On Norman Mailer’s “A Mysterious Country: The Grace and Fragility of American Democracy”

Norman Mailer cover

“Under all my remarks rests a very unhappy premise. Fascism may be more to the tastes of the ruling powers in America than democracy. That doesn’t mean we’ll become a fascist country tomorrow. There are any number of extensive forces in America that would resist it. There are also huge forces in America that are promoting fascism, one way or another…” So wrote Norman Mailer in The Big Empty (2006), published a year before his death in 2007. He had been pressing the point since his first novel The Naked and the Dead in 1948 when he was twenty-five years old.

Edited and introduced by Mailer biographer J. Michael Lennon and John Buffalo Mailer, A Mysterious Country: The Grace and Fragility of American Democracy, published to commemorate the centennial of Mailer’s birth in 1923, collects Mailer’s contemporary agon and prescient arguments with an American brand of fascism. Early evidence of his preoccupation with this, and with the fetishization of technology, is evident in a letter sent from the Philippines to his first wife Beatrice between the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

By the mid-1950s, Mailer had assimilated much of Wilhelm Reich’s work, not least that published during the 1933 ascendence of Nazism: The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Character Analysis, the latter in a revised 1948 edition. Also vital to Mailer’s philosophy was his détournement of The Function of the Orgasm. Indeed, The Function of the Orgasm was central to the fifties counterculture, even as it was frequently misunderstood. Not only libidinal energies, but also the mass cultural pathology that Reich termed the Emotional Plague hangs over much of Mailer’s political writing. Collected in A Mysterious Country from 1963’s The Presidential Papers: “We suffer from a disease. It is a disease which afflicts almost all of us by now, so prevalent, insidious, and indefinable that I call it a plague. I think somewhere, at some debatable point in history, it is possible that man caught some unspeakable illness of the psyche, that he betrayed some secret of his being and so betrayed the future of his species.” Included in this idea of plague are plastics and corporations, all that alienates humanity from Nature.

As in Reich, that illness is totalitarian and paranoid in its forms, collectivist and censorious in its expression. We recognize this, do we not? Again from 1963, although it might be 2023: “Face to face with an enemy they cannot name, there are still many people on the Right Wing who sense that there seems to be almost palpable conspiracy to tear life away from its roots. There is a biological rage at the heart of much Right Wing polemic. They feel as is somebody, or some group—in New York no doubt—are trying to poison the very earth, air and water of their existence. In their mind, this plague is associated with collectivism, and I am not so sure they are wrong.” Mailer’s identification of this biopathic anxiety surely pertains to our moment: the Right and Left wing responding viscerally to both the merely perceived and the palpably totalitarian impulses in the other. 

From Cannibals and Christians, the editors select Mailer’s searing indictment of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam war, a speech before ten thousand at Berkeley in 1965. The speech is remarkable for its analysis of Johnson’s psychic alienation, and the audacious notion that one might reconsider the President as suffering an existential crisis that left him close to insanity with a monstrous apparatus to hand, and that this was the nation as constituted then, and as it is now. Johnson, Mailer announces, and not without trepidation, “might not be a whole man so much as he was alienated, a modern man, a member in a most curious sense of a minority group.” And to the extent that it diagnoses our present anxieties, it is worth quoting at length. 

“What characterizes a member of a minority group is that he is forced to see himself as both exceptional and insignificant, marvelous and awful, good and evil. So far as he listens to the outside world he is in danger of going insane. The only way he may relieve the unendurable tension which surrounds any sense of his own identity is to define his nature by his own acts; discover his courage or cowardice by actions which engage his courage; discover his judgment by judging, his loyalty by being tested; his originality by creating. A Negro or a Texan, a President or a housewife, is by this definition a member of a minority group if he contains two opposed notions of himself at the same time. What characterizes the sensation of being a member of minority group is that one’s emotions are forever locked in the chains of ambivalence—the expression of an emotion forever releasing its opposite—the ego in perpetual transit from the tower to the dungeon and back again. By this definition nearly everyone in America is a member of a minority group, alienated from the self by a double sense of identity and so at the mercy of a self which demands action and more action to define the most rudimentary border of identity. It is a demand that will either kill a brave man or force him to grow, but when a coward is put in need of such action he tears the wings off flies.” 

Mailer is right. The Q-Anon conspiracist and the civil rights activist, irrespective of the merits of their concerns, experience the qualities of their alienation equally. Democracy is a grace, in Mailer’s terms, in which “by nature of its moral assumptions, has to grow in moral depth, or commence to deteriorate. So the constant danger that besets it is the downward pull of fascism.” This ambivalence in America manifests in “not only a love of freedom, but a wretchedness of spirit that can look for its opposite—as identified with the notion of order and control from above.” Totalitarianism erases complexity. Mailer saw it embodied in the bad cop who can “tolerate little in the way of insult, and virtually no contradiction,” that authority with a bad conscience which astounds the ordinary citizen when it is abruptly encountered. 

Joan Didion admired Mailer’s instinctive “great social eye.” This, she said, “is not the eye for the brand name, not at all the eye of a Mary McCarthy or a Philip Roth. It is rather some fascination with the heart of the structure, some deep feeling for the mysteries of power.” She also argued that Mailer’s An American Dream might be “the only serious New York novel since The Great Gatsby. There is in Mailer’s (and Didion’s) ‘left conservative’ analysis a quality that is timeless, even as it cannot but evoke a certain nostalgia. Unlike Didion, the more lurid vicissitudes of Mailer’s life have, for many, irredeemably eclipsed his best, and left him somewhat verboten and unread today. Ironic for the former ‘prophet of hip’ but then, Mailer frequently acknowledged that being a writer of “monumental disproportions” meant that he would always pay a tithe to the absurd and tragi-comic institution of that being. The catastrophe of the forgetting or denial of Mailer’s prose—worth every ounce of his two Pulitzers, etcetera—is the loss of what is now rare: the existentialist writer willing to risk working himself so high into the frayed rigging of American life. A Mysterious Country should sit well on the writing and reading syllabi of 21st century America, but one suspects that it will not be adopted in the way it should be. In spite, or because of that, the reader who has made it this far should seek it out. 


A Mysterious Country: The Grace and Fragility of American Democracy 
by Norman Mailer; edited by J. Michael Lennon and John Buffalo Mailer
Arcade/Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.; 336 p,


James Reich is a writer and ecopsychologist. Hs is the author of The Moth for the Star (7.13 Books, Sept. 2023) and five other novels with Anti-Oedipus Press and Soft Skull Press. His first full-length nonfiction Wilhelm Reich versus The Flying Saucers is forthcoming from Punctum Books (Spring 2024). He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Learn more at: www.jamesreichbooks.com

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