Norman Mailer

We Are in Love with the Word, Part II

VTR Date: February 1, 1986

Guest: Mailer, Norman



HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. In my introduction to the first program I just finished taping with today’s guest I wished him a happy birthday. Pointing out that yesterday Aquarian Norman Mailer ended January presumably getting not only older but wiser too. And now I want to go right on finding out just how much more so. Not older, but wiser. Mr. Mailer, the program we did on the air last week just a few minutes ago, there were so many things I wanted to ask you about having to do with the PEN conference, having to do with men, women, and children in America. But let me just dance back and forth a little bit. It seemed to me that there was a connection when you were talking about the difficulty of organizing the recent PEN conference with something you had said before. You explained your willingness to do so by saying after you turned 60 you have to take up church work.

MAILER: You get into church work, I think I said.


MAILER: Or did I say you have to take it up?

HEFFNER: You have to take it up. Depending upon what quote you read. But nearly twenty years ago you said about the same thing. About taking up the arduous task of running for mayor of New York. You said, “I am paying.” I believe you said, “I am paying my debt to society, that’s why I’m running.” And I wondered …

MAILER: I said it ironically. Well, I must say, I said it ironically. I don’t believe ever that anyone who’s had a reasonable education should ever say, I’m paying my debt to society. I mean where’s society to collect it. Where’s society’s gate. Where’s the toll booth. No. I was being ironic when I said I’m paying my debt to society.

HEFFNER: You don’t think there is any?

MAILER: Well, I think there might be a debt to God. There may be a debt to the cosmos. There may be a debt to one’s karma.

HEFFNER: Well, why not to society?

MAILER: Society may exact a debt from us. But I’ve never been one of those people who feel we’ve got to pay our debt to society. Society is finally, is that working gaggle of mediocrities who make the social machine work.

HEFFNER: You said gaggle of mediocrities. Before you said, the other program, you said something about the middle class and excellence. It was so interesting, I wonder if you would develop that. Your sense of the purpose.

MAILER: Well, I think after all … Look, it’s been the class of people in general who run society. Up to a point. At least they are the, they work in all the slots. The upper class is finally in control of society and that’s been true for thousands of years. But finally as I say, there’s a tendency for the middle class to get into all the positions of the functionaries. The middle class is besieged on all sides. They’re besieged from beneath by the vitality of the lower classes. And they’re besieged from above by the superior manners of the upper classes. And we’re a besieged group. And as I said before the only excuse for us is the pursuit of excellence. Because that we can do. We generally end up getting fairly good educations. And we can take them further. And we can improve ourselves. And middle class life is the search for improvement. When it comes to the search for more money, or more status, it gets to be a terribly boring life. Life is not even worth satirizing any more.

HEFFNER: It’s funny. I remember a young lady thirty-seven, thirty-eight years ago who walked away from me saying you’re dull and middle class. I couldn’t argue with her about being dull but I did ask her what other class I was supposed to be if not middle class.

MAILER: Well, it’s an enlarged class in America. It’s probably the second largest class, maybe it’s the largest class. But in any event, society is usually filled by the more mediocre representatives of the middle class. Now there are public servants who are devoted and hard working and honest and all that. And I’ve met very few of them. Most public servants end up either to aggrandize themselves or to enrich themselves or because the job is safe or because there’s small demands on them. All these conservative insistences on reducing government which of course, are highly hypocritical since I’m sure President Reagan has increased the amount of government spending since he’s been in. He certainly has increased the national debt which is usually a rough reflection of the size of government. But all this insistence on reducing government does have a real core which is too much government will encourage a flocking of mediocrities to government.

HEFFNER: Do you think that was true of the space program? I went back …

MAILER: No, I don’t think it’s true of the space program.

HEFFNER: What was the difference there?

MAILER: Well, the space program, mind you it’s not, you know if I were to spend a vacation in the place I love most on earth, I don’t think I would pick NASA, you know south of Houston, Nasauville or whatever it was called, I forget what they called the town now. I spent the good part of a year going there off and on when I was writing a book called, A FIRE ON THE MOON. As I say it’s not a place I’d rush to. It’s cold. It’s, the NASA buildings look like a cross between a hospital and a minimum security prison or a modern college. You know, abominable architecture. Cold atmosphere. Computersville. Very tough to take. But there is a great emphasis on excellence at NASA. I mean I would never pretend there are people there who are time servers. Space itself is so thrilling a concept. The idea that we can voyage into space that people put up with the most abominable living conditions. That is, they’ll live with plastic. They’ll listen, they’ll spend their days listening to the quite drone of computers. They’ll live in electronic environments. They’ll put up with tasteless food. And when you get into the astronauts themselves, they put up with huge danger. All because there is something that calls them in this, this extraordinary endeavor.

HEFFNER: But you say …

MAILER: So I wouldn’t say that mediocrity congregates at NASA, no. I think they have any number of excellent people there.

HEFFNER: You talk about this extraordinary effort. You wrote in A FIRE ON THE MOON, and there I’ll go into my superlatives because I remember being so thrilled by it when I read it so many years ago. You wrote, “It was that he, Aquarian, the author, it was that he hardly knew whether the space program was the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity.” Have you come to a conclusion about that yet?

MAILER: No. I think that question continues. Because now we’re getting into Star Wars. And it may be the quintessential expression of our insanity. President Reagan, a most charming man, may be the quintessential expression of our insanity. That is, you know we’re come to the point where we have a man who’s president who can charm the populace and touch their sentimental hot points. I mean he knows Americans far better than I ever will. You know, he’ll say things and I’ll say, my God. American people can’t possibly listen to that balony. And by God they do. They do. They love it. He knows the country far better than I do. He knows how to please people. He knows how to manipulate people. He knows how to say the things that will warm people’s hearts.

HEFFNER: Why don’t you trust him more then if he knows, if he has a knowledge that you don’t?

MAILER: Well, because I never trust a manipulator. A manipulator can know more than I do and can be much more effective in life, but I don’t honor them. I don’t respect them. And I don’t want them leading my life. I don’t want them taking care of the fate of my children. Because a manipulator never knows, in a funny way a manipulator does not know what the end is. But at least, if their … their notion of the end is cynical.

HEFFNER: But you talk about cynical …

MAILER: Let me go on with that because I’m leaving you in a loose place. If you believe the end is noble or worthwhile or deep or cosmically endowed, that the end is finally, is something quintessentially superb or thrilling or divine, then you don’t rush to manipulate other representatives of God’s purpose. If you believe that there is a purpose to our existence and that we are all, that we all, if you will, representatives of God or agents of God or collaborators with God or servants of God. But that we each have a relation to God, then you hesitate to manipulate others who are your equals. Or equally close to God. Because it’s a cheap, vile activity that defies and denies God’s purpose. If you are cynical, if you really don’t believe in God, then you often pay huge lip service to God. You go to church regularly, you advance in the churches, and you move cynically. I’m a Manichean. I believe that the one we call God is … that was the Devil. Because the Devil is nearer to us than God.

HEFFNER: Are you making the assumption that if you do go to church regularly, by definition you are this kind of manipulative person?

MAILER: No. You may often be one of the manipulated. But I do think that many, many of the people who go to church very often have something to hide. Yes.

HEFFNER: But, you’ve gone to church, a church of your own. You’ve worshipped certain ideas.

MAILER: That’s not the same as going to church. Church is a building which you go to. And I wear … the rhetoric is sometimes excellent, but usually isn’t all too good. Where people meet in communion, where people study the Bible, where people do a great many things. I’ve gone to churches now and again as a tourist. I have a great belief in God, but very little belief in churches.

HEFFNER: But why contempt, and it sounds like contempt, for the people who do?

MAILER: I don’t have contempt for them. I know any number of very decent people who go to church all the time. I respect them as decent people, but I sometimes think that their going to church may be the least exciting and least admirable part of them. Now that’s not true for all of them. I never have found any group that I ever say this is true for all of them. You see, if there’s something I hate, to go back to last week, if there’s anything I hate in the woman’s movement is that they make certain absolute assumptions. And one absolute assumption is that if there are more men than women doing something at a given activity, that’s ipso facto bad. May have nothing to do with bad. May just have to do with local competence.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mailer, because when we tape this program, this was the week of Challenger’s, the Space program’s real trouble and the death of brave persons and you wouldn’t deny that the president spoke the mind of the American people. Would you consider that manipulative? His addressing himself to our feelings about these brave people?

MAILER: Well, in this particular case, just because everybody was very moved by it. I mean I’m probably as hard and unsentimental about what I read in the papers as anyone I know. I found that I was moved by it. There was something terribly moving about that schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe meeting her death and the fact that her children were watching was enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. It was very moving. It was upsetting. I think everybody in America was profoundly upset. Somebody I know who, a very intelligent and wise man said to me, I think this is the worst disaster that struck America since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Maybe he’s right. It was a terrible event. And I think, I’m not saying the president’s an unfeeling brute. I did say he’s a great manipulator. I don’t think he had to be a manipulator on this occasion. You could just speak to the occasion.

HEFFNER: Let’s stick with the occasion because it brings up the question that you raised so many years ago in A FIRE ON THE MOON. And I’m trying fully to probe what must be some bet that you would make today in answer to that question. “It was that he hardly knew whether the space program was the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity.” Somewhere you must lean in a direction in one answer or the other.

MAILER: Well, I’m one of the few people I know, maybe I’m patting myself on the back here, but I’m one of the few people I know who like living with large questions that I can’t answer. Because I find that it enriches the mind if you can do it, in that I lean on one side in one season of my life and lean the other way another time. I can give you a very good argument on either side of that, of that particular question.

HEFFNER: But Mr. Mailer, you’re not only a disciple of the ambiguous, you’re a citizen. And you’re going to support actions that answer this question one was or the other. And that’s all that I mean.

MAILER: Well, I think you’re cutting a great many corners when you say I’m a citizen, I’m going to support … I have no chance to vote, you know, I’m taxed but I have no real chance to vote on where those monies go. I mean, do I have a chance to vote on Star Wars? Please tell me how I can vote yea for Star Wars or no for Starwars. The fact of the matter is the average citizen in this country can’t vote on how his taxes are used. You can say he can vote for one congressman or another, but that’s long removed from voting about what’s done with one’s taxes.

HEFFNER: But it’s no longer removed than it ever has been.

MAILER: Well, it’s more removed because the sums are larger and our power relation to it is smaller. If we don’t have power in relation to ten million dollars, that’s one thing. But we don’t have power in relation to a hundred billion dollars. That’s deeper impotence. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I can try putting it another way.

HEFFNER: No, I do understand, but I wonder then the age not of Aquarius, but of impotence. Because there are more of us and the sums get larger and the long division leaves us as smaller and smaller fractions. But what does that lead you to conclude …

MAILER: What it leads me to conclude immediately, let me shift the ground a little, is that if we don’t come to some sort terms with our economic follies, we’re going, and I really must subscribe to the ideas of my old earstwhile friend and then rival Gore Vidal, who says that if we’re not careful, if America and Russia don’t find some way to live together, Japan and China are going to take over the world in the Twenty-first Century. And I think he’s right because their economics, certainly the Japanese economy is not overloaded with the kind of ridiculous expenditures we make …

HEFFNER: What kinds of ridiculous …

MAILER: Our armaments and space, you know, what it costs us is staggering to contemplate.

HEFFNER: But now wait a minute, wait a minute. Is that space expenditure, and I’m not talking about Star Wars, that’s a comparatively new idea. Presumably you would have said this a couple of years ago. Do you think that the expenditures made on space are made poorly?

MAILER: No, I’m not competent to judge that. That is, whether they run a tight ship or a sloppy ship I wouldn’t begin to know. I do think we spend prodigious amounts on space. And we don’t quite know what we’re up to, what we’re doing. And I wouldn’t mind that, mind you. I wouldn’t mind that at all if we didn’t have these extraordinary inequities in the society. That does bother me a great deal. Because, on the other hand, we’re engaged in a tremendously exciting, but dubious venture which I think countries should do, by the way. I don’t pretend to think the way most people do on this. For instance, I am for having people go up into space. Not just having unmanned satellites. Because I think that there’s something awesome and disagreeable and even spooky about sending machines out to do the work for us. It’s a particular form of spiritual exploitation of ourselves. In other words it reduces us further in relation to the machine. It’s important that we have people out there as well as machines. And I do think it’s one of the most exciting activities in the Twentieth Century. Going out in space is wonderful and splendid.

HEFFNER: And not insane.

MAILER: Something can be wonderful and splendid and still be insane. Insanity is at the age of all wonderful and splendid ventures. If they fail, then the person who led them was usually insane. There’s that wonderful story about Fidel Castro that he landed in Cuba with something like eighty-six men and lost all but twelve of them the night he landed because he’d been betrayed. He wandered around in the hills for five days, turned to one of his people one dawn and said, the days of the dictatorship are numbered. We will triumph. At that point, the man who writes the story says, I thought our leader was mad. Well, if Castro had been hit by a sniper’s bullet in the next moment, everyone would have said, of course he was mad. The fact of the matter is that he then went on and he was right. He saw something. He saw something going on in Cuba. Whatever it was, maybe some peasant took them in. That he saw a peasant that wouldn’t have taken them in a year or two before. He saw something that gave him the idea that the days of the dictatorship were numbered. He was a genius. So he won. He triumphed. If he had failed, then he would have been a fool. He would have been insane. There are a great many people who live in this embattled relation to existence. They are taking such enormous chances that they either, if they succeed they’re one thing. If they fail, they are another. That’s what it means to be on the existential edge. It means that you can’t write your own obituary.

HEFFNER: But you would opt for staying on that existential edge with human beings in the space program.

MAILER: Yes. I would opt for it there because I think that the tendency in the Twentieth Century is to destroy all of the existential edge in life. And that to the degree we keep it alive we’re preserving something we can’t quite name.

HEFFNER: There was a kind of a thrill, I thought, when you described the way in which human beings were becoming interchangeable parts as you described …

MAILER: Thrill? No. No. No. There was a certain horror. Why would I be pleased that people are becoming interchangeable parts? What exciting about that?

HEFFNER: Well, that …

MAILER: Mediocrities are interchangeable parts.

HEFFNER: But that was basic to the success of the space program. If those dollars were to be spent successfully, there had to be, I believe, you …

MAILER: No. I would say I was impressed by the way in which you have these test pilots who are highly special individuals with a great sense of gaming and danger and risk. You know, they love to drive their cars, they used to drive Corvettes a hundred miles an hour one foot behind the other, that kind of thing. Play games with one another. Tap the brakes, see if the guy behind hits him or not. That sort of … they really play games on absolutely the edge of things. Yet they submitted to a discipline that was onerous in the extreme. Which is they had to be able to take over for one another. And become in that sense virtually interchangeable parts. That I found interesting as an example of discipline and dedication.

HEFFNER: No way the program could have succeeded without that.

MAILER: No way. No way. Probably no way. I’m just not competent to say whether it could have succeeded without that or not. I think there were decisions made at a certain point to make them interchangeable parts. It might have been more interesting, perhaps, to have had the machines cater to them a little bit more. But leave that alone. I’m just not competent to argue that. I do think something went on with this last shot that was very interesting that no one’s quite talked about. And that is the people who work at NASA are terribly sensitive people in a funny way. They are churchgoers a good many of them. And they are wasps. I mean part of the unspoken scandle of NASA is you won’t find any governmental organization or military organization anywhere in America that is so predominantly wasp to this day. And this organization sees itself as having a religious purpose. Which is America is the religion of people who work at NASA. And they are serving the church of America. And success is terribly important to them and failure injures them in the same way that monks or nuns would be absolutely devastated if they sinned, you see. And they tend to take the blame upon themselves in fascinating ways. And the people who work for NASA are not people who are trying to pass the buck. When they fail, it comes down upon them like a tidal wave. They hate it. They feel that they’ve let America down. They’ve let God down. They’re very devoted, dedicated people. They tend to be insular. And if you’re an outsider, you don’t get to know too much about them. But this is true of them. And one has to honor and respect them for their dedication and their emphasis upon serious work. There are very few people left in America who really work as hard as the people, as the people do at NASA. There was always, in the old days, they were always very backward on publicity. I remember some of the old German rocketeers saying to us, “Ahh, you must help us give a push to the machine” because here they were going to the moon and they had the dullest publicity in the history of publicity. It was incredible. A man was put on the moon and everybody was bored stiff two days later. Two weeks later you couldn’t get a story about NASA into the papers for a while, everyone was so bored with it. Well that was a, you know, their incapacity for publicity was incredible. Since then they’ve taken straws. They took an enormous gamble with Challenger. Absolutely an enormous gamble. They were putting a schoolteacher into space. Going in orbit around the earth. They were going to have the children of America watching. What they were doing in effect is they were seizing the minds of the young. They were attracting the young to space. And they were doing it with a certain sense of risk. Because, while they certainly weren’t prepared for an accident and were terribly shocked when it happened, still we all know that there’s enough about these machines that’s delicate so that you can never be certain what’s going to happen. But they lost on this. They were set back terribly. They were set back a year and a half, two years, whenever. There were children who saw it that will be shocked permanently away from space. They have to, I know the psychology well enough to know, that they have to wonder if this is God speaking to them. Saying your activity is insane. Your activity is not desired by the heavens. Because these are religious people. And I promise you that the one thing that we can know about what went on with NASA and this dreadful accident, this catastrophe, is that they are the ones who are suffering most because of it. Because they are questioning themselves profoundly.

HEFFNER: Why did we as a nation fail to grapple with the real dangers? And I think we did.

MAILER: What dangers, of what?

HEFFNER: The space.

MAILER: No that isn’t true. They grappled and grappled and grappled.
HEFFNER: I’m not talking about NASA. Those of us who watched. So many people said they watched the first few seconds and then of course everything was going to go as it had gone in the past. What an incredible statement about how naïve we were about the real and continuing dangers.

MAILER: Well, NASA, I think has wanted to present, there was a great deal riding on this program. They’ve wanted to present it as relatively routine. Because they wanted to proceed with it.


MAILER: Congress doesn’t vote huge, doesn’t give huge appropriations to fireworks. So, not unless they are put into metal cases and stored in the ground and so forth.

HEFFNER: Tell me, what’s the coincidence of its being such a waspish organization?

MAILER: What’s the reason? I think there are a great many wasps who believe that they’re the only ones who really take care of America and care about it. I think the form it takes is they all collect at NASA.

HEFFNER: It’s a military …

MAILER: It’s a combination of military. It’s military, it’s church, it’s the Weltanschauung of the engineers and the technologs. It’s, they’re very, very serious about what they’re doing. They’re trying to, you know, they live there at NASA. They live to beat the Russians. I mean if they didn’t have the Russians they’d have to invent them. The best thing that ever happened to NASA is when the Russians went up, orbited the earth first. That gave NASA a shock that they’re still riding on.

HEFFNER: You know them because you studied them for …

MAILER: A year. I didn’t know them intimately. I knew them as well as I could get to know them. They were terribly leery about me as you can imagine.

HEFFNER: As a journalist. As a scribbler.

MAILER: Well, it wasn’t that they saw me as a scribbler. They just, their attitude was what’s his imput.

HEFFNER: What was his imput?

MAILER: It was a book that some of them read and some didn’t.

HEFFNER: And do you think that it was one that my estimation, and I’m really asking you to confirm or deny, seemed to be enormously helpful when published in LIFE MAGAZINE, that provided tremendous impetus to our further involvement, to Americans’ further involvement in that program?

MAILER: Well, I think you’re getting a little late in the day for the program because LIFE had been covering the program in the way LIFE did, you know, marvelous photographs and good interesting, topical stories about the program. Positive, upbeat stuff. And then this came along and these were thoughtful pieces after the fact, long after Apollo II had gone to the moon. And, also was just a small part of the book. But I think by then people were tired of reading about it. I think LIFE published it because they told me they were going to publish it and they were men of their word.

HEFFNER: That’s such a strongly modest thing to say. But look, we have …

MAILER: Let me keep myself off balance.

HEFFNER: All right. You mean that’s an unusual posture. We have just a couple of minutes left and all these damn questions that I wanted to ask you. You know we talked about women. Betty Freidan and the objection of the feminists at the PEN meeting. That there weren’t enough women. Nadine Gordimer had said that my observation is that writers are not taken seriously in America. They’re regarded as entertainers while in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union they’re taken so seriously that sometimes they can’t be published at all. An astute, correct observation?

MAILER: Yeh. I would subscribe to that. I agree with that remark.

HEFFNER: You don’t think in this country they’re considered more than entertainers?

MAILER: No. Unhappily. I’m not happy to make that remark. But I think, I think that the only serious writers who are known at all in America are not necessarily the best serious writers, but they’re the ones who are the most capable of offering public entertainment in one variety or another. That used to be true of Capote. It’s now Vidal to a lesser extent. Myself. There aren’t too many writers of that sort. William Buckley, I think of first, is a man who is interested in politics rather than writing. But he would qualify for this category.

HEFFNER: Therefore I have to …

MAILER: Concerning some people like John Irving. Tom Wolfe. Fit in. But there are a great many terribly serious writers who just aren’t known by Americans that well because they don’t appear on television. They’re not entertainers.

HEFFNER: Then what happens to a nation in which that is true?

MAILER: Well, they get a little duller. I think our architecture is getting worse. Over the large part. You know, our cities tend to look more and more alike. Used to be when I was a kid I remember it was exciting to get on a railroad train and go from one city to another. You were entering a world that was virtually like going to another country. Chicago was different from New York. Still is, to a degree. I picked the wrong example. But, if you go, used to be if you went to Denver you were going to the West. Now if you go to Denver you don’t know if you’re in Denver or if you’re in Oklahoma City or whether you’re in Cleveland or you know Dallas. All the cities look the same now. The highways look the same.

HEFFNER: I’m always interested in your vision. Does this mean you see things sort of running down?

MAILER: I think entrophy is the curse of the Twentieth Century. The more we invent, the more the forms break down and get monotonous. Plastic proliferates everywhere. People are tired of me saying it, but my God, much as I say it the plastic proliferates much faster than I could ever say it. Plastic is everywhere. And plastic is deadening. Plastic is made in a vat. Plastic is the waste product urine and the waste product of oil. It’s, well, you can guess the word that’s on the tip of my tongue …

HEFFNER: You know, we’ve got, I won’t guess at it. We’re almost through. We’ve got twenty seconds. And what’s the sense of trying to get Norman Mailer off on a large question about which he writes tens and tens of thousands of words. I just want to thank you for joining me today. There are so many others, maybe I can get you to come back and we’ll touch on them.

MAILER: Well, I got to admit, it was more fun than it usually is.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Mr. Mailer.

MAILER: You let me talk so long.

HEFFNER: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again the next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please do write THE OPEN MIND in care of this station. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation: the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey: the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence A. Wein; Pfizer Incorporated; and THE NEW YORK TIMES Company Foundation.