Norman Mailer was a towering writer whose career spanned over six decades, during which time he published dozens of books, including 11 bestsellers. His work ranged from novels and plays to “creative nonfiction”, of which he is considered an innovator. He died in 2007, leaving behind a reputation as an audacious postwar writer.
Throughout many of Mailer’s works, there is woven a common thread: a fascination with, and concern for, the state of American democracy. Published on the centenary of his birth, a new collection brings together disparate writings—including narrative nonfiction, essays, interviews, letters, speeches, and more—to create a complete impression of Mailer’s incisive thoughts on the subject. For a unique look inside his perspective, read an excerpt from A Mysterious Country: The Grace and Fragility of American Democracy, then download the book today.
BY NORMAN MAILER
The following “Opening Remarks” set the tone and direction for this collection by establishing Norman Mailer’s deep and abiding fears about the many threats to American democracy, as well as some thoughts on how they may be successfully met. Throughout these excerpts (taken from two books published four decades apart, The Big Empty, 2006, and The Presidential Papers, 1963), Mailer’s profound anxiety about the nation’s careless, if not feckless, attention to these threats resounds like a tolling bell. There is also a short piece from the transcript of a French television documentary, Dreams and Nightmares: Mailer’s America, from 2000.
Democracy Is a Grace
We, so great a democracy, have demonstrated already that we have little real comprehension of democracy itself. We don’t seem to understand that it has to be built from the ground up, from the inner midnight will of the people who live in that country. No external power can offer you democracy as a gift. If you are not willing to die for your own idea of democracy, then you are not going to have one. . . . But democracy, however, is not an antibiotic to be injected into a polluted foreign body. It is not a magical serum. Rather, democracy is a grace. In its ideal state, it is noble. In practice, in countries that have lived through decades and centuries of strife and revolution and the slow elaboration of safeguards and traditions, democracy becomes a political condition which can often withstand the corruptions and excessive power-seeking of enough humans to remain viable as a good society. It is never routine, never automatic. Like each human being, democracy is always growing into more or less. Each generation must be alert to the dangers that threaten democracy as directly as each human being who wishes to be good must learn how to survive in the labyrinths of envy, greed, and the confusions of moral judgment. Democracy, by the nature of its moral assumptions, has to grow in moral depth, or commence to deteriorate. So, the constant danger that besets it is the downward pull of fascism. In all of us there is not only a love of freedom, but a wretchedness of spirit that can look for its opposite—as identified with the notion of order and control from above.
Power and Metaphor
The fight now in America as I see it—the primal fight, if you will, the one that underlies all the others—is the level of American intelligence. A democracy depends on the intelligence of its people. By that I don’t mean literary intelligence. . . . Rather, it is the willingness to look into difficult questions and not search for quick answers. You can measure real intelligence by that ability to live with a difficult question. And patriotism gobbled up, sentimentalized, and thereby abased is one of the most powerful single forces to proliferate stupidity. . . .
A nation’s greatness depends, to a real extent, on how well-spoken its citizens are. Good things develop out of a populace that really knows how to use the language and use it well. Would Great Britain have been able to manage the empire in the nineteenth century without their three hundred and more years of reading Shakespeare? Where would Ireland be today without Joyce? Not as prosperous, I suspect. As language deteriorates, becomes less eloquent, less metaphorical, less salient, less poignant, a curious deadening of the human spirit comes seeping in.
By now, America has shifted from being a country with a great love of freedom and creativity (in constant altercation with those other Americans who want rule and order) into a country that’s now much more interested in power. And power, I can promise you, is not interested in metaphor. Metaphor is antagonistic to power because it pushes you to think in more poetic and contradictory ways. Power demands a unilinear approach. Power does not welcome poetic concepts.
The Masks of Fascism
We’re not necessarily headed for disaster, but we may be. I don’t know much about the Greeks, but the little I have learned about them in recent years does inspire some respect on this matter. Because they saw life as a dynamic mixture of hope and despair. In other words, you never live without the possibility that disaster may be near. That’s part of the human condition. Any attempt to wipe out one’s fear of the possibility of disaster is totalitarian, and this is a spectrum that extends all the way from political correctness over to the worst of Hitler. We are not living with a guarantee of a happy ending. Anyone who purveys such a notion is not working for humanity, but against it. I would go as far as to say that.
Under all my remarks rests a very unhappy premise. Fascism may be more to the tastes of the ruling powers in America than democracy. That doesn’t mean we will become a fascist country tomorrow. There are any number of extensive forces in America that would resist it. There are also huge forces in America that are promoting fascism one way or another. . . .
Patriotism, Free Speech, and the Cure
I’ve always had the fear that America would go totalitarian, and it may yet—there’s nothing guaranteed about a democracy—but I didn’t understand democracy, the ways in which it is very dialectical. So when you think one tendency is going to overtake everything in American life, a countertendency arises. In that sense, we’ve kept going back and forth, back and forth for the last fifty years. . . .
I’m not concerned with being a good American. That kind of idea has been spoiled for us. You know, all the worst people are good Americans. “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” H. L. Menken said. It isn’t that I don’t want to be American, I do. I feel very American. When I’m in a foreign country, I’m amazed at how American I am in my reactions. And if there’s one thing I love about this country, and I do love it, it’s the absolute sense of freedom that I’ve had all my life to say what I think. Now, you know, you pay a price for saying what you think, but it’s not a crippling price. It’s not a mortal price. I’ve felt free to think in this country. In a certain sense, all the intellectual faults of America have made it easier for me to think. . . . I certainly do have affection for the absolute sense of intellectual freedom that exists as a live nerve, a live wire right through the center of American life. Every time I get totally discouraged with this country, I remind myself, “No. The fact is that we can really say what we think.” And some extraordinary things come out of that. I mean, when before did a great empire give up on a horrible war, Vietnam, because a large minority of the citizens protested? Now that’s a distortion of how the war ended, but nonetheless, it was freedom of speech in America that ended the war in Vietnam, arguably, more than any other single factor.
(Dreams and Nightmares: Mailer’s America)
Art, free inquiry, and the liberty to speak may be the only cure against the plague.
(The Presidential Papers)