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Romanticism Harbors of the Moon

By Sim Johnston

Little, Brown and Company. 472 pp. $7.95.

MAN'S first landing on the moon made hardly a dent in the American cool. It had the aura of a TV studio fabrication; the excitement lasted about as long as a commercial. This inability to respond to the ever-increasing size of events has become the American narcotic. The highest historical moments fast disappear under the omissions of journalism, the perversions of television, and the sheer acceleration of history, and while our response to these moments is inevitably dulled, the events themselves are taking on a style and structure which laugh at any response we might happen to muster.

Two things, it seems, are required to get us out of this uniquely twentieth century dilemma. First, a new consciousness. While many will scoff at Charles Reich, there are few who do not feel that we are headed for a big show-down with history. We are profoundly pessimistic and peculiarly optimistic at the prospect: convinced that some huge deluge is going to be unleashed, we are nevertheless aroused by the notion that an exceptional future lies before us on the wings of technology and a new awareness. The vanguard of this consciousness may well be a new Romanticism, which leads to the second point: that art, journalism, and television will have to play a major role in defining and advancing this consciousness, just as early twentieth century Romantics revolutionized the European imagination in their times. The movement may already be underway; the gradual debunking of modernism, the guerrilla television movement, and the mellowing of rock all point to a return to direct response, to the senses and the magic of psyche. And there is Norman Mailer. By setting out to rescue events from their dim, receding world and revivifying them in a present tense of action and contemplation, Mailer is perhaps the only writer today who makes a difference to the American experience.

Despite all his talents, each of Mailer's new journalistic endeavors inspires a touch of cynicism, for his style often works like an elastic bag into which he can pour anything from political conventions to traffic congestion and come up with instant apocalyptic meditations. His early essays in the middle fifties were pure mental bombast; the weight of reflection far exceeded the weight of its object so that it hardly mattered what he was talking about. Starting with the '64 Republican Convention and culminating with Armies of the Night. he had found the kind of material to which his species of unconventional thinking and his concepts of writing were splendidly suited. However, even when reporting on the march on the Pentagon, Mailer was dealing with an event which simply did not measure up to his conceptions of it. There was a tendency to play every scene, however small, as an historical watershed, surrounding it with apocalyptic fires and spinning it off into the cosmos. In his new book on the Apollo 11 moonshot, Of a Fire on the Moon, ego and history meet at half way, and it has taken a subject of no mean importance, the highest conscious design of the archimperium of the planet as well as a deliberate scaling down of his ego to bring the meeting off.

AT HARVARD last spring, Mailer said that the book was the hardest he had written. He was confronted with "the spookiest adventure in history, a landing on the moon," and the event had nothing more to show for itself than machines and technicians whose personalities were wedded to the "absolute computer of the corporation." Faced with such a banality of facts and resolved to restore "magic psyche and the spirits of the underworld" to the venture, Mailer, calling himself Aquarius and summoning the aeronautical engineering of his undergraduate days, takes recourse to his senses to give us a dazzling report not only on what he observes-the astronauts, the launch, the press conferences. Werner Ven Braun, and the whole world of NASA and technology-but also himself, a more subdued observer than before, confused and somewhat awed by the discipline and scale of Cape Kennedy and Houston control.

Previously, one feels, "corporation land" existed merely as a nasty abstraction for Mailer; now he is bearing witness to its most impressive achievement and is forced to alter his understanding of America. He feels a large contempt for the counterculture, "an army of outrageously spoiled children who cooked with piss and vomit while the Wasps were quietly moving from command of the world to command of the moon." He is not sure whether the astronauts are the "last of the old or the first of the new men," but he is certain that the American spirit is moving into new territories of unknown quality while the New Left totalists and voidtouters are left guarding the gates of the abandoned fort of their vision.

While Mailer is not one to repeat himself. there is much here that we have seen before. There are the ritual reports on his bowels, liver, and marriages; his preoccupation with the small town mind; the constant dualities of vision: the stylistic brilliance, the quick substitutions of abstract for concrete; the sweeping flights, within single phrases, from the commonplace to the sublime (Hemingway's brains are "scattered now in every atmosphere"); metaphors that reach out and grasp every aspect of common experience; and the quick observations that outgun entire works of lesser writers (as when Frank McGee is described as having "a personality all reminiscent . . . of a coach of a rifle team"). As usual, Mailer's observations are passionate rather than considered, emerging from the heat of the moment; inevitably, many of them seem wildly wrong. But the technical accuracy of his remarks are beside the point, for we always know what he is getting at.

READING Mailer and other writers with central visions of America, one questions their assertion that the country has a meaningful inner core, and one wonders whether it is not all chaotic egomania in which the sub-cults and the marginalia, the government and the governed, have been left to grow by themselves, to extend in any direction, restrained only by the dictates of inner logic. Tom Wolfe takes precisely this view as the underlying theme of his journalism. Mailer, however, bites at the poisoned artichoke with the unspoken premise that if the American psyche has been fragmented to this degree it must be put back together.

But universal catharsis is a short commodity lately. Everyone seems to end up in their own Edge City, and allowing Time magazine to push debauch one week and utopia the next without contradicting itself. Mailer suggested a few years ago that war may be the final tonic, that we should "buy a tract of land somewhere in Amazon . . . and throw in Marines and Seabeas and Air Force . . . invite them all, the Chinks and the Aussies, the Frogs and the Gooks and the Wogs . . . We'll have war games with real bullets and real flame throwers, real hot-wire correspondents on the spot. TV with phone-in audience participation, discotheques, Playooy Clubs, pictures of corpses for pay TV . . . But even that wouldn't do the trick. Our collective cool refuses penetration.

Mailer recognizes this dilemma and his works generate a heat of verbal sensuality and direct experience in answer to it. If others listen, he may well play a large role in moving literature from its current sterility into a romanticism of a much larger dimension than before, especially if he turns back to the novel. He has already exploded the journalistic form; hopefully he will again write serious fiction and give the novel its first claim to life since Pale Fire. Last spring Mailer said that it was his dream (as well as contract) to write that big novel he has been promising. But, no matter what he does, he will continue to stand alone, illuming an age entirely worthy of him.

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