dangerous.
Norman Mailer Yes. It was done over at Actors Studio about a month ago. And the feeling I had was that the first half of it was all right, pretty good. But I think the second half needs to be rewritten. I wasn't satisfied with it when I saw it.
Studs Terkel I think of something you said this morning, something about a theater attracted you--the idea of working with actual actors, with actors with--the novel is a lonely life. The novelist's lot is a lonely one. Do you feel that the playwright--I think it was something you said this morning?
Norman Mailer Yes. Well, you know, when you work on a novel there's always the great danger of running down. You work, and you work, and you work, and every day you work alone and there comes a time when you just, obviously, are giving much more to the work than you're getting back from life. So that I almost always get into condition to start a novel. I try to start a novel with a surplus of energy, then let the battery run down when it will. But with a play, very often--of course, you can get into a state of extreme, nervous tension, but all the same, actors are, generally, are--whatever their faults--are very alive, and working around them they're just, you know, you've got a bag full of tricks and, so, there's something happening every moment. And sometimes you're manipulating them and sometimes they're manipulating you. But it's a sort of marvelous play war that, you know, you get back to some of the fun of childhood, in a way, I suppose. At any rate, it's--I've enjoyed it up to now. I don't know if I really am profoundly interested in the theater but I'm interested in it right now.
Studs Terkel Norman Mailer, I know you've got to do some resting now, you've given a good deal of your thoughts and yourself, and I think we have a man who is involved here, whether the audience agrees or disagrees with some of his comments. Obviously, a man of passion and certainly men of passion are rare these days. A man of passion as well as monumental talents. Thank you very much. Unless there's something else? Is this sort of a postscript? A little epilogue here you have in mind?
Norman Mailer Postscript. Well, I can see you're just a bit telepathic, or else very shrewd. No, I just, I was thinking of something else I might have said then I decided I'd rather not say it because it's a little bit too nebulous. Let's leave it right here.