Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Presidential Papers (1963)

Those, like myself, pitiful enough to appreciate the high-flown improvisations of philosophical substance and walking the high wire of egotism in essay form found in Advertisements for Myself can get more where that came from in this and two more collections that followed (Cannibals and Christians from 1966 and Pieces and Pontifications from 1982), which I won't otherwise deal with in this series, except to note he's not normally so pointlessly alliterative. But they are nearly as good. I am weak for Mailer's riffing the way others might be for similar exercises by Lester Bangs or Pauline Kael. He is something of their literary counterpart, and half the fun is watching him dazzle, when he does. Here he worries to death the words "existentialism" and "totalitarianism," whose definitions he seems to want to bend to his will, and otherwise engages in bratty exegeses on scatology, boxing, Cuba, etc. It's very much of its time, explicitly addressing itself to John Kennedy and his administration. One of the best pieces here, in fact, is Mailer's coverage for Esquire of the 1960 political conventions. There's also an interesting interview with First Lady Jackie. Speaking of ladies, you should also know it's painfully dated in its sexual politics, which Mailer only makes worse with his own specifically. For example, it's possible he never uses the word "woman" but rather only "lady," "girl," or "female"—it seems like him to do so deliberately, though I don't recall it as an issue of usage until the '70s. At any rate, prepare for wincing. I still like the way Mailer thinks, however, the way his mind moves and flits and lands on things and flies off again. His attempts here to argue implicitly that existence itself comes with a bent toward totalitarianism, all mixed up with his own loutishness, redeemed by a sense of searching honestly under it all, is fun to ride along with. That's not least perhaps because those problems of those times can seem almost quaint now. He does cover the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, with an interesting sense of what it felt like. Interestingly, the book was published before the John Kennedy assassination. I appreciate that because it affords a view into Kennedy and those times that is somewhat at variance with the conventional half-dollar man-on-the-moon narratives that came after—a refreshing view of him mired down politically, unable to get things done, and with unhappy people around him on every side.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I like how he's such a political beast, I find it engaging, and he's funnier than Bangs and Kael too. Although, perhaps unintentionally?! And, come to think of it, I'd probably enjoy the other two more in person or at a party.