75 at 75: J. Michael Lennon on Norman Mailer
A special project for the Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, J. Michael Lennon writes about a reading by Norman Mailer. Topics include Hillary Clinton and Jesus. It was recorded at 92Y on May 11, 1998.
Posted on Oct 17, 2013
Norman Mailer was 75 in May of 1998 and had just published a 1300-page retrospective anthology of his work, The Time of Our Time. The defining event of the collection is the Cold War, and Mailer could have read from any number of excerpts, fictional and nonfictional, that unfold under its huge shadow, but because the Monica Lewinsky scandal was then being hotly debated, and the impeachment of President Clinton looming, Mailer read first from two recently published pieces about Clinton. He concluded with his description of Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem and then driving the money changers from the Temple, taken from his 1997 novel The Gospel According to the Son, which is a re-telling of the New Testament in the voice of Jesus centuries or millennia after his death. The two themes that he hammers on in his prefatory remarks and interspersed comments are the arrogance of power and the plight of the poor.
Norris Church, Mailer’s wife, was from Arkansas, and through her Mailer had met Bill Clinton, visiting him in Washington and also corresponding with him and Hillary. He pressed them to make race relations and poverty the hallmarks of the administration, and offered to interview Clinton in Vanity Fair, an offer that was rejected. Mailer admired Clinton’s abilities and compared his star appeal with that of Ramses II, the charismatic and long-reigning pharaoh who displayed his rampant phallus to 300,000 of his subjects at a religious event in Thebes three thousand years ago (Ramses is a key figure in Mailer’s 1983 novel, Ancient Evenings). The Lewinsky scandal had become the “biggest soap opera in the land,” and the image most Americans had of Clinton in its wake was not of anything close to pharaonic, but rather of a man caught with his trousers down to his ankles.
In his State of the Union speech in January 1998, Clinton spoke as if Monica Lewinsky never existed, and he gave a flawless performance, at least by elocutionary standards. What it lacked, according to Mailer, was any real programmatic meat. “Gilt-edged tokenism,” he said. Mailer believed Clinton could have been a great president, but he abandoned health-care reform and ended welfare and completed “the program of Reaganism” by sanctioning huge corporate profits. Any chance Clinton had of being compared to JFK, whose memory Mailer revered, was dashed by 1) the scandal; 2) his propensity to propose only a “cosmeticious catalogue” of small programs; and 3) the fact that he had “no vision of the world larger than himself.” He found Clinton’s vanity insufferable.
He felt differently about Hillary and once said that she was the smartest woman he had ever met. He admired her defense of her man and the “vast and huge desire for power on her brow.” Mailer predicted that she would be elected president in 2004 or 2008 and would become a “legend in America.” Just before he died in 2007, Mailer sent both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaign contributions.
Mailer ended his comments on Clinton by saying that he “betrayed the poor and enriched the wealthy,” giving him a segue to read about Christ’s compassion for the poor and disdain for the rich. Before reading from his Jesus novel, he spoke of an experience he had over forty years earlier. On February 25, 1955, after smoking marijuana in “a super-excited state,” his atheism withered and belief took hold, belief in a God who is not all-powerful but rather an existential God. Here is a quote from his unpublished marijuana journal about this road-to-Damascus experience:
I had nothing less than a vision of the universe which it would take me forever to explain. I also knew I was smack on the edge of insanity, that I was wandering through all the mountain craters of schizophrenia. I knew I could come back, I was like an explorer who still had a life-line out of the caverns, but I understood also that it would not be all that difficult to cut the life line. Insanity comes from obeying a hunch—it is a premature freezing of perceptions—one takes off into cloud seven before one has properly prepared the ground, and one gives all to an “unrealistic” appreciation of one’s genius.
Long an atheistic rationalist, on that day Mailer embraced a kind of gnostic mysticism, a belief based on a vision of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, with human beings dividing their loyalty between God and the Devil. Mailer’s fundamental Jewish identity, however, was never in question. Indeed, he said his Jewishness made it possible for him to write about Jesus, a man whose brooding, worrying and anticipating demonstrates how very Jewish he was. He said that the Old Testament was great literature, but that Jesus had the great lines—worthy of Shakespeare, as he once put it. The New Testament he felt to be contradictory, repetitive and on the whole badly told. Any one of a hundred good contemporary writers could recast it and Mailer nominated himself. He shrugged off criticisms about his hubris in telling the novel in the voice of Jesus, saying it was the only way to extrude a common narrative thread from the four Gospels.
After he read from GATT, as he called the novel, he ended with remarks he made many times in the last decade of his life: a call for a new kind of socialism to address the plight of the poor, a socialism infused with the tenets of Judeo-Christianity. Socialism had not thrived in recent years, he said, because it lacked spirituality. Some part of God was lost in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Perhaps it could be regained in the 21st century if the revelations of the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—could be joined to the unselfishness of classic socialism.
Mailer is not often thought of as a religious writer, but his talk at the Y and the books of his final years reveal his vision of what he called a “numinous universe,” a cosmos imbued with the vision of an existential God.
J. Michael Lennon’s new biography is Norman Mailer: A Double Life. He speaks about Mailer, with Colum McCann, at 92Y on Sunday, October 20.