Reader's Choice

The new books by NORMAN MAILER and COLIN WILSON are both expressions of the avant-garde or Outsider revolt against the Age of Conformity. Mailer and Wilson feel, as do many non-Outsider critics of contemporary society, that most people have become stiflingly “other-directed,” that they have lost their sense of individuality and freedom, their aliveness. Describing themselves as existentialists, Mailer and Wilson argue that man’s salvation from this condition lies in turning inward and re-establishing contact with the unconscious sources of his energy — with the élan vital. They are acutely hostile, however, to Freudian psychology, on the ground that it promotes a lazy and cowardly adjustment to the existing social order, and they look to a new type of existentialist hero to bring about, in Mailer’s phrase, “a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” At this point, crucial differences between their outlooks emerge. Mailer’s hero is the hate-filled hipster, Wilson’s a sort of Shavian superman; and while Mailer develops a tortuous mystique of sex, Wilson asserts the primacy of pure will. In both cases, I feel, a potentially valuable spirit of revolt has gone astray, carrying Mailer into an ugly-tempered perversity and Wilson into crankishness. Both are incorrigible simplifiers, and their visions of revolutionary change have the flavor of literary fantasies, disconnected from social realities.
THE STATURE OF MAN (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00) seems to me considerably less interesting than Wilson’s two previous books because much of the argument and of the supporting evidence is thoroughly familiar. The problem to which Wilson initially addresses himself is that of “the vanishing hero” and the “cult of the ordinary chap.” Like a great many people, Wilson finds the greater part of modern writing permeated by a sense of defeat and futility; it makes society the hero or the villain, reducing the individual to a cipher. This point is repetitively illustrated in a succession of capsule summaries of sociological works (The Lonely Crowd, The Hidden Persuaders, The Organization Man), contemporary American and English best sellers, and dramas by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and John Osborne. Wilson is a Procrustean commentator who ruthlessly makes whatever he reads fit his thesis, and, like most zealots, he is devoid of a sense of the ridiculous. For instance, he gives Goethe a schoolmasterish rap on the knuckles for failing to see that the solution for Faust was to become inner-directed.
Wilson’s sociological and literary survey leads him to the conclusion that other-direction has become “such a basic attitude in modern culture that it affects all our thinking.” He then proceeds to examine two existentialist writers, Sartre and Camus, who have consciously sought to develop a philosophy of inner-direction, and he finds that they, too, have failed to supply us with an authentic inner-directed hero.
Wilson winds up by trying to envisage a “new, positive Existentialism.” He speaks of it fuzzily as “a mystical revolt, based on the recognition that . . . all men are supplied by a power house of will and subconscious drive,” that they are all “raw, unqualifiable freedom.” Its hero will be “the absurd man,” who has caught “the essence of mystical optimism” and directs his desire “toward the unattainable.” To one’s amazement, Wilson cites, as tentative versions of this hero, those nonmystical arrivistes, Julien Sorel. and Joe Lampton of Room at the Top. The woolly, speculative character of Wilson’s final chapter makes it clear that he has not advanced appreciably from the position he reached in The Outsider. Indeed, his work is assuming the pattern of a serialized philosophical suspense story. In each book, he poses a problem and appears to be working his way toward an answer, but ends by hinting that he will have it for us in the next installment.
Norman Mailer’s ADVERTISEMENTSFOR MYSELF (Putnam, $5.00) is a collection of his shorter writings, each of which is accompanied by a commentary that is a mixture of autobiography and polemics. The contents include three stories written when Mailer was a Harvard undergraduate and three war stories, interviews, an interesting account of the prepublication history of The Deer Park and scenes from the play version of that novel, and two extracts from a long novel in progress, which is intended to be so epically scandalous and subversive that it will probably not be acceptable to any orthodox publisher. Mailer’s considerable literary talent shows up in several of these items, and the rowdiness of his polemics makes the going pretty spirited throughout. The book as a whole shapes up as the manifesto of a writer “on his way out”: Mailer, in effect, announces that his ambition is to be a Hip reincarnation of the Marquis de Sade. “I wish to attempt an entrance,” he writes, “into the mysteries of murder, suicide, incest, orgy ... to become the first philosopher of Hip.”
At one point, Mailer describes himself as a “Marxian anarchist, which is a contradiction in terms.” Mailer’s weird contradictions are his chief claim to originality; his outlook is largely a jumble of ideas and obsessions in which there are echoes of Sade, Marx, Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, Gide, Hemingway, and Wilhelm Reich. Mailer proceeds from the hoary Marxist dogma that all our social ills are due to “the crisis of Monopoly Capitalism.” The need for socialism has become “unconsciously” compelling enough “to flood with anxiety the psyches of . . . millions,” with the result that “everyone in the civilized world is at least in some small degree a sexual cripple.” The logic of this critique requires championship of a socialist revolution (which presumably would make the world safe for sex). But Mailer, standing logic on its head appoints himself the prophet of a sexual revolution fomented by the antisocial hipster, whom he labels “the White Negro” (because the Negro, forced into the status of an outlaw, has supposedly retained his primitive sexuality and his aliveness, and the hipster is seeking nourishment from his experience). This new savior is defined by Mailer as “a philosophical psychopath” who has set out courageously to explore “the dangerous imperatives of his psychopathy.”
Mailer brushes aside the medical evidence that psychopaths are usually more crippled sexually and emotionally than the average square, and therefore that they are odd candidates for the regenerative mission he has assigned to them. He fails to show why sexual liberation should usher in socialism. And judging from the extracts from his new novel, he conceives of healthy sex as a sort of gladiatorial contest in which one seeks to vanquish a hated adversary and score a victory for the ego. But it is pointless to submit his outlook to rational scrutiny. Mailer himself describes his strictures all too aptly as “the cocky arguments of a bright boy . . . ill-mannered bleeding and gripes,” and he admits to being buffeted by megalomania, paranoia, and self-pity. Already, Mailer’s cult of “sophisticated” primitivism and animal energy has led him to play around with fancy excuses for murder and rape and with threatening prophecies of “cold murderous liquidations.” In one of these passages, he makes the disgusting point that two young hoodlums who bash in the brains of a defenseless storekeeper are at least displaying courage — their act “murders an institution . , . violates private property.” The plain fact is that, soured by what he interprets as “defeat” at the hands of “a most loathsome literary world, necrophilic to the core,” Mailer has chosen to be a literary terrorist. He has surrendered to that nihilistic immoderation which Camus has so eloquently diagnosed as the source of the great scourges of this century.

THE SPIRIT OF A CITY

Like her Venice Observed, MARY McCARTHY’S THE STONES OF FLORENCE (Harcourt, Brace, $15.00) is a mosaic whose pieces are history, visual description, comment on art, social observation, and what Huxley has called “culture gossip.” The text is richly complemented by a hundred and twenty-eight superb photographs in black-and-white, most of them by Evelyn Hofer, and twelve color plates.
With notable exceptions, the literary portraiture of famous cities has tended to suffer from cant, sentimentalism, and either pedantry or brisk superficiality. To this somewhat ailing genre, Miss McCarthy has brought an invigorating combination of individuality, adventurous seriousness, and literary brio. Her method reminds me of Cocteau’s description of Picasso as “un chiffonier de génie” — “an inspired ragpicker” — who ransacks the world for forms he can utilize to convey new truths. Miss McCarthy gives one the impression that she has, in effect, ransacked the past and its works, contemporary life, the landscape, and the market place in a search for clues that will lead her beyond accepted ideas and plausible appearances to her own image of truth.
The Stones of Florence is, I think, a better and more sympathetic book than its remarkable predecessor; more forceful, and more illuminating. I felt that Miss McCarthy rather disapproved of Venice, with its materialistic Byzantine heritage. Florence is clearly more congenial to her. She sees it as a successor to fifth-century Athens — a city with a tradition of sharp, clear thought, a city of radical vision and daring speculation, of drama and struggle, out of whose extremism there came, in the triumphs of Brunelleschi, an art of perfect balance.
Miss McCarthy begins by puncturing the “tooled-leather idea of Florence as a dear bit of the world” handed down to us by the Victorians. Presenting contemporary Florence as a working place committed to modernism and intent on its diversified commerce, she discusses its conduct under fascism and in the war, its unwillingness to be a shrine and its inhospitableness to tourists, its inescapable noise and ubiquitous traffic problem. In the opening pages, she points out Florentine traits, which are further explored in her journey through the past and are gradually drawn together into a unitary whole. The distinctive spirit of Florence takes shape as that of a city-state whose people are stubborn, independent and proud, frugal and austere; highly civilized people whose severe tradition of elegance has been transmitted from the artist to the shoemaker and seamstress and whose genius for the wise government of space now manifests itself in agriculture as it once did in architecture.
The greater part of Miss McCarthy’s book is devoted to the art of the Renaissance, and I see no point, not being an authority in this sphere, in quibbling with her interpretations. Whether she is writing about the “autumnal” palette of the great Florentine innovators, or the statuary that is the very genius of the republic, or the aberrations of the mannerists, Miss McCarthy is a graphic, precise, and provocative commentator, with an acute sensitivity to the connections between art and life.

A NEGLECTED PRESIDENT

MARGARET LEECH, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1941 for her Reveille in Washington, has written an immensely detailed study of a President who for quite some time has been neglected by biographers. Her IN THE DAYS OF MCKINLEY (Harper, $6.95) is a sympathetic re-evaluation of McKinley and the era to which he gave his name. Miss Leech does not in any way minimize his limitations, but, from her meticulous documentation of his life, he emerges as a firmer, more principled, and more attractive figure than the established image suggests. His tact was so remarkable that it is said that, while Harrison had made an enemy when he awarded an office, McKinley made a friend when he refused one. Although he was a consummately successful politician (someone remarked that he “kept his ear to the ground so close that he got it full of grasshoppers”), he had scruples and standards which he would not violate. His aversion to war was profound, and he allowed his great popularity to change into odium by persisting in his efforts to avert a conflict with Spain.
Five topics are especially prominent in Miss Leech’s book: the Spanish-American War and this country’s subsequent application of the policy of Manifest Destiny; the continuing controversy over tariffs; the “free silver” issue; McKinley’s appointments and the conduct of the men in his Administration; McKinley’s devotion to his wife, who suffered from epilepsy, and her behavior as First Lady. This massive concentration on political history seems to me unfortunate in a work of such spacious proportions and one whose title prepares one for a panoramic vista. The social and cultural history of this era of transition and adventure — it witnessed the emergence of realism in American literature, the spread of social Darwinism, the spectacular expansion of all forms of capitalist enterprise, the appearance of Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class and of a growing revolt in economic thought against laissez faire — is largely neglected. Miss Leech is a highly accomplished historian whose industry and scholarship are matched by her readability. But as the portrait of an age, her book, though masterly in the political sphere, omits significant elements.

“BASIC ILLEGALITY”

Before coming to this country in 1940, VLADIMIR NABOKOV wrote a number of books in Russian which earned him a considerable reputation in émigré circles in Europe. INVITATION TO A BEHEADING (Putnam, $3.95) is the first of these to be translated into English. In a foreword, Nabokov takes issue with the European critics who called the novel “kafkaesque,” his refutation being that he had not read Kafka when he wrote it. Certainly the style, like that of Lolita, has a pronounced parodic quality which one does not find in Kafka’s, and there is a more robust vein of zany farce than in The Trial or The Castle. Nonetheless, the adjective “kafkaesque” goes a long way toward suggesting the novel’s singular character and hallucinatory atmosphere.
Nabokov’s hero, Cincinnatus C., has been sentenced to death for “basic illegality”; he is not “transparent,” as are all legitimate people in Nabokov’s dingy conformist society of the future. The story describes the queer incidents that take place while Cincinnatus is in prison awaiting the unknown day of his execution. Its underlying tension is his struggle not to let his fear and horror seduce him into accepting the “false logic” of everything around him. He insists that the prison staff, his wife, his mother, and his other visitors are parodies of human beings — specters in an unreal world. And in a startling, surrealistic climax he literally causes the world to dissolve.
What is one to make of this bizarre fantasy? My guess is that Nabokov’s hero is the artist, and also the ordinary individualist, who is struggling to hold on to his real self in a totalitarian society, or simply the modern world. The novel is original, full of wry comedy, and written with Nabokov’s customary virtuosity. But, for reasons which elude me, I found myself reacting to it with something short of enthusiasm.