The White Negro
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(publ. City Lights)
The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster, a 9,000-word essay by Norman Mailer, connects the "psychic havoc" wrought by the Holocaust and atomic bomb to the aftermath of slavery in America in the figuration of the Hipster, or the "white negro". It is a call to disassociate from Eisenhower liberalism and a numbing culture of conformity and psychoanalysis to embrace a rebellious, personal violence and emancipating sexuality that Mailer associates with marginalized black culture. The essay was first published in the 1957 special issue of Dissent, before being published separately by City Lights. While Mailer's essay was controversial upon its release, winning praise, for example, from Eldridge Cleaver and equal criticism from James Baldwin, it remains perhaps his most famous and reprinted essay and "established Mailer's reputation as a philosopher of hip".
The origins of The White Negro (WN) date from the mid-1950s. Mailer, explains Carl Rollyson in his biography, wanted to tap into the energy of the Beat Generation and the changes of consciousness its members — like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac — inspired. Mailer used "Quickly: A Column for Slow Readers", his column in The Village Voice, to develop and explore his philosophy of hip, or "American existentialism", and saw his psychopathic character Marion Faye from The Deer Park as a prototypical Hipster. Mailer also tapped into the cultural dialogue about black male sexuality and published, with the prompting of Lyle Stuart, four paragraphs about black male super-sexuality in the Independent. Mailer's outrageous sentiment was not well received — notably by William Faulkner, Eleanor Roosevelt, and W. E. B. Du Bois — but prompted him to begin work on WN.
"Lipton's Journal", Mailer's unpublished 105,000-word diary of self-analysis written over four months while experimenting with marijuana, also figures into the essay's genesis. It documents "his insights [that] challenge some of the dominant ideas of Western thought", specifically the dualisms that Mailer saw within every individual, like the saint and the psychopath. Mailer had planned to use the insights from Lipton's in a series of novels which never happened, but he did incorporate some of the journal's ideas into WN. He sums these up in one of the last entries in Lipton's:
Generally speaking we have come to the point in history—in this country anyway—where the middle class and upper middle class is composed primarily of the neurotic-conformists, and the saint-psychos are found in some of the activities of the workingclass (as opposed to the workingclass itself), in the Negro people, in Bohemians, in the illiterates, among the reactionaries, a few of the radicals, some of the prison population, and of course in the mass communication media.
Other influences on both "Lipton's" and The White Negro include the psycho-sexual theories of Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich, the writings of Karl Marx, and the work of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and other bebop jazz artists. Dearborn avers that Mailer saw these great men of jazz as quintessential figures of Hip; Miles Davis, for example, "was the avatar of Hip, and, with his lean, chiseled good looks and his ultracool manner he was distinctly a sex symbol as well, appealing to white women as well as black". These elements provided the background for Mailer's new-found understanding of social reality.
The White Negro is a 9000-word essay divided into six sections of varying lengths.
In section 1, he argues that the twin horrors of the atom bomb and the concentration camps have wrought a "psychic havoc" by subjecting individual human lives to the calculus of the state machine. The collective practices of Western progress seem to render life and death meaningless for the individual who is compelled to join the numbed masses in a "collective failure of nerve". The only courage seems to be in marginalized, isolated people who can stand in opposition.
—§2, p. 341
Section 2 proposes that the marginalized figure—"the American existentialist"—lives with the knowledge of quick death, the possibility of State violence, the compulsory need to conform, and the sublimation of baser desires. He knows that the only answer is to accept these terms, divorce himself from the bored sickness of society, and seek the "rebellious imperatives of the self". Mailer presents a dichotomy: one path that leads to a quiet prison of the mind and body — to boredom, sickness, and desperation, while the other that leads to "new kinds of victories [that] increase one's power for new kinds of perception". One is a rebel — the Hip, the psychopath — or one is tempted by the promise of success, conforms to "the totalitarian tissues of an American society", and become Square. Because he has lived on the margins of society, Mailer sees the American Negro as the model for the Hipster — living for the primitive present and the pleasures of the body. Mailer links this figuration with jazz and it appeal to the sensual, the improvisational, and the immediate, or what Mailer calls the "burning consciousness of the present" felt by the existentialist, the bullfighter, and the Hipster alike. In other words, it's living life by "engaging death".
—§3, p. 343
Section 3 defines the Hipster further as a "philosophical psychopath" who is interested in codifying, very like Hemingway, the "dangerous imperatives" that define his experience of reality. He is a contradiction, possessing a "narcissistic detachment" from his own "unreasoning drive" allowing him to shift his attention from immediate gratification to "future power". Psychopaths, Mailer continues, "are trying to create a new nervous system for themselves" that distinguishes itself form the "inefficient and often antiquated nervous circuits of the past" — destroyed with the middle-class values that made sublimating desire possible. This latter state is the civilizing product of psychoanalysis, which only succeeds in "tranquilizing" a patient's most interesting qualities — making the neurotic out of the psychopath. The nervous system is remade, Mailer contends, by trying to "live the infantile fantasy" — to trace the source of their creation in an atavistic quest to give voice and action to infantile, or forbidden, desires. In this "morality of the bottom", then, the psychopath finds the courage to act free of the "old crippling habit" that has anesthetized him. Now, he can purge his violence, even through murder, but what he really seeks is physical love in the form of the "apocalyptic orgasm" as a "sexual outlaw".
Section 3 ends with an introduction to the language of Hip, a "special language" that "cannot be taught" because it is based on a shared experience of "elation and exhaustion" their oppression made necessary. Section 4 develops this language further, linking the language to movement and the search for the "unachievable whisper of mystery within the sex, the paradise of limitless energy and perception just beyond the next wave of the next orgasm".
—§5, p. 354
Section 5 posits that any philosophy of Hip does not judge based upon a simple past, but looks to new, complex alternatives — a "collection of possibilities". Mailer suggests, developing the existential reality of the Hipster further, that men are both character and context, giving way to "an absolute relativity where there are no truths other than the isolated truths of what each observer feels at each instant of his existence". The consequence of this realization is the liberation from the "Super-Ego of society". The moral imperative, then, centers in the individual who acts in accordance with his desires, not as the group would have him behave: "nihilism of Hip proposes as its final tendency that every social restraint and category be removed, and the affirmation implicit in the proposal is that man would then prove to be more creative than murderous and so would not destroy himself". The idea is that even individual acts of violence — because they come from courage to act — prove more desirable than any collective state violence, as the former would be more genuine, creative, and cathartic. A "psychically armed rebellion", Mailer continues, is necessary to free everyone: "A time of violence, new hysteria, confusion and rebellion will then be likely to replace the time of conformity". This potentially violent rebellion would be preferable to the "murderous liquidations of the totalitarian state".
Finally, in Section 6, Mailer speculates whether "the last war of them all" will be between factions of socially polar communities or through despair at the current crisis of capitalism. Perhaps, Mailer ends, we still have something to learn from Marx.
True to his thesis in "The First Advertisement for Myself", Mailer attempts "a revolution in the consciousness of our time" by challenging the thoughts and practices that sanitize American life after World War II. In his biography on Mailer, J. Michael Lennon suggests that The White Negro was Mailer's attempt to "will into being an army of hipster revolutionaries who could bring about an urban utopia". In his reply to Jean Malaquais, Mailer writes: "the removal therefore of all social restraints while it would open us to an era of incomparable individual violence would still spare us the collective violence of rational totalitarian liquidations . . . and would — and here is the difference — by expending the violence directly, open the possibility of working with that human creativity which is violence's opposite". While WN embraces violence, it makes a distinction between violence by the state and individual violence; the former leads to concentration camps and pogroms, while the latter could lead to freedom. For Mailer, adds Maggie McKinley, violence seems to be an essential part of the masculinity of the Hipster — helping to oppose collectivizing and numbing social forces. In a 1957 letter to a publicly-critical Malaquais, Mailer clarifies his intentions: (1) that barbarism could be an alternative to totalitarianism, and (2) that human energy should not be sublimated at the expense of the individual.
Both Malaquais and Polsky accuse Mailer of romanticizing violence, and Laura Adams reminds us of the consequences of Mailer's testing his "violence as catharsis" theory in real life when he nearly killed his second wife Adele by stabbing her twice with a pen knife. Ned Polsky sees that Mailer is well aware of the drawbacks in the life of a hipster, but because of his fascination with them, he romanticizes away the consequences. Polsky argues that the hipster isn't as sexually liberated as Mailer would make them seem — "Mailer confuses the life of action with the life of acting out". Because of the hipster is crippled psychologically, he is also crippled sexually. Polsky dismisses Mailer's hipster and upholds psychoanalysis as more of a benefit to sexual health.
Although the essay considers a subcultural phenomenon, it represents a localized synthesis of Marx and Freud, and thus presages the New Left movement and the birth of the counterculture in the United States. Rollyson suggests that Mailer dismissed a Freudian approach to psychology that called for the adjustment of the individual to societal norms, and instead espoused Wilhem Reich's emphasis on sexual energy and orgasm. Christopher Brookeman created a sort of motivation for Mailer through his idea of Marxism combined with a kind of "Reichian Freudianism" to find solutions "in the better orgasm" which in turn would allow for the rise of one's "full instinctual potential". Reich inspired Mailer as one of the few intellectuals or writers in general who had deeply explored the power, primacy and potential of the male orgasm. The White Negro is explicitly influenced by Reich in two primary ways: the exaltation of male sexual eruption and the related theme of the virile, iconoclastic male hipster casting off societal rules and impositions to live instead led by his sex, his body and his instincts as a balm and shield against all physical and mental ailments and diseases, including cancer. Mailer makes the comparison of the hipster hero with other outliers in society such as the Negro, the lover and the psychopath.He commends the social outliers' ability to live in a "burning" present with the continuous awareness of their closeness to death. Likewise, Mailer's admiration for Linder's description of the psychopath in Rebel without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of the Criminal Psychopath influences Mailer's figuration as "one that, in the end, centers on his quest for love". This quest for love — or "the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it" — allows the psychopath to become "an embodiment of the extreme contradictions of society which formed his character".
Mailer presents a theme of dualistic "opposed extremes" in his figuration of the hipster and the square. Tony Tanner believes that Mailer was excited by the twentieth century's "tendency to reduce all of life to its ultimate alternatives", noting the value that Mailer places on opposite couplings. The White Negro demonstrates Mailer's fondness for duality when he ponders if "the last war of them all will be between the blacks and the whites, or between the women and the men, or between the beautiful and the ugly", again listing some of his favorite alternatives. Similarly, Ihab Hassan shows this duality by using the hipster's face as that of an "alienated" hero covered by a twisted mask in order to hide the look of disgust towards one's own experiences and encounters while out in "search of kicks".
Tracy Dahlby argues that Mailer's hipster is still a necessity in the fight against conformity by consumption.This fight against conformity is Mailer believes will liberate the "squares". Focusing on a post-9/11 world similar to the years after World War II, Dahlby points to the new age of technology, social media, and increased consumption as symptomatic of a mindless society. In a world that exposes people to unspeakable violence and fear through social media, desensitized news coverage, and radical conspiracy theories, the paucity of existential hipsters puts society at risk missing a fulfilling life.
Though the bulk of the content had appeared in piece-meal fashion in Mailer's regular columns in the Village Voice, The White Negro first appeared in a special issue of Dissent in 1957. It triggered a "great orgasm debate" in subsequent issues, touching on the zeitgeist of the fifties and the effects of psychoanalysis in general. Sorin observes that the board of Dissent published the essay without apparent debate, temporarily tripling the periodical's subscriptions. It was only later, relates then-editor Irving Howe, that they realized publishing the essay as-written was "unprincipled". Despite the initial controversy, Lennon notes, WN became the most reprinted essay of an era. It was reprinted with rebuttals from Ned Polsky and Jean Malaquais, followed by Mailer's rebuttal, as "Reflections on Hip", in his 1959 miscellany, Advertisements for Myself. The essay and "Reflections on Hip" were reprinted the same year in pamphlet form by City Light Press, and again by this press several times over the next 15 years. Most recently it appears in Mind of an Outlaw (2014). Young enthusiasts of Mailer's essay, states Lennon, carried their copies of the City Light's reprint proudly as a "trumpet of defiance" throughout an awakening nation.
Reception to The White Negro was mixed and has been controversial since its publication: it has, according to Lennon, been "the most discussed American essay in the quarter century after World War II". According to Tracy Dahlby, Mailer's views were a hot topic in 1957 and many of his critics accused him of accepting violence as a "form of existential expression".
In a letter to Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison called the essay "The same old primitivism crap in a new package". Similarly, Allen Ginsberg calls the essay "very square" and recalls Jack Kerouac thought Mailer an "intellectual fool" — both considered The White Negro a "macho folly" that did not reconcile with the "tenderheartedness" of the Beat perspective. Ginsberg saw no Dostoyevskian hero in Mailer's violent Hipster.
Several prominent critics, such as James Baldwin, chided Mailer publicly for their perception that, with The White Negro, he was openly aping lesser writers such as Jack Kerouac, in order to jump on the bandwagon of moody, meandering, faux-thrill-seeking Beatniks. Baldwin, in his essay "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy" for Esquire (May 1961) calls The White Negro "impenetrable", and wonders how Mailer, a writer that he saw as brilliant and talented, could write an essay that was so beneath him. For Baldwin, Mailer's essay just perpetuated the "myth of the sexuality of Negros" while attempting the sell white people their innocence and purity. Kate Millet's view of The White Negro criticizes Mailer's virtues on violence. In her book Sexual Politics, she makes the claim that Mailer finds that violence is something that he has fallen in love with as a personal and sexual style. She states that to Mailer, "A rapist is only rapist to a square" and that "rape is a part of life". Millet goes on the criticize Mailer of developing the aesthetic of Hip with harmful masculine pride. Millett goes further by accusing WN of even celebrating and romanticizing stereotypes about Black hypersexuality, which author and intellectual Lorraine Hansberry joined Baldwin in rejecting. She argues WN also excuses and idealizes society's denigration and ostracizing of Blacks to further Mailer's agenda of repackaging White racism as Black iconoclasm. Baldwin shows this great respect for Mailer's talent, but aligns The White Negro with other distractions — like running for mayor of NYC — that Baldwin saw as beneath Mailer and distracted him from his real responsibility as a writer. While Mailer seemed to have a sense of the historical importance of the late 1950s, explains Ginsberg, he was being an "apocalyptic goof" with his naive Hipster figuration that Kerouac saw as "well intentioned but poisonous, in them sense that it encouraged an image of violence".
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