Both Mailer and Buckley were public men which allowed continuity and personality that the ordinary reader or observer could maintain. I started an ongoing journey through their books.
by The Spec 5 for The International Chronicles
I started reading them in Vietnam, in the fall of 1968, which put me a half-generation behind. Nonetheless I was able to walk in on them when they were at their peak and to follow them the rest of the way. Both were Ivy League and Army, both were of the same city, both were fascinated by the shadows of the CIA, and both tamed the Cyclops of television. It was this latter fact that allowed me, situated way back in the last row of the political arena, to see them up close and gave me the sense (however illusionary) that I knew them.
Although I came across both men about the same time, Mailer had the first impact. I found Mailer in a magazine I bought in the PX in Chi Lang. I remember vividly getting that issue of Harpers which had an extended excerpt of The Armies of the Night. In it Mailer was revealing the psyche of the new left. In ratatat prose Mailer was telling me my army, my war, was existentially deficient, that I was a pawn in a bad game, and that better armies—the armies of Ho Chi Minh, and the NLF—were going to win, and that his army, the hippie, new left army, was of mystical origin and, though it may not be able to levitate the Pentagon, it would levitate history. My young Spec Five mind felt the force of Mailer. My intellectual capacity was more potential than actual and I must confess I could not counter Mailer, then.
I am not certain this is true of all exchanges in-country then, but I am sure National Review was not on the racks of the PX I used. I found Buckley in a box of paperbacks sent over by the USO. It was one of those collections of columns that he would compile from time to time, Rumbles Left and Right most likely. Unlike Mailer, Buckley’s style did not give instant literary jolts to young minds; still I was fascinated by the erudition. Maybe not jolts, but words. Words like solipsism, and synecdoche may have come from those first Buckley pieces. Whenever I read Buckley it was always necessary to put a new word in my notebook to look up later, but more than that, I was being introduced to political nuances that would take time to fully appreciate. But Buckley was not without some immediate effect, He was giving to my young mind the suspicion that there was something wrong with the beatniks in the streets and their rock and roll philosophy and the politics that came from it. And indeed when I returned to the states I did not get caught in the counter-culture flood. Buckley may have helped my resistance. I went to the edge to see it but I did not jump in.
Both Mailer and Buckley were public men which allowed continuity and personality that the ordinary reader or observer could maintain. I started an ongoing journey through their books. I retraced their steps back to the fifties and saw some similarities in them. Both attacked the establishment, albeit one because it was left, one because it wasn’t left enough. Both embodied larger geo-political, if not cosmic, world views. Both wrote about God. Both started their own journals. Buckley–The National Review and Mailer The Village Voice.
Mailer kept the center stage of my sensibility for a while. After my tours in Vietnam, I read Advertisements for Myself, a collection of pieces filled with egotistical bombasts, where Mailer tells us he is the new Hemingway, and that he is the only American writer brave enough to live on the existential edge with the hipster. In that book Mailer takes credit for the election of Kennedy. Recently a commentator referenced “Superman comes to the Supermarket,” one of the essays in Mailer’s Advertisement to explain the Obama candidacy where BO, seemingly like JFK did, is exciting the crowd in the marketplace with a “cool“ promise to transform drab America. Finding out what Mailer did in 1961 was part of the catching-up, but by the mid-seventies—because of TV—I became a contemporaneous witness to many Maileresque moments. One of the most representative occurred when he was booed mercilessly on The Dick Cavett Show, for calling feminists the seed carrier of totalitarianism. If one can recover the November 1977 issue of Harpers and read Mailer’s account of that night with Cavett, “Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling With Dots,” one can see Mailer, in full fight, taking on his enemies–the technological proliferation dominating enough to suck out the human soul, the culture too confused and too afraid of its own shadow it creates cancer not truth, the sybaritic elite “mucking up the place.” Cancer according to Mailer was the result of inauthentic lives, a theme that is in all his writings. Mailer was no doubt a leftist, but an unusual one in that he sought a transcendent beyond the Marxist horizon.
There was no doubt about Buckley’s view either, but either his great literary range made him an unusual conservative. Whereas Mailer looked for a God in his own image, Buckley confirmed it was the triune God who made us in His image. In that, Buckley was orthodox; yet that is why, when the summation is complete, Buckley is the more certain, the more meaningful and trustworthy writer of the two.
It was around that time, 1977, that Buckley’s hour with me began, when I began to like his logic more than Mailer’s sensation. Like Mailer, Buckley used TV. The Oxford style debates he set up were televised on PBS. (Some irony in that!) The famous Panama Canal debates come to mind. Firing Line interviews came into my living room week after week. Buckley would interview the culturati, always the equal if not the superior to his guests. It was a pleasurable thing seeing those with leftist propensities bested. Not all the programs were confrontational. One of my favorite Firing Line episodes was with the fullbackean poet James Dickey. Both men obviously enjoyed each other and they smilingly concurred when the discussion of space travel led them to agreeably assert the earth dwelled in “a Homeric sky.” By the time I became a regular viewer hundreds of Firing Line interviews had already taken place. I realized I missed a lot, but one of the finest Buckley moments I didn’t miss. I was able to observe as it happened. This was his presentation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a seminal broadcast in which the great émigré gave a cosmic good versus evil dimension to the liberty-tyranny conflict of the cold war. Buckley essentially introduced the Russian writer to the west. That event, especially considering when it happened, may have had as much to do with the ascendancy of Reagan as anything else. If Mailer’s claim that he got JFK into the oval office is dubious, the claim–not one Buckley made for himself–that Buckley helped Reagan become president is not.
Whether it was a Black Panther, or a liberal New York congressional harridan, Buckley was unflappable. Buckley often slouched in his Firing Line chair as if signaling a disdain. Still ideological opponents, week after week, lined up to go on. I wonder now that if a Firing Line-like raconteur from the left had to interview his opposites today, could he find enough interviews to keep his show on for a year? And, also I wonder, if the criterion is dexterity with the spoken word, good writing credits, political savvy, familiarity with literature and history, could Buckley keep his show going today considering the dearth both on the left and right?
Mailer was on Firing Line a number of times. In ’68, at the very moment I was discovering their work, these two men were actually going at it one on one on TV. The index of Firing Lines indicate Mailer sat opposite Buckley specifically to discuss The Armies of the Night during an airing that November. Subsequently, Mailer had additional bookings with Buckley; and though I did not see any of them, I can imagine Mailer took on the persona of the literary boxer, ready to exchange intellectual punches, but Buckley was the kind of debater that was patient with his literary rapier, and I can see him waiting for the unprotected belly of an idea—and then the thrust. And maybe it is a truism that he who controls the metaphor always wins. I can imagine literary combat, but I can’t imagine a meeting of talents like that again.
Both wrote until the end. And Mailer stayed public, letting us witness on C-Span Book TV with his book about young Hitler, that at the close he was still seeking the secular source of existential clarity and was still sure that God had not finalized his own. I like to hope that God gave Mailer a few points for trying. Buckley became less public, and I like to think that at his close he disagreed with Dylan Thomas and went gentle into that good night.
The Spec 5 writes on politics, culture and philosophy for The International Chronicles