Conformity and the Instinct of Rebellion: Norman Mailer Channels His Departed Friend, the Pioneering Psychologist Robert Lindnerby Maria Popova
“Because of the instinct of rebellion man has never been content with the limits of his mind: it has led him to inquire its secrets of the universe, to gather and learn and manipulate the fabulous inventory of the cosmos, to seek the very mysteries of creation.”
On February 27, 1956, the prolific writer and pioneering psychologist Robert Lindner — best-known for his 1944 book Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, from which the famous 1955 starring James Dean borrowed its title — died of a chronic heart condition at the age of 41. His death devastated, among others, his close friend Norman Mailer, who had befriended Lindner after being taken with his book Prescription for Rebellion. A week after Lindner’s death, Mailer wrote an unusual eulogy for his friend in his ninth Village Voice column, eventually included in Advertisements for Myself (public library) — a “collection of pieces and parts, of advertisements, short stories, articles, short novels, fragments of novels, poems and part of a play” that originally appeared in publications like The Harvard Advocate, The Independent, The Village Voice, and Esquire, which also gave us Mailer’s reflections on the rat race of success and what growth really means.
Mailer, who later sponsored a memorial research foundation in Lindner’s name, writes:
Bob Lindner was so good a friend that I simply have no heart to write about him now. I should go on at length about his charm, his generosity, his intellectual curiosity, his foibles, his weaknesses, his kindnesses, his ambitions, his achievements, his failures, and his great warmth (he was truly one of the warmest people I have known), but to write immediately about a man so complex, so individual, and yet so much part of our generation would be to do him a disservice, for Bob Lindner was nothing if not alive, and he would have loathed a facile eulogy.
Instead, he remembers and celebrates his dear friend through the work he had left behind, quoting from Lindner’s final book Must You Conform, published mere weeks before his death:
I am of the opinion that the definitions of maturity which assail us in such profusion currently are uniformly founded on the tacit hypothesis that human development is linked to human passivity. All that I have encountered assume that adjustment and conformity are the desirable modes of life, and that the closer one comes to a condition of domestication, the more mature one is. None of them, to my knowledge, takes account of man’s nature and spirit, of his innate rebelliousness, of his intrinsic values, or of his individuality. With monotonous regularity, these definitions predicate themselves upon, and defend, a society that is everyday and everywhere becoming more and more oppressive. Hence, the standards for mature behavior they advise are those standards that may apply to mature cattle or mature puppets — but not to mature men.
This false ideal of maturity and its even falser prophets, Lindner argues, betray the fundamental pathology of the human condition — or impulse for non-conformism:
The simple truth, stark and severe in its simplicity, is that we cannot conform; for it seems there is an ingredient in the composition of our cells, a chemistry in our blood, and a substance in our bones that will not suffer man to submit forever.
He captures this eternal tension in words equal parts poetic and provocative, idealistic and irreverent, touching on our mortality paradox and the constant friction between the human ego and the cosmic perspective:
Built into man, the foundation of his consciousness, the source of his humanity and the vehicle of his evolution up from the muck of a steaming primeval swamp, is an instinct. I have chosen to call it the “instinct of rebellion,” since it reveals itself as a drive or urge toward mastery over every obstacle, natural or man-made, that stands as a barrier between man and his distant, perhaps never-to-be-achieved but always-striven-after goals. It is this instinct that underwrites his survival, this instinct from which he derives his nature: a great and powerful dynamic that makes him what he is — restless, seeking, curious, forever unsatisfied, eternally struggling and eventually victorious. … Because of the instinct of rebellion man has never been content with the limits of his mind: it has led him to inquire its secrets of the universe, to gather and learn and manipulate the fabulous inventory of the cosmos, to seek the very mysteries of creation. Because of the instinct of rebellion, man has never been content, finally, with the limits of his life: it has caused him to deny death and to war with mortality.
Man is a rebel. He is committed by his biology not to conform, and herein lies the paramount reason for the awful tension he experiences today in relation to Society…
However excellent it may be, Must You Conform is, sadly, long out of print and used copies are rather hard to find both online and off. But Mailer excerpts from it generously in Advertisements for Myself, which is itself very much worth the read.
Complement it with the infinitely delightful 1968 gem How to Be a Nonconformist.