Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Notes on the death of an idol...

I find the thought that someone like Norman Mailer must die like any normal person disconcerting and immensely weird.

Suddenly, in spite of all the controversy, subversion, famous infamy, abrasion and undeniable brilliance, he becomes just another man. And that does not feel right. There is a handful of people about whom I feel this way, most of them wayward subversives and social “denigrateurs” such as Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, Martin Amis (yes, I cannot help but like this writer in spite of his often conservative sentiments), etc.

None of them are nice men in the true sense of the word. All of them became larger than life as a result of their tendency to indulge in deviant utterances. We idolise people like them because they stomp like a herd of buffalo where others fear to tread. Because they are truly free from any need to be liked by others, they become exempted from the ties that bind ordinary folk; they have no need for decency or protocol. They built their celebrity mostly on their highly entertaining abrasiveness, and we love them for it. We aim to become just like them. And then they fail us by dying like ordinary men.

In death – except for the price tag of the funeral – all are equal. Once the formalities and rites are concluded, “they” are just like “us”. What an indescribably depressing thought; what a demystification! It makes me wonder why we even bother. One death you owe this world, irrespective of who you are. Does that not offer us who are mere wordsmiths good reason to be as idle as possible? We who will not invent or discover anything that will contribute to the comfort or even survival of our descendants, why must we bother.

Or do we secretly pursue immortality precisely through what we leave behind when we depart this world? Is that ultimately why we almost compulsively post our thoughts on paper and even in cyberspace in spite of the inherent vulnerability that goes with it? Mister Norman Mailer, in one of his more sober utterances, said this about our compulsion to write:

Part of the ability to keep writing over the years comes down to living with the expectation of disappointment. It's the exact opposite of capitalism. In capitalism you want your business to succeed, and to the degree it does your energy increases, and you go out and buy an even bigger business. In writing it's almost the exact opposite. You just want to keep the store going. You're not going to do as well this year as last year probably, but nonetheless let's keep the store going. What ruins most writers of talent is that they don't get enough experience, so their novels tend to develop a certain paranoid perfection.

Norman Mailer exhibited a kind of deliberate egotism and a self conscious arrogance that only the most brilliant can get away with. And he got away with it. Yes, sir, he did. His abrasiveness at times matched that of Hunter Thompson. But other times his metaphors were so sharp and so clear that reading his narrative was more like watching a movie than like reading words on a page. Look at this excerpt published by The New York Times:

“Their uniforms were twice blackened, by the water and the dark slime of the trail. And for the instant the light shone on them their faces stood out, white and contorted. Even the guns had a slender articulated beauty like an insect reared back on its wire haunches. Then darkness swirled about them again, and they ground the guns forward blindly, a line of ants dragging their burden back to their hole.” - The Naked and the Dead (1948)

Only to be followed by this assessment by the author himself of his stature in American literature:

“I find arrogance in much of my mood. It cannot be helped. The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time. Whether rightly or wrongly, it is then obvious that I would go so far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years. I could be wrong, and if I am, then I’m the fool who will pay the bill, but I think we can all agree it would cheat this collection of its true interest to present myself as more modest than I am.” - Advertisements for Myself (1959)

What can anybody say? The man won the Pulitzer twice.

One just has to love a character like that.



Webster Twelb said...

I have read about this man's death in the NY Times and USA Today and I didn't like how he was portrayed, he seems arrogant/insane. But I can't help thinking that his attitude was great for a writer or an artist, he was sort of a revolutionist, I think.

Anyway, I've haven't read any of his work, i'll make sure I'll grab one when I see something of his on the bookstore.

Webster Twelb said...

Ok I will do that. Hopefully I find those authors here.

And hey I've notice you added some headlines there..it'll help people to get to know Africa more.