A Credo for the Living
I must admit that I enjoy this opportunity to write a word or two about my own politics. In the thirties it was common enough for authors to send out a barrage of credos and countercredos, but today—because, perhaps, this is a period of less hope and greater concentration—the tendency has been to pool our efforts in the Progressive Party, and to leave the refinements, the definitions-of-position, to those authors who have deserted the Left to create political parties of three or four members.
A long sentence, the above. My apologies.
Now my own politics, naturally, have a certain relation to The Naked and the Dead.
The Naked and the Dead was a parable. It was a parable about the movement of men through history, and how history operates; and specifically it was a novel about America’s destiny and the historical paths America was to follow after the war. (I was a very ambitious young man at the time I wrote it.) It was not a bitter book. It tried to explore the outrageous proportions of cause and effect, of effort and recompense, in a sick society, and in that sense it is a book with a certain grim humor. Its function was not to seek for affirmations, but meanings, and for that reason perhaps it has been called a novel without hope.
I think actually it is a novel with a great deal of hope. It finds man corrupted, confused to the point of helplessness, but it also finds that there are limits beyond which man cannot be pushed, and it finds that even in man’s corruption and sickness there are yearnings and inarticulate strivings for a better world, a life with more dignity.
I have written these words about “hope,” because hope moves people politically. Although I do not think that “hope” has anything to do with the merits of a novel, I think it has a great deal to do with an author’s political activity or lack of it.
Thus, with a delay or two, we come to the credo. I suppose that politically I am an ignorant Marxist. I mean by that a confession that I cannot in all honesty call myself a Marxist when I have read so few of the basic works of Marxist theory. But politically in terms of specific objectives, of specific legislation and specific projects, I am in agreement with a great many tenets of the Left. To focus it more finely I might say that I feel myself to the left of the Progressive Party and to the right of the Communist Party.
I have come to this station by way of certain basic assumptions. I feel, and this is most directly important, that the need today is to approach “issues and questions”—those ponderous words which are the bane of all leftist writing—with an attitude that problems are complex, and their solutions are complex. Out of the swill and the honey which has been strewn over the Soviet Union, it is rarely stated that the USSR is an immense country, and that evaluations of it must be as many-faceted and various as evaluations of the United States.
A book which saw America through a Negro chain gang in Georgia, or from a nightclub on Fifty-Second Street or from a peaceful farm in Iowa, would be hardly a definitive work on the United States. By the same token almost every approach to the USSR has been that limited and that special. It is my diffident opinion that Russia is neither Arcadia nor a black police state in which every man slaughters his brother. It is an immense nation with wonderful things and bad things, and it is a state which like all states is in the midst of a historical process, and is moving and changing.
But when the last war ended, it was not Russia which sought to take over Europe by force. It was the United States. A deep revolutionary movement that was spontaneous and natural, and came to being out of the miseries and lessons of the Second World War, was created in Western Europe. Communism was the answer for Western Europe, and it would have been a more satisfactory answer than the mangle of present-day political life there. We opposed it as a nation not because Communism in Europe would have been a threat to America’s existence, but because it would have been a threat to the present economic organization of America.
It is perfectly ridiculous to assume that if Europe had gone Communist, Russia would have engaged in a war with us. Both Russia and the countries of Western Europe would have had their own crucial problems of reconstruction. It would have taken decades, as it may now take centuries, to have restored those countries to healthy productive societies. In the process America would have been influenced by what was occurring in Europe, might gradually and peacefully have oriented itself toward socialism.
That would have meant the end of the present ruling society in America. And in the instinctive appreciation of a dangerous problem that ruling societies always exhibit, the campaign to identify the Soviet Union with the worst ogres of a nightmare was begun. Its success was a reflection of the neurosis of America.
America is in a moral wilderness today, torn between a Christian ethic now enfeebled, a capitalist ethic, and a new sexual ethic whose essence is sadistic. When one contemplates the staggering frustrations and animosities of American life, I think there is hope to be found in the fact that there is resistance, and that there is a political party, the Progressive Party, which will poll millions of votes, millions of protests, against the campaign to make America fascist in preference to letting it move socialist.
My hope for the future depends upon more than those millions of votes. It is heartening for us to remember that the economic rulers of America have their problems too. They have satisfied temporarily the spiritual frustration of America life by feeding Americans upon anti-Russian hysteria. But hatred, except in rare cases, is only a temporary food. The basic problems of Americans, the spiritual problems, remain unsolved, and there is no way short of fascism or war for the present ruling groups to solve those problems.
There is resistance to fascism, and there is resistance to war. I think it is childish of us to assume that it is impossible for Americans to move toward the Progressive Party. History is filled with waves and counterwaves. My hope and my belief in America is that unlike Germany, there will be more and more resistance created as we move closer to the solution of the fascism and war that the reactionaries will present us.
In the meantime I will act politically for those things in which I believe. If it will take courage so much the better. We shall all find our courage. The beauty in man is that under the press of circumstances he develops what he must possess.
For Freud it was unthinkable not to have a civilization—no matter what price must be paid in individual suffering, in neurosis, in the alienation of man from his instincts, the alternative—a return to barbarism, to the primitive, was simply beyond the cultural shaping of Freud’s life. As a lower-middle-class middle-European Jew who rose in bourgeois society, he was not only the mirror but finally the essence of German culture. It could be argued that the nature of the Jews, the meaning of the Jews, is not to find themselves as a people, but to re-create within themselves, as works of art, the models of a culture which is forever alien to them. So it is possible that the finest understanding of manners, of snobbery, of power, or equally of bourgeois stability can be grasped only by an outsider who can never take such values for granted but must acquire them by imaginative exercises of will, talent, and social courage. Freud was not born to become a respected young neurologist in Viennese medical society at the age of forty; it took the application of his early ambition, the subjugation of a good part of his more rebellious instincts, to acquire the training, the habits, and the manners of a Viennese doctor. No surprise, then, if at the moment of engaging his second career, with that long heroic passage through the underwater currents of the dream, at whose end he was to create no less than the most pervasive religion of the twentieth century, the rational gloomy ethic of psychoanalysis, it was enough to ask of him that he be ready to turn the foundations of Western society into a new view of marriage, family, and man. One could hardly ask for more: that the view be revolutionary, that the search be not for foundations but dynamic. Freud was ready to endanger his security in the bourgeois world [he had attained] in order to save that world—his unadmitted love was always for the middle class, but it was simply not within the bounds of one hero to wreak two upheavals upon thought. Society was sick, Freud could see it, but of necessity the answer for him was to redefine the nature of man in such a way as to keep society intact and Freud in his study and consulting room. If civilization was top-heavy in its structures and institutions, and instinct was therefore crippled in its expression, and able to achieve beauty (melancholy beauty, be it said) only through sublimation, then so it must be. Man, for whatever reason, and the ultimate reason was mysterious—Freud had no flair for the mystical—man for whatever reason must accept himself as a crippled being who could become less crippled but never whole—in return his civilization would presumably evolve and become less tragic. But it was a spartan view. In return for austerity, and pure psychoanalysis was austere, severe, unrelenting (as opposed to the more amiable and friendly varieties which proliferate in a pleasure-loving America today), man would at least be given the dignity of maintaining his civilization. How middle-class and Jewish this is can hardly be exaggerated. Part of the paradox in Freud’s style of mind was that he was capable of the finest intellectual distinctions, and the subtlest engagements of the opposite point of view in debate, while possessing almost no original capacity as a philosopher. At a very high level, he is the Jewish businessman raised to apotheosis, [even to the cigar,] and the sum of his philosophy in a depressed state could come to not much more than the heavy sigh of: “I’ve never had a particularly good time in my life, and the world is dog eat dog, but I’ve raised a family and I’ve taken care of them, and who knows, the kids never listen to the parents anyway, but maybe they’ll make a better world, although I doubt it. The big thing is to do your duty, ’cause otherwise it would all be chaos. I mean, where would we be if everybody went around doing what they wanted to do?”
This gloomy view could be maintained in Freud’s time, at least until the First World War; afterward, Freud’s sense of the possibilities darkened further, his speculative toe entered the new deep waters of mysticism as Thanatos was added to Eros, the death instinct engaged in a dialectic with libido. But mysticism is the executioner of the middle-class ethic. The stability of the bourgeois has always depended upon a schizophrenic separation of the power of religion-as-an-institution from religion as a personal revelation of Heaven, Hell, Eternity, the soul, God, and human destiny. Mysticism has the nasty faculty of joining one’s public and private life, it presents as its ultimate threat the subordination of reason to instinct, even as society rules instinct by reason. Freud was the last genius of twentieth-century society, only the epigones have followed. And as he was dying in 1939, the wreckage of his world was about him, the last engineer of civilization was hearing the bulkheads blow as he went under into that dark night about which he had refused to speculate.
And a dark night it was, because the war upon instinct which was the progressive rationale of the nineteenth century, the—for so long it seemed victorious—achievement of the Victorian period, was blown beyond recognition in the concentration camps and the atomic bomb. The dam of civilization burst before pent‑up floods of instinct, and even as gates were carried away in the wash, so the crippling irony remained, the debris of civilization dissolved into the instinct, and altered the language of instinct; men were not murdered by the million but liquidated, atomic residue was not a slow fatality but a fallout. Perhaps it is better to use Freud’s image of the rider and the steed, reason controlling instinct, superego the reins, id the horse, and the rider as ego encouraging or punishing the separate heats of the animal. By that image, the wildness of the horse is controlled at the expense of the horseman’s fatigue, but one goes where one wishes to go, if not always at the desired rate. This was the central image of Freud’s psychology, civilization mounted upon the noble savage, but the results were unexpected. For the animal was controlled not a little too much but incommensurately too much, and as it came closer to death, so the horse went wild and headed for a cliff. But the rider was also insane, his fatigue was equally cruel, horse and rider had never been suited to one another, and in the gallop to the cliff, the rider was using his spurs, not his reins, they are at the moment of danger of leaping over together, each of them poisoned, berserk with frustration.
With Freud’s love for the English, the idea must have been that somehow one would muddle through.
It would not be worth saying Freud had an umbilical respect for the meanings of anxiety and dread, if it were not that his disciples have reduced these concepts to alarm bells and rattles of malfunction in a psychic machine. Anxiety and dread are treated by them as facts, as the clashing of gears in a neurotic net. The primitive understanding of dread—that one was caught in a dialogue with gods, devils, and spirits, and so was naturally consumed with awe, shame, and terror, has been all but forgotten. We are taught that we feel anxiety because we are driven by unconscious impulses which are socially unacceptable; dread we are told is a repetition of infantile experiences of helplessness. It is induced in us by situations which remind our unconscious of weaning and other early deprivations. What is never discussed: the possibility that we feel anxiety because we are in danger of losing some part or quality of soul unless we act, and not dangerously; or the likelihood that we feel dread when intimations of our death inspire us with disproportionate terror, a horror not merely because we are going to die, but to the contrary because we are going to die badly and suffer some unendurable stricture of eternity.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Mind of an Outlaw by Norman Mailer. Copyright © 2013 by Norman Mailer. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.