Sunday, August 24, 2014

141. Hell House and Christian Terrorism

     Christian terrorism?  Many will balk at the notion, given the murderous terrorisms rampant in the world today.  But here is the dictionary definition of terrorism:  “The systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.”  Now consider these scenes:

·      A smashed car and two teenagers sprawled dead on the pavement, the result of drunk driving.

·      The sacred institution of marriage is disgraced by the Satan-inspired wedding of two men.

·      A teenager tormented by the stress of life, Satan-inspired, commits suicide.

·      A young woman bleeding to death between her legs, the result of a self-induced abortion.

·      A human infant sacrificed during a clandestine Satanic ritual where masked ghouls and demons utter horrific shrieks and screams in a flickering light.  In the audience petrified children cling to their parents, sobbing.

·      A depressed teen is pressured by witches to murder his fellow students.

·      A demon dancing around the coffin of an AIDS victim, rejoicing that the dead man is now tormented in hell.  “I tricked him into believing he was born gay!” the demon exults.  “Have you ever heard something so silly?”

·      A girl at a rave takes a pill that a young man offers her, telling her it will relax her; she passes out and is gang-raped.

·      A corridor in hell where the damned reach out from peepholes begging for help.

·      The Angel of the Lord in shining white and a dark-robed demon battle over a teen-age lesbian about to commit suicide.  A child in the audience gasps, “I can’t breathe!” and is helped out of the room.

·      A girl shrieks and gesticulates as she dies from an overdose of methamphetamine.

·      Cold, uncaring medics advise a young woman to have an abortion.  “Why not?” taunts a red-faced demon.  “Everyone is doing it these days!” 

·      Scared teenagers in the audience are told by a ghoulish voice to get inside a row of upright coffins; when they do, demons pound on the sides of the coffins while shrieking loudly.

·      A girl is strapped to a table for an abortion.  Nurses operate, pull out gnarly-looking gobs of bloody flesh; nurses and girl are splattered with blood.  Teenage girls in the audience weep.  The girl having the abortion dies, goes straight to hell.


     These are some of the scenes presented around Halloween each year by various fundamentalist Christian churches, in an attempt to frighten impressionable young people with the consequences of sin and then offer them a way out through commitment to Jesus.  While the target is primarily teenagers, some of the accounts show that parents are taking very young children to these events, which are well designed to terrify.  Ministers presiding over these presentations admit quite candidly that they are meant to frighten, not to entertain.  So in this respect Hell Houses differ from the spook houses associated with Halloween and many fairs and amusement parks; the goal of the Hell Houses is to frighten you away from Satan and into the redeeming arms of Jesus.  And by most accounts they do succeed in frightening, if not everyone, many impressionable young people who go to them out of curiosity, or for a thrill, or because they are already half converted.  And those presenting the scenes are often teenagers themselves, members of the church sponsoring the event.

File:Haunted House Halloween (The Dark Destiny from SPAN Ministries) in Tallmadge, Ohio.png
A Hell House presentation of particular judgment, judgment
of an individual following death.

     While Hell Houses can be found almost anywhere in the U.S. except the West Coast and the Northeast – in other words, wherever there are Christian fundamentalists -- they seem to abound in Texas.  The first one is believed to have been the creation of the Trinity Assembly of God in Dallas, but they were popularized in the late 1970s by Jerry Falwell, the evangelical Southern Baptist televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority.  

     Today Keenan Roberts, pastor of the New Destiny Christian Center in Denver, offers kits for $299 that will let you build your own Hell House with a series of theatrical scenes; included are a DVD of Roberts’s own production, a 300-page instruction manual, and an appropriately spooky soundtrack.  Roberts himself dons a long black robe, a gray face mask, and large black horns to play a demon who guides visitors from room to room of his own Hell House, which in a 2012 interview he claimed had been visited by 75,000 people over the last 16 years.  He refuses to provide the media with sample kits, but excerpts have appeared online.  For an abortion scene, he recommends buying “a meat product that closely resembles pieces of a baby” to put in a glass bowl; the actors playing the medical staff involved should be “cold, uncaring, abrupt and completely insensitive.”  And business is good: the kits have now allegedly been sold in all 50 states and 26 foreign countries.  Has his initiative been criticized?  Yes, even in some Christian circles.  Does it bother him?  Certainly not.  “God’s going to have the last word.”

Les Freres Corbusier's Hell House
The wedding of Adam and Steve
Les Freres Corbusier
     Secular, easygoing New York may not seem a likely venue for a Hell House production, but in October 2006 Les Freres Corbusier, a theater company with a Jewish producer and a Catholic director, presented what they termed an “authentic rendition” of Roberts’s outreach kit in Brooklyn, straight-faced and devoid of irony, in hopes that the audience would draw their own conclusions.  The sequence of horror scenes was climaxed by a steam bath of a hell with a glaring Satan; then an angel leading visitors upstairs to meet a Jesus played by an actor with intimidating sincerity; and finally, to round things out, a fruit punch and music by a live Christian rock group, and an invitation to play “Pin-the-Sin-on-the-Jesus,” where visitors pin on a cardboard cutout of Jesus a piece of paper on which they have written a secret sin obstructing their salvation, which some of them actually did (“Anal sex,” “I think Jesus is hot,” “I am a man and I wear Capri pants”).  And all this without a hint of irony, a suggestion of satire; the mockery, when there was mockery, was provided by younger elements in the audience.

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A Methodist circuit rider.
     So much for Hell House in the Big Apple.  But Christian terrorism for the sake of converting the backslidden and the heathen has a long history in this country, which has seen a series of Great Awakenings aflame with hellfire.  As late as deep into the nineteenth century most of the mainstream Protestant sects treated their faithful, and the not so faithful, to fire-and-brimstone sermons designed to scare them into repentance and salvation.  No one was better at this than the Methodists, whose circuit riders ranged far and wide, both to settled churches and the constant flux of the frontier, preaching fierily in churches or, to accommodate multitudes who couldn’t fit into the churches of the neighborhood, in open fields.  So let’s imagine one of these open-air meetings in a rural region where the coming of a preacher was a big event for people starved for entertainment of any kind (no radio or TV, no Internet, perhaps no newspaper), a people eager for excitement, for something meaningful and passionate.

     Such meetings often began with assurances that they would outsing the Baptists, outpray the Quakers, outpreach and outlove the Presbyterians.  Then, to warm things up, they would sing such classic hymns as this:

                         The world, the devil, and Tom Paine                        
                       Have tried their force, but all in vain,
                       They can’t prevail, the reason is
                       The Lord protects the Methodist! 

And so on for eighteen verses.

     But that was just the beginning.  Cries of “Praise Jesus!” and “Hallellujah!” would season the gathering, and as dusk came on, torches would be lit that cast an eerie glow.  Then a preacher in a crow-black coat would climb up on a handy stump and begin.

     “Brethren, I grieve at the low state of Zion.  Satan is in your homes and your hearts!”

      Gasps, cries of “No!”

     “He is!  You’ve been guilty of false pride, greed, and tobacco, of ostentatious apparel and blasphemy, of card-playing, of intemperance, adultery, and dancing!  Look into your hearts and see the filth!”

     They did.  None of them could escape his censure, all of them had sinned.

     “Fools!” cried the preacher, sweat streaming down his face as tiny bubbles spewed from his lips.  “Maybe this year – this month, this day – you’ll roast in the hot flames of hell, cast down among infidels, Mahometans, and Papists, while your bones hiss and crackle, and demons tong your flesh!”

     Sobs in the shadows; a flickering light on tear-stained faces.

     “It need not be!” exhorted the preacher, after describing in lurid detail the torments of hell.  “Renounce sin, accept the sweet love of Jesus.  Cross over into Beulah land!  O come to Jesus, come!”

     By twos, threes, then scores, weeping and groaning, they would stagger up to the Mourners’ Bench and sit, sobbing and praying.  Some might even shriek and fall to the ground.

     “Pray, brethren, pray for forgiveness!”

     Tears, dazed faces as they prayed.  A young girl, limp in the arms of others, might speak in tongues, while other young women plucked off frills and ribbons and threw them away, and both men and women, sin-convicted, writhed and jerked on the ground.  Still others, their ruddy faces glowing in the torchlight, would gather round the penitents shouting “Glory!” while the preacher, raising both arms toward heaven as he beheld the results of his preaching, might exclaim in triumph, “Ride on, glorious Redeemer!”

     Few of those attending such a gathering, even if not among the sobbing penitents, could fail to be moved.  Talk of it would echo through the county for days, and the memory of such a meeting could last a lifetime.  As for the penitents, they were in God’s pocket.

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A camp meeting, circa 1829.  Women seem especially susceptible.

     So the Hell House of today carries on a long American tradition of scaring people into salvation, though with a difference.  In those days the terrors of hell awaited sinners in the next life; in this life those sinners might be plump and prosperous.  But the Hell Houses of today, while promising the same fire-and-brimstone hereafter, bring hell into people’s lives right now; the torment of the sinful begins in this life with painful abortions and rape and AIDS, before being heightened in the next. 

     But the tradition of Christian terrorism goes back even further, to the morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, where a central character like Everyman was assaulted by the Seven Deadly Sins (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride), but aided by such allegorical figures as Good Deeds, Knowledge, Discretion, and Strength.  The whole drama consisted of Everyman’s struggle to lead a godly life, failing which the gates of hell gaped wide to receive him.

     Everyman’s struggle points back to the western façade of the great Gothic cathedrals of France, the façade facing the sunset and its suggestion of finality, the façade that often showed the Christ of the Second Coming, the Christ of the Last Judgment.  Thus the sculpture over the central portal of Notre Dame in Paris shows Christ flanked on his right by the kneeling Virgin Mary and on his left, also kneeling, St. John the Evangelist; under them a winged Saint Michael and a grinning demon weigh souls, and another demon leads the damned off to perdition.  The cathedral, like all the Gothic cathedrals of Northern France, was dedicated to the Virgin, whose compassion would hopefully mitigate the stern judgment of her Son.  Even so, this was the main entrance, so its subject gave a cheery greeting to the faithful as they came to attend Mass or pray.

The central portal of Notre Dame de Paris.

Saint Michael and a demon weighing souls.
Julie Kertesz

     This scene of the Second Coming was portrayed as well by painters, most notably by Michelangelo in his vast fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, where a muscular and angry Christ gestures dramatically to condemn the nude figures of the damned descending to hell and its demons on his left (our right, as we view it), while the saved, also nude, ascend to heaven on his right.  The sculpted sinners of the cathedral portals tend to be stiff and stylized, without much differentiation, whereas Michelangelo’s sinners are painted with Renaissance dynamism and drama, no two of them alike.  Especially gripping is one chubby male who, gripped by a demon, buries his face in one hand as he hunches over, stricken with dread and despair as he realizes he is damned for all eternity; nothing a Hell House offers can match it.

Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

     So where is the Virgin, that figure of warmth and compassion?  She is there, just to the left of her Son and fully garbed, but she is dwarfed by comparison and turns away from him, almost cowering; this is his scene, not hers.  Not much lovingkindness here; Christ is much more Judge than Redeemer.  (Unlike so many Italian painters, Michelangelo was not one to portray a gentle, merciful Virgin; his females, far from being soft and motherly, tend toward the stern and majestic, like the Sybils of the Sistine ceiling.)

     From Michelangelo to the Gospels is only one quick leap.  In Matthew 23:33 Jesus says, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”  And in Luke 12:5: “But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.”  And in Matthew 13:49-50: “So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  And in Matthew 25:41: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”  So in the Gospels hell is a very real place of torment, and God is to be feared.  Jesus promises forgiveness elsewhere and promises heaven to the righteous, but here he stresses judgment and fear. 

     All of which is awkward for those many Christians who today shy away from notions of Satan and hell and torment, uncomfy as they are.  Since the nineteenth century vast numbers of Americans have opted for religion without God, salvation without sin, a kind of feel-good faith emphasizing good works for those less fortunate than ourselves, and the Golden Rule for all.  I should know, since I grew up in a liberal Methodism that said nothing of hell and torment, and a great deal about compassion and tolerance and sharing.  I will always be grateful to those gentle Methodists for not ramming ideology down my tender throat, for not imposing a set of strict rules on me, for offering me examples of warmth and love in action and, in the case of a few, a genuine, deep-rooted spirituality. 

     Admittedly, there are risks in de-Satanizing Christianity, in dousing hellfire so as to emphasize exclusively Christian love and compassion.  The result is often a namby-pamby religion where everyone gets to heaven, a religion without spine and rigor.  You can see it in the sentimentality of much nineteenth- and twentieth-century religious art, as for example the slides shown me in Sunday School classes every Easter.  The slides served their purpose by immersing our callow minds in the drama of Holy Week, but in retrospect I realize how insipid they were artistically. 

     The sentimentalizing of religion is also seen in Hollywood movies about priests and nuns, as for instance Loretta Young in the 1949 film Come to the Stable, where she plays a beatific nun, her smile benign, her goals noble, and her utterance pure sugar.  I’d like to think that, Hollywood notwithstanding, such insipidity is confined to a certain brand of Protestantism, but one glance at websites offering Catholic religious objects for sale disabuses me.  There are figurines of Mary and the saints (“Saint Joseph will help you sell you home”) that are equally insipid, sometimes offered in a “blow-out sale.” 

     The figures I remember being sold in stores for small indoor Christmas Nativities were among the worst, with feminine angels with flowing blond hair and dainty features, but the larger ones advertised online today are no better.  All these winged cuties are a far cry from the fearsome male angels of an earlier age, epitomized memorably in Saint Michael, the fearsome warrior archangel who will weigh the souls at the Last Judgment, and who led God’s forces in driving Satan and his rebellious cohorts out of heaven and hurling them down to hell.

Saint Michael, weigher of souls at the Last Judgment.  Rogier van der Weyden,
1443-1446.  This guy you wouldn't mess around with; he means business.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Song of the Angels, 1881.  You think
this is the ultimate in 19th-century religious sentimentality?  Just wait.

Franz Kadlik, Three Angels, 1822.  It can't get worse than this.
Almost makes you yearn for a Hell House.

     So insipidly saccharine are some nineteenth-century renditions of angels that I find them just as objectionable as the horrors of the Hell Houses.  It can easily be argued that eliminating Satan and hell rips the very guts out of Christianity, leaves it limp and flaccid, robs it of its essential drama.  Maybe what the secular world of today needs is a reimagining of Satan and hell, a fresh incarnation of evil that resonates.  Anyone aware of recent history knows that evil exists, and we humans long for a cosmic order that punishes it.  I leave it to the thinkers and writers and artists of our time to find this new representation of evil that will grab hold of our psyche, shake it up, excite it, obsess it, and thus make evil once again something we can’t ignore.  Unless, of course, this new representation exists already and I, poor fool, am simply unaware of it.

     Hell Houses do indeed remind us of what has been left out of a kinder, gentler Christianity, but I don’t miss those features, rooted in the Gospels though they be.  Hell Houses terrify small children, whereas Jesus said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come [to me], for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).  If the liberal Christianity of today is selective in what it takes from the Gospels, so is the fundamentalism that sponsors Hell Houses; it leaves out, or at least minimizes, kindness and compassion and love.

     When I started this post with accounts of Hell House, I had no idea I would gravitate via morality plays and Last Judgments to the Gospels and end up where I have.  So it goes.  But if you have access to a Hell House next Halloween, go visit it for curiosity’s sake and some thrills.  Just don’t get converted – not there, on their grim terms.  And for God’s sake (and theirs and your own) don’t take any young children with you; this is not for them.

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     Coming soon:  Is Bigger Better?  MOMA’s expansions and the Frick’s, and what I and others think of them.  And then a post on panhandlers and hustlersof New York: Elmos and Spider Men in Times Square, tight and prickly conservatives vs. loose and gooey liberals, the 20 meanest cities in America (is New York one of them?), Buddhist monks and their amulets, a crippled vet who recovers miraculously, and the panhandler who won a hundred thousand dollars.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

Sunday, August 17, 2014

140. Norman Mailer: Wife-Stabber, Brawler, and Man of Many Wives

File:Norman Mailer, 1988.jpg
Norman Mailer in 1988.
     Who was the reporter who was doing such brilliant reporting of the 1967 Pentagon march and the 1968 conventions?  Photos show a man with a massive frame and an impressive head with tousled hair and memorable features – an overgrown teddy bear, you might say, or a lionlike head, albeit with wrinkles and bags under his eyes: the head of an aging lion.  One thinks of Norman Mailer as a man in his middle years with a somewhat worn look, never young, and one who surely took himself very seriously.  There are pictures of him as a boxer, and in those he is taking himself very seriously indeed.  No spoofing in these photos, never a wink of complicity at the rest of us.  He admired boxers, liked their courage, discipline, and aggressive self-assertion, and when drunk – and Mailer was often drunk – he was quite ready himself to take a swing at someone, even a friend.  But if he had a boxer’s aggressiveness and courage (or at least a drunken bravado), he totally lacked the discipline.

     His antics were notorious.  In November 1960, while drunk at a party in New York, he stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a penknife, just missing her heart, and then stabbed her again in the back.  As she told it later (his women had a way of publishing tell-all memoirs), when someone tried to help her as she lay on the floor bleeding, Mailer blurted out, “Get away from her.  Let the bitch die.”  Adele’s wounds required emergency surgery, but she did not press charges.  After seventeen days in Bellevue Hospital under psychiatric observation, Mailer was released, only to be indicted by a grand jury for felonious assault; later he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of third-degree assault and received a suspended sentence.  It has been suggested that this event kept him from later receiving a Nobel Prize.  Adele divorced him in 1962.

Gore Vidal in 1948.
    But the favorite target of Mailer’s drunken ire was author Gore Vidal, whose critical review of one of Mailer’s books incensed him to the point that, just before they were to appear on Dick Cavett’s TV show in December 1971, Mailer head-butted Vidal backstage, then during the show traded insults with him and the host.  But this was just the prelude.  At a New York dinner party in 1977 attended by the cultural elite, Mailer evidently threw a gin and tonic in Vidal’s face and bounced the glass off his head.  The distraught hostess exclaimed, “God, this is awful!  Someone do something!”  But another guest told her, “Shut up!  This fight is making your party.”  Vidal’s reaction to these assaults: “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer.”  An elegant WASP known for his wit and urbanity, Vidal was a natural target for the rough-hewn Mailer, the son of immigrants, whose physical attacks failed to dent Vidal’s patrician aplomb.

     Mailer had been born to a family of Jewish immigrants in New Jersey and grew up in Brooklyn.  After graduating from Harvard he served in the Army during World War II, then came back to write The Naked and the Dead.  His next two novels garnered negative reviews, and after a frustrating period as a screenwriter in Hollywood he returned to New York in 1951 and lived at various addresses on the Lower East Side.  Several acquaintances got him to invest in and help launch the iconoclastic Village Voice, an alternative weekly that first appeared in October 1955.  Steeped in liquor and drugs, he began a short-lived column that was meant to be outrageous, and reaped volumes of hostile fan mail as a token of his success. 

     In 1969 he launched another venture that was not just outrageous but quixotic, entering the Democratic mayoral primary and calling for a “hip coalition of the right and the left” to rescue the crime-ridden and debt-burdened city.  Columnist Jimmy Breslin ran with him for City Council President, and feminist Gloria Steinem ran for Comptroller.  “No More Bullshit” and “Vote the Rascals In” were their slogans, as they proposed to make New York City the 51st state.  Their other proposals: reduce pollution by banning all private cars from Manhattan; expand rent control; return power to the neighborhoods; legalize heroin; and offer draft exemptions to those enlisting for short-term service in the police.  Though Mailer and his colleagues wanted to be taken seriously, the newspapers found the idea of a Mailer-Breslin ticket preposterous, and Mailer seemingly confirmed their opinion when, during a fund-raiser, he railed drunkenly at his own supporters, calling them “a bunch of spoiled pigs.”  It was no surprise to observers – and perhaps a great relief -- when embattled Mayor John Lindsay easily triumphed in the primary and then went on to get himself reelected.

File:AnAmericanDream.jpg     Mailer’s fourth novel, An American Dream, was published in 1965.  A friend once told me that, after reading it, he gave up on Mailer as a novelist.  When I read it years later, I understood why.  In a drunken rage the book’s supremely successful protagonist strangles his estranged wife, then has sex with her maid, who has no knowledge of the murder; after that, to make the wife’s death look like suicide, he throws her body out a window.  Later that same night, after being questioned by police detectives, he initiates an affair with a night-club singer who, he learns later, once had an affair with the wife’s father.  All this, and much more, including two more murders, within 24 hours.  Even if the writing is impressive – the account of his questioning by detectives is quite convincing -- the overburdened plot doesn’t just strain credibility, it shreds it.  From then on I viewed Mailer as a brilliant journalist but a failed novelist.

     The wife-stabbing incident, and its fictional reprise in the strangling in An American Dream, hardly endeared Mailer to the feminists; there was in fact an ongoing war between them.  He was the very image of the brawling, boozing, womanizing super macho male, and as such an inevitable target for feminists.  This was fine by him, for he relished the fight.  Women’s writing, he opined, was “fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque” – and so on, to which he added, “a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”  Was he dead serious or just being deliberately provocative?  When he suggested that women “should be kept in cages,” his last wife Norris insisted that there was a twinkle in his eye.  If there is a trait in him that I esteem, it is his refusal to be politically correct no matter what the cost.

     In 1977 Mailer received a letter from convicted murderer Jack Abbott, offering to give an accurate account of prison life.  Mailer agreed, and in 1981 In the Belly of the Beast, comprising Abbott’s letters to Mailer, was published with an introduction by Mailer and became a bestseller.  In Abbott Mailer probably saw an example of the hipster outlaw eulogized in his essay “The White Negro.”  Mailer and others had been supporting Abbott’s appeals for parole, and in June 1981 he was released, despite the misgivings of prison officials who were worried about his mental state and considered him dangerous.  Coming to New York City, Abbott was hailed by the literary community.  Six weeks after his release, Abbott got into an argument with a young actor working as a waiter in a restaurant and stabbed him to death.  I remember the shock of this news, and the widespread condemnation of Mailer that followed.  Abbott fled the city but was later arrested in Louisiana, tried for murder and convicted of manslaughter, and given a sentence of 15 years to life.  Mailer, who attended the trial, later admitted that his advocacy of Abbott was “another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in.”  When the parole board rejected another of his appeals, Abbott committed suicide in a New York State prison in 2002.

     I shan’t linger here over Mailer’s other works, some of them unworthy of him, being written in haste to make money (as he accumulated ex-wives, he also accumulated alimony claims), and some of them significant.  The year 1980 was eventful for him: he finally got a divorce from his fourth wife;  married his fifth wife, a jazz singer, thus legitimizing their daughter, then flew to Haiti one day later and got a quickie divorce; and three days after his return married his sixth and last wife, Norris Church, who in spite of his many affairs stayed with him to the end.  All of which was, for Mailer, no small accomplishment, for how many men could boast of having been married more or less legally to three different women within the space of one week? 

     As for Norris, who was from Arkansas, in her memoir she claimed to have had a brief earlier fling with Governor Bill Clinton.  When an acquaintance later said to her, “I guess he slept with every woman in Arkansas except you, Norris,” she replied, “Sorry, I’m afraid he got us all.”  A 1983 photograph of her with Mailer shows a mature but attractive woman in a frilly pink hat and pink scarf, but I suspect that she was a lot tougher than frilly pink might suggest.  To live with Mailer she would have to be.

     Mailer and Norris lived together in a brownstone at 142 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights, just across the East River from Manhattan.  Their fourth-floor co-op apartment overlooked the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a sweeping view of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty.  Mailer had bought the building in 1960 and moved into the top-floor apartment in 1962.  His extensive renovation raised the roof and remodeled the apartment as a light-filled multilevel nautical curiosity; to access the “crow’s nest” where he wrote, you had to climb ladders, traverse catwalks high above the living room, and walk a narrow gangplank.  All this because he had a fear of heights and was determined to conquer it.  The apartment witnessed many 

celebrity-studded parties, as well as meetings to plan his 1969 mayoral campaign, and his and Norris Church’s wedding.  In 1980 a costly divorce from his fifth wife forced him to rent out the lower floors of the building.  But Mailer, who fancied himself a sailor, wanted to be closer to the sea.  So in 1986 he and Norris bought a spacious beachfront house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and spent part of the year there.

     What do I finally make of Norman Mailer, a much published author, provocative, outrageous, perennially drunk, who married six wives in turn (thus matching Henry VIII) and by them had eight children and adopted a ninth, his last wife’s son by another marriage?  Though a gifted writer, he was a child who never grew up.  He totally lacked the very thing that my grade school teachers preached to callow minds endlessly: self-control.  He yielded to impulses, with dire results for both himself and others.  Brilliant at times, but a child.

     Mailer’s health failed in his later years, when he suffered from arthritis and deafness and had to walk with two canes.  He underwent lung surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and a month later, on November 10, 2007, at age 84, died of acute renal failure.  That he lasted that long, given his heavy intake of drugs and alcohol, is remarkable.  He is buried in Provincetown.

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The noble sport goes back to the Minoans.
     Personal aside #1: Me and Boxing.  Since Mailer idolized boxing and boxers, and I present myself as his opposite, it may be surprising that I once also found myself boxing.  It was the second semester of my first year in college, and all male students were required to take a semester of either boxing or wrestling, and I, with great misgivings, chose boxing.  (My father had always lamented the failure of American youth to engage in bodily contact sports, even as he overprotected me.)  The head coach presided, but he immediately introduced a bruiser named Kelly, tall and massive with a steel-like chin, who had boxed professionally and would therefore be our instructor.  At the mere sight of him I was nervous, and so were plenty of others.  

      With a resonant voice Kelly told us that knowing we could hold our own in a boxing match would build self-confidence, but added with emphasis, “It takes a gentleman to walk away from a fight.”  Daily lessons followed.  “Bloody Monday!” was Kelly’s hearty greeting at the start of the week, though in truth not much blood was spilled.  Unaggressive by nature, I wasn’t out to land a forceful punch.  Instead, I saw boxing as a kind of dance, since footwork was involved, and a game where you tried to touch your opponent’s face or shoulder.  Once a friend walked right into one of my gentle punches and, dazed, had to leave class at once.  I hadn’t punched hard, but all my friends kidded me about knocking out a partner.  Then one day Kelly picked me to show how he could get past my defenses to touch my shoulder, which meant he could have punched me in the face; finally I started to dodge.  Again, my friends kidded me afterward for “taking on” Kelly.  On another occasion one of the guys did get hit hard in the midriff and was moaning in pain; Kelly had him lean his head against his massive shoulder, while he assured the rest of us that in a short while the kid would be all right – not too convincing at first, with the kid moaning and groaning, but in time he was. 

     In spite of this memorable incident, the dreaded class turned out to be bearable.  On the last day the head coach had all of us box for him, so he could award the grade.  My partner confessed that he wasn’t keen on boxing, so I told him I wasn’t either, but added, “Let’s give them a good show and get out of here.”  We did.  After several sluggish matches by others, we came on like fury, trading gentle punches vigorously, and the whole class gathered round and cheered us heartily on.  “I want to box with you!” several friends told me afterward, but I just smiled: it was the last day of the class, no chance.  So ended my career in boxing – not the total fiasco I had anticipated.  As for Kelly the bruiser, we saw him play a Christian convert in Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion and play the role very well, demonstrating that he wasn’t just a bruiser; he was an actor, too.  So “Bloody Monday!” wasn’t the whole story; there was more to him -- a lot more – than that.

     Personal aside #2:  What famous writers would I want to avoid, and which would I want to hang out with?   I know I wouldn’t have wanted to know Norman Mailer.  Which prompted a piquant thought: who else would I want to seek out or avoid?  Let’s start with those I’d want to avoid (which has nothing to do with their value as writers):

·      All the drunks.  (There goes half of American literature.)
·      All the egomaniacs.  (There goes the other half.)
·      Milton.  (Too sure of himself, little sense of humor.)
·      Dante.  (He might put me in hell.)
·      Sartre.  (Too fiercely intellectual.)
·      André Breton, head of the Surrealists.  (Too severely judgmental.  I should know, having done my thesis on him.)
·      Alexander Pope.  (He might skewer me in a satire.  A nasty little man, keen and vicious, though in print amusing.)
·      Rimbaud.  (Another nasty one; look how he savaged Verlaine, who had his reasons for shooting the kid.)
·      Jonathan Swift.  (Too fiercely satiric.)
·      Allen Ginsberg.  (He’d want me to take my clothes off.  And I wouldn’t want to see him naked either.

File:John Milton - Project Gutenberg eText 13619.jpg
John Milton.  For small talk he'd probably talk
File:Alexander Pope circa 1736.jpeg
Alexander Pope.  A deft and savage satirist.
No thanks, why take a chance?

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Jean-Paul Sartre.  Brilliant, but too intellectual.
File:Allen Ginsberg cropped.jpg
Allen Ginsberg.  I remember him
with a beard and too much hair,
 but no matter.  At least he
has his clothes on here.

Ludwig Urning

That’s a lot of avoidances.  No women, interestingly enough.  So how about those writers I’d like to know, maybe find myself sitting next to at a dinner party? 

·      The Roman poet Horace.  (At the top of the list.  Gifted but modest, all for simple living, likable, a sense of humor, a supremely good conversationalist.)
·      Chaucer.  (Great sense of humor – sometimes a bit ribald, but that’s okay.  Loved people, very observant.)
·      Benjamin Franklin.  (Charming in society, could relate to almost anyone.  Witty, informed, good sense of humor.)
·      The early Whitman.  (The fervent lover of the Calamus poems, not the later “good gray poet” who seemingly repudiated his gay self for the sake of his patriarchal image.)
·      Victor Hugo.  (As healthy and upbeat as they come, a perennial optimist.)
·      Voltaire.  (Witty, irreverent, humane, sociable.)
·      Rabelais.  (If I’m in a mood for the boisterous and bawdy.)
·      Shakespeare.  (Seems to have been modest and gentle, but let’s face it, we hardly know anything about him.)
·      Byron.  (Could be charming, though at times a poseur.)
·      Colette.  (Sensitive, observant, deeply human.)
·      Dickens.  (Sociable, knowledgeable, congenial.)
·      Jane Austen.  (Sociable, to judge from the novels, and full of good sense, though I don’t know much about her personally.)
·      Madame de Sévigné.  (Warm, sociable, and witty, to judge by the famous letters.)


Ben Franklin.  Bright and witty, a charmer.
Voltaire.  Ah, that sly smile, hinting at
a wicked wit.
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Lord Byron.  To add spice to the party;
bisexual, with appeal to both sexes.
File:Colette 1932 (2).jpg
Colette.  Worldly, observant, shrewd.
 She'd write a canny account
of the gathering.
     Lots of great names fall between the two camps – Goethe, Chekhov, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Baudelaire, Proust -- not to be avoided but not among my top choices for dinner table companions.  I’m looking for those who would be friendly and open, easygoing, unpretentious, with no need to shock, and as willing to listen as to talk.  In other words, well balanced and not broody moody.  Among great writers I’m lucky to find any at all.

     Coming soon:  Hell House, the Latest Form of Christian Terrorism.  “Christian terrorism?” you may ask.  Yes, it’s an old tradition in this religion of love and compassion; I’ll trace it back via the Middle Ages to the Gospels.  And a Hell House here in secular New York?  Yes, once, back in 2006 in Brooklyn.  After that: Is bigger better?  MOMA and the Frick: museums and their lust to expand.  And after that: What do Elmo, Mickey Mouse, squeegee men, fake nuns, and Revolutionary War veterans have in common?   

     ©  2014  Clifford browder