I arrived late to see Norman Mailer speak at Sudler Hall on September 23rd. I had mixed up literary engagements in my date book and went first instead to Battell Chapel, where Adrienne Rich was scheduled to speak a week later, and found myself confronted with the Christian group “Real Life.”
“Where the hell is Norman Mailer?” I asked. They looked askance.
So by the time I mounted the stairs to Sudler Hall, the crowd was literally spilling out the door. I had to crane my head around to see even the backs of seated heads and the low rattle of applause was all that I could hear. It seemed like a pointless endeavor and I was ready to turn back.
But I ran into an acquaintance named Michael, however, and we decided to go around to the other side of the building and try the College Street door. That door was locked, so after a few curses launched at the lucky and punctual few, we called it a day (“‘New York Magazine’ did an interview with him over the summer,” I said, “I’m sure he’ll say the exact same thing”). Just then, we noticed an open window, not five feet off the ground, leading right into the stairway to the Hall. By this point a little colony of late-comers had gathered with us by the locked back door and now stood with us, looking at this open window. Suddenly Michael threw his bag inside, eliciting cries from spectators (“now you’re committed!”) and catapulted himself through. He opened the door and a whole swell of us climbed up the stairs, feeling very entitled to be there.
Nearly the entire grey marble floor was empty on this remote side of the throng and I settled myself in an alcove behind a uniformed security guard, not more than 20 feet from Mailer’s small jacketed frame. The security guard was an African-American man in his early middle age. He sat just behind the double doors that lead into the main hall of Sudler, perhaps at Mailer’s three o’clock, or two-forty-five. And he was reading a New Haven Register.
I would not say that Norman Mailer was universally interesting in the body of his speech. He read passages from pieces he had written over the years, about Dorothy Parker and narrative voices. I found them interesting because I found them interesting. The constant shuffle of newspaper in the security guard’s hands annoyed me the way a jackhammer or a car alarm would have annoyed me, but I could not really condemn the security guard for his lack of interest. I checked my snobbery, reminding myself, as a good liberal does, that it is only by rights of my privilege that I find interesting what I find interesting, reminding myself that to the ubiquitous “average person,” checking his mail or doing her nail polish while waiting for the popcorn to cook, the time-scarred voice of a writer who punctuated his speech with remembrances of his Harvard days was not the most fascinating thing in the world. To the man who sat in front of me, it was less interesting than the advertising section of the Register. I checked my snobbery. I did my best to hear over the crinkle.
Throughout his speech, Mailer assured us that he knew we just wanted to talk about politics. I was happy to hear him speak of literature, but at the end of his hour-and-a-half, he finally did turn to politics. He described a series of dialectics that had been working their way through his mind over the past years, with regard to the conflict in Iraq. He knew that the members of the Bush administration were very smart, so he kept asking himself, with an increasing degree of confusion, why they were doing so many stupid things. He said it became a kind of mantra to him, repeating itself in his head. He could barely do anything without the hovering question: Why are they doing all of these stupid things? And finally he decided it was because they had to, because America has become so wholly dependent upon other countries for labor and oil that if we don’t gain control of the Middle East now, then in 10 or 20 or 40 years, we are going to become a second-rate power. Like Britain, he said. And as smart as leaders of the Bush Administration are, from the cores of their beings, they cannot sit by and see that happen.
At the end of his speech, which was as powerful and articulate as any I have heard over the course of this much-articulated election year, a student stood and asked him if he thought we were still living in a democracy.
“My fear,” said Norman Mailer, “is that we are living at the very end of one.”
Throughout this latter portion of Norman’s program, the security guard in front of me had been eating a bag of peanut M&Ms, and he finished the last one just as Mailer finished this grave declaration. Chewing the last M&M, the security guard in front of me looked around for a moment and then, like a night watchman who has tired of watching the reflection of the moon on a deserted field, he closed his eyes.
It seemed to me that he was just the man half the members of the student audience had probably spent all summer long trying to register to vote (or just the weekends when their internships could spare them). It seemed to me he was just the sort of man they had sought, setting out across Ohio and Pennsylvania and Oregon and Maine with patriotism in their hearts.
He was not 15 feet from a Pulitzer-Prize winning author who was telling him that American wealth and ambition and power were over, and the only way to save them would be to keep fighting our bad war, to add more and more soldiers to the cynical quagmire, to draft his sons and his friends and maybe his daughters to the whirlwind of a cause that meant nothing to him, in defense of a wealth in which he had no part. He heard that democracy was dying and he closed his tired eyes.
Democracy is dying, because he closed his eyes.