Notes & comments: February 2007.
We had thought that by this time we would be immune to being surprised by The New York Times Book Review. We have often had occasion to criticize that mighty organ of literary celebrity, as much for what it neglects to review as for what, and how, it does. (About the former: we predicted some months back that Mark Steyn's America Alone, one of the most important books to be published last year, would not be reviewed in the Times: so far, its only appearance in the Times has been on its bestseller list.) Yet in its issue for January 21, the Book Review did it again: we frankly acknowledge that we were ... well, surprised doesn't cover our reaction to the front-page, 6,200-word encomium about Norman Mailer's new novel, The Castle in the Forest.
Six-thousand-two-hundred words. A long review in the Times is 1,500 or 1,800 words--a full page. "Maestro of the Human Ego" as Lee Siegel's exercise in sycophantic rehabilitation is called, starts on page one and then continues inside not for one or two pages, nor even for three full pages: no, the editors have seen fit to accord, in addition to the snippet on page one (under a large photograph of the Maestro in question), four full pages to Norman Mailer's latest advertisement for himself. Perhaps there is a precedent, in length, for this review: if so, we cannot find it. For sheer unctuousness and cringe-making hagiographical bombast, there may be no equal.
We know that, half a century ago, some people took Norman Mailer seriously as a novelist. There were even a few--we know it seems incredible now--who took him seriously as a thinker. That was long ago, before Mr. Mailer's embarrassing book about Marilyn Monroe, before his even more embarrassing book Ancient Evenings, before his silly though malevolent essays about race, women, and "hipsters" and such outrages as stabbing and nearly killing one of his multitudinous wives. It has, we believe, been two or three decades since Norman Mailer has been regarded by most people as anything other that a rather pathetic, blustering figure, wallowing in self-infatuation. For sheer credulousness, then, Lee Siegel deserves some sort of recognition. He actually believes--at least, he actually writes--that Mr. Mailer is "a novelist fanatically committed to the truth" who has "always insisted on true art as a form of honest living" The Castle in the Forest is about the young Adolf Hitler (well, really, it is about Norman Mailer, like all of his books) and so it seems appropriate to recall Hitler's advice that if you are going to tell a lie, make it a whopper. That way you stun your audience into submission. Confronted with an outrageous untruth, most people are too polite to say (as they should), "Balderdash. What rubbish:' At first, anyway, they make excuses: "Why would someone say that?" they think. "Maybe there is something to it?"
Reading Mr. Siegel's paean to Norman Mailer produces such vertiginous feelings. It is so wildly at odds with reality that one blinks in disbelief. Consider, to take just one example, Mr. Siegel's discussion of "The White Negro," Mr. Mailer's notorious 1957 essay glorifying violence. You remember: this is the essay in which Mr. Mailer praises the "hipster" who has the "courage" to "beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper" because by so doing "one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one's life." No doubt. Mr. Mailer goes on to explain that "at bottom, the drama of the psychopath is that he seeks love." Not, however, "love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it. Orgasm is his therapy--he knows at the seed of his being that good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him." How do you spell drivel? According to Mr. Siegel, though, far from "trying to shock the bourgeoisie with a sympathy for violence," Mailer "was doing something else: trying to shock the respectable class with an imaginative inhabitation of the violent. Rather than advocating murder, Mailer was exercising his perfect sense of the other." "His perfect sense of the other"? Right. And you, Dear Reader, are Marie of Roumania.
If there were a menagerie for literary curiosities, we suppose Mr. Siegel's effusion would occupy an honored place. It did occur to us, briefly, that his essay was tongue-in-cheek--or possibly that the editors of the Times Book Review were demonstrating a sly if overbearing sense of humor in publishing this preposterous bouquet to one of America's most preposterous writers. Alas, it is all too clear that both Mr. Siegel and the editors were in earnest--which is itself a kind of comedy, though the joke, unfortunately, is on us.
Onward & upward with the arts
Who says that philosophers are out of touch? Take Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and world-famous philosopher, controversialist, and animal rights activist. In his activism on behalf of animals, it is worth stressing, Professor Singer notoriously favors some animals over others. "Dogs and pigs may be persons," he has argued, "and some humans are not" Professor Singer has a lot invested in what it means to be a "person." Your average three-year-old child, for example, doesn't meet the Singer standard, which means that, were he in charge, that child might be killed with impunity by its parents.
Yes, yes, we know: that sounds loopy. It is loopy. But it is just the sort of thing the world has learned to expect from one of its most distinguished--or at least celebrated--academic philosophers. Think about it: no academic philosopher today is more prominent than Peter Singer. But what does it mean that someone with his views occupies a named chair at one of the world's great universities--and not, mind you, in the department of abnormal psychology, but at the university's Center for Human Values ("supports teaching, research, and discussion of ethics and human values throughout the curriculum and across the disciplines at Princeton University")?
It will not, we think, be easy to come up with a consoling answer to that question. But lest you think that Professor Singer's contemporary relevance is confined to his views on what we might call post-natal abortion, consider his suggestion that "humans should consider breeding with chimpanzees" Talk about animal activism! But consider how, er, avant garde Peter Singer's views are. On one side we have an Ivy League professor of philosophy championing bestiality, on the other we have Zoo, a new movie that just premiered at the oh-so-chic-and-trendy Sundance Film Festival.
(Not, we hasten to add, that Zoo was "the most eagerly anticipated film" of this year's Festival. According to PR from the Festival, that honor went to "Hounddog" a "Southern gothic tale" involving the rape of a twelve-year-old girl.) Directed by Robinson Devor, Zoo is about what The Los Angeles Times described as "a forbidden subject ... sex between men and animals."
Gosh. The LA Times, it almost goes without saying, is very keen about Zoo, assuring readers that this "strange and strangely beautiful film" is "elegant" "poetic" and "eerily lyrical" Mr. Devor apparently got the idea for the fihn when he read a news story about a Seattle man who died after having sex with a stallion. According to The LA Times, Mr. Devor was "shocked that nobody did an in-depth look at this, that there was no investigative reporting rounding the story out with the psychology involved. I thought, 'This is an opportunity: "
Yes, but an opportunity for what? Mr. Devor insists that he "aestheticized the sleaze right out of" the story of his film, which combines audio interviews--some of the men interviewed did not wish to appear on screen: imagine that!--and "elegiac visual re-creations intended to conjure up the mood and spirit" of the encounters. But of course this is deeply disingenuous. On the one hand, he proudly claims to be breaking down "the last taboo" on the other he invokes the talisman of good taste and aesthetic delicacy. Which is it?
Works like Zoo raise many questions: above all, perhaps, the relation between morality and art. What, after all, does Mr. Devor mean when he says that he "aestheticized the sleaze" out of his film? Couldn't it be that the very effort to aestheticize bestiality is itself a species of "sleaze"? Indeed, isn't Mr. Devor's boast that he was breaking down "the last taboo" in fact an acknowledgment of moral transgression, i.e., sleaziness? Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned and to have enjoyed the luminous spectacle of Christians trussed up on crosses as human lanterns. Did the aesthetically sensitive emperor manage to siphon off the sleaziness of his enormities by transforming them into works of art? Or was that very process evidence of further degradation?
In the great contest for the most misunderstood and overused classical quotation, Terence's declaration that "Nothing human is alien to me" is a strong contender for first place. Right on cue, Mr. Devor offers the Roman poet's saying as an excuse for Zoo. But Terence was urging an enlargement of understanding and moral empathy, not offering absolution for bad behavior. The LA Times breathlessly describes Zoo as exploring "a forbidden subject." But of course the whole point is that its subject is not forbidden. The fact that there is an active "zoophile community" (hence the fellow who died after his close encounter with Trigger) shows that Mr. Devor was not breaking down "the last taboo" but merely exploiting a situation in which the only taboo is to acknowledge that there are taboos, i.e., indelible moral lines before which stands the legend Thou Shalt Not.
Winston Churchill used to entertain guests at Chequers by taking them round to see his pigs. "I like pigs," Churchill would say. "Cats look down on us, dogs look up to us, but pigs treat us as equals." Little did he know.
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|Title Annotation:||New York Times Book Review's paean to Norman Mailer; human animal relations|
|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2007|
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