Narcissus revisited: Norman Mailer and the twentieth century avant-garde
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This thesis examines the American novelist Norman Mailer’s relationship to the 20th century avant-garde. Mailer is often remembered as a pioneer in the new documentary modes of subjective non-fiction of the sixties. Looking beyond the decade’s themes of fact and fiction, this thesis opens up Mailer’s aesthetics in general to other areas of historical and theoretical enquiry, primarily art history and psychoanalysis. In doing so, it argues that Mailer’s work represents a thoroughgoing aesthetic and political response to modernism in the arts, a response that in turn fuels a critical opposition to postmodern aesthetics. Two key ideas are explored here. The first is narcissism. In the sixties, Mailer was an avatar of what Christopher Lasch called the “culture of narcissism”. The self-advertising non-fiction was related to an emerging postmodern self-consciousness in the novel. Yet the myth of Narcissus has a longer history in the story of modernist aesthetics. Starting with the concept’s early articulation by Freudian psychoanalysis, this thesis argues that narcissism was for Mailer central to human subjectivity in the 20th century. It was also a defining trait of technological modernity in the wake of the atom bomb and the Holocaust. Mailer, then, wasn’t just concerned with the aesthetics of narcissism: he was also deeply concerned with its ethics. Its logic is key to almost every major theme of his work: technology, war, fascist charisma, sexuality, masculinity, criminality, politics, art, media and fame. This thesis will also examine how narcissism was related for Mailer to themes of trauma, violence, facing and recognition. The second idea that informs this thesis is the theoretical question of “the real”. A later generation of postmodernists thought that Mailer’s initially radical work was excessively grounded in documentary and traditional literary realism. Yet while the question of realism was central for Mailer, he approached this question from a modernist standpoint. He identified with the modernist perspectivism of Picasso and his eclectic “attacks on reality”, and brought this modernist humanism to a critical analysis of postmodernism. The postwar (and ongoing) debates about postmodern and realism in the novel connect in Mailer, I argue, to what Hal Foster calls the “return of the real” in the 20th century avant-garde. This thesis also links Mailer to psychoanalytical views on trauma and violence; anti-idealist philosophy in Bataille and Adorno; and later postmodern art historical engagements with realism and simulation. Mailer’s view was that a hunger for the real was an effect of a desensitising (post)modernity. While the key decade is the sixties, the study begins in 1948 with Mailer’s first novel The Naked and the Dead, and ends at the height of the postmodern eighties. Drawing on a range of postmodern theory, this thesis argues that Mailer’s fiction sought to confront postmodern reality without ceding to the absurdity of the postmodern novel. The thesis also traces Mailer’s relationship to a range of contemporary art and visual culture, including Pop Art (and Warhol in particular), and avant-garde and postmodern cinema. This study also draws on a broad range of psychoanalytical, feminist and cultural theory to explore Mailer’s often troubled relationship to narcissism, masculinity and sexuality. The thesis engages a complex history of feminist perspectives on Mailer, and argues that while feminist critique remains necessary for a reading of his work, it is not sufficient to account for his restless exploration of masculinity as a subject. In chapter 7, the thesis also discusses Mailer’s much-criticised romantic fascination with black culture in the context of postcolonial politics.