Cultural Cohesion, p.50Clive James
Mailer doesn’t want famous people to mean as little as the sceptical tongue says they do. To some extent he is right. There is an excitement in someone like Marilyn Monroe coming out of nowhere to find herself conquering America, and there is a benediction in the happiness she could sometimes project from the middle of her anguish. Without Mailer’s receptivity we would not have been given the full impact of these things; just as if he had listened to the liberal line on the space programme we would not have been given those enthralling moments in A Fire on the Moon when the launch vehicle pulls free of its bolts, or when the mission passes from the grip of the Earth into the embrace of its target—moments as absorbing as our first toys. Mailer’s shamelessness says that there are people and events which mean more than we in our dignity are ready to allow. He has nearly always been right. But when he starts saying that in that case they might as well mean what he wants them to mean, the fictionalist has overstepped the mark, since the patterning that strengthens fiction weakens fact.
. . .
Mailer’s Marilyn is a usurper, a democratic monarch reigning by dint of the allegiance of an intellectual aristocrat, the power of whose regency has gone to his head. Mailer has forgotten that Marilyn was the people’s choice before she was his, and that in echoing the people he is sacrificing his individuality on the altar of perversity. Sergius already had the sickness:
Then I could feel her as something I had conquered, could listen to her wounded breathing, and believe that no matter how she acted other times, these moments were Lulu, as if her flesh murmured words more real than her lips. To the pride of having so beautiful a girl was added the bigger pride of knowing that I took her with the cheers of millions behind me. Poor millions with their low roar!
At the end of The Deer Park the dying Eitel tells Sergius by telepathy that the world we may create is more real to us than the mummery of what happens, passes and is gone. Whichever way Sergius decided, Mailer seems finally to have concluded that the two are the same thing. More than any of his essays so far, Marilyn tries to give the mummery of what happens the majestic gravity of a created world. And as he has so often done before, he makes even the most self-assured of us wonder if we have felt deeply enough, looked long enough, lived hard enough. He comes close to making us doubt our conviction that in a morass of pettiness no great issues are being decided. We benefit from the doubt. But the price he pays for being able to induce it is savage, and Nietzche’s admonition is beginning to apply. He has gazed too long into the abyss, and now the abyss is gazing into him. Bereft of judgement, detachment or even a tinge of irony, Marilyn is an opulent but slavish expression of an empty consensus. The low roar of the poor millions is in every page.
Commentary, October 1973; later included in
At the Pillars of Hercules, 1979
Years later, when I finally met Norman Mailer in the back of a limousine in New York, he generously neglected to punch me out for a review he must have thought unfair. He certainly could have decked me had he wished, and in the limo I would not have had far to fall. I never saw a more threatening neck on a writer: his ears sat on top of it like bookends on a mantelpiece. But on this occasion he was civility itself. Perhaps he remembered that I had studded my diatribe with tributes to his gift. In retrospect I only wish that there had been more of them. Opportunities to register gratitude should never be neglected, and gratitude is what I have always felt for Mailer, over and above—or should it be under and below?—the inevitable exasperation. A Fire on the Moon (called Of a Fire on the Moon in the United States: a striding title crippled by an extra word) was to remain one of my models for how prose can reflect the adventure of high technology without lapsing into a hi-fi buff’s nerdish fervour, and later he restored himself triumphantly as a writer of fiction with the remarkable Harlot’s Ghost. But I still think he got it all wrong about Marilyn Monroe. He was right to think that film stardom hasn’t got much to do with acting talent. He was just wrong about the talent. In conversation it might have been edifying, if dangerous, to pursue the point, but as I remember it he raised the subject of Iris Murdoch. Since there were about half a dozen other people in the car better qualified to pursue that topic than I, my colloquy with the patriarch was soon suspended, along with any chance of a fist fight.
It was a pity Mailer ever saddled himself with a reputation as a brawler, because in the New York literary context fisticuffs rate as a hopelessly anachronistic weapons system. At the kind invitation of Norman Podhoretz of Commentary, my review of Mailer’s Marilyn was the first big piece I published in the United States. Not long afterwards, Robert Silvers asked me to write for the New York Review of Books, whose personnel felt about the Commentary crowd the way Iraq later felt about Iran. It was an ideological battlefield, and the free-floating contributor was very likely to get zapped in the contending force-fields of influence. Later on I moved to The New Yorker and fancied that I had got above the battle, but I never moved to New York. Fed Ex, fax and then e-mail made it steadily more easy to maintain a safely detached participation in a literary scene that resembled a John Carpenter movie with better dialogue. (Exercise: armed with a video of Escape from New York and a list of prominent Manhattan culturati, recast the roles of the Duke, Brains, Cabbie and that babe with the big maracas. Keep the Kurt Russell part for yourself.) It helps to know one’s weaknesses, and the hypertrophied celebrity culture in New York appeals too much to my sweet tooth. In London I find it hard enough to preserve my rule not to be quoted on anything that I am not prepared to write about. In New York, where not to be quoted is to be considered dead, pressure from publishers would soon make it compulsory to succumb. Mailer himself is a case in point. After the criminal Jack Abbott, for whose release Mailer had campaigned, celebrated his freedom by murdering a waiter who looked at him sideways, Mailer was caught saying that Abbott’s action might have had some redeeming use as a “challenge to the suburbs.” But he would never have been caught writing something so callously foolish. Writers should stay off the air unless they can keep their equilibrium, and the media in the United States devote a lot of money and effort to making sure you can’t keep that.
Reliable Essays, 2001
FROM LOG CABIN
TO LOG CABIN
RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon
Largely deservedly, Richard Nixon is in such low repute that it is hard to give him credit for anything without sounding capricious. Yet it must be said, in the teeth of all expectation, that his Memoirs constitute a readable book of no small literary merit and considerable human dignity. Doubtless there are ghostwriters in the picture somewhere; in the acknowledgements a large number of secretaries and editors receive thanks; but if a committee wrote this book, it was one of those rare committees which, setting out to design a horse, actually succeed in designing a horse instead of a camel.
Nixon has done many reprehensible things in his career and in a way this book is just one more of them. By internal contradictions alone, quite apart from evidence that can be brought up from outside, it is a book patently full of half-truths and false conclusions. But it is not a mean book. Nixon’s faults are all on view, but so is the fact that they are faults in something substantial. His claims to a place in history are shown to be not all that absurd. He will be harder to mock from now on, although perhaps even easier to distrust.
Such a judgement should emerge naturally from any fair reading of the text. A fair reading, however, might well be prejudiced by an initial glance at the copious photographs. Featuring a hero described in the captions as RN, these tend to show Nixon at his most bogusly histrionic. During the Hiss case he profiles like a concave Dick Tracy while examining the “pumpkin papers” through a magnifying glass. His dog Checkers helps him read the newspaper on a bench in Central Park. There is a supposedly eloquent photograph of construction-union leaders’ safety-helmets arranged on a White House table as an endorsement for Nixon’s Cambodian adventure, with nothi
The text proper is more than a thousand pages long. Most people who tackle it at all will probably start near the end, to find out what the author (for practical reasons I shall assume this to be Nixon himself) says about Watergate. But there are good reasons for beginning at the beginning and reading the whole way through. For one thing, it’s a good story. Nixon’s anabasis was the classic journey from log cabin to White House, and the early stages of the trip are made no less absorbing by the consideration that he was later obliged to retrace a portion of the itinerary from White House to log cabin.
Nixon’s poor-but-honest Quaker background in Depression-era California is celebrated with all-American pride. The scene setting is like watered-down Steinbeck, but there is a certain gusto in the way the clichés are deployed, and the prose is grammatical. (As, indeed, it is throughout the book: apart from a solitary use of “credence” for “credibility” there are no solecisms.) Nixon’s father is portrayed as a strong-willed populist, his mother as an exemplar of “inner peace.” There are deaths in the family. There is no money. But deprivation is material not spiritual. At Whittier High School Nixon plays Aeneas in a production marking the two-thousandth anniversary of Virgil’s death. Working his way through Whittier College, in his junior year he reads Tolstoy. Winning a place at Duke University Law School in North Carolina, he strengthens his mind with the unyielding facts of case law.
The emphasis is always on self-help. The boy Nixon professed liberalism with a populist tinge, but in effect he was already a conservative. He was always for a free economy as opposed to a managed one. He was thus a Republican from the outset. His political beliefs are the most honest things about him and it is doubtful if they ever varied. Since they were hard won, in circumstances which favoured the opposite case—if any family stood to gain from the Democratic Party, the New Deal and the welfare mentality, it was the Nixons—he should be given credit for his independence of mind.
Even when young, Nixon can never have been a charming figure, but he has every right to be proud of his upbringing. Later in life, especially after his defeat by Kennedy, it became an article of liberal belief that Nixon was embittered by resentment of the Eastern establishment and its fancy Ivy League ways. In particular he was supposed to be eaten up by envy of the Kennedys. If any of this was ever true, he has done a thorough job of covering it up in his memoirs. But there is good cause to suppose that Nixon’s undoubted vindictiveness was more against liberalism as a philosophy than against the Eastern establishment as an institution. Nixon felt that liberals were fashion-conscious, changeable and unscrupulous. He felt that they would get him if he did not get them. In the end his obsession with this point led to his downfall. But we will fail to understand the strength of Nixon’s mind, and the breadth of his political appeal, if we suppose that his fixations were energized by nothing except spite.
It is better to be a poor boy who makes good than a rich man’s son. This general truth becomes particularly true when you compare Nixon and Kennedy according to criteria more telling than mere points of style. Nixon knew American society and politics from the ground up. Kennedy had the shallowness of the man who starts at the top. Nixon has his gaucheries, but they have always been part of the whole man. The Kennedy clan thought that Nixon lacked class. It was never strictly true, but even if it had been, there are worse things to lack. In the long view corn looks better than chic. Kennedy pretended to admire Casals. Nixon honestly thought that Richard Rodgers’s score for Victory at Sea was great music. Nixon was the one who could actually play the piano. Nixon’s homely enthusiasms were in fact part of his strength.
Unfortunately for himself, America and the world, Nixon could never see his strength for what it was. He was forever augmenting it with unnecessary cunning. If he had been less clever he might have lasted longer. But he always felt that he needed an edge—he had to get the bulge on the other guy. He claims to have joined the House Committee on Un-American Activities with “considerable reluctance.” You would think from his account of the Hiss case that he had conducted the prosecution in a temperate manner. He is careful to dissociate himself from McCarthy, whose own juggernaut was soon to get rolling. But on any objective view, Nixon behaved like a demagogue throughout the hearings. Whether Hiss was guilty or not is a separate issue. Nixon tries to make Hiss’s guilt a matter of historic importance, but in fact the historic importance has all to do with the way Nixon used the Fifth Amendment to undermine the spirit of the First Amendment. Nixon pioneered the McCarthyite technique of establishing silence as an admission of guilt. It was Nixon who gave McCarthy the courage to be born.
The House Committee was a Star Chamber. Nixon still professes to assume that Hiss invited suspicion by being mistrustful of the Committee. But only a fool would have expected to be tried fairly by such methods. The point recurs awkwardly a thousand pages later, when the author can be heard protesting that his own trial by Senate Judiciary Committee is a travesty of justice. If Nixon objects to the methods by which his Presidency was destroyed, then he should repudiate the methods by which he destroyed Hiss. They were the same methods. He claims that Sam Ervin and the other Watergate committee members were publicity seekers. But what, on his own admission, did the Hiss case bring him? It brought him “publicity on a scale that most congressmen only dream of achieving.”
And so he was off and running—running for President. He pretends, characteristically, that such thoughts were not yet in his mind. Quoting Harry Truman’s observation that the Vice-Presidency is about as useful as a fifth teat on a cow, he makes out that it was his very innocence of high ambitions which enabled him to take on the job of playing second fiddle to Eisenhower. After all, it was a thankless task. The media applied their double standards, forgiving Adlai Stevenson everything and Nixon nothing. Because Ike was too big to touch, the liberals ganged up on Nixon. Or so Nixon tells it. Certainly the attack over his supposed misuse of campaign funds must have hurt: his first response was the horribly maladroit “Checkers” speech, and the long-term result was an unquenchable hatred of the press. But he usually forgets to say how indiscriminate he himself was accustomed to being when dishing out abuse. The furthest he will go is to say that he had no choice. “Some of the rhetoric I used during the campaign was very rough. Perhaps I was unconsciously overreacting to the attacks made against me.” Someone else was always unscrupulous first. Nixon, says Nixon, would have played clean if they had let him.
During Ike’s 1956 campaign Nixon tries to fight high-mindedly, but he can feel that people are disappointed. They want him to be tough against the ruthless Stevenson. This is Nixon’s message throughout: the liberal-dominated media might be against him, but the pulse from the grass roots is the country’s true heartbeat. Nixon could already hear the low roar of the silent majority long before he gave it a name. Its good wishes sustained him in adversity, which arrived in 1960, when he lost the Presidential race to Kennedy. In an act of heroic self-sacrifice, Nixon talked Ike out of appearing on his behalf, lest Ike’s heart should give way. Nevertheless he came within a whisker of not losing. He might have won on a recount, but patriotism stopped him asking for one.
As everywhere else in the book, Nixon has only good to say of JFK. But he is scornful of the Kennedy machine. “From this point on I had the wisdom and the wariness of someone who has been burned by the Kennedys and their money and by the licence they were given by the media.” He certainly learned the wariness. One doubts if he learned the wisdom: anger probably exacerbated his natural vindictiveness. It must have been galling for Nixon to see Joe Kennedy’s family being indulged by the press while he himself w
Honourable defeat in the 1960 Presidential race was followed by ignominious disaster in the 1962 California gubernatorial contest and a duly embittered retirement to the wilderness, where the Internal Revenue Service, egged on by the White House, harassed him about his tax returns. (What he did unto others was done unto him first.) Will he run again? On Key Biscayne, Billy Graham and Bebe Rebozo help him decide. Bebe Rebozo is half of a comedy duo, Bebe Rebozo and Bob Abplanalp. It is nowadays fashionable to deride these two as shady characters, although it seems likely that they are just a pair of routinely dreary millionaires. Billy Graham is harder to explain away. Here again we see the real difference between Kennedy and Nixon. Kennedy paid lip service to the Pope. Nixon really believed in Billy Graham. Kennedy was a high-flying cynic. Nixon was low-rent sincere.
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