The peculiar — and important — conservatism of Norman Mailer

From the 2 December 2002 issue of The American Conservative, “I Am Not For World Empire” (I include only the introduction; read the interview for your-self: It’s well worth the time.):

A conversation with Norman Mailer about Iraq, Israel, the perils of technology and why he is a Left-Conservative.

On a crystalline day in October, Taki, Kara Hopkins, and Scott McConnell met at Logan Airport and drove up the Cape to Norman Mailer’s home in Provincetown, Mass. Taki is an old friend of Mailer’s; McConnell and Hopkins knew his writing well but had never met the man.

The vagaries of literary reputation are not the main beat of The American Conservative, but we were struck by how many people told us how important Mailer was at a certain time of life and how invariably that time was young adulthood—somewhere between 18 and 21. Perhaps that is the moment in life when readers are most receptive to a certain kind of bold writing.

What follows is a conversation about what most interested the four of us on that day, as well as an addendum Mailer wrote later. We spoke of the present and future more than the past: a mixture of politics (Iraq, the imperial urge, styles of conservatism) and more typically Maileresque themes (the problem of technology). After several hours of talk and the gracious hospitality of Norris Church Mailer we made our way back to normal life, not doubting that we had spent an extraordinary afternoon with the greatest living American writer.

I happened upon this interview a few years after its publication, after I had read Mailer’s The Armies of the Night: History As A Novel, The Novel as History in Steven Affeldt’s Political and Constitutional Theory, a required course in my beloved Program of Liberal Studies, and had become incredibly intrigued by what Mailer called his left-conservatism. Now, in 1999, the editors at ISI, with the assistance of various consultants, compiled lists of the fifty worst and best books of the Twentieth Century; amongst the former, they list Armies, commenting, “Fact or fiction? Not even Mailer knew for sure.” I have no interest in debating the wisdom of this decision; their pithy remark, I think, has some validity. Nevertheless, I disbelieve that we should discount what merits this book possesses. Specifically, I wish to draw attention to a passage, which I many times have re-read, that has profoundly affected me since I first experienced this work in the fall of 2004.

[Mailer] had written for years about American architecture and its functional disease — that one could not tell the new colleges from the new prisons from the new hospitals from the new factories from the new airpots. Separate institutions were being replaced by one institution. Yes, and the irony was that this workhouse at Occoquan happened to be more agreeable architecturally than many a state university he had seen, or junior college. There was probably no impotence in all the world like knowing you were right and the wave of the world was wrong, and yet the wave came on. Floods of totalitarian architecture, totalitarian superhighways, totalitarian smog, totalitarian food (yes, frozen), totalitarian communications — the terror to a man so conservative as Mailer, was that nihilism might be the only answer to totalitarianism.

By happenstance, I found myself reading this passage, to a friend who, last evening, perused my humble book collection, as I’ve taken up reading both Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace and Wilhelm Röpke’s A Humane Economy. Linking the latter with the Mailer passage may require a bit of effort, but the parallels, I think, between Mailer and Berry’s philosophy are unmistakably clear, and absolutely crucial for us to understand. In short, Berry, I believe, offers, at least partially, a solution to the dis-eases catalogued here by the left-conservative Mailer. This “functional disease” and the totalitarianism arise resultant of our loss of connection with the earth and humanity; losing touch with who we are, losing our understanding of our place, we capitulate to the powers that our materialistic forms of “stress-relief” and contentment, to wit, consumerism and self-interest, create and re-enforce.

And here, I think, Röpke becomes particularly relevant. Government collusion — significant as its role has been — notwithstanding, this materialism, this rampant consumerism, undeniably, has served immeasurably to promote economic concentration. Just how powerful, I’ve pondered, could the Wal*Marts of the world be if no market existed for so many of the mass-produced, ostensibly needless gadgets, gizmos, toys, and whatnot that comprise the artifice wherewith we fill our spiritually drained lives? Drawing a connection between the dis-ease that permeates Berry’s lamentations and the totalitarianism that pressed Mailer toward nihilism, the perspicacious Swiss economist offers the following:

If we want to name a common denominator for the social disease of our times, then it is concentration, and collectivism and totalitarianism are merely the extreme and lethal stages of this disease. [All emphasis mine – NPO.]

What, I think, we ought to gain from these passages specifically, and from the works of these three eminent modern thinkers more broadly, is a more profound cognizance of the relationship that links our own unwillingness to live according to an Aristotelian life of moderation; our “need” to consume, our refusal to plant roots, figuratively speaking, for whatever reason(s) guide us; and the nasty, pernicious results of our waywardness. Seeking solace in things, rather than true happiness in a life of interconnectedness in accord with God, the earth on which He has placed us, and our fellow men (and other aspects of Creation), we enable and perpetuate the Leviathans that control our lives, keep from us our liberty, and push us to the brink of nihilism.


3 Responses

  1. […] Nathan Origer on Norman Mailer’s conservatism. […]

  2. […] Novel, the Novel as History has rather deeply affected me over the years, as has the post discussed here. This passage touches further on the deleterious effects of concentration (of technology and the […]

  3. […] windows, thereby greeting those coming toward downtown from the east with an unfriendly gesture of totalitarian architecture. Finally giving up on what likely was a rundown lodge, they demolished it and, with much volunteer […]

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