Norman Mailer could be a mythological creature. Credit: Bertrand LAFORÊT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

January 6, 2022   5 mins

The satyr is a mythological figure known for his permanent erection and unapologetic pursuit of pleasure. In 1993, the American illustrator Edward Sorel drew three literary heavyweights as satyrs, to accompany a James Atlas essay entitled ‘Laureates of the Lewd’: John Updike, Philip Roth and Gore Vidal. Icons of obscenity, they wrote novels in the late sixties which challenged propriety around sex, and are all highly cancellable, by today’s standards.

But someone who more clearly embodied the figure of the satyr, and is in the process of being cancelled, was Norman Mailer. According to an article by Michael Wolff in the Ankler, plans to publish a collection of Mailer’s essays for the centenary of his birth next year have been abandoned by his publisher Random House. Wolff writes that a junior staff member was offended by an essay Mailer wrote in the 1957 entitled “The White Negro”, in which Mailer rhapsodises about the revolutionary potential of black people in a slightly creepy way. But it’s not exactly clear why the Mailer book has been cancelled. In any case, you can still read the “The White Negro” at Dissent magazine.

The essay valorises rebellion. It is about wanting “to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self”. Mailer was repulsed by anything bourgeois or conformist; he loved Jazz, which, he wrote, made a “knife-like entrance into culture”. The main character of “The White Negro” is the “hipster”, whose Mecca was Greenwich Village in New York, and who tended towards existentialism. Mailer was a Philosopher of Hip, which constituted a “ménage-à-trois” made up of the bohemian, the juvenile delinquent, and the Negro. The Hip was the marriage of black and white, but it was “the Negro who brought the cultural dowry”.

James Baldwin described the essay as “slumming”, but he also recognised that Mailer had taken Hip more seriously than the pretentious, patronising Jack Kerouac set. Indeed, Mailer wrote that “the over-civilised man can be an existentialist only if it is chic, and deserts it quickly for the next chic”. But “to be a real existentialist … one must be religious, one must have one’s sense of the ‘purpose’”. Black Americans had this purpose because they were so marginalised in society; they lived life to the full because life was on the edge for them.

The essay is not especially offensive. It relies on crude stereotypes about black people to advance its points, but it’s not The Turner Diaries. If anything will truly cancel Mailer, it is not outrage but indifference. How many people under 40 still read his work today?

In his own time the satyr was never marginalised by the American cultural establishment. In fact, his career was enabled by the fact that post-war America opened the door to things it had previously seen as threatening. Mailer was a straight white man, and so the cancellation of his essay collection could be seen as another strike against an enduring hierarchy. But he was also a Jew, and when he was growing up, many of America’s top universities, like Harvard and Yale, had quotas that limited the number of Jews they took in.

And so Mailer became the Don Juan of the literary world: Alfred Kazin once described him as the “Rabbi of screwing”. Norman Podhoretz said he was “immensely preoccupied with the issue of manly courage”. Mailer loved to arm wrestle with strangers and fist fight. This fed his fame. By 1960 he was firmly established as a public intellectual, but he wanted more drama, more violence. That year he decided to run for mayor of New York City. In November, during a party to celebrate his candidacy, he stabbed his wife Adele Morales and nearly killed her. Morales refused to press charges, and Mailer ultimately received probation and a suspended sentence.

He got off not only legally but socially. Rather than cancelling him, many of his contemporaries supported him. James Baldwin saw Mailer’s violence as a form of emancipation: “It is like burning down the house in order, at last, to be free of it”. Lionel Trilling, one of the most distinguished critics in America, saw it as a “Dostoyevkian ploy”, a way for Mailer to “test the limits of evil in himself”. In 1969, Mailer decided to run for Mayor of New York again. He was encouraged to do so by his friend, the feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

So Mailer’s relationship with women is not straightforward. Kate Millett tried to make it seem so, in her book Sexual Politics: she condemned him for misogyny. In response, Mailer wrote “The Prisoner of Sex” for Harper’s magazine, in March 1971. His dispute with the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, he wrote, was its evasive attitude to biology. Women, because of their reproductive capacities, were men’s “only connection to the future”. But feminists sought to disentangle themselves from this reality. Women, he wrote, “were a step, or a stage, or a move or a leap nearer the creation of existence”. Without women, men would be deracinated: what would be the point of living if you can’t pass on your genes?

Although Mailer slept with many women, he denounced contraception. Every fuck was meaningful to him. Sex was an existential force, rather than a recreational activity. And this partly explains his appeal: he scrutinised life with a passionate intensity. This is insane, you think, reading some of his work. But you can’t stop reading. His seriousness can be invigorating.

This explains, I think, why Joan Didion — who has been canonised as a feminist saint after her recent death — endorsed Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex,” writing that his view “strikes me as exactly right”. Didion herself wrote a critical essay in 1972 about feminism, arguing that the movement was becoming trivial and infantilising: “Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children.” The novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who tweeted her irritation at the cancellation of the new Mailer essay collection, was also sympathetic to “The Prisoner of Sex,” writing that Mailer “is shameless in his passion for women, and one is led to believe anything he says because he says it so well”.

Shameless is the perfect word for Mailer. He was invited to participate in the Town Hall debate in April 1971, sponsored by New York University and the Theater for Ideas, on the topic of women’s liberation. The panel included Germaine Greer. He was his usual abrasive self, threatening at one time, in response to jeers from the audience, to expose himself:

“If you wish me to act the clown, I’ll take out my modest little Jewish dick and put it on the table. You can all spit at it and laugh at it, and then I’ll walk away and you’ll find it was just a dildo I left there. I hadn’t shown you the real one.”

He also exposed himself in his writings, which can be compelling, or embarrassing. The two are inextricable: he risked embarrassment constantly because he was so naked in his passions and ambitions and insecurities. He stalked the twentieth century like a proud satyr: hideous, provocative, funny and insightful, and always true to himself.

This could make him a good fit for our time, where explicitness is tolerated, even if the explicitness we tolerate is often shrouded in paradoxes. We have the increasingly byzantine etiquette of online dating, but we can also watch anal gang bangs with a couple of clicks. Some contemporary figures are cancelled because they openly believe in biological sex, while some historical figures who promoted sex with children are celebrated.

Obscenity was treated in a less hypocritical and more transparent way in the past. We still have taboos; but it’s increasingly unclear what they are now. It seems Mailer isn’t being censured for nearly killing his wife, but for writing an essay about black people in an overly enthusiastic way.

He’d probably be delighted. The brouhaha with Random House will likely make more people pick up and read Mailer’s work; and he would rather be loudly castigated than consigned to obscurity. This attempt to bury him may undermine a more efficient form of cancellation — cultural amnesia.

Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which will be published by Atlantic in June.