The Nijinsky of Ambivalence
In 1967 Norman Mailer went to Washington for the march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. He was joined by 100,000 other Americans. As one of many antiwar demonstrations around the nation, the march might be largely forgotten today had he not written an article about it that took up an entire issue of Harper's and was then expanded into a book, The Armies of the Night, that won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In late October, on the fortieth anniversary of the march, a number of us gathered at Georgetown University to think back on the meaning of the march by reconsidering Mailer's momentous book about it, for it is rare that literature and history--a great writer and a great subject--have been so closely interwoven. Mailer himself had intended to be there as the main speaker, but illness kept him away. He died on November 10, at 84, putting a period to one of the most challenging and unpredictable careers in modern letters.
Because Mailer was such a self-conscious writer--peering around corners, casing every angle in complex prose--it's hard to raise questions about his work that he did not anticipate. Early in The Armies of the Night, he wonders whether it's valid to "write an intimate history of an event which places its focus on a central figure who is not central to the event." He counters that "the March on the Pentagon was an ambiguous event whose essential value or absurdity may not be established for ten or twenty years, or indeed ever." Mailer suggests that the organizers, as serious men, devoted to a cause, are in no position to plumb that ambiguity. "For that," he says, "an eyewitness who is a participant but not a vested partisan is required," in this case "a comic hero...a ludicrous figure with mock-heroic associations."
This approach, revolving around a partly fictionalized version of himself, proved to be an innovation in political reportage. It helped kick off a new form of participatory journalism. Every word in this rationale is telling, molded to Mailer's own specifications. An intimate history is what a novelist--rather than a journalist or historian--would write. If it's potentially absurd, then it requires a special kind of writer with a feeling for the zany, the paradoxical, someone alert to the comic possibilities of his reluctant participation. If its significance remains ambiguous, hard to pin down, who better to make sense of it than a reflective, introspective writer who had long made ambivalence his specialty--in a later book he would call himself the "Nijinsky of ambivalence."
The import of the march was elusive partly because it was a media event directed at public opinion rather than a concrete political act with clearly defined goals. It was meant to show that the American people no longer supported the war, that some Americans were in fact outraged by it. They were marching, he says, "on a bastion which symbolized the military might of the Republic, marching not to capture but to wound it symbolically." (This might remind one of 9/11, an attack on the Pentagon that was both real and symbolic.)
Later, after being arrested, the war novelist asks Walter Teague, a militant activist, what he would have done had he "managed to get into the Pentagon and hold a corridor for a while." "Oh, I don't know," says Teague. "We could have painted the walls, created disruption generally," a response finely redolent of the '60s left. One might say that The Armies of the Night was Mailer's way of painting the walls, creating a kind of disruption. During the march itself, his immediate goals were symbolic, not concrete, as he happily confesses:
§ He wanted to draw attention to the cause by way of his own celebrity, the media notoriety that he fed with his drunken behavior his first night in Washington--getting sloshed on bourbon, pissing on the men's room floor in a theater where he and other star participants had gone to raise a bail fund to aid those arrested on the march, then behaving pugnaciously, almost incoherently, as MC for the evening.
§ He wanted to get arrested, preferably sooner rather than later, so that he could be quickly released to get back to New York in time for a much-anticipated party.
§ He aimed to restore luster to his somewhat tarnished public image, which served the cause but also would be served by it. Hence the competitiveness, the minute calculations of position vis-à-vis other notables like Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald, his peers in the front rank of protesters--the prow of the ship, you might say.
One emotionally direct moment comes that first night after Lowell, visibly depressed, reads his poetry aloud to a rapturous response from an audience that had just hooted Mailer down: "Mailer felt hot anger at how Lowell was loved and he was not." Yet Mailer also knows that he and Lowell are there for another purpose, equally symbolic: to bear witness, to dissociate themselves publicly from the war, to purge themselves of complicity with what, as Americans, was being prosecuted in their name. This was the deepest motive my wife and I felt as young, anonymous participants testifying mutely with deeds known only to ourselves. Mailer, on the other hand, could put a megaphone to his actions, and to the whole march, even as he would later set out to crystallize its meaning. For many of us--and surely for those who weren't there--the march on the Pentagon would dissolve into Mailer's sensational Harper's article and later his book about it, both of which would burst forth in the pivotal year of 1968.