Norman Mailer on the Paradoxes of Success and What True Growth Means
“Growth is a greater mystery than death. All of us can understand failure … but not even the successful man can begin to describe the impalpable elations and apprehensions of growth.”
By Maria Popova
Norman Mailer (January 31, 1923–November 10, 2007) is among those rare luminaries who managed to be at once revered and reviled, widely celebrated and frequently criticized — such is the blessing and the curse of those who dare to be both highly prolific and highly opinionated. A novelist, journalist, essayist, playwright, filmmaker, and actor, Mailer is perhaps best-remembered as a godfather of creative nonfiction, in the same milieu as Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese. His most timeless meditations on literature and life appear in Advertisements for Myself (public library) — a 1959 “collection of pieces and parts, of advertisements, short stories, articles, short novels, fragments of novels, poems and part of a play,” which originally appeared in publications like The Harvard Advocate, The Independent, The Village Voice, and Esquire.
One of Mailer’s finest reflections, titled “First Advertisement for Myself,” considers the modern rat race of success and the toxic failure of priorities that puts the pursuit of prestige above the pursuit of purpose:
To be just one of the big men in town is tiring, much too tiring, you inspire hatred, and what is worse than hatred, a wave of cross-talk in everyone around you. You are considered important by some and put down by others, and every time you meet a new man, the battle is on: the latest guest has to decide if you are
a) stronger than he, and
b) smarter than he, and
c) less queer.
And if you pass on all three counts, if you win the arm-wrestle, culture derby, and short-hair count, well then if he is a decent sort he usually feels you should run for President. But all this has happened in the first place because your reputation is uncertain, your name is locked in the elevators of publicity and public fashion, and so your meetings with every man and woman around become charged and overcharged.
There is a time when an ambitious type should fight his way through the jungle and up the mountain—it is the time when experience is rich and you can learn more than you ever will again, but if it goes on too long, you wither from the high tension, you drop away drunk or a burned-out brain, you learn what it is to lose seriously in love, or how it goes when your best friend and you are no longer speaking; it is inevitable that a bad fall comes to the strong-willed man who is not strong enough to reach his own peak.
He then approaches the subject from an autobiographical angle:
I had the luck to have a large talent and to use some of it, and if I know how very much more I could have done if new luck had come my way, well — that is not my story, but everyone’s story, every last one of us could have done more, a creation or two more than we have done, and while it is our own fault, it is not all our own fault, and so I still feel rage at the cowardice of our time which has ground down all of us into the mediocre compromises of what had been once our light-filled passion to stand erect and be original.
And yet even Mailer, patron saint of the curmudgeonly essay, finds in himself an antidote to this glib vision of humanity, an almost Alan Wattsian ray of hope for the dissolution of separateness:
It may be time to say that the Republic is in real peril, and we are the cowards who must defend courage, sex, consciousness, the beauty of the body, the search for love, and the capture of what may be, after all, an heroic destiny. But to say these words is to show how sad we are, for those of us who believe the most have spent our years writing of fear, impotence, stupidity, ugliness, self-love, and apathy, and yet it has been our act of faith, our attempt to see — to see and to see hard, to smell, even to touch, yes to capture that nerve of Being which may include all of us, that Reality whose existence may depend on the honest life of our work, the honor of ourselves which permits us to say no better than we have seen.
Later, in one of his Village Voice columns, he revisits the subject — that immutable concern for the fate of the human spirit — in even more poetic terms:
[We must] be aware, if only once in a while, that beyond the mechanical communication of all of society’s obvious and subtle networks, there remains the sense of life, the sense of creative spirit (we are all creative if it is for no less than to create new life itself) and therefore the sense no matter how dimly felt of some expanding and not necessarily ignoble human growth.
Indeed, Mailer intuited what today’s psychologists know — that a “growth” mindset is the key to success and satisfaction — and he returns to the subject of human growth in another Village Voice column, exploring it with even greater conviction:
I would argue most seriously that growth is a greater mystery than death. All of us can understand failure, we all contain failure and death within us, but not even the successful man can begin to describe the impalpable elations and apprehensions of growth. When we can all agree, including odd dialectical idealists like myself, that history is not foreseeable and the future is unknown, we must also agree that although society is a machine, it does not determine man’s fate, but merely processes nine-tenths of his possibilities on the basis of what society has learned from the past.
Mailer echoes Hunter S. Thompson’s assertion that “it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it” and continues:
Since we are all in the process of changing, since we are already in the privacy of our minds far ahead of the life we see around us (for civilized man has always been outraged by what he sees, or else there would be no civilization) — since we are all advanced in our dreams beyond the practical social possibilities open to our immediate time, that present living time which is all but strangled by the slow mechanical determinations of society, we know and feel that whatever happens to us will happen as the reaction between our urgent desires to express ourselves, to discover the passionate attachment of our lives , and the resistant mechanical network of past social ideas, platitudes, and lies.
Advertisements for Myself is a spectacular read, brimming with Mailer’s often poignant, frequently provocative, always pointed opinions on writing as a craft and a culture — a fine addition to the collected wisdom of literary greats.
Published January 31, 2014