“Norman Mailer: Discovering the truth is about as simple as getting to know a woman well. It’s close to impossible. Truth is a mystery, you see we approach the truth, we never find it. A dear friend of mine was a compulsive writer, he wrote with enormous difficulty. He was tremendously intelligent, immensely cultivated. And so he had a hard time writing because every time he wrote a sentence he’d been thinking of how Gide or for that matter Cervantes had done a better sentence.
He’d write 200 or 400 words a day and spend 12 to 14 hours at the desk and his books did not do that well. I once said to him ‘why do you keep writing? You can do so many other things….’ He looked at me in horror and said ‘I have to keep writing because the only time I know the truth is at the point of my pen.’ And I thought about the remark for years, because it is true that you often will write something and at a given moment you’ll say to yourself ‘that’s true, and how do I know that?’
That doesn’t mean that it’s ‘true’, it means that you have one moment when you felt that you were in the presence of the truth, because I think for writers truth is the equivalent of grace for someone who is immensely religious.
I love the novel because the novel is a far better way of coming closer to the truth than history or the essay or biography or any of the other forms, mainly because the novel (if it’s good) insists upon having some sort of inner construction that you can feel, you feel when you’re violating that inner construction. And so you will get a sense of this element belongs to the novel or it doesn’t belong. At the end of it, you don’t feel that you’ve written the truth you feel like you’ve written a ‘space station’ from which people can come a little closer to the truth.
Ramona Koval: You’ve said that not speaking the truth is harmful — I think in a line from The Deer Park — ‘experience when it’s not communicated to another must wither within and be worse than lost’ — so you’re compelled to tell the truth?
Norman Mailer: No you’re not compelled to tell the truth, particularly if you’re married, you most certainly are not compelled to tell the truth because marriage has many advantages and virtues and we don’t have to get into that now but it does have one dreadful disadvantage.
If you are married you have a room mate and you can no more tell a wife or a mate the truth than you can tell it to a room mate who you’re going to be living with all semester. It can’t be done because, finally, one of the fiercest passions in life I’ve decided at the age of 77 is that passion that people have to defend their ego. Most people have a tremendous amount of difficulty building a serviceable ego to carry them through the obstacles of the day. Any time you tell people the truth, you’re injuring the ego because the ego is a wonderful nest of small distortions and lies about yourself.
Ramona Koval: You started off as a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn and a good student at Harvard and you had a mother who really believed in you and I think that really helped to nourish this ego of yours.
Norman Mailer: Oh absolutely, but the trouble was I had an ego that was lopsided, because at home I was everything and out on the street I was just one more guy. Everyone has a sad story. The sad story of my ego was precisely that I had to find a way to live with one ego rather than two.
Ramona Koval: Or convince the world to think like your mother.
Norman Mailer: Yes, well that’s why I became a writer.
Ramona Koval: How important though was that strong belief in you?
Norman Mailer: Oh, she was a marvellous woman, extraordinary, hard working, cheerful, full of love. If I’d ever gone up into a tower in Texas and shot 20 students down below, my mother would have said: “what did they do to get Norman so upset”! That was her vice.
Ramona Koval: When I was reading The Gospel According To The Son, I thought about Jesus and he had a mother who thought the world of him too and I thought of course you were the right person to do that book.
Norman Mailer: Well the thing is that whenever you do a book, there are parts of it that are comfortable for you and parts that are uncomfortable, where you’re pushing and straining. I remember Graham Greene wrote about that somewhere, that he had characters who came to him naturally and he could do a lot with them and then there were characters that he had a lot of trouble with, he had to work on them all the time. Whenever he read a review of his novel and the reviewer would say that a character was well drawn and it was a character that he (Greene) had personally had a hard time with, Greene would say to himself ‘well dragged’.
So there are parts of the novel that are easy and parts that are much more difficult and in that book The Gospel According To The Son, for me the easiest part was the relationship between the mother and the son and I was happy for that because the rest of the book wasn’t all that easy.
Ramona Koval: You have got such ambition. You tackle such huge subjects. I’m awe struck at your ability to say: ‘I’m going to take the cosmology of ancient Egypt and I’m going to write a big book about it’ or ‘I’m going to look at the CIA’ or ‘I’m going to look at American politics.’ These are very ambitious plans.
Norman Mailer: Yes but they don’t start that way. They always start with the idea that I’m going to do a quick 200 page book. For example the novel on ancient Egypt ended up taking 11 years which isn’t as formidable an achievement as you think because 11 years is a lot of a writing life.
But when I started I was very ambitious and thought ‘I’m going to try to write a novel about world history. I’ll start with Egypt and have a chapter on Egypt and a chapter on the Greeks and a chapter on the Romans on into the Middle Ages… ‘ and I thought, ‘that will be a hell of a book.’ Of course I started doing some research on ancient Egypt and never got out of it, not for 11 years.
So in other words you can start a book thinking it’s going to be one kind of book and it ends up being another kind of book altogether and that’s always what’s interesting about novels. In a really good novel, you don’t dictate the form in advance and lay it all out, at least I’ve never been able to. You get into it and then you have something that ideally is living. The characters become real to you — as real as people that you’re close to — and at that point they begin to take on their own life and that’s not only a very good sign when you’re writing a novel but it’s a scary sign because they’re no smarter than you are and they can make terrible mistakes! But finally when you get that going the novel can take all sorts of turns that you didn’t anticipate.
Ramona Koval: I wanted to talk to you about truth, reality, the novel and journalism because you are a pioneer in this methodology of writing non-fiction as if it’s a novel, and writing fiction but using real people in it. Let’s talk about non-fiction first. How do you make that leap to write things as if they’re fiction and to have Norman Mailer or the reporter in the third person?
Norman Mailer: As a young writer I grew up under the dark shadow of Timemagazine and at that time in America, Time magazine presented itself as a wholly objective presence. For instance people who wrote stories for Time didn’t even have their names listed. I’m talking now about the early 1950s.
So you got the impression when you read that magazine that this was the sole truth, this was the only truth, no use looking anywhere else, this is the truth you’re going to have.
Since they said some abominable things about me in the course of all this and I knew that they weren’t true and bad as I might be here or there, I wasn’t bad that way, I knew viscerally there was something wrong with what they were doing.
Then when I started covering a few events notably the Democratic Convention in 1960, I noticed that reporters, who are often by the nature of their work lonely people, were all gathering together and swapping their impressions. It was almost like a story market: ‘I can’t use this story because my editor won’t permit it so I’ll give it to you and now I’ve got a marker and you owe me a story either this trip or the next one that we’re together.’
And so I began to realise that there was a kind of communality to the stories and they very often had little to do with the reality. Specifically they decided in their cups that Jack Kennedy was an ass, he was a rich ass, the spoiled son of a very rich man, didn’t have much on the ball, and they felt it was a joke. Coming there as an innocent, I realised that they had no clothes, that they were absolutely wrong, that Kennedy was young, he was vital and what was crucial to it was that he was handsome and he had a beautiful wife.
And I knew enough about America to know that movies were as least as powerful a force in American motivation as politics. So I understood that after Eisenhower and Mamie Eisenhower who had been staid when all is said, that Kennedy was going to have an immense effect on American mores and so I wrote it that way.
In the course of it, and since I had plenty of time to write my piece (I had one advantage over all the reporters who had to file their story each day, I had three weeks to do my story) I just blossomed. What am I good for? I’m good at description, at least I was in those days, and I gave long descriptions of how everyone looked, how the gangsters looked who were at the convention and how the girls who had been hired to plump for the various candidates looked.
I continued this. I remember four years later writing about Goldwater’s girls that they looked like hookers on horses and so I had great fun with it. It was open and I had all the freedom.
A novelist never has any freedom. They’re always worried about where their story is going because if you make a mistake in your story and you take your protagonist, male or female, into the wrong place in a given chapter, then you can lose six months before you realise that you made a dreadful error that you don’t know enough to write well about what the character is doing next.
But here, it’s as if providence or the Lord writes the story for you and you have it and so you can relax about the story and therefore there’s every opportunity in the world to devote yourself to the details. So it was a feast of details and I just loved it. It was an easy kind of journalism and to this day nonetheless, I have, not a contempt, but a certain ‘never take it too seriously’ attitude. I always feel that my novels are more important to me than my journalism because the journalism is easier, you are given the story, which is half of the difficulty in writing..
Ramona Koval: So why the third person, why write about yourself in the third person?
Norman Mailer: Let me answer that in reverse. Third person and first person are at least as different in writing as major and minor keys in music and I won’t pretend to say which is which, because in certain situations first person can be more major and in others third person is a more major key. The point is you have to have a sense of the reader, of the event, and yourself and what will form the best triangulation.
When I was doing The Gospel According to the Son, people said to me ‘how did you have the nerve to write about Jesus in the first person?’ And I said as far as I know it was absolutely a practical decision that I chose the first person because I wanted Jesus the man to be predominant in the book, not Jesus the son of God. I always felt that was the first example of a truly powerful divided personality because on one hand he was a man and on the other he was the son of God, so I though I’m not equipped to write about the son of God but maybe I can do something about the man. Now to do that you have to have an immediacy. The strength of the first person is that it gives you great immediacy. The moment you pick up a book and someone is saying ‘I’ the writer jumps into the ‘I’ and feels at home. Now you can get very bored with the ‘I’, because it’s a constraining form but in the beginning at least, you always have easy access with the first person.
So this is the reason I put it in the first person. If I had put it in the third person, it would have got mixed up with the Gospels and people would be very irritated reading the book, because they would not know which part was written by the author and which part from the Gospels. And where was Jesus in all of this? Whereas in the first person you have to either accept or reject it and I always work on the assumption that if only 50 per cent of the people who pick up one of my books reject it, then I’ve got a good book. Because my idea of an uneasy book would be one that the majority of people would accept.
I wrote in the third person for journalism because my feeling was that one had to (and this goes back to Time magazine) try to break down that notion that the reporter is an objective eye, because it’s just not true. Everybody sees through their warp, through their bias, through their pretensions, through their needs… all of that.
It seemed to me that if I presented myself in the book and wrote about myself in the third person, the reader would perceive a character who was viewing an event and that is the way we perceive all the time in life… through casual talk and chatter and gossip with friends. If a friend tells us a story about another friend, since we know the friend who’s telling us the story very well, we can say to ourselves that he or she doesn’t know a damn thing about this or that and I know more about what happened than they do. On the other hand we’ll listen very carefully when we feel the friend has a certain authority and that’s because we know the friend.
And I thought the reporter should be not ‘knowledgeable’ but a ‘knowable’ friend to the reader and I wanted that kind of journalism. In fact to a certain extent it took over in America. In the Village Voice, of which I was a part, we began to have a style where we went too far in the other direction. Before it was all over, if you picked up a typical Village Voice story and it had 10,000 words; 8,000 were devoted to the writer and 2,000 to the event, and that was the abuse. But I felt that the corrective was that you know who the story teller is but also that you see them objectively and the third person is wonderful for giving an objective sense of reality.
Ramona Koval: And you were not backward in telling the truth about that third person. You said some very revealing things. That third person sometimes didn’t behave well.
Norman Mailer: You know the secret is the more you reveal about yourself, the more you have to move on. It’s almost as much of an advantage as it is a disadvantage to reveal yourself in print. People say: ‘I know him, I know him so well, he’s just out there in his book… what I’m going to do to him…’ but by the time they get to you, you’re different.
Ramona Koval: And you’ve probably already done to yourself what they were going to do to you.
Norman Mailer: No, I don’t worry about it. I’ve discovered it’s a way of living that’s as reasonable as any way. There are two ways to handle the side of yourself that you don’t want to make too available. One is to hide it which most people do. And the other way, which is dangerous in the beginning because you don’t know what you’re doing, but if you let it all hang out so to speak, then you’re no longer that person, you’ve moved on.
Ramona Koval: But in a sense your readers are probably thinking this guy is telling me hard truths about himself and he’s probably telling me hard truths about what he’s describing as well.
Norman Mailer: You’re absolutely right: that’s the advantage of it. If you’re not defending yourself, it does give you the sanction to attack others.
Ramona Koval: You’re a passionate advocate of truth but it seems to have been fuelled by testosterone.
Norman Mailer: Testosterone… Oh I don’t know about that, there’s never enough testosterone.
Ramona Koval: You said in Advertisements For Myself that the only revolution that will be meaningful and natural for the 20th Century will be the sexual revolution. How do you think the sexual revolution is going at the end of the century or at the beginning of the new one depending on how you count?
Norman Mailer: I think it’s got a bit cheesy around the edges. I’m older now and so naturally I no longer see myself as a protagonist in the sexual revolution and therefore I tend to be much more critical of it. To grow old, if you’re going to stay reasonably comfortable, you automatically become moderate in all your points of view, you become fascinated with balance and so I think that the sexual revolution works best when it’s in opposition, because sex is such a dark, gritty complex, exciting, paradoxical, and often on the edge of perverse, set of activities. There are so many pollutants in the act of sex — the power drive the immediacy of love that’s not really love — you can go into all the complications of sex and it’s endless.
So it’s best if there is something ennobling about sex. In the old days what was ennobling was that we were fighting the system. Our feeling was (and I wasn’t alone) that in the course of freeing sex, we would free humankind, that men and women would be happier and better and terrible deadening social institutions would be diminished. So all that happened, the sexuality in America now is rampant, as it is all over Europe, but it no longer means anything. In other words, if one has the equipment and the desire to have a good time sexually, one can have it much more easily than ever before but it’s not ennobled any longer and so I don’t look with horror on the possibility that a repression is going to come and then we can have our sexual revolution all over again at a higher level!
But everything is too easy these days on the one hand and on the other hand much more difficult than it ever used to be because of technology. The amount of time that we spend losing our nerve ends, swearing at machines that don’t quite work perfectly, the amount of time we spend in reparations of our psyche and the machine’s, is beginning to take over our sensual equipment.
Ramona Koval: What do you reckon about the men’s movement?
Norman Mailer: What men’s movement? The women have won everything.
Ramona Koval: No, the men’s movement in your country… this thing about returning to masculinity.
Norman Mailer: The men in America have gone into their dugouts and they’ve pulled the metal covers over. We’re letting the women just rampage over the landscape in America. They’re taking care of everything, they don’t understand that they’ll never have the real power because the people who have the real power now in America are the corporate executives. They are canny. They are highly tuned mediocrities. There is one thing about a mediocrity, you can take power from someone who is a powerful person because they take chances, real chances, that’s how they got to be powerful and that’s their pride in themselves, that they are large. But you cannot take power from an entrenched mediocrity. They work at it 24 hours a day, keeping power. So the women now are all in their marvellous little black tailored suits with their lap top computers and they go on the aeroplanes and they’ve invaded the corporations and they slowly rise to higher and higher levels, but they’ll never reach the summit because those mediocrities are there and they’re playing them. And the women’s revolution’s been sold for a mess of corporate pottage. But the men are all underground, they’re hiding themselves.
Probably the intensity of anti-feminine feeling in America now is greater than anti-Semitism, which is also undercover.
Ramona Koval: But you’ve got this new candidate for the vice-presidency.
Norman Mailer: This is going to be fascinating because for the first time, Americans are going to learn something from the election rather than deciding who is going to be the next president. What we’re going to learn is is America more or less anti-Semitic than we think it is, each of us individually. In other words if Gore wins, it’s a sure sign that the buried anti-Semitism in America is not that intense and if he loses by a hell of a lot, the reverse is true.
Ramona Koval: What do you think?
Norman Mailer: I don’t have an opinion, I have a question. I’m curious about the outcome.
Ramona Koval: Are you still curious about American politics after all these years?
Norman Mailer: Not as much. Finally American politics is being subsumed and engorged and devoured by corporatism. It’s the corporate mind that’s taking over America. I think that the presidency as such, that the dirty little secret in American national life now, is to keep the notion of the presidency as important. It’s comparable to about the time when the monarchy ceased to mean anything in England in terms of real political power that it became so sacrosanct. In the old days, they were be-heading kings. They wouldn’t dream of doing it now, they’d say ‘don’t behead the poor bugger, he’s never done anything to us.’
The same thing is going to happen in America. We have candidates now who are closer ideologically than any two candidates I can remember in my time. And the reason is that they don’t matter. Each is going to serve the corporation and the corporation is going to determine what foreign policy is, what economic policy is, they will sooner or later take over (although they’re not too good at it) our artistic policy. At present they’re content to just make sure that the majority of books that are sold are best sellers and will improve no-one’s mind at a disastrously quick rate.
Ramona Koval: What about your country, it strikes me that whenever I go there, it’s a country that’s in love with itself.
Norman Mailer: My God the narcissism of America! It’s revolting! We are the greatest, most powerful country in the world, we have the most money, we have large resources to develop. We’re like a giant who is afraid that he or she will pee in their pants if they meet someone who is half their size… I find it disgusting.
Reagan was the worst. He was the Pied Piper. Remember he lost about 250 marines who were bombed in Lebanon, and two days later invaded Granada which is a tiny island about twice the size of Edinburgh and he said, ‘we’re fighting communism,’ and there were 1200 Cuban construction workers there and he sent in 1800 marines, so of course they won the island in about a day and a half and he said, ‘we have now overcome the shame of Vietnam, American is triumphant again.’ You know, as someone once said… ‘I wish I could eat more so I could throw up more.’
(Applause) Thank you for the applause, but I can’t remember who said it.
Ramona Koval: But you love America you write about it so much.
Norman Mailer: It’s like a wife you’d like to throw out the window and rescue in mid-air.
Ramona Koval: There’s been a lot of vertigo in your novels… this throwing out the window business.
Norman Mailer: Everyone has their little specialties.
Ramona Koval: Can you remember the first window you wanted to throw someone out of or you wanted to throw yourself out of?
Norman Mailer: I never wanted to throw myself out of window. I was afraid there might have been forces in me that would have encouraged me to throw myself out a window, but I never wanted to go out the window. People who suffer vertigo obviously are under two spells at once, one is to protect themselves and the other is to dare the unknown, put the nicest face you can upon it. Parapets and windows can be difficult, especially when you’re young.
Ramona Koval: And when you’re out of your mind on drugs.
Norman Mailer: I haven’t been out of my mind on drugs for something like 35 years now.
Ramona Koval: But I’m interested in the way you took those risks with your brain. What you had at risk was the very thing that made you want to write and live?
Norman Mailer: Look we all takes risks with our brain, all the time, as we do with our bodies. I remember that I did my most serious boxing when I was 50 to 58. I used to go to a gym and box on Saturdays and I remember we’d go out afterward and we’d have lunch — hot dogs or hamburgers and orange juice, a little beer sometimes. We’d sit around and talk, talk about whatever. And I remember once saying: ‘What would it feel like (because we always boxed on Saturday morning ) to have no headache on Saturday afternoon?’
Because that’s what would happen, you’d box a few rounds and you’d have a headache afterwards because you’d get hit a few times in the head and then it occurred to me that the headache was less severe than the headaches I’d have automatically every night I’d gone out and drunk heavily. So for years, I had been bombarding my brain with booze and deadening it and to this day my brain is not what it ought to be.
Let’s say 80 per cent is due to the booze and 20 per cent to the boxing, but on the other hand you get certain things out of all that. We are our own currency, in a certain sense. We spend the money of our mind and our body in order to acquire new possibilities for ourselves. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but that’s what we all do all the time: we’re always expending ourselves and discovering new resources. That’s when we’re relatively happy. But when we’re expending ourselves and discovering no new resources, that’s when we’re depressed. There is an internal psychic economy if you will.
Ramona Koval: The book The Fight was an extraordinary, loving description of the choreography of fighting. Where do you get that part of you that can break down things into smaller and smaller events and describe the whole thing as it’s happening, like a punch for example?
Norman Mailer: Well, you can’t do it just by watching the fight. There is a lot to it. I remember I got a movie of that fight and I studied that movie, studied it by the hour, must have spent 25 hours looking at that fight. It’s just as if you were to take five pages of Finnegan’s Wake and skim it quickly, that’s analogous to what you get watching a fight once.
There might be all the excitement of reading it for the first time, but you don’t begin to know what the five pages say. You have to study them and study them and study them. And boxers at that standard are working at so many high levels, psychologically, physically, intellectually, and also in terms of the emotions — confidence and fear — that you really have to study it over and over again, looking through to see which staff you’re on — physical, mental and so forth. That’s how those tales come in, there’s a lot of work to it, it’s like putting a mosaic together.
Ramona Koval: I wonder whether it was your training as an engineer.
Norman Mailer: Could be. I don’t know… I think I’m structural to a degree. I tend to look at things and how you put them together. That could well be it. The engineering did some good.
Ramona Koval: How did you start an engineering degree?
Norman Mailer: When I was a kid I used to build model aeroplanes and wanted to be an aeronautical engineer so I went to Harvard. I had two choices I could have gone to MIT and then I probably I would have become an aeronautical engineer or Harvard where I knew the education for an engineer would not be as good. But the girls in Brooklyn on my block had almost no reaction to MIT and when I said I might go to Harvard, they lit up and they saw me with new eyes. I was 16 years old and I had the motivations of a 16-year-old.
So I ended up taking engineering at Harvard and got bored with it quickly and took the minimum of courses and took writing courses instead. I came out badly educated, the engineering I didn’t remember, and the writing courses were fine, but there’s an awful lot I never learned at Harvard.
Ramona Koval: What about that moon book, I know you were fascinated by the characters but were you stimulated by the engineering part of it as well?
Norman Mailer: When I did the book Of a Fire on the Moon about the flight of Apollo 11 to the Moon, yes the engineering came in very handy because there were terribly dull, difficult, technical manuals you had to read if you wanted to understand what was going on and that was some help. It was equivalent to having taken Latin in high school if you later in life decided that you wanted to try to translate a Latin verse.
Ramona Koval: What about the fight book and the fascination with boxing and warriorship?
Norman Mailer: About the time the warrior disappears in man completely, so the technological universe will predominate over everything. The two are opposed essentially. Because technology controls from outside and the entire notion of the warrior is the warrior controls his, and you can now say her, environment immediately and directly. They prevail or are defeated in warring with their environment. That’s the basic notion of war, of violence, of combat. The idea is that you are a free soul in the world of contact, you’re not being done to from outside. Technology does just that: it tells you how to live, it tells you how to breathe. The mark of a truly technological hotel is that you can’t open the windows. Sooner or later someone is going to throw a brick through one of those windows and it will be a scandal.
Ramona Koval: So you think there are inevitabilities in the design of technology, we can’t design a human centred technology?
Norman Mailer: No we can’t. I’d go that far.
Ramona Koval: Why?
Norman Mailer: Because it’s coming to us from outer space (laughs). No. Put it this way: there are two desires that are very much at war with one another in human nature. One of them is individuality and freedom and the sense of being close to one’s senses and close to eternity, to the fundamentals. That’s one side of it. And the other side is to control environments so there is no danger for anyone, anywhere, ever. And it leaves out of the equation the fact that we are born and we die. So we live a fundamental mystery that is not resolvable because none of us know where we are going to go when we die. Technology attempts to say to you, ‘you many never die, trust in us, trust in technology and you may live to be 150 or 200 and quite the equal of a 50-year-old.’ This is the essential promise of technology. It’s totally false, you can’t get something for nothing, there is the law of the conservation of energy.
Ramona Koval: Do you feel wise?
Norman Mailer: Wise? It’s my vice, yes. (laughs)
Ramona Koval: What’s it like to be a little bit older. Do you feel like you do understand the world a little better?
Norman Mailer: Yes. The thing that keeps you going is that each five years or so, you moult and have a new set of ideas that are more interesting than the last set. Now objectively, they may not be more interesting. If you were to write them down, you might be depressed to see that they were less interesting than the old ideas but since you often don’t do that, you just live with the new ideas, there is this feeling that you’re alive. If the mind’s alive when you’re old, you feel alive.
Ramona Koval: There must be some things that are going on in your country that you think: ‘Am I dreaming this, or is this really happening?’ The last thing I read about your political analysis of America was report of your views of the American president and his sexual peccadilloes and it’s an interesting story that would be hard to make up, and almost peculiar in its American split between puritanism and ‘anything goes’.
Norman Mailer: I’m not very high on Clinton because he’s a huge disappointment to me. I thought he was going to be a terrific president. The moment you have enthusiasms in politics, you’re well advised to become quickly pessimistic or else you become cynical.
Politicians are born to disappoint you. It comes with the job, just as engineers are disappointed with the fact that that fine piece of machinery they worked on becomes obsolete. In every occupation there are bad things and in politics it’s that the politician must disappoint you because he’s got to compromise and he’s got to make deals with people he normally wouldn’t want to shake hands with, so you don’t get purity in politics.
I don’t have a lot of god of things to say about Clinton. I think he did improve black and white relations in America and that’s very much his achievement. For the rest, I think he was pretty lucky with the economy and he was dreadful with the way he kissed up to the corporations and did away with poor people’s welfare but never did away with corporate welfare.
That was his major sin that he became a corporate person and moved the Democratic Party closer to the Republican Party, which is the historical drift, because, as I say, the trend in America is for the corporations to take over the government from the politicians, in a true sense to really run the country in a way that they haven’t quite before. So he was just part of that. He’s not a powerful man in terms of going against the tide. He swims with the tide. So he did that…
But as far as Monica Lewinsky went I felt sorry for him… Mon camarade, mon frère… It’s the sort of thing I could see I would have done. You know the president is a prisoner. A very intelligent lady pointed out to me once that he was living in a minimum security prison — the finest minimum security prison in America, the White House — but nonetheless it was a prison because every 15 minutes the Secret Service would clock where he was and who he was talking to etc., which is the element of prison, you’re under observation all the time.
So what does a good convict do? A good convict does his best or her best to break the rules, that’s the only… you have your dignity… to re-find some status is to go against the given. So he was going against the given when he started that affair — how would you characterise it? that non-horizontal affair — with Monica Lewinsky. He wasn’t the first president to do that. He wasn’t the first corporate executive to do that. He wasn’t the first guy on the street to do that between two garbage cans. Men do it. Women do it.
That wasn’t the horror. The horror was the piety. How dare he deface the presidency? Here are these people who make oil deals that destroy whole forests in America and pollute the seas and they’re saying he was defacing the presidency. The hypocrisy in America means you need another Gargantuan meal to get rid of.
Ramona Koval: Are you still an anarchist?
Norman Mailer: No. I’m a left conservative.
Ramona Koval: And what’s a left conservative?
Norman Mailer: The sad truth is I can never explain it. It’s not a liberal conservative. It’s not that I’m on the right wing of the left. Probably the closest is that I’m very much on the left wing of conservatism. I think that too many extraordinary things are being destroyed. For example, when you come to Edinburgh it’s a remarkable city because it’s the only city I know that gives me a sense of the past. In Europe right now it’s sad all the others (cities), including London, you can see what modern high rise architecture has done to absolutely destroy a sense of the past. So in that sense, I’m very much a conservative. I think that if we lose a sense of the past, we’ve lost much more than we can ever calculate.
Most conservatives — if they’re any good at all, but most of them are dreadful — are essentially instinctive. They feel ‘there’s something about that tree that’s more magnificent than anything I can name.’ When it comes to defending the tree against some highway that’s going through, they usually give way to the highway because finally their friends come up to them who are also conservatives and say, ‘listen, don’t get in the way of that highway it means a lot of money to a lot of people.’
The point is that conservatism is dreadfully polluted, polluted with money and greed and leftism is imprisoned with political correctness, because essentially leftists are always out of power and they’ve gotten so angry over the century that by now their whole attitude is: ‘This is the way you should live and this is the way you are going to live and if we get power, you’re damn right, buddy, this is the way you’re going to be.’ And that’s horrible. That’s the new authoritarianism.
What is so wonderful about leftism is the idea that we’re all equal and that none of us should live that much better than anyone else. It involves real problems because if every one lives at the same level, you get down to the Soviet Union where we all know it didn’t work too well. Those are the problems, but the fact is no leftist ever believes that one person should make 10,000 times as much money in a year as another.
So between the two I keep trying to find some way to make sense out of this and I don’t succeed very well as you see. Bits and pieces and points but it’s a complex matter.
Ramona Koval: It’s a mosaic, isn’t it?
Norman Mailer: It’s a mosaic that quivers all the time.
Ramona Koval: Can I change the subject a little because I’m really interested in this 35,000 word novel you wrote when you were ten?
Norman Mailer: It wasn’t 35,000.
Ramona Koval: That’s what I was told.
Norman Mailer: Most facts are not factual.
Ramona Koval: Oh OK. However many words, it’s bloody good for a 10- year-old. It was called The Martian Invasion.
Norman Mailer: Yeh, maybe it was 10,000 words. I don’t know…
Ramona Koval: Let’s agree on 10,000.
Norman Mailer: It’s hard to measure because it was written in notebooks and my real pleasure in writing in those days used to be to hyphenate. I had great fun in writing “th” hyphen and “e” on the next line. And my mother would say, ‘you’re so bright.’
Ramona Koval: Did you see any germs of your later interests in this book, The Martian Invasion?
Norman Mailer: No, I wanted to be an engineer. This was just my hobby. Then I stopped writing for years. I threw down my pen by the time I was 11!
Ramona Koval: But remember your bar mitzvah speech where you said you wanted to follow in the steps of Jewish thinkers like Moses Maimonides and Karl Marx?
Norman Mailer: Moses Maimonides and Karl Marx, yeh. I had a radical Hebrew school teacher who was coaching me for my bar mitzvah and he smuggled in Marx. It was a conservative synagogue and the Rabbi went up to my mother afterward and said, ‘Mrs Mailer I wonder if that name Marx should have been used.’ I said to my mother, “What did you say?’, she said, ‘I didn’t say anything but I was thinking I’m not taking it out, Marx was Jewish also.’ She didn’t have a political idea, it was just that any great Jew was all right as far as I’m concerned… that was her basic attitude.
Ramona Koval: How important has your Jewish life been to you?
Norman Mailer: It’s absolutely in the blood. You know I’m a great believer in re-incarnation and the other day I discovered that a great many Orthodox Jews believe in re-incarnation. But formally it has almost no meaning. I haven’t been in a synagogue in 25 years. I neither brag nor apologise for that, it’s just that I have no interest in orthodoxies and conservative reform Jews bore me because of their ethical culture. You can’t tell their synagogues from ski lodges.
Ramona Koval: You believe in reincarnation. Do you think you’ve been here before?
Norman Mailer: I don’t know. That’s the question that everyone asks themselves when they start to get interested in reincarnation. You don’t know whether you’re a first time out or whether you’ve been around for a long time. You have intimations each way. There are days when I think, ‘yeah this is the first time round, I’m so dumb,’ then there are other times when I think ‘no, I must be an old soul.’ But this is like smelling your armpit, it’s not terribly productive. Please I was not insulting you, for the record. I mean for me it’s not productive to think in that way I didn’t mean that your question was useless… far from it…
This program was first broadcast on Radio National’s Books and Writing on 1 September 2000.” Norman Mailer, an interview transcript from shortly before his death