Friday, November 29, 2013

Norman Mailer and the Writing of "The Beast"

One of my favorite devices in writing non-fiction is that of writing auto-biographical elements in the third person. This actually has a name - Illeism - and is a long held mechanism in literature of many sorts. Julius Caesar used the device based on an egoistic assumption of hubris not unlike that used in the present day by Cam Newton, or Floyd Mayweather in sports interviews. Henry Adams used it to distance himself from his own family stories in "The Education of Henry Adams" though he acknowledged its use was in some ways falsely self-deprecating. It gave the appearance of distance while in fact maintaining a deep sense of self.

So it goes.

But no where in modern literature has this been more evident (or more beautifully utilized, in my opinion) than in the writings of Norman Mailer. In "The Fight" - his legendary exploration of the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa - he approaches it straight up. In that text he refers to Mailer frequently as merely being one character among many. By referring to himself in that way, he was able to infuse the story with some of his personal anecdotes and observations without allowing himself to dominate the story as such.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning "Armies of the Night," Mailer is more of a major character in his own story, so he uses the appropriately 1960-ish sobriquet of Aquarius to refer to himself. By doing so, he allows his character to comment more subjectively than perhaps he could have done had he used the first person. If Aquarius thinks or feels something, we accept it; if Mailer did the same, it would feel less like the 'history as novel' feel that he was attempting to convey and would perhaps feel pedantic or discursive even. As it was used, it was brilliantly executed and propelled the story forward without distraction.

I understand the trappings and limitations of this technique. I have used it often - usually in those situations where I want to tell my unique story without infusing my own self too overtly upon it, much like Henry Adams - though that is of course, pretty much impossible. In my early writings about Senator Gary Hart's 1984 Presidential Campaign, I was the Editor of my college newspaper, in my Animation interviews I was the Scribe. And for writing "The Beast" I felt it allowed me to ascribe certain lyrical attributes to the feelings and experiences of The Servant of the Dust, without also saddling that character (and he is indeed a character in the context of the story) with the linguistics of my own ego - though of course that is probably impossible as well. It is in the humble yearnings of the Servant that the story is propelled for me. It felt disingenuine to treat it else, although I wholly acknowledge that we are inseparable and indistinguishable.

As it should be.

Whether it is a successful device or not, is surely up to each individual reader who brings their own unique context and experiences to bear. For me, it intuitively felt right. And as a writer and a human being - that is everything.

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