My turn: Requiem for a heavyweight

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2007

"I saw Carmen Basilio take one of Paddy De Marco's best punches, go out on his feet, start to sit down on the canvas, and then with his butt three inches from the ground, Basilio did a one-legged knee stand, pushed up, avoided a knockdown ... and went on to knock out De Marco in a few rounds. ... Basilio, when asked why he didn't take an eight-count and get some rest, answered, "I didn't want to start any bad habits," - Norman Mailer.

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I've been trying to write something about Norman Mailer since Saturday, when the news came that he was dead at 84. His writing had a great impact on me in my 20s - still does - and I thought it would be easy to get something down, since ideologically his works are pretty much of a piece. But it's a big, complex piece and not easy to get a handle on.

Mailer once told an interviewer he thought it more important to be a good man than a good writer. Whatever his public persona might suggest, for Mailer that was the great responsibility of writing: to make us better people. He defined communication as necessarily leading to action, and he reviled communication that didn't. His initial dismissal of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" as "the literature of impotence" points the case. The struggle to understand, communicate honestly, and act accordingly - these were the things that separated the "Hip" from the "Square," those two great opposing forces in Mailer's Manichaean universe. Maybe what drove Mailer's writing to greatness was his sense that the Squares - the willful misapprehensions and facile rhetoric - were winning.

In his short story, "The Man Who Studied Yoga," a married couple waste so much energy psychobabbling about the relationship that, in the end, they have no energy left for taking a riskier, more painful path that might bring them closer to find greater pleasure and happiness together. Finally, they fall together in a kind of exhausted embrace that passes for love simply because they have nothing left in them for anything more strenuous. In a sentence that's pure Mailer, the story ends with Sam, the husband, going to sleep: "So Sam enters the universe of sleep, a man who seeks to live in such a way as to avoid pain, and succeeds merely in avoiding pleasure."

The psychobabble Mailer indicts in the story is a bad habit - of thinking, of talking - that consumes the energy needed for communication, in Mailer's ethical sense of that word. A closed system that lets in no light, the language of psychobabble (and all our other prevailing babbles) uses experience merely to confirm its own validity. It has communication backwards. Instead of seeking language that might give honest expression to experience, illuminate it, and provoke some response that makes us better people, psychobabblers mine experience for whatever will shore up their jargon. In the place of understanding, they make stuff up to fit their language. Like the creationists who don't care to investigate the natural world for whatever truth it might have to offer, they look only for what can be twisted to prove conclusions they've already arrived at.

My son Jamie once remarked that Dylan's lyrics seem to be rifling the language to see if words have any meaning left at all - which is as good a description of Dylan's art as any I've heard. And Chaucer's, and Shakespeare's, Whitman's, Joyce's, all the greats, slugging it out with meaningless, prevailing jargons.

The Squares are still winning, probably always will be. But Mailer's works will always be out there fighting: vigorous, strenuous, pugnacious because they have to be, because their goal is understanding, and it's never easy to understand another human being, and harder still to act accordingly. (Witness how Mailer himself struggles - successfully - to abandon his own homophobia in his essay "The Homosexual Villain.") His great works - "The Naked and the Dead," "Armies of the Night," "Of a Fire on the Moon," "The Executioner's Song" - poise us too for the tough philosophical battles, and steady us, like Carmen Basilio about to fall down, to push back up on one leg and stay in the ring.

• Jim Hale is a former English professor who teaches technical writing workshops. He is a technical editor for National Marine Fisheries Service and Juneau resident.

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