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July 05, 1985 - Image 69

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1985-07-05

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THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

Friday, July 5, 1985

BOOKS

Mailer's Jewish Attitude
Is Rebellion Against Mom

LEAPIN LIZARDS

BY JOSEPH COHEN

We almost forgot to subscribe
to the Jewish News, Mom!

Special to The Jewish News

In a 1983 interview with Clive
Sinclair, the London Jewish
Chronicle's literary editor, Nor-
man Mailer said, "I have always
felt as if I am absolutely Jewish.
It's never been a theme in my life
that maybe I can put this under
the carpet and people can forget
about it or anything of that sort. I
think the experience of the con-
centration camps finally wiped
out that possibility."
On its face this remark could
almost be regarded as a positive
affirmation of a Jewish connec-
tion. But it's hardly that. All his
professional life Mailer has
knocked himself out trying to put
his Jewishness "under the car-
pet."
A long time ago he said in his
frequently employed third-person

Norman Mailer: •
Anti-mama?

persona that he rejected out of
hand "the one personality he
found absolutely unsupportable
— the nice Jewish boy from
Brooklyn. Something in his
adenoids gave it away — he had
the softness of a man early accus-
tomed to mother-love."
The softness and the mother-
love come through strongly in
Peter Manso's remarkably
engrossing Mailer: His Life and
Times (Simon and Schuster). In-
deed, this mammoth (over 700
pages), perhaps monstrous, biog-
raphical collection of interspers-
ing oral histories, mingling over
200 voices, some filled with love,
some with hate, many ambiva-
lent, narcissistic, extroverted, a
few of them rational and objec-
tive, others almost always emo-
tional, with too many of them in-
cessantly scatological, is, in my
opinion, dominated by the singu-

lar utterances of Fanny
Schneider Mailer, the author's
formidable mother, She speaks
neither at length nor often, but
her every comment is a priceless,
informative gem in the loving
suffocation of a male child.
Hers is the devastating image
of a ws11•ntantioned but tunnel-
blinded Orendel's dam, a
demon-dragon who emerges from
the murky bog,as circumstances
require to champion this offspr.
ins who, in her eyes, on do no
wrong, for which set ha could be

excused from anything to ad-
vacating violence to'actually
*tabbing a wife.
While Philip Rath was busy in-

venting *phis Portnoy, Fanny

Mailer was already living
Sophie's life to the hilt and be-
yond.
But Sophie Portnoy doesn't ex-
plain all of Fanny Mailer's life.
There is a larger pattern discer-
nible. It is one wherein a strong
woman marries a weaker man
and subsequently gives birth to a
son upon whose shoulders falls
the responsibility of achieving
the triumph in the world of which
the father has proved himself in-
capable. I have no doubt that this
pattern explains a number of
Mailer's obsessions, with power
and its abuses, with homosexual-
ity and sodomy, and with rebel-
lion, for no one can keep from
reacting against constantly-
applied heat from a madonna
turned dynamo.
And dynamo Fanny Mailer
was. She ran the family business,
a fuel delivery service, shunting
aside her husband Barney when
he could neither manage it nor
overcome his gambling habit.
Mailer paid his father's gambling
debts for years. Running the
business with one hand, she re-
ared a son and a daughter with
the other one, impressing upon
Norman from his earliest years
that he was. not only special but
exceptional, a genius. She was a
true-blue, red-hot Jewish mama,
and in the end, the lullabies she
belted out to him were, in a sense,
an executioner's song. Obviously,
that wasn't what she intended,
but that's what resulted.
More sinister than Mailer's re-
jection of Jewishness is his out-
right repudiation of Jewish ethi-
cal values. To counter Jewish
softness, or victimization, Mailer
turned himself into an over-
compensating public brawler.
The number of fist-fights de-
scribed in the oral histories is
legion. His symbolic char-
acterization of the existentialist,
violence-prone hipster in the
notorious essay The White Negro
(1957), in which he appears to
condone the murder of a candy-
store owner by two 18-year-old
thugs, arguing an implicit cour-
age in their actions, is an open
assault upon and an affront to the
sense of human decency and the
sacrednegs of life that together

constitute the motivating force
behind Jewish morality.
Nonetheless, his talents have
always been vitiated by his loath-
ing for his origins and his deter-
mination to escape them, For him
"Jewish" corrupts, and absolute
"Jewish" corrupts absolutely.
This inversion of values, far from
freeing him from his past, has
turned him as a person into a
boor and a bore.
Consequently, the oral his-
tories confirm the wasting of his
gifts and the absence on his part
of any mensalichlteit, Of course,
we don't need a 100-page book to

tell us that. However, Mailer has
been central to the American ex-
perience since the end of 'World
War II, and the insights the biog-
raphy provides into the cultural
history of the recent past are as
valuable as Mailer's l ife-story is
deposit*

Copyright 1956, daPepb Colon.

MOW

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69

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