Chapter 1: The Ghosts of the Past
In his celebrated essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” (1852), Marx made the following observation: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”1 In the case of Norman Mailer, this distinction may be more complex. Certainly Mailer regarded himself for most of his life as a singular figure, destined to make a seminal contribution to literature and beyond. His mission statement in Advertisements for Myself (1959) would remain an indelible part of his literary persona for his entire career: “The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.”2 Literature and the literary artist were sacrosanct for Mailer. In the same way, the novel for Mailer was not merely a form of entertainment, but an act of divination, a mode of revealing hidden mysteries and truths. Moreover, the novel was also a moral enterprise, a test of one’s virtue. Only the best and the brightest could succeed and even then they could never rest assured with their achievement.
It wasn’t merely Mailer’s competitive instinct that made him a perspicacious literary critic. He compared himself constantly with other novelists of his generation to determine whether he was endowed with genius, with that special artist-sensibility that would make him tower above his peers. In his essay, “Some...
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