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Posts Tagged ‘Norman Mailer’

27 FEBRUARY, 2014

Conformity and the Instinct of Rebellion: Norman Mailer Channels His Departed Friend, the Pioneering Psychologist Robert Lindner

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“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:

Cover of 'Must You Conform' by Robert Lindner

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.

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31 JANUARY, 2014

Norman Mailer on the Rat Race of Success and What True Growth Means

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“Growth is a greater mystery than death. All of us can understand failure … but not even the successful man can begin to describe the impalpable elations and apprehensions of growth.”

Norman Mailer (January 31, 1923–November 10, 2007) is among those rare luminaries who managed to be at once revered and reviled, widely celebrated and frequently criticized — such is the blessing and the curse of those who dare to be both highly prolific and highly opinionated. A novelist, journalist, essayist, playwright, filmmaker, and actor, Mailer is perhaps best-remembered as a godfather of creative nonfiction, in the same milieu as Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese. His most timeless meditations on literature and life appear in Advertisements for Myself (public library) — a 1959 “collection of pieces and parts, of advertisements, short stories, articles, short novels, fragments of novels, poems and part of a play,” which originally appeared in publications like The Harvard Advocate, The Independent, The Village Voice, and Esquire.

One of Mailer’s finest reflections, titled “First Advertisement for Myself,” considers the modern rat race of success and the toxic failure of priorities that puts the pursuit of prestige above the pursuit of purpose:

To be just one of the big men in town is tiring, much too tiring, you inspire hatred, and what is worse than hatred, a wave of cross-talk in everyone around you. You are considered important by some and put down by others, and every time you meet a new man, the battle is on: the latest guest has to decide if you are

a) stronger than he, and
b) smarter than he, and
c) less queer.

And if you pass on all three counts, if you win the arm-wrestle, culture derby, and short-hair count, well then if he is a decent sort he usually feels you should run for President. But all this has happened in the first place because your reputation is uncertain, your name is locked in the elevators of publicity and public fashion, and so your meetings with every man and woman around become charged and overcharged.

There is a time when an ambitious type should fight his way through the jungle and up the mountain—it is the time when experience is rich and you can learn more than you ever will again, but if it goes on too long, you wither from the high tension, you drop away drunk or a burned-out brain, you learn what it is to lose seriously in love, or how it goes when your best friend and you are no longer speaking; it is inevitable that a bad fall comes to the strong-willed man who is not strong enough to reach his own peak.

He then approaches the subject from an autobiographical angle:

I had the luck to have a large talent and to use some of it, and if I know how very much more I could have done if new luck had come my way, well — that is not my story, but everyone’s story, every last one of us could have done more, a creation or two more than we have done, and while it is our own fault, it is not all our own fault, and so I still feel rage at the cowardice of our time which has ground down all of us into the mediocre compromises of what had been once our light-filled passion to stand erect and be original.

And yet even Mailer, patron saint of the curmudgeonly essay, finds in himself an antidote to this glib vision of humanity, an almost Alan Wattsian ray of hope for the dissolution of separateness:

It may be time to say that the Republic is in real peril, and we are the cowards who must defend courage, sex, consciousness, the beauty of the body, the search for love, and the capture of what may be, after all, an heroic destiny. But to say these words is to show how sad we are, for those of us who believe the most have spent our years writing of fear, impotence, stupidity, ugliness, self-love, and apathy, and yet it has been our act of faith, our attempt to see — to see and to see hard, to smell, even to touch, yes to capture that nerve of Being which may include all of us, that Reality whose existence may depend on the honest life of our work, the honor of ourselves which permits us to say no better than we have seen.

Later, in one of his Village Voice columns, he revisits the subject — that immutable concern for the fate of the human spirit — in even more poetic terms:

[We must] be aware, if only once in a while, that beyond the mechanical communication of all of society’s obvious and subtle networks, there remains the sense of life, the sense of creative spirit (we are all creative if it is for no less than to create new life itself) and therefore the sense no matter how dimly felt of some expanding and not necessarily ignoble human growth.

Indeed, Mailer intuited what today’s psychologists know — that a “growth” mindset is the key to success and satisfaction — and he returns to the subject of human growth in another Village Voice column, exploring it with even greater conviction:

I would argue most seriously that growth is a greater mystery than death. All of us can understand failure, we all contain failure and death within us, but not even the successful man can begin to describe the impalpable elations and apprehensions of growth. When we can all agree, including odd dialectical idealists like myself, that history is not foreseeable and the future is unknown, we must also agree that although society is a machine, it does not determine man’s fate, but merely processes nine-tenths of his possibilities on the basis of what society has learned from the past.

Mailer echoes Hunter S. Thompson’s assertion that “it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it” and continues:

Since we are all in the process of changing, since we are already in the privacy of our minds far ahead of the life we see around us (for civilized man has always been outraged by what he sees, or else there would be no civilization) — since we are all advanced in our dreams beyond the practical social possibilities open to our immediate time, that present living time which is all but strangled by the slow mechanical determinations of society, we know and feel that whatever happens to us will happen as the reaction between our urgent desires to express ourselves, to discover the passionate attachment of our lives , and the resistant mechanical network of past social ideas, platitudes, and lies.

Advertisements for Myself is a spectacular read, brimming with Mailer’s often poignant, frequently provocative, always pointed opinions on writing as a craft and a culture — a fine addition to the collected wisdom of literary greats.

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