Politics & Policy

Norman Spectacle

The fine line between genius and madness.

Norman Mailer, inveterate war critic, turned up recently in The New York Review of Books, reiterating, in a slightly revised form, the thesis he first put forward in the Times of London last April: namely, that President Bush took America to war with Iraq, at least in part, in order to soothe the collective ego of his Caucasian male constituency. No longer the dominant player in the family unit, or even in the major spectator sports, white guys (or “persons of transparency,” as some of us prefer to be called) required an international arena in which to affirm their psycho-sexual prowess, so their fearless leader picked a fight with an already-emasculated Iraq and stomped its feeble army into the desert sand. The White Man, Mailer writes,

. . . had been taking a daily drubbing over the last thirty years. For better or worse, the women’s movement has had its breakthrough successes and the old, easy white male ego has withered in the glare. Even the consolation of rooting for his team on TV had been skewed. For many, there was now measurably less reward in watching sports than there used to be, a clear and declarable loss. The great white stars of yesteryear were for the most part gone, gone in football, in basketball, in boxing, and half gone in baseball. Black genius now prevailed in all these sports (and the Hispanics were coming up fast; even the Asians were beginning to make their mark). We white men were now left with half of tennis (at least its male half), and might also point to ice hockey, skiing, soccer, golf (with the notable exception of the Tiger), as well as lacrosse, track, swimming, and the World Wrestling Federation-remnants of a once great and glorious white athletic centrality.

This is as un-serious as political commentary gets, less analytical reasoning than navel-gazing, but it is pure Mailer. Indeed, it fits right in with what the critic Martin Seymour Smith described back in 1976 as the “intensification of the mass male sexual neurosis” that flaws all of Mailer’s work. Nowadays, Mailer is best viewed as a classic specimen of an especially sad type: the public intellectual who outlives his mental expiration date. Like his nemesis Gore Vidal, who squandered much of his prodigious literary talent trying to show that the rest of the mankind was just as nasty as he was, and who, failing to do so, has lately melted into a gelatinous mass of paranoia and self-pity, Mailer has devoted so much of his creative energy to notions of besieged manhood and gnawing impotency that his worldview can no longer accommodate anything from the waist up.

The most intriguing question raised by Mailer’s essay is not the validity of its altogether lunatic thesis but whether such a rant should have been published in the first place by a respected journal. Certainly, if it did not have the name Mailer attached to it, it would never have seen the light of day — except, perhaps, if the editors at NYRB had passed it around among themselves for a good chuckle. But because Mailer is who he is (or was in any event), the essay appeared. Why should this be the case? Is it censorship to deny a laughingstock enough rope to hang himself? Is the village idiot entitled to a soapbox because, once upon a time, he actually had his wits about him?

This is a question that’s bigger than Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal. (Or, for that matter, Toni Morrison . . . who, you might remember, floated the idea that Bill Clinton — on the basis of his impoverished background, broken family, sexual promiscuity, saxophone playing and taste for junk food — ought to be considered America’s first black president.) How should the rest of us regard a once-formidable mind after it has gone off the deep end? What happens when a Nobel Prize-winning physicist like William Shockley begins spinning out eugenic solutions to his crackpot perceptions of black inferiority? Or when a groundbreaking linguist like Noam Chomsky turns from the theoretical intricacies of transformational grammar to the Satanic forces of corporate capitalism? Or even, on a more trivial level, when a chess grandmaster like Bobby Fischer walks away from the game and dedicates his life to fighting imaginary Zionist conspiracies? Each of these figures, at one time, legitimately merited our undivided attention. But how long can you trade on that? What’s the statute of limitations on the intellectual limelight?

And are these even proper questions to ask?

On the one hand, Mailer’s prosaic disintegration provides mainstream media succor and bulletin board fodder to the usual coterie of like-minded malcontents: profanity-spewing performance artists, buzz-cut Dworkinettes, Free Mumia goonies, and graying Woodstock academics who commute daily to and from Chomsky Land. (Mailer’s NYRB essay, for example, was cited last weekend at the Harlem Book Fair by the reliably silly author-activist Ishmael Reed.) On the other hand, these are perennially marginalized groups, the political equivalent of Hare Krishnas banging their tambourines at curb of life. It doesn’t much matter what they think, or where they find their cartoonish imprimaturs.

Still, there’s the question of dignity. It’s a cliché, albeit a true one, that a fine line separates genius and madness. Perhaps it is inevitable, therefore, that many of our more original thinkers will sooner or later cross over to the dark side. This is a sad but, mercifully, in the majority of cases, private matter. The genuine pathos comes, as in the case of Mailer, when the drama of crossing over is enacted again and again in public — when the only one who cannot hear the laughter is the clown.

Mark Goldblatt’s novel, Africa Speaks, is now available in paperback.

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