Issue 26, Summer-Fall 1961
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 aggressiveness. 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.