Tuesday, August 9, 2011
August 9, 2011: Narrating Our Battles
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968) isn’t just (as I wrote yesterday) the best book from Normal Mailer’s crazy prolific and diverse decade, nor even Mailer’s best book period; I think it’s one of the great works of 20th century American literature, full stop. There are lots of elements that make it so great, from those that I’ll admit might be somewhat particular to this AmericanStudier’s obsessions (such as the book’s structural division, as stated in the title, into two parts that mirror two different emphases of the phrase “historical novel”) to those that are more universally effective (it’s extremely funny, for example). It’s at once an incredibly detailed and grounded depiction of a particular historical event and moment (a 1967 anti-Vietnam march in which Mailer participated) and a broad engagement with many of the most significant themes and questions at the hearts of America and the 1960s. There’s no question that it’s a Norman Mailer book—the writer’s trademark ego is prominently on display throughout—but to my mind likewise no question of its greatness.
There are also, however, very specific, contemporary reasons to read Armies in August 2011. The book’s occasion is a protest, or more exactly two distinct protests: the first a reading and lecture by Mailer, based on his 1967 novel Why Are We In Vietnam?; the second the following day’s anti-war march. In part the inclusion of the former protest reflects that famous Mailer ego, as it allows Mailer to feature himself and his exploits far more than would be possible in an account solely of the march (during which he was arrested, but which nonetheless featured some 200,000 protesters rather than just one drunken and belligerent writer). But in part the two protests mirror the book’s two structural sections and their interconnected yet distinct categories of history and novel: the march being, from its origins and purposes on, very much a self-consciously historical event, a grappling with the era’s biggest issues on America’s most mythologizing stage; while the lecture, on the other hand, represents a likewise purposeful and complex act of story-telling, a fictionalization of self and of history in equal measure. That doesn’t mean that Mailer necessarily privileges the lecture over the march, but it does, in my reading, allow the former to influence the latter, set the stage for the march through the lecture’s emphasis on story-telling and narratives.
It would be crazy to suggest that Mailer’s semi-coherent lecture had as much historical or national meaning as, or even influenced its own moment or audience as much as, the following day’s march. But it would not be nearly as crazy to note that protests, like any other events, are often and mostly meaningful in direct correlation to how they’re narrated, to the representations they receive in the media (it’s no coincidence that Mailer begins the book with a quote from Time), to the stories that are told of them. In fact, such questions of narration are particularly salient for protests and other similar social and political events—since these events will always be judged through the lens of their effects, of the impacts and changes they produced, it becomes that much more crucial how they’re represented, by whom, and from what perspective. Moreover, as Mailer’s book makes clear, such narrations have at their best an ability to humanize everyone involved in and impacted by events far more than might otherwise be the case—in Mailer’s hands, not only the many different communities of protesters but also the policeman and national guardsmen become fully-realized American characters, participants in this event who not only retain their humanity, but through it become the heart of an event that illustrates the nation’s divisions but also reflects the larger community to which all Americans still belong (whether they like it or not).
I’m not a postmodernist about the past—I know that historical events happened, independent of (and more significantly than) any subsequent narration of them—and I don’t think Mailer is either; he took part in the march, was arrested in the course of it and spent a weekend in jail as a result, and in those and other ways recognizes its tangible and meaningful realities. Yet as this blog has hopefully illustrated, I believe that no political or cultural or ideological battles are more important than those over narratives, over which stories we tell and how we tell them. Mailer’s book not only exemplifies that idea, but likewise models the kinds of complex and human stories that can comprise a richer and more genuinely communal American history and identity, making it an essential American text for sure. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Great review of Armies by literary critic Alfred Kazin: http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/04/reviews/mailer-armies.html
2) Other accounts from and photos of the 1967 march: http://www.jofreeman.com/photos/Pentagon67.html
3) OPEN: What do you think?