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January 1967 - Image 11

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1967-10-00
Note:
This is a tabloid page

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.



Turner: Deep in the American dream

Continued from page one
els, we must deplore the author's
slips and miscues. If I am right
in thinking them irrelevant, then
those who bring up -- if only to
praise - the novel's truth and
precision have succeeded in cloud-
ing the true issues.
Styron's own characterization of
his work, "a meditation on his-
tory," seems no better a formu-
lation. Here he meant only that
his fourth novel was relevant to
our own age - as Wilfrid Sheed
in (The New York Times Book Re-
view of Oct. 8, 1967) shrewdly
guessed when he moved to amend
Styron's phrase to "a meditation
upon the daily papers." Do the
same forces which moved Nat
Turner also move Dr. King - or
Stokely Carmichael, or Elijah Mu-
hammad? Is the civil rights
movement in the process of turn-
ing into Nat's bloodbath? These
are fascinating questions - it
would be vain to deny it. Again,
though, I doubt their relevance.
Every novel that speaks to us at
all, though it speak, like Don
Quixote, across barriers of lan-
guage and culture and time, tells
us of ourselves: our minds, our
hearts, our ways of structuring
the world. Is every novel perti-

nent to these times which deals,
any old how, with Negroes or The
Bomb or alienation? Shall we
praise an author for his choice of
subject-matter? The Confessions
of Nat Turner is indeed pertinent
to Now, but perhaps we should
measure this quality by the skill
with which Styron illuminates his
chosen fraction of the human
tragedy.
And Nat Turner is in fact a
tragic figure. Part of his tragedy
arises from his having been born
a slave; this is a tragedy of
wasted potential, the sort of tragic
sense which informs Macbeth. It
is impossible to read The Confes-
sions without getting a notion of
Turner's stature and the fatal dis-
parity between his grandeur and
the pettiness of his environment;
the great intellectual power put
to work chopping wood and build-
ing machines; the enormous libi-
do dammed up; the spiritual ener-
gy of a Luther finding release in
the conversion of pariahs. But en-
ergy, of whatever sort, will find
an outlet: such are the laws of
human physics. And so Turner
must move inexorably to his end,
his creative force turned to des-
truction, his charisma to fanati-

cism, his intelligence to the for-
mation of plans for mass murder.
The tragedy, in a way, is
society's-for it is drive like Nat
Turner's that builds civilization,
so that it is always pitiable and
t e r r i ble to see .such drive,
hemmed about by the social or-
der, returning to destroy. But
there is another, more personal
tragedy. To a religious man, to a
saintly man, mere death-even
ignominious death on the gallows
-cannot be tragic. If a man is in
the grace of God, the failure of his
plans is a testing, his bodily des-
truction a martyrdom. So Nat
Turner's tragedy must involve not
failure or death, but exclusion
from grace.
And for God to depart there
must have been an earlier close-
ness, a sense of intimacy:
God had spoken to me many times
and had surely guided my destiny
... He had spoken to me two words,
and always these words alone ... It
was through these words that I was
strengthened and that I made my
judgments, absorbing from them a
secret wisdom which allowed me to
set forth purposefully to do what I
conceived as His will, in whatever
mission, whether that of bloodshed or
baptism or preaching or charity .. .
He was never far off and ... when-
ever I called He would answer -
as He did for the first time on that
cold day ... A cold winter wind
breathed suddenly across the roof of
the woods.

This is the first time God
speaks to Nat Turner, but it is not
the last. Nor, as Turner implies,
are his messages always those
two words marking his presence
and special favor. Upon one oc-
casion-during a five-day fast in
the woods-Turner receives a vi-
sion of war between a black an-
gel and a white, a scene which
convinces him of his destiny as
the sword of God the Avenger.
So Nat walks with God all dur-
ing the planning and the first
stages of the insurrection. But on
the morning of the third day, after
the first indications have been
seen that the revolt will fail, God
slips away from Nat Turner:
And I lingered there in the early
morning and felt as alone and as
forsaken as I had ever felt since I
had learned God's name ... And
I thought: maybe in this anguish of
mine God is trying to tell me some-
thing. Maybe in His seeming absence
He is asking me to consider some-
thing I had not thought or known of
before .. . For surely God in his wis-
dom and majesty would not ordain
a mission like mine and then when
I was vanquished allow my soul to
be abandoned, to be cast away into
some bottomless pit as if it were a
miserable vapor or smoke. Surely
by this silence and absence He is
giving me greater sign than any I
have ever known.
But the significance of the sign
escapes Nat, and he waits in

Mailer: Mysterious prophet
of the 'Age of Interruptions'

Continued on page eleven

Why Are We in Vietnam? by
Norman Mailer. G. P. Putnam's
Sons. $4.95.
Cannibals and Christians, by
Norman Mailer. Dell Publishing
Co., $.95.
by Andrei Laszlo
Books today are stuffed with
statements and arguments which
purport to show that the human
situation is hopeless. Overex-
posure to such nihilistic sem-
antics builds up a curious resist-
ance to them; one simply be-
comes bored. Many of us have
arrived at ennui after a journey
through rough terrain, from Cam-
us' Sisyphus to Hesse's Joseph
Knecht, from thermodynamics to
nuclear holocaust. This journey
in the realm of "meaningful
meaninglessness," instead o f
making us reason and attempt to
ameliorate that which we still
can, makes us withdraw into our
own personal world and hardens
our deception about ourselves and
reality. It can lead to a state of
what is fashionably called "total
alienation," where the only way
to achieve any meaning is to in-
troduce alien chemicals into our
bloodstreams, and where one's
state of mind is such that any
further attempt to illuminate real-
ity is greeted with laughter.
The core of our being is not
easily reached, for the shield of
self-deception has grown mighty
thick, but on the rare occasions
when our existence is touched, it
really hurts. This is the effect
Norman Mailer achieves in his
latest two books, Cannibals and
Christians and Why Are We in
Vietnam?
The former is in itself brilliant;
the latter, at first, seems to make
no sense at all. At first glance,
one suspects that Mailer's pattern
of a great journalistic book (The
Presidential Papers) followed by
a 1 o u s y novel (An American
Dream) is repeating itself here.
Yet once the implications of Can-
n i b a l s and Christians are
grasped, the reality of Why Are
We in Vietnam? seems-to take
on penetrating life of its own. The
combini tion of the two is strong
and shrewd enough to sneak by

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the shield of self-deception, and
thus pierce it.
Cannibals and Christians is a
collection of stories, essays, poe-
try, book reviews, and the like
divided into four parts (Lambs,
Lions, Respites, and Arena), all
brought to a conclusion by a rath-
er theatrical story about the end
of the world. Although the ar-
rangement seems somewhat arbi-
trary, there is a sense of continu-
ity provided by the introductory
s e c t i o n s called "arguments,"
which express certain obsessions,
worries, and images that haunt
Mailer's consciousness. The Ar-
gument explores the question
whether the curse is on the world,
or on oneself. Does the world get
better, no matter how - getting

better and worse as part of the
same process - or does the
world get better in spite of the
fact that it's getting worse, and
are we approaching the time
when an apocalypse will come in
the night?
This book is- a collection of at-
tempts to deal with mysteries,
and suggests that there is an an-
swer to be found, or a clue. It is
a search for the metaphor that
can express the complete reality
around us, the reality which is
now in the Age of Interruption,
and is suffering from a plague.
The pieces explore various as-
pects of this reality, through opin-
ions coming out of passion, rath-
er than deliberation, that range
from modern architecture to the

October, 1967

. CHICAGO LI

10 " CHICAGO LITERARY REVIEW

" October, 1967

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