Sometimes I think my work may be seen eventually as some literary equivalent (obviously much reduced in scale) to Picasso. My vice, my strength, is beginnings. Usually I begin well—it is just that I seem to have little interest in finishing. It seems adequate to start a piece, go far enough to glimpse what the possibilities and limitations might be, and then move on. Which for that matter is close to the discrete temper of our time.
This interview was an experiment. Unfinished one obviously. As an attempt to breach an opening into The Psychology of the Orgy, it has a few charms. It may even be possible to write a good book this way; such a book would be a novel. I can think of nothing very much like it, except perhaps for Gide’s Corydon, but the difference is most particular. In Corydon, Gide stepped aside from his Self, and appeared nominally as André Gide-the-Interviewer speaking to some young talented homosexual artist, a man not unlike the hero of The Immoralist. He thus divided his dialogue between two Gides: a young, conventional, severe, most well-mannered and rather agitated young prig, (the ''I'' of Corydon) and the subject, a saturnine, scientifically articulated, rather sinister (in the proper tone of the period) man of talent.
In this fragment—The First Day’s Interview—the encounter is less narcissistic. The subject is a Norman Mailer, a weary, cynical, now philosophically turned hipster of middle years; the interviewer is a young man of a sort the author was never very close to. The vector of the dialogue is therefore opposite to Corydon. In that book, Gide appears in a conventional suit and tries to take a trip across the room into himself. He is hoping to seduce his readers. On the contrary, in this piece printed here, the author in full panoply is pretending to travel back to society in order to seduce the brain of the young critic he never was. One might call it a Counter-Diabolism to Gide’s method, and be not at all presumptuous—if one managed, small matter, to finish the book.
INTERVIEWER: Is this going to be an important book?
MAILER: Perhaps my most important book.
MAILER: Because of its subject.
INT.: You’re going to talk about murder in it.
MAILER: As well as a few other things.
INT.: If I may guess from the prevalence of your themes…
MAILER: Please do.
INT.: Well, I imagine you’ll have something to say about suicide. And perversion?
INT.: And cancer of course.
MAILER: One shouldn’t be flippant about cancer.
INT.: I get the impression that often you are.
MAILER: It’s only because I have not been ready to explain what was behind the remark.
INT.: Whereas now you will.
MAILER: A more or less formal attempt will be made.
INT.: I hope so. At any rate let me repeat the list: Murder, suicide, perversion, cancer; the orgy?
INT.: Will this be called The Psychology of the Orgy?
INT.: The orgy. That calls to mind some of your declarations about the orgasm.
MAILER: I dislike that word.
INT.: You virtually made it a parlor game to talk about it.
MAILER: If I did, I'm sorry.
INT.: You must have known what you were doing.
MAILER: That’s why I’m sorry. I did it to attract attention to myself. Now I pay the price.
INT.: You seem to think you can get away with anything if you tell the truth about yourself. The fact of the matter is that I for one would like to like you. I like your work. (Pause) As a matter of fact I have to admit I like it more today than I did when it came out.
INT.: But I don’t like your agressiveness. Why can’t you let the work speak for itself. Why all these ...
INT.: Precisely. Why must you attract attention to yourself?
MAILER: I’m weary of that now. But at the time I felt as if I were sick, and attention given to me by others was my fastest cure.
INT.: Did it work that way?
MAILER: I don’t know. One never knows. I did succeed in getting attention, and everyone takes me more seriously today, but I must wonder if I haven’t lost something.
INT.: What might that be?
MAILER: My will to work. It all seems less desperate today. The need to get the work out, I mean.
INT.: I should think so. The rules for literary conduct are the effective essence, after all, of the experience of a good many writers in the past. You break too many rules. I know that people critical of your ideas often advance the argument that you have insufficient respect for the culture of the past.
MAILER: Which is a way of saying, “Insufficient respect for the acquired experience of the past.”
INT.: I should think so.
MAILER: I have to agree. It is a lack, and the older I get, the more I come to understand that my talent—such as it is—has been crippled by this lack.
INT.: “Such as it is.” You become positively modest.
MAILER: Allow me a convention or two. I would like some of the people who detest my work, and can’t bear me, to go a little of the way into this book.
INT.: This interview.
MAILER: This interview. Modesty helps. Modesty is a lubricant for unpleasant intrusions.
INT.: In sex as well.
MAILER: Let's not get into difficulties right away.
INT.: All right. Let’s not. You asked me here as a literary referee to help you keep close to your subject. You said you needed that.
MAILER: I do. My mind is as weak as the mind of an old man. It wanders. It dissipates. I cannot finish everything I like to finish. And this subject is too large to wander about in alone.
INT.: Murder and suicide. Cancer and the orgy. I should think so. You want my presence, therefore, as a midwife.
MAILER: I think better when I’m talking to someone. That’s the first symptom of a writer who’s losing his talent. Writing after all is one of the sublimations of onanism. As one gets away from such vices, one loses one’s talent.
INT.: How quickly you sweep over complexities.
MAILER: But that is why I want an interview. I have no patience left for quiet exposition. In conversation you can put writing and onanism in a phrase. People know what you’re talking about or they don’t. In an essay you must obey formal concerns which I have not the enthusiasm to obey any longer.
INT.: But you cannot do an important work unless you submit to one or another formal discipline. We just agreed on that.
MAILER: I contradict myself already. Except I don’t really. It’s not a matter of what I would like to do. It’s reduced right now to do what I can do. I’ve tried to command a sustained essay on this subject—I can’t seem to get over the first few pages. My style immediately becomes tiresome. It takes on the empty sonorous tones of the kind of writers whose work I despise because they write authoritatively without a full spectrum of experience. They do not know enough about their subject to write a book. Which fits my condition. So my style becomes as bad as theirs.
INT.: I don’t want to be tiresome, although I suppose that’s my function, but why ... ?
MAILER: Why write a book if you don’t know enough to write it?
INT.: That’s what I was going to say.
MAILER: Because what I have to say is sufficiently serious to find a style.
INT.: If you could, what sort of style would you like to find?
MAILER: Something as grand as the style of Karl Marx ... There! I spoiled the mood.
INT.: I do find Marx unreadable.
MAILER: He’s worth the effort. In a way he’s a fine test for a literary mind.
INT.: I think he is an absolute bore.
MAILER: People who use the word “bore” usually develop nothing forthright in my associations.
INT.: Some have accused me of being a touch donnish.
MAILER: There is a cloying English simplicity to your remarks.
INT.: The I-am-simple school of Oxford interrogation?
MAILER: There you go. First time I've smiled.
INT.: Good, tell me about Karl Marx.
MAILER: Marx had something enormous to say. And he did the work of preparation. So his style has weight and texture.
INT.: What does that mean?
MAILER: You’re right. Weight and texture are dull words. Marx has to be read line by line. He has something to say in every phrase. He knew his subject, knew it as strategist and as tactician. He wrote like one of the greatest generals who ever lived. I like that image. It just came to mind. War is often dull in its details, as is Marx, but the dullness is never flaccid. Marx always has more to say than we can stuff into a sentence, even as a general may have more men and supplies to mount in a major attack than he can ever join onto a given road. The marching may be dull, but one senses as one slogs along that one is obeying the overlying tension of a large mind, the mind of one’s general. This mind is bold but it is also enormously tenacious in its grasp of detail. And it does not leave out important detail it has been too lazy to acquire.
INT.: Whereas your mind, by implication, is bold but lazy.
MAILER: No doubt it is lazy first, and merely bold in compensation.
INT.: You will lose the new audience you have gained if you become modest again.
MAILER: (Gloomily) It is too late to worry about anything but one’s work.
INT.: This is the wrong day for an interview. You are obviously depressed.
MAILER: It is a very bad day, but one must make a start. There will be better days.
INT.: I see the burden of leading this discussion is up to me.
MAILER: For the moment.
INT.: Then to return to your use of military imagery—which parenthetically is psychologically symptomatic—
MAILER: Yes, yes. Militarism, psychic wounds, fears of castration, homosexuality; I’m familiar with the formula.
INT.: Anything to draw a flash of arrogance.
MAILER: Which I never truly possessed.
INT.: Sound like your detractors. (Holds up a hand) Enough. The loose associations of your mind seem to be contagious. I will try to get down to punctilio. Let me use the military image. If Marx is a general, and Das Kapital the record of a huge and successful war, what do you see this interview becoming if it is successful?
MAILER: An old fashioned cavalry raid with rusty equipment, tired horses, and beat troops which will go out nonetheless into a terrain Marx never dared.
INT.: Never dared, or didn’t know about?
MAILER: Perhaps he had intimations. Sometimes I think he saw himself occupying this land as well—if he lived to be a hundred. But of course he would never have cheated the subject by interview.
INT.: Call you to order. Say something decent about the form of the interview.
MAILER: It is natural for our time. We will talk about the kind of things one should discuss on television. We will be superficial but quick. We will not slip into the gulf of unreadable prose. We will be diverting.
INT.: Mann once said, “Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.”
MAILER: He was right. But one needs huge loins to be not merely exhaustive but artful as well. I can hope at best to do no more than pass lightly over treacherous philosophical ground. We will discuss in one or another of a hundred contexts the meanings of such resistant words as “dialectical” and “existential.” As an immediate illustration of the method, I believe I’ll point out that an interview is dialectical. Any dialogue between two people is a natural dialectic. Each creates the response of the other. So it is possible that the experience of acquainting oneself with my grab bag of ideas, notions, arguments, examples, and lapses, (as they are illumined and dissipated by your responses) will provide the reader with a sense of the dialectic that will be better than any exposition of the word by me.
INT.: What about existentialism? Is the form of the interview also suited for that?
MAILER: Do you have a comfortable idea of what the word means?
INT.: I’ve read a smattering of Sartre. I have a dim familiarity with the work of Jaspers and Heidegger.
MAILER: And know a little more about Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky?
INT.: Et cetera, et cetera. I admit it. I don’t have a comfortable sense of the word. It makes me uneasy. I use it all the time myself. Sometimes with authority. I’ll say, “Oh, yes, Mailer’s trying to become a Marxian existentialist”—mind you, I don’t really talk about you that much—and I get a laugh I must say. You know I’ve noticed that one need only put large words together with authority in the voice and people will laugh. Let an actress playing a grande dame exclaim on a stage, “Oh yes, what fearful decoration. Puerile Baroque,” and everyone will roar.
MAILER: Most large words remind people of faeces or faces.
INT.: Why do you say that?
MAILER: I don’t know. It seems right. I feel the truth of the thing first, and discover the explanations later.
INT.: Very existentialist.
MAILER: All interviews are existential so far as they are not edited, and are descriptive of the mood of the conversation. Which is another argument for trying to express one’s ideas in this form. It gives the reader a sense of the present. That’s the first notion to grasp about existential philosophy. The underlying assumption is that nothing in one’s metaphysical scheme is as important as one’s sense of the present. The truth is found first in the gestalt. Not in the abstractions of logic.
INT.: I think I have a firm grasp of “gestalt” as a word, but it would be helpful to those who read this interview.
MAILER: You define it.
INT.: Well, gestalt is context. It’s swarm, if you know what I mean. It’s the mood, the totality of an experience.
MAILER: Too vague.
INT.: Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo because he couldn’t sit on his horse. The gestalt would add that he had a venereal disease which made his saddle an instrument of torture.
MAILER: Well, I don’t know. It’s still too logical. Gestalt is as bad a word as existential. Let us say that as we’re talking an insect crosses my field of vision. A brown worm the size of a maggot. I reach forward and crush it. Nausea turns a small spasm in my throat, but I go on talking. Can what I say be possibly the same as it would have been without the insect? No, is my answer. Given the severest discipline of mind, my words may be the same, my thought may not waver from its intention but my voice will alter just perceptibly and as it does, my argument will affect your unconscious more or less agreably since the unconscious, unlike the mind, listens not to words, but to the voice.
INT.: I’m going to be literal. Why will your voice change?
MAILER: Because I’ve just killed something, I have altered the gestalt of the room, shifted the rhythms of life which are present. Gestalt, as I use it, is the harmony or discord of the life present in the context which in this case is you, me, the furniture, the room and the insect.
INT.: Why include the insect? Men are men and insects are insects.
MAILER: But men and insects are not separate if each can give emotion to the other. This, you see, would be one of the implicit logics in existentialism. Existence precedes essence. Emotion determines causality.
INT.: And is causality all?
MAILER: By the style of this logic, it is more significant than lack of causality. Action determines more than sentiment. But we will go back to this again and again. At the moment I would rather not overload my sense of the proportions of this interview.
INT.: And what gives you this sense of proportion?
MAILER: Again you go too fast, too soon. Let us say that my instinct is refined, weathered, dulled and converted by my experience and thus gives me a sense of the moment so far as my character permits my instinct to be heard.
INT.: But that is just your instinct, your character, your sense of proportion.
MAILER: Yes, but I would deaden the life of my argument if I did not obey the knots and quirks of my particular rhythms. I cannot advance an argument which will be vital (read: universal) to any readers until I obey what is particular to me.
INT.: And this is existentialist?
MAILER: Let us say it is true to my mood. I know nothing about Heidegger, but I get the impression from Barrett’s book, Irrational Man, that Heidegger might argue mood has precedence over matter. I know I would argue that.
MAILER: Too difficult to talk about yet.
INT.: Let me be the judge.
MAILER: Mood is a harmony. The harmony of a gestalt. The harmony of the life in the room, or the harmony one senses in a landscape. And harmony permits one to relax. As one relaxes, so new perception comes from the conduits of the unconscious, and one has added one’s contribution to the mood which is now subtly different but is still alive in the growing tissue of previous sensation, precisely that tissue which was the mood of the previous moment. When a mood is shattered, the life in the room contracts, and a new mood, discontinuous to the last, begins its existence.
INT.: Most sensuous.
MAILER: Now I contract with annoyance. In a second or a minute, depending on your sensitivity you will sense my annoyance and react in turn. A new mood will begin. It will be perhaps less interesting than the last.
INT.: You are annoyed. Why did my expression “most sensuous” irritate you?
MAILER: Because it was obvious. And I was chasing a thought which was just at the end of my limited reach. One does not trap a butterfly by clapping one’s hands.
INT.: You are too delicate to live.
MAILER: I may be too delicate to think. (Lights a cigarette) All right. Since you bring me to a full stop, I may as well make a confession. My character is such that I must confess a small viciousness in order to prime a new thought. So I will admit I was irritated when you said, “most sensuous,” because quite contrary to breaking my mood, you accelerated it, which is another matter entirely. A sexual example came to mind immediately and it was a good one. It would have made my remarks about mood less tenuous.
INT. Then why didn’t you give it instead of abusing me?
MAILER: My ambition interfered.
INT.: Your ambition? Your mind is most elliptic.
MAILER: My ambition at the moment is to seduce all those readers who detest what they think are my ideas. They are the readers I wish to keep.
INT.: I wonder why.
MAILER: Because obviously it is more exciting to capture a hostile reader than tickle a friendly one. And these hostile readers have a preconceived notion of my character which makes it most difficult to talk to them. They see me as oppressive, clumsy, brutal, and mired in the lowest expositions of sex. So my plan was to march lightly for the first few days and reconnoiter no sexual thicket.
INT.: Charming. You’ll never get power if you give away your maps before you’ve begun to move.
MAILER: I don’t know if I want power anymore. I think I would rather be clear in my mind. The compromises one has to make in acquiring power dull the brain irreparably.
INT.: Since you are now too pure for power, would you then betray your ambition and give your sexual example.
MAILER: I think I’ve lost the mood.
MAILER: You disapprove?
INT.: The mark of a serious man is that he is capable of restoring his mood.
MAILER: I’m no longer as young as I want to be. An abrupt restoration of mood is as punishing to the body as starting an automobile in high gear. It’s the sort of thing that brings on a cold.
INT.: Do complaints also prime new thought?
MAILER: They enable me to recover old thoughts. I was speaking of mood as a harmony. You invoked the qualities of the sensuous. So I thought of sex. Of a particular kind of sex. Sensuous sex. The sex of ... I do not like to use the word “mature.” The sex, let us say, of those who have been with sex for more than a little time. They are not young. They do not have that mixture of lust and private fantasy which makes for onanistic heat, for dirty heat, the sex let us say of two adolescents who burst on one another with the excitement of smashing a taboo. No, there is that other sex which comes to people when they are older, a sex of mood. Each one feels the mood of the other, each moves more delicately, aware now that one is no longer altogether attractive, and so one is vastly more attentive to the small offerings and polite withdrawals of the gift.
INT.: I don’t want to interrupt.
MAILER: I’m glad you did. The description embarrasses me. It is too chaste. But the alternative is to speak prematurely of the parts of the body, the odors of the act, or discuss such mechanical propositions as the flow of energy.
INT.: Reichian terminology?
MAILER: I’m afraid so. Let us put it this way. Sex-as-mood is a conversation with respect for nuance. Does one raise one’s voice to make a point?—one may soften the next remark. Does one wait too long?—the whip of wit must intervene. The dialogue of such sex is tender, it is respectful—it respects the slow conversion of character into mood, it seeks for an artful loss of each separate identity in order to find and give life to the mood which passes from body to body.
INT.: This is the only way sex-as-mood can exist?
MAILER: No. It is only one way. When I spoke of mood as a harmony of everything which lives in the gestalt, I should have explained that not all harmonies are peaceful. There are moods of apprehension, of unrest, excitement, of dread, horror, fear, pending cruelty, whatever one cares to name.
INT.: What separates a mood of horror from a mood which is suddenly shattered and so creates horror?
MAILER: You are close to the difficulty. I don’t know if one can explain it. But it may be worth the attempt. Conceive of a landscape which is mysterious. Let me be banal—a landscape which is suggestive of doom. A landscape fit for a nightmare, a dark field across which one must walk. The shadows of the moon are cruel. Now across the field a laugh is suddenly heard, a merry laugh. Does it break the mood?
INT.: I should think so.
MAILER: Not necessarily. The laughter can give new intensity to the mood, offer ironic substance to its shape.
INT.: You speak as if the mood is alive.
MAILER: In a sense mood may be alive.
INT.: Like an organism?
MAILER: You anticipate me. I was about to say that a mood is a psychic organism. Like all living things it reacts to each new breath of the environment. It can grow, be wounded, weakened, changed, colored, fortified, it can adapt itself to many a change or shift in its circumstances. It can also be killed. As a psychic organism, it is obviously more delicate than any other kind of organism, and so it takes very little to kill a mood. But like any other organism, a mood is mysterious, and the most exceptional intrusions can give it life. In my conventional landscape of horror, it may take precisely the sound of a merry laugh to give individuality to the horror. The laughter may sustain the mood just as it was ready to languish, or equally, the laughter may wither the mood by revealing it to itself as absurd. As is true of all organisms, the possibilities are limitless.
INT.: But what is the ground? What is the field, or the seat of the mood? To be literal, where is it located?
MAILER: We must avoid science-fiction. If I start to speak of the air, or of psychic waves, or psychic fields of energy we will both be lost in a terminology for which we have no aptitude and no qualifications. We are literary men, more or less. Let us keep the subject evocative. It may be possible that literature has more to offer on the nature of the universe than the cyclotron.
INT.: The alternative is to leave the reader altogether confused. You cannot talk of psychic organisms without trying to describe some of their properties. Otherwise the suspicion arises that you invoke nothing more serious with your talk of psychic organisms than our old friend, the poltergeist.
MAILER: (Sighs) The subject is ineffable. If I try to describe it, I will kill it. There are those who will know what I am talking about and those who won’t. I can only hint at the possibility of a new direction or two, for those who know already what I am talking about.
INT.: I thought you wanted to reach the readers who were hostile to you.
MAILER: The irony is that most of the people who are hostile to my work are precisely those people who have the deepest sense of what I am writing about.
INT.: I think you must do better than this.
MAILER: Can we avoid that total worry of where a mood exists? Whether it exists in the separate bodies of the people and objects who make up the mood, or whether it races through the air between them, or envelops all in a cloud, or is all of these things at once. It is enough to say: it exists because I feel it. What it looks like I do not know, but how it feels I am not likely to forget.
INT.: Is that really satisfactory as an explanation?
MAILER: Do you use the word “relationship” in your speech?
INT.: Often. It is a modern word.
MAILER: Do we have a relationship?
INT.: Of sorts.
MAILER: Can you think of a definite relationship you have with someone?
INT.: My wife.
MAILER: What does it look like?
INT.: What does it look like?
MAILER: The relationship.
MAILER: Scored a point.
INT.: Yes, you did.
MAILER: Can we keep a side score through this dialogue?
INT.: We’ll play Beaver.
INT.: Do you feel like quitting for the day?
MAILER: I’ve never had the sense to quit when I’m ahead.
INT.: Nonetheless, one of my functions is to serve as an aerial editor who cuts so to speak on the fly. And I think we’ve done enough. What I ask for tomorrow is a presentation which will be a degree more formal.
MAILER: I promise nothing.
INT.: Will we get into murder?
MAILER: That may take a while.
Love what you've read? Subscribe to The Paris Review.
Cecil Dawkins, The Mourner
Georgia McKinley, Across the Line
Hughes Rudd, Miss Euayla is the Sweetest Thang
Anna Akhmatova, Lot’s Wife
Anna Akhmatova, To N.V. Rikov-Gukovski
Philip Booth, Night Notes on an Old Dream
George Mackay Brown, Harald, etc.
Paul Carroll, The Wicked and Unfaithful Song of Marcel Duchamp to His Queen
Thom Gunn, My Sad Captains
Malcolm Lowry, Mercy of Fire
Malcolm Lowry, Comfort
Malcolm Lowry, Death of a Oaxaquenian
Osip Mandelstam, from Tristia
Osip Mandelstam, from Stone
Osip Mandelstam, from Poems
W. S. Merwin, The Nails
Boris Pasternak, Mephistopheles
Boris Pasternak, The Seasons
Charles Reynolds, For Kate
Marina Tsvetayeva, from Praise to Aphrodite
Marina Tsvetayeva, from The Adolescent
Marina Tsvetayeva, from Early Poems
Marina Tsvetayeva, from The Pupil
Marina Tsvetayeva, from Marina
Marina Tsvetayeva, from Separation
Andrey Voznesensky, From the Window of a Plane
James Wright, How My Fever Left
James Wright, Lying in a Hammock at a Friend’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Olga Carlisle, A Portfolio of Russian Poetry