Of thousands of piquant opinions I fired into the literary firmament one of the last was that the Internet is the most wretched invention since masturbation. Nevertheless, in my new world of decidedly more restricted options, I was thankful to be given a few hours online to read tributes and broadsides that followed my earthly exit last week at age 84. It was enormously gratifying to be named one of the fathers of writing nonfiction as the novel and the novel as nonfiction, and preeminent at planting myself at the center of the narrative. As I expected, my fiction was frequently dismissed as inferior to my journalism, an opinion that had provoked me to issue many verbal rebukes, written refutations, critical counterattacks, and even an occasional swat.
I’m humbled my friend Joan Didion tearfully pointed out I hadn’t failed to write the Great American Novel – as I’d always said I would and most claimed I hadn’t – since I did so at least four times, starting with then-maligned early works The Deer Park and An American Dream. It’s moderately disheartening that my adjective-laden first book, The Naked and the Dead, received more attention than any other work, though gratifying that after six decades it’s still called the finest American novel about World War II, and is further respected for selling two hundred thousand copies in three months and liberating me to continue writing what I wanted. That was big stuff for a twenty-five year old, a dazzling surprise and exactly what I’d expected.
I suppose I can tolerate that few of my more than thirty books attracted as much commentary as my 1957 essay “The White Negro”, but I will not permit readers to continue to fail to absorb the most essential points. Read carefully: less than a third of the way into the essay I state that “in the world of the hipster…incompatibles have come to bed, the inner life and the violent life, the orgy and the dream of love, the desire to murder and the desire to create…” A little later I note, “It may be fruitful to consider the hipster a philosophical psychopath.” He may be anywhere for “not every psychopath is an extreme case, and the condition of psychopathy is present in a host of people including many politicians, professional soldiers, newspaper columnists, entertainers, artists, jazz musicians, call-girls, promiscuous homosexuals, and half the executives of Hollywood…”
If the psychopath wants immortality he must avoid psychoanalysis since in this process the “patient is not so much changed as aged… The result for all too many patients is a diminution, a tranquilizing of their most interesting qualities and vices. The patient is indeed not so much altered as worn out – less bad, less good, less bright, less willful, less destructive, less creative. He is thus able to conform to that contradictory and unbearable society which first created the neurosis. He can conform to what he loathes because he no longer has the passion to feel loathing so intensely.”
Of course I could not have conformed. It would have killed my writing and that would’ve killed me. So after a 1960 party when I was deeply drunk and pot-stoned I erupted at my beautiful second wife for saying I was a “faggot” and “no Dostoevsky” and twice stabbed her with a penknife. She almost died and for this I was most contrite and introspective during more than two weeks of psychiatric detention at Bellevue. My wife knew I hadn’t been the essential Mailer at that moment, and she forgave me and refused to press charges. Look at that 1960 photo of us outside the courtroom; she’s nuzzling me like an enamored coed. Maybe she was as disturbed as I was. If so, her stability soon returned and we divorced.
It’s very clear, the “psychopath is ordinately ambitious, too ambitious ever to trade his warped brilliant conception of his possible victories in life for the grim if peaceful attrition of the analyst’s couch… The strength of the psychopath is that he knows … what is good for him and what is bad for him at exactly those instants when an old crippling habit has become so attacked by experience that the potentiality exists to change it, to replace a negative and empty fear with an outward action… even if the fear is of himself, and the action is to murder. The psychopath murders – if he has the courage – out of necessity to purge his violence, for if he cannot empty his hatred then he cannot love, his being is frozen with implacable self-hatred for his cowardice.”
Like Hemingway, I often loathed myself for feeling fear but as moderate (not extreme) psychopaths we sublimated our murderous impulses by battering smaller men or older men, almost always vulnerable men. In 1971 I head-butted the physically-gentle Gore Vidal and decked him at a party in 1980. Along the way I sat on tiny Truman Capote for maligning the literary integrity of my journalism. Some of my other wives – of six – accused me of verbal and physical violence. But don’t call me a bully. In middle age I began boxing with Jose Torres, former light heavyweight champion of the world. A bully would never get in the ring with a man like that.
It astonished some, during my six-decade avalanche of words, how little I wrote or spoke about my Jewishness. Those who perished in the death camps were from over there. I felt for them but I wasn’t of them. Nor was I of Israel. Never did I go there. I went to Africa to write about Muhammad Ali regaining his heavyweight title by knocking out the unbeatable and utterly intimidating George Foreman. I should also note that in another piece I claimed to have seriously considered attacking the menacing Sonny Liston, heavyweight champion, ex-convict, and a guy who would’ve killed someone outside the ring if he, or someone else, hadn’t injected a fatal overdose of heroin. But I didn’t go after Liston. Even psychopaths have the ability to carefully select opponents.
Victory is essential. It requires having the “energy to meet an exciting opportunity with all one’s present talents…Movement is always to be preferred to inaction. In motion a man has a chance, his body is warm, his instincts are quick, and when the crisis comes, whether of love or violence, he can make it, he can win, he can release a little more energy for himself since he hates himself a little less, he can… go faster next time and so make more and thus find more people with whom he can swing.”
Charge out of the house to change the world and make your life better. This is always difficult, and often impossible, for the writer working in isolation. If he has the energy, he can swing into new marriages and make more babies like the eight I sired. He can write more books. If he has talent, he can be great. If he has charisma, he can be a celebrity. If he dares, he can be like Norman Mailer. That way he’ll never really die.