The media, to use Mailer’s terminology, were driving public events deeper and deeper into the “privacies” of every citizen’s brain, short-circuiting linear thinking in favor of image-driven manipulation. And this was precisely why traditional reportage had become ill-equipped for locating the truth of “what happened.” What we needed, insisted Mailer, was a different approach: “The novel must replace history at precisely that point where experience is sufficiently emotional, spiritual, psychical, moral, existential, or supernatural to expose the fact that the historian in pursuing the experience would be obliged to quit the clearly demarcated limits of historic inquiry.” His book, he adds, “while still written in the cloak of an historic style, and, therefore, continuously attempting to be scrupulous to the welter of a hundred confusing and opposed facts, will now unashamedly enter that world of strange lights and intuitive speculation that is the novel.”
Needless to say, this development dovetailed perfectly with Mailer’s own impulses. And yet (and this is perhaps Mailer’s most important saving grace), he was deeply ambivalent about it. Highly sensitive to the theater of events and personae, Mailer was alive to the ways in which the manipulation of surfaces could, and would, be used to deaden the public’s ability to think, to sift and evaluate information. Writers, public officials, advertising people, politicians, speech writers—all were in possession of a dangerous weapon, and they were obliged to use it with singular care. “Style,” Mailer wrote, much later, in an introduction to a book by Carl Oglesby, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society, about the JFK assassination, “is not the servant of our desire to inform others how to think, but the precise instrument by which we attempt to locate the truth.”
In the light of today’s endemic spin, such a sentiment would seem a touching artifact of a simpler time, if it weren’t so achievable by any individual sitting alone in a room trying to locate the truth. The prerequisite is the sense that it is both possible and desirable. Citizen Mailer turns the act of seeing, the workings of consciousness itself, into the ultimate civic act—a responsibility shared by everyone in the privacies of his or her brain. There is something profoundly democratic in his insistence that the individual’s sensibility could meet the largest events on equal terms, with one’s own centering and irreducible humanity as the common denominator.
As a writer and as a man, mailer was always in a state of tension. His mind and heart were planted in a wholly American flux—improvisatory, protean, deeply ambiguous in intention, supremely egotistical and supremely civic-minded. These tensions give his work its deepest dynamism, turning it into a theater of opposing psychic forces. At the same time, Mailer was not quite a wholly American spirit. Or perhaps his Americanness existed in extraordinary tension with his respect for European intellectual and artistic traditions. When, toward the end of Advertisements for Myself , he promises to write a novel worthy of being read by “Dostoevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even old moldering Hemingway,” 80 percent of the honor roll has been read before an American is mentioned.
Mailer retained an almost sentimental attachment to the novel form, yet his major gift was not the ability to imagine living, three-dimensional fictional characters. What he did have a genius for was dramatized dialectic. He loved to interview himself; his 1966 collection Cannibals and Christians contains three self-interviews, and more followed through the years. The form of Armies is itself a kind of dialogue, in two halves, between two different modes of discourse.