Novelist-journalist Norman Mailer has died at age 84, according to his literary executor. Malier, known for his interesting but often overly dense prose, puzzling choices of story material, combative journalism, "existential" philosophisizing, and aggressive self-assertiveness in his personal life, burst on the scene at the age of 25 in 1948 with a well-written, critically acclaimed, and popular debut novel, The Naked and the Dead.
Intelligent, wily, handsome, charismatic, and highly personable when he wanted to be, Mailer was the embodiment of the "hipster" culture that arose after World War II, in which authors such as he, Gore Vidal, Jack Kerouac, and Stanley Baldwin rebelled against the overly bureaucratized and stifling, government-dominated society that had arisen during the first half of the twentieth century and found its greatest expression during World War II, when nearly everything in American society was under control of the national government.
Borrowing liberally (haha) from the French existentialists, the hipster culture responded with a strong call for individual self-assertiveness and elevated the senses over reason, despite assertions to the contrary. Instead of rooting their reaction in a coherent philosophical position and view of mankind that includes a sufficient respect for people’s inherent need for community and a full accommodation of human reason, the hipsters elevated emotion, sensual pleasure, and personal fulfillment, with the latter largely undefined other than as sexual variety.
The hipster movement permeated the culture as the 1950s progressed. That decade was not a stuffy, repressed time, as it was characterized by the 1960s culture, but was instead a time of cultural turmoil and great change (as I noted in my observations about the rise of the Omniculture, for National Review Online).
Certainly such a rebellion against domination of the society by government and big private institutions was fully justified, but the hipster movement was a very poor way of going about it, because of the glaring weakness of its philosophical foundations.
Its reliance on individualism as a reaction to centralization of power, corporatization, and consumerism limited the hipster culture’s ability to respond to the social forces that created it, for an individual without assistance is powerless before the great powers massed against him or her (always him, in the hipsters’ world), and only minor, personal rebellions will occur.
These latter will harm only oneself and one’s associates (especially women, as it turned out), with no affect at all on government power except to raise calls for greater government power to respond to the lawlessness such misbehavior represents. This explains both the juvenile delinquency epidemic and the public’s fearful response to it.
Prior rebellions against overweening centralized power—which are an American tradition, after all—consisted of groups banding together to assert their rights. Individualism is surely a strong element of American life, but had never been a true individualism; instead it was a way for families, congregations, communities, and even states to assert their right to self-government.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s was an example of the strains this classical sense of individualism could create, and had nothing to do with the hipsters’ efforts.
Rejecting the traditional American, community-oriented response to the abuses of centralized power, the hipster movement constituted powerful strains of forceful, masculine individualism, sensualism, and homosexuality, and it served those ends very well. As a result, it came into great conflict with—and undoubtedly helped bring on, through its ill effects on women—the feminist movement, of which Mailer was a prominent and aggressive critic.
Mailer was always in the middle of all of this, and was one of the movement’s most prominent and forceful representatives. The hipster movement was born of real needs, but it represented a thoroughly ill-concieved and in fact disastrous response to the shortcomings of American society during the second half of the twentieth century.
The hipster movement led directly to the hippie movement, with the latter attempting to reincorporate community as a value but foundering on its foundations as a movement of the senses instead of reason. Ultimately the society as a whole largely adopted these values, but with a consumerist, pro-government, highly sensualized approach that turned the movement’s initial notions on their head, retaining little but the sensualism and self-assertiveness of the original formulation.
This is particularly the foundation of today’s progressive movement: big government, welfare state, the ongoing Sexual Revolution, and consumerism.
Mailer fulminated against some of these very things that he and his colleagues let loose in the decade after World War II, yet he was entirely unable to find any practical or even philosophical way to remedy them—as was the case with modern liberalism itself.
Late in life Mailer increasingly introduced theological concepts into his novels. In 1997, he published the novel The Gospel According to the Son, ostensibly narrated by Jesus Christ.
This process culminated in The Castle in the Forest, his final novel, released this past January, which deals with the life of Adolph Hitler and is narrated by a devil, an assistant to Satan. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Mailer talked about the novel and characterized the worldview of his later years, when asked if he feared people hearing that he was talking about God and the devil would think him insane (another consequence of the hipster generation’s efforts):
That’s the hazard, of course. You talk about God and the devil and you’re crazy! If you don’t believe in God and the devil, I wouldn’t say you’re crazy, but you’re intellectually malnourished, because I defy anyone who doesn’t believe that something created us to give an answer to how we got here.
That kind of thinking would have provided the missing element in the hipster equation. It’s a pity Mailer took so long to embrace it, and even when he did, his approach was unsystematic and ultimately quite confused.
In the aforementioned Entertainment Weekly interview, for example, Mailer explained some events in his life that he thought to be supernatural, but clearly got the characters wrong, thinking that God was speaking to him when surely if anything it was a demon doing so:
And you’ve felt that push in your private life — someone speaking through you to do things?
Y-y-yes. [Pause] But they were minor episodes. And they’re not worth getting into. I spoke about it once in an interview. I was in a diner, late at night, about midnight, out in Brooklyn, having a doughnut and coffee, and I heard God’s voice, and God said, ”Leave without paying.” And I did. And my whole thing was, I can’t, I can’t. Because I’d been brought up to be absolutely trustworthy about dollars and cents, and this voice said, ”Just get out of here, stop carrying on, don’t pay.” And so I did it. And what I could hear was the mockery of God: ”You wanna change the world, and you can’t even cheat on a nickel and a dime?”
It’s minor, but there was something so august about the voice, and so contemptuous of my little middle-class-clinging to honesty and reliability.
And you never heard that voice again?
Obviously, whatever happened to him in this incident is entirely debatable, but one thing is certain: the God who commanded, "You shall not steal," did not tell Mailer to pilfer a doughnut and cup of coffee in order to get him to throw off the value of honesty he was taught as a child.
That, after all, was what the hipster movement and its progeny were all about, the elevation of individual assertive
ness and sensual pleasure at the expense of reason and any higher goals of human life. That was the tragedy of the movement, and it was a great burden of the second half of the twentieth century and remains with us today.
That is the true legacy of Norman Mailer and the hipsters, and one can only wonder what this greatly talented man and his contemporaries could have accomplished had they been encouraged to think straight and search for a higher purpose in human life than the mere accumulation of sensual pleasures and a joy in personal power.