[L]earning to know dread is an adventure which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition either by not having known dread or by sinking under it. He therefore who has learned rightly to be in dread has learned the most important thing.
Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Dread (1844)
[Form] is the record, as seen in a moment of rest; yes, it is the record of a war which has been taking place.
Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself (1960)
Norman Mailer’s fourth novel, An American Dream (1965), began life as a serial publication in Esquire magazine, where eight instalments of the book were published between January and August, 1964 (Manso 385-88). Mailer’s visionary metaphysical thriller was an enormous success: during serialisation, Esquire’s circulation jumped to a record 900,000 (Lennon 339), numbers driven, no doubt, by the novel’s inflammatory nature (a description of anal sex in the second installment was heavily edited [Rollyson 177-73]).
Almost immediately, An American Dream was attacked on grounds both moral and aesthetic. Elizabeth Hardwick, writing in Partisan Review, called it “a very dirty book—dirty and extremely ugly […] an assortment of dull cruelties and callous copulations” (Radford 34). Stanley Edgar Hyman opined that “Mailer’s novel is bad in that absolute fashion that makes it unlikely that he could ever have written anything good” (Braudy 104). From the beginning, critical response to An American Dream has dwelt primarily on the novel’s troubling refusal to conform to established aesthetic conventions. The novel’s use of the tropes of popular thriller fiction, as well as its engagement with themes of murder, sexual violence, conspiracy, regenerative risk, moral ambiguity, and conflict, has led many critics, beginning with Hardwick and continuing through essays by Leo Bersani (1965) and others, to misread the novel as either a failed work of naturalism or as a violent, fantasticated allegory of American social ills in the early 1960s.
Certainly, An American Dream sits uncomfortably beside other successful American novels of the early 1960s, for example, Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1963) or Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), novels which, for all their thematic richness and formal complexity, can be confidently claimed for established or burgeoning aesthetic traditions (Modernism for Bellow, Postmodernism for Pynchon). The complexity of the ongoing critical response to An American Dream suggests that the novel is, in a sense, sui generis and that if we are to unpack the text’s larger significances, then established critical frameworks will prove to be of only limited utility. I want to argue that, to a significant extent, the framework for understanding An American Dream can be found within Mailer’s own work of the early 1960s, a period during which Mailer formalised a radically open-ended metaphysics, which drew on sources that included Marx, Kierkegaard, and American cultural history, and which profoundly shaped his work at both the structural and thematic levels. Mailer’s work in the early 1960s embodies, dramatises, and interrogates a permanent crisis of remaking—a politics, as it were, of growth—and, in doing so, illuminates the complexities and ambiguities of a crucial moment in the history of the postwar United States.
In the decades since its first publication, An American Dream has continued to provoke contradictory responses. Joan Didion, writing in the National Review, praised Mailer’s “immense technical skill” and noted that “[Mailer’s eye] is not the eye for the brand name, not at all the eye of a Mary McCarthy or a Philip Roth; it is rather some fascination with the heart of the structure, some deep feeling for the mysteries of power” (Manso 403). Most significantly, the reviewer for Harper’s magazine noted, “It is an American dream as Oedipus the King is a Greek dream […]. In its earlier serial publication, An American Dream seemed to be hardly more than a series of lurid episodes […]. But now that the novel can be seen as a whole, the episodes come together in a pattern of remarkable imaginative coherence and intensity” (Manso 403).
Concerns about the novel’s approach to issues of gender and sexuality have been most forcefully articulated by Kate Millett in her classic study Sexual Politics (1969). Millett notes “the heavy heuristic value which the hero is to obtain from his sexual exploits” (11)—alluding to the fact that Rojack’s sexual conquests are certainly conceived as stages on his dialectical journey into the possibility of growth. More cogently, Millett argues, “In An American Dream female sexuality is depersonalised to the point of being a matter of class or a matter of nature” (12) and points out that “anal rape” is Rojack’s “way of expressing contemptuous mastery” over the female characters he encounters (13). Joseph Wenke, in his book Mailer’s America (1987), contends that, “[t]echnically, the novel is an unsuccessful attempt at achieving verisimilitude, the enterprise horribly undermined by Mailer’s uncontrollable eccentricity” and that “its intentions are primarily mimetic” (99-100). Nathan Scott, in Three American Moralists (1973), speaks of the novel as an “implausible romance […] the inattentive reader may be hoodwinked into supposing that the ordinary conventions of social narrative are at work” (61). Richard Poirier, in his 1972 study Mailer, also stresses the text’s distance from traditional mimetic fiction. In An American Dream, Poirier writes, Mailer “wants to show that the world of the demonic, the supernatural, the mad is not simply the reverse side of the world that sets the normal standards by which these other conditions are defined as abnormal […]. [H]e wants to suggest that these worlds really coexist” (126).
Baldly summarised, the plot of An American Dream does indeed seem like (in the words of the Harper’s reviewer) “a series of lurid episodes.” The novel draws upon a variety of sources, including pulp crime fiction, the spy story, the gangster narrative, the quest tale, and what Richard Slotkin has proposed as a crucially American myth: the frontier narrative of regeneration through violence. Former Congressman and decorated war hero Stephen Richards Rojack is now a professor of “existential psychology” and the author of a book called The Psychology of the Hangman, which deals with “styles of execution in different states and nations” (Mailer, An American Dream 8).  Rojack, like Mailer, is a veteran of World War II. An American Dream begins with his account of a single-handed assault on a German machine-gun emplacement, during which Rojack experiences a kind of trance state that seems to derive from the presence of a full moon in the night sky (3-6). Two decades later, Rojack is married to an heiress named Deborah Caughlin Mangaravidi Kelly, though they are now separated. One night, drunk and driven almost to suicide by the mystical rapport that he shares with the moon (“my secret frightened romance with the phases of the moon” ), Rojack visits Deborah in an apartment she has borrowed from a friend. During an argument, Rojack strangles Deborah to death. He then sodomises Deborah’s maid, Ruta, and throws Deborah’s body over the balcony onto the New York street ten floors below.
Most of the remainder of the novel is concerned with the following thirty-two hours, during which Rojack is investigated by the police for the murder of his wife; is fired from two of his jobs; visits a Mafia-run nightclub where he meets and falls in love with a jazz singer named Cherry; fights with and defeats Cherry’s black ex-boyfriend Shago Martin, a jazz musician; and finally confronts mob boss Eddie Ganucci, who turns out to be in cahoots with Deborah’s father, Barney Oswald Kelly, who has “made a million two hundred times” (1). Kelly, it is suggested, is also the father of Deborah’s daughter Deirdre (247-51). Rojack confesses his crime to Kelly but learns that Kelly has used his connections within the CIA and the Mob to save Rojack from arrest. Rojack also learns that Ruta is Kelly’s mistress and may have ties to the intelligence community. The novel culminates in a prolonged psychic battle between Rojack and Kelly, who challenge each other to walk along the parapet of Kelly’s penthouse balcony. Kelly defeated, Rojack makes his exit and goes to Cherry’s apartment, where he discovers her dying on an ambulance stretcher, murdered by persons presumably connected with Kelly. Whereupon Rojack lights out, as it were, for the territory (“the long trip to Guatemala and Yucatan,” in the novel’s closing words ).
John W. Aldridge, in a 1965 essay on Mailer’s work called “The Energy of New Success,” observes that “Mailer stands alone among his contemporaries in possessing a coherent metaphysics of the human condition as it now exists” (119). This metaphysics–Mailer’s politics of growth—may account for the sui generis quality of much of his work. It may also explain why Mailer has never been accepted as unproblematically canonical (as late as 2009, the novelist Jonathan Lethem remarked that Mailer was “fatally out of fashion” ). The sustained assault, by postmodern theorists, on the idea of the “grand narrative” (cf. Lyotard et al.) has led many critics to treat Mailer—an essentially metaphysical novelist—with considerable scepticism. It is unfortunate, too, that Mailer has never gained an influential critical champion (as Saul Bellow, for example, has found a champion in James Wood), given that so much of Mailer’s work cannot be fully grasped without reference to the metaphysics it embodies. To attempt to grasp Mailer’s metaphysics as the shaping element of his oeuvre is not to deny that the work thus shaped is often troubling, particularly in its essentialist approach to questions of gender and race and in its sometimes fetishistic approach to the depiction of violence. But to refuse the attempt is to foreclose an engagement with a series of texts whose interventions in “the superheated dream life” of 1960s America open up rich seams of analysis and interpretation. An American Dream, as perhaps the richest of these texts, is particularly worthy of sustained attention.
The intellectual and aesthetic sources of Mailer’s metaphysics of growth—which informs his work of the 1960s at both a formal and a thematic level—are various and include orthodox Marxism, Kierkegaardian religious existentialism, and the frontier thesis of American history. Pari passu with its analysis of An American Dream as the text that perhaps best exemplifies Mailer’s metaphysics (or politics) of growth, this paper will discuss some of these sources, beginning with Mailer’s complex engagements with orthodox Marxism.
Mailer’s metaphysics of growth is fundamentally dialectical, though it is not in any sense teleological. What this means is that much of Mailer’s 1960s work can fruitfully be read within a Marxist framework but that this framework should not be seen as foreclosing or exhausting all interpretative possibilities. To describe Mailer’s metaphysics as “dialectical” is not to imply that Mailer is in any simplistic sense an economic determinist, nor that his intellectual relationship with Marxism and Marxist ideologies is anything other than highly idiosyncratic. (In his 1967 Paris Review interview, Mailer dryly remarked that Das Kapital “had its mild influence” on his thinking [Spooky 7].) Rather, the analytic and structural pattern of the classical Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis underlies and informs Mailer’s interpretative project, as well as his evolving conception(s) of growth. Certainly, Marxism was a foundational influence on Mailer’s thinking—his second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), is inter alia an essay on the continued validity of Marxist thought in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and of the Second World War. Mailer was introduced to the formal study of Marx in the late 1940s when he befriended the Polish-French intellectual Jean Malaquais, who translated The Naked and the Dead (1948)into French (Pieces 97), and as late as The Armies of the Night (1968), Mailer is still describing his politics as a “private mixture of Marxism, conservatism, nihilism, and large parts of existentialism” (Armies 35).
Marx’s inversion of the Hegelian dialectic may be said to be at the root of Mailer’s conception of the individual in history. Whereas the Hegelian dialectic ideally culminates in the incarnation in history of the geist or World Spirit, the Marxist dialectic emphasises the complex interaction of the human subject with shaping economic forces, as adumbrated in Marx’s famous remark in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852): “Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted” (Manifesto 85).
However, whereas both Hegel and Marx conceptualised the dialectical movement of history as oriented towards a goal—in Marx’s case, the establishment of a society organised along communist lines—Mailer’s dialectics are radically open-ended. Mailer’s metaphysics is one of provisionality, in which no single moment (of history, of politics, of economics, of ethics, of aesthetics) can ever be read as conclusive. In his work of the early 1960s—and particularly in An American Dream—Mailer draws on the work of Søren Kierkegaard to conceive of growth as a radical process, an engagement with the potentiality of potential itself. For Mailer, the self is both process and product, both shaper and victim of historical forces in a dialectic that can never, by its very nature, reach a terminus. In this sense, Mailer’s dialectics position him some distance from the Marxist conception of a shaping economic base encountering and being shaped in turn by a socio-cultural superstructure. Following Kierkegaard and a later generation of existentialist thinkers, Mailer instead prioritises the radical subject. As he wrote during a debate with Malaquais in Dissent in 1957 (the piece was collected in Advertisements for Myself ), “Man is a flux of possibilities and energies long before and perhaps long after he is a manipulator of land, properties, and productions” (262-63). It is this conception of the radical subject as a “flux of possibilities and energies” that underwrites Mailer’s politics of growth.
An American Dream is the first of Mailer’s novels to represent a fully coherent dramatisation of his politics of growth, and Stephen Rojack is the most fully developed fictional avatar of a recurring figure in Mailer’s work, the “existential hero.” The novel is structured as a sequence of combative initiatory rituals—here conceived as a structural or formal analogue of the dialectic—through which Rojack, as the existential hero, must journey, on his way to a potentially synthesizing encounter with the potentialities of potential itself—which takes the form, as I will argue, of an encounter with the Kierkegaardian “concept of dread,” a concept that at each moment of crisis informs the existential stakes of the text. The dialectical stages of Rojack’s initiation are clearly delineated and are described in the languages of conflict and violence: his murder of Deborah; his subsequent sexual encounter with Ruta; his interviews with the police; his conquest of Cherry; a strange scene set at a nightclub where Rojack fires “mental bullets” at his fellow patrons, appearing to cause them physical harm; and his final daredevil contest on the parapet with Kelly. Each of these encounters must be understood as dialectical—as a moment of crisis that is also a moment, for Rojack, of potential growth. Rojack is the first of Mailer’s protagonists to engage wholly and consciously with the permanent crisis of remaking that is the basis of Mailer’s metaphysics. The form of the novel is wholly consonant with the definition of artistic form that Mailer offers in Advertisements for Myself: “[Form] is the record, as seen in a moment of rest; yes, it is the record of a war which has been taking place” (377). War has always served as Mailer’s key image of the dialectic. As Richard Poirier remarks, “War is so much the prior condition of experience for Mailer that any elements not in opposition are treated as mere contingencies” (25). An American Dream begins with Rojack’s memories of war and continues as “the record of a war,” that is, as the record of a series of confrontations with the Kierkegaardian concept of dread attendant, for Mailer, upon every existentially decisive moment. Rojack’s “war” culminates with his walk along Barney Kelley’s parapet, during which he confronts, in Kierkegaard’s words, “the infinite possibility of being able” and reaches a moment of ultimate existential possibility.
An American Dream is haunted by a mythological conception of American history which draws on Frederick Jackson Turner’s celebrated “frontier thesis” to summon an ideal of American masculinity that both synthesises and interrogates a range of traditional male roles: warrior, statesman, outlaw, seducer. Present from the first line of An American Dream is the ghost of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, who represents all four of these masculine archetypes:
I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out one night on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me. I seduced a girl who would have been bored by a diamond as big as the Ritz. (1)
By invoking President Kennedy in the opening sentence of An American Dream, Mailer is at once adverting to the complex conception(s) of masculinity that his novel will both invoke and subvert and also alerting us to the fact that the novel will develop some of the themes of his earlier essay about Kennedy, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” originally published in the November 1960 issue of Esquire (Papers 329). In this essay, Mailer posits Kennedy as a potential incarnation of the “existential hero,” a figure who might potentially reunite the “two rivers” of postwar American social and political life in his own attempt to synthesize these archetypal masculine identities. At the beginning of “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Mailer proposes nothing less than a working theory of American culture and society in the twentieth century—a theory that must be understood as essentially mythopoeic in nature and that must, I would argue, inform any reading of An American Dream:
Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull if not for the consequences of the actions of some of these men; and there is a subterranean river of untapped ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation. (Papers 51-52)
The “double” life of Americans, here, brings us within the realm of Mailer’s dialectical metaphysics, in which “form”—perhaps the very form of Mailer’s proposed myth—must always be “the record of a war.” The very title of An American Dream lets us know that it will focus on the “underground river”—it will be a text that engages profoundly with the “ecstasy and violence” that Mailer perceives as characteristic of the nation’s dream life in the postwar decades. An American Dream is not, therefore, a mimetic novel; nor is it a simplistic fantasy in the pulp-thriller mode (although its reliance on conventional archetypes of masculinity does ally it closely with the pulp-noir tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett). America is both the subject and the object of the dream that is An American Dream. The dust-jacket of the 1965 Dial Press edition of the novel—Mailer was involved in the jacket’s design (Manso 400)—depicts a circular American flag with the colours changed as advance warning that this is not a realist novel about a “real” America. Instead it is a dream about an “other” America, the underground river of American myth and mythography. The title articulates Mailer’s profound engagement with the “superheated dream life,” the “underground river” he described in “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.”
In a startling move, Mailer links this dream life to an older American cultural narrative, that of the frontier:
And when the West was filled, the expansion turned inward, became part of an agitated, overexcited, superheated dream life. The film studios threw up their searchlights as the frontier was finally sealed, and the romantic possibilities of the old conquest of land turned into a vertical myth, trapped within the skull, of a new kind of heroic life […]. And this myth, that each of us was born to be free, to wander, to have adventure and to grow on the waves of the violent, the perfumed, and the unexpected, had a force which could not be tamed no matter how the nation’s regulators – politicians, medicos, policemen, professors, priests, rabbis, ministers, idéologues, psychoanalysts, builders, executives and endless communicators – would brick-in the modern life with hygiene upon sanity, and middle-brow homily over platitude; the myth would not die. (52-53)
Mailer’s “vertical myth” within the “skull” rewrites the influential “frontier thesis” of American history, first propounded by Frederick Jackson Turner in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893). In that essay, Turner wrote:
American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. (2)
Turner’s frontier thesis has been interrogated and problematized by numerous subsequent scholars, perhaps most notably by Richard Slotkin. In Gunfighter Nation (1992), Slotkin concurs with Turner that the “Myth of the Frontier is our oldest and most characteristic myth,” a narrative in which “the conquest of the wilderness [has] been the means to our achievement of a national identity, a democratic polity, an ever-expanding economy, and a phenomenally dynamic and ‘progressive’ civilisation” (10). For Slotkin, then, the frontier thesis is pre-eminently a story of growth and development—and it is hardly surprising that Mailer should turn to this myth as he dramatizes his own radically open-ended metaphysics of growth. However, in Regeneration Through Violence, Slotkin offers a critique of this optimistic narrative:
The first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience. (5)
Mailer’s “vertical myth” reorients and re-inscribes the archetypal American myth, which is, as Slotkin makes clear, quintessentially a myth of growth through violence. Mailer shifts the location of the frontier to establish an inward narrative, a shaping mythology of the individual wherein the dynamism of the frontier must be dared by a radical subjectivity. The regenerative violence of the frontier must, for the twentieth-century American citizen, be confronted subjectively, in the dream life, where the “true” or foundational American story of expansion and growth can now be found. In these terms, Stephen Rojack becomes, among other things, a twentieth-century incarnation of the American archetype of the frontiersman. As Slotkin writes, “In American mythogenesis the founding fathers were not those eighteenth-century gentlemen who composed a nation at Philadelphia. Rather, they were those who […] tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness” (Regeneration 4). He goes on to argue, “The myth of the hunter […] became an informing structure in the popular literature and thought of the United States” (518). Stephen Rojack is Mailer’s avatar of these hunters, these mythological founding fathers, an “American dream” of regenerative violence who is also the “existential hero” who can, as Mailer wrote in “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” “capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation” (55). For Mailer, then, masculinity must be reclaimed as a generative—or regenerative—ideal; and the materials he uses for this reclamation are those of the popular images of American masculinity, drawn from historical fiction and myth, pulp fiction, and contemporary political events.
In other words, we must not understand Stephen Rojack as in any sense a “character” in the traditional, realist sense. He is, rather, an archetype subjected to various political and imaginative pressures as part of Mailer’s attempt to dramatise his politics of growth and thereby to reclaim, and liberate, the “superheated dream life” of the postwar United States. In his ascension through the American military, political, and media establishments, through murder and sexual violence, into fugitivehood and escape, Stephen Rojack, the “existential hero,” recapitulates America’s myth of its own origins in violence and transgression and clears the ground for the beginning of a new, and radically excessive, American Dream. Far from being the protagonist of a realistic novel, Rojack is himself “an American dream,” a figure on “that subterranean river of untapped ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation” (Papers 51). An American Dream is a dream of the underground frontier, and Rojack is a complex and troubled dream of a twentieth-century frontiersman.
As befits a narrative of the dream life, the plot of An American Dream is highly ritualised. Confrontations are enacted in terms of the growth of magical power which, in Mailer’s dream America, must be seen as coeval with “real” political power. As Wenke notes, “The book is always insisting that magic has an autonomous, external existence and that Rojack’s belief in it is therefore not a pathological fantasy” (101). But since Rojack is himself a kind of “pathological fantasy,” magic in the novel becomes not an excessive or disruptive presence but another element in the formalised dream of recapitulation and growth that Mailer is dramatising. Hence magic, in An American Dream, is as “real” as every other aspect of the dream. Rojack’s academic work is dedicated to the proposition that “magic, dread, and the perception of death were the roots of motivation” (14). In context, this is meant to be taken “literally” within the dream-confines of An American Dream qua dream. Radford suggests that Rojack “takes this thesis out of the classroom and into his (dream) life” (35). However, this presupposes that Rojack’s thesis about magic, dread and the perception of death belongs to a realm of “realistic” discourse other than that of An American Dream itself. To categorise magic in the novel as an irruption of the supernatural into the “real”—as many critics have done—is to misread the nature of the text. In this novel there is no important difference between the magical and the real; all is magic, and all is “real” – that is, a dream. Thus, Rojack’s ritualised encounters frequently involve the use of magic: the “psychic bullets” he fires at the other customers in Cherry’s nightclub; or his occasional dialogues with the moon, most crucially that which occurs on Barney Kelly’s parapet. Magic operates in the dream life, which is, in Mailer’s frontier-haunted America, always a dream-life of growth. As a result, Rojack’s pilgrimage through the American dream is a pilgrimage through a world in which magic operates within the terms of Mailer’s dialectic of growth.
This “dialectic of growth” is embedded in the historic and imaginative presence of the frontier. In Regeneration Through Violence, Slotkin observes that the classic American myth of the frontier is structured as “a series of initiations”:
Under the aspect of this myth, our economic, social, and spiritual life is taken to be a series of initiations, of stages in a movement outward and upward toward some transcendent goal […]. The forces of the environment and the hidden or dark sources of our personal and collective past – factors which limit our power to aspire and transcend – become the things which, as hunters, we triumph over, control, and transcend. They become, under the aspect of the myth, enemies and opponents, who captivate and victimize us and against whom we must be revenged. (Slotkin 557)
In An American Dream, Stephen Rojack—himself an archetype—confronts other archetypal figures from the dream life of the postwar United States: the wealthy heiress, the hard-boiled detective, the mobster, the starlet, the magnate of power and wealth. All of these are archetypes of the “frontier turned inward.” These are the forces which “limit” Rojack’s “power to aspire and transcend.” They are his “enemies and opponents” whom he must destroy in a series of “of stages in a movement outward and upward toward some transcendent goal.” The serial form of the novel works to abet this structure: the end of each chapter evokes a classic cliffhanger, a device imported from genre thrillers, a pattern established at the end of chapter one: “She was dead, indeed she was dead” (35). Rojack’s pilgrimage is mirrored in the progressive stages of narrative closure achieved as the chapters accumulate—the formal analogue to Mailer’s shaping dialectics of growth.
Central to Mailer’s politics of growth, in his work of the 1960s, is an engagement with dread. The climax of An American Dream represents Mailer’s first fully coherent dramatisation of a confrontation with dread, a concept he defines in terms that derive from Kierkegaard’s Begrebet Angest, or The Concept of Dread (1844; English trans. Walter Lowrie, 1944). There is solid textual evidence to support Mailer’s engagement with a Kierkegaardian notion of dread as attendant upon any contemplation of possibility (and therefore upon any existentially decisive moment of crisis). As Solotaroff notes, “Mailer has dropped [Kierkegaard’s name] a dozen times in as many years” (142), and The Concept of Dread is itself mentioned by name in the novel that follows An American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam? (Vietnam 34). Scott remarks on the pervasiveness of Kierkegaard’s influence on Mailer (64).
The word dread appears many times in An American Dream. “Certain nights I would go leaden with dread” (8); “I could feel some effulgence of the moon glowing through the windows and dread came back like a hoot from a bully on the street outside” (14); “I had come to depend on Deborah (as a keel to ballast the empty dread of my stomach)” (79); “the dread I had escaped since I returned from the police station […] now flew in silent as the shadow of a bat” (195); “with that thought, dread came in, I was certain Shago was with her now” (254); “I wanted to be free of magic, the tongue of the Devil, the dread of the Lord” (255). Early in the novel Rojack tells us that he is “a professor of existential psychology with the not inconsiderable thesis that magic, dread, and the perception of death were the roots of motivation” (8). Rojack’s final rite of initiation, which takes place atop the Waldorf Towers, is nothing less than a confrontation with the Kierkegaardian concept of dread. Thus, Mailer dramatises, in the climax of his major novel of the period 1948-1968, a moment of crisis that is itself climactic, issuing, for the first time in Mailer’s work, in an experience of growth as not merely process and product in an ongoing dialectic but as transcendental of that dialectic. Kierkegaard describes dread as “the reflex of freedom within itself at the thought of its possibility” (50), and this is as good a description as any of the Mailerian moment of crisis in which the question of growth is, always, radically undecided. For Mailer, as for Kierkegaard, a confrontation with dread is nothing less than potentially educative:
[L]earning to know dread is an adventure which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition either by not having known dread or by sinking under it. He therefore who has learned rightly to be in dread has learned the most important thing. (Dread 139)
Rojack’s confrontation with dread is therefore the moment in which he learns “rightly to be in dread.” In turning to face the ramifying dread attendant upon every moment of crisis as a moment of potential growth, Rojack locates and embodies the force which, for Mailer as for Kierkegaard, is excessive and therefore transcendent: faith.
It is entirely appropriate that Mailer should dramatise this educative confrontation in a work that takes the form of a dream. In The Concept of Dread, Kierkegaard makes clear dread’s relation to the state of dreaming:
Dread is a qualification of the dreaming spirit […]. I must therefore call attention to the fact that it is different to fear and similar concepts which refer to something definite, whereas dread is freedom’s reality as possibility for possibility… [it is] the infinite possibility of being able. (38-41)
Dread, therefore, is available to the “dreaming spirit” in a way that it is not available to the rational mind, as fear is. For Kierkegaard as for Mailer, dread must be a primitive experience, anti-rational in character. In his journey through the “underground river” of America’s “superheated dream life,” Rojack moves through a series of tests or initiatory rituals that both mirror and subvert the classic frontier narrative of regeneration through violence, into a final confrontation with “the infinite possibility of being able” (41) atop the parapet of Barney Kelly’s penthouse. Through these ritual encounters, Rojack has, in Kierkegaard’s terms, “learned rightly to be in dread” and has thus arrived at a new kind of synthesis, a moment of rest after which he must exceed the very terms of the novel in which he appears, disappearing, finally, into a dream Las Vegas and then to South America, to “Guatemala and Yucatan,” where, it is suggested, he may encounter yet another frontier to challenge him into growth. In An American Dream, all climaxes are provisional, as Mailer refuses teleology in favour of a radically open-ended dialectical engagement with the endlessly returning forces of stasis and dread.
Mailer’s metaphysics, in his work of the 1960s, is a metaphysics of growth. For Mailer and for his characters during this period, growth is what is at stake in every moment of crisis. It is inevitable, therefore, that Stephen Rojack should begin An American Dream in a state of crisis, a crisis provoked by the failures of his own growth. As he sits on the balcony of a friend’s apartment, Rojack feels cancer beginning in his cells: “I could feel what was good in me going away, going away perhaps forever, rising after all to the moon, my courage, my wit, ambition and hope. […] Will you understand me if I say that at that moment I felt the other illness come to me, that I knew then if it took twenty years or forty for my death […] this was the hour when the cells took their leap?” (13). From this initial stasis Rojack will pass through a series of initiatory rituals, markers of growth that are also acts of regenerative violence, during each of which Rojack confronts the Kierkegaardian concept of dread, until in his final ritualistic crisis—the walk along the parapet of Barney Kelly’s penthouse—he will finally “learn rightly to be in dread” (Dread 139). This is the novel’s recapitulation of the American myth of regeneration through violence, and it will issue in the attainment of a new stage of potentiality, a new stasis that is not the stasis of the totalising claims of consumer-capitalist postwar America but that is a stasis that is radically other, existing beyond the borders of Mailer’s dream America.
Each of Rojack’s ritualised encounters involves some form of conflict: verbal, physical, intellectual, sexual, political, psychic. Rojack’s confrontations—with Deborah, with Ruta, with the police, with Shago Martin, with Barney Kelly—are highly stylised enactments of a ritualised pattern of growth. What is at stake, in each of these encounters, is not merely the fate of Stephen Rojack (as it might be in a conventional thriller); instead, each encounter bears a thematic weight in terms of Mailer’s preoccupations. Rojack’s libidinous confrontations with death reject all “morbid states” in favour of a renewed mythology of regeneration through violence. In An American Dream, growth is politicised, as Rojack’s growth becomes a series of direct engagements with the dread attendant upon each moment of existential crisis.
The first of these initiatory rituals is, of course, the murder of Rojack’s wife, Deborah Kelly, which is conceived as an explicitly regenerative act of violence. After Rojack kills Deborah, he says, “I was feeling good, as if my life had just begun” (39). And Rojack’s life has, in a sense, “just begun,” because, by strangling Deborah, he has moved from his precipitative crisis into the radically subjective experience of a permanent crisis of remaking, Mailer’s politics of growth. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Rojack feels renewed: “I was weary with a most honourable fatigue, and my flesh seemed new. I had not felt so nice since I was twelve” (32). Rojack, in murdering Deborah, confronts for the first time “violence, cannibalism, loneliness, libidinousness, hell, perversion, and mess,” which are “the states which must somehow be passed through, digested, transcended, if one is to make one’s way back to life” (34-35). Critics such as Hardwick (291-94) have condemned the novel on ethical grounds, but Rojack’s initiatory ascension through the American myth of regeneration through violence must perforce begin with an act of transgression, locating Rojack’s subjectivity beyond the ethical, in a world in which the strong regenerative forces of libidinousness, perversion, and violence can be confronted and transcended.
Rojack’s victim has her own ritual significance. It is Deborah who is responsible for initiating (or re-initiating) Rojack into the underground frontier, Deborah who demarcates his movement from “the visible river” into the “superheated dream life” of postwar America. As Rojack notes, during his career as a war hero, Congressman, and academic:
I had learned to speak in a world which believed in the New York Times: Experts Divided on Fluoridation, Diplomat Attacks Council Text, Self-Rule Near for Bantu Province […]. I had lost my faith in all of that by now: now I swam in the well of Deborah’s intuitions; they were nearer to my memory of the four Germans than anything encountered before or since. (36-37)
Deborah Kelly speaks the language of magic, that is, the language of the “agitated, overexcited, superheated dream life” through which Rojack must travel in his journey towards a new stage of growth. Deborah’s presence in the novel is essentially totemic: as with the rest of the novel’s cast, she must be understood not as a character in the traditional literary sense but as an archetype of the dream life (though we must, of course acknowledge the deeply problematic aspects of ascribing totemic significance to a female character defined principally in terms of her victimhood, a case made powerfully by Kate Millett in her examination of the novel in Sexual Politics).Thus, Deborah’s magical powers are taken seriously by Rojack and must be understood, by the reader, as confirmation of her ritualistic significance in the novel.
Each of the eight chapters of An American Dream offers Rojack another crisis of growth through which he must pass in order to proceed to the next stage of his regenerative initiation. For example, in chapter two (“A Runner from the Gaming Room”) Rojack encounters Deborah’s German maid, Ruta, and engages in a combative sexual encounter. As he copulates with Ruta, he alternates between her vagina and her anus, which represent, in the magical terms of Rojack’s newly radicalised (by the murder of Deborah) subjectivity, totems standing for God (the vagina) and the Devil (the anus). In describing the act of sodomy, he writes that “a host of the Devil’s best gifts were coming to me, mendacity, guile, a fine-edged cupidity for the stroke which steals” (44). Their sexual encounter is described in terms of conflict: “It had been when all was said a bitch of a brawl” (46). This is a war zone in which the stakes are the highest and the body becomes a repository for deities and devils. On one level, this is madness, as Rojack sees through Ruta’s body to what is, for him, its essential meaning—in other words, he objectifies her. In contrast, Rojack’s own status as a figure who is both real and metaphorical asks us to understand him simultaneously as a violent rapist and a heroic frontiersman—a juxtaposition that many readers will find highly problematic, and which, for some, may even vitiate any aesthetic value the book may otherwise possess. In this latter context, Rojack, initiated into the magical economies of power that structure the dream-world of the novel, has been granted physical and sexual potency by his ritualistic murder of Deborah—a deliberate invocation of both frontier mythologies and of the more straightforwardly prurient and misogynistic tropes of pulp thriller fiction (see, for instance, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep ). Rojack’s copulation with Ruta can also be understood in ritualistic terms, as an existentially decisive moment in which Rojack’s continued command of the magical powers he has now assumed is seen to depend upon where he chooses to deposit his semen: “I had come to the Devil a fraction too late, and nothing had been there to receive me” (46). Again, Mailer’s privileging of the white male subject—even in a world of archetypes and dreams—may strike many readers as problematic, to say the least; Kate Millet is not the only critic to have condemned Mailer, and An American Dream in particular, for unexamined misogyny.
In chapter three, Rojack confronts the dream embodiment of American Establishment authority in the form of the police. He is interrogated by a cop named Roberts, during which he claims that Deborah committed suicide and attempts to explain this action in terms of Deborah’s belief in magic—an indication that Rojack is now able to speak in the language of the dream-world into which Deborah’s murder has initiated him:
I don’t know if there’s any basis to this [Rojack says], but Deborah believed she was riddled with cancer […]. She talked about it all the time. She felt that as your soul died, cancer began. She would always say it was a death which was not like other deaths. (68)
Rojack’s confrontation with the police is repeated and elaborated upon in almost every subsequent chapter: in chapter five, “A Catenary of Manners,” Rojack is interrogated again by Roberts and his partner Leznicki. Mailer here adapts the pulp-fiction convention of the interrogation scene as yet another image of dialectical conflict. In each confrontation with the police, Rojack succeeds in deflecting his interrogators from the fact of his guilt, until finally he is cleared by the power-nexus made up of Ruta (an intelligence operative), Barney Kelly, and the mob boss Eddie Ganucci. In this, the values associated with law and order are set aside in favour of those of the outlaw (one of the archetypes of masculinity that Rojack both embodies and subverts). Rojack now possesses the language to help him navigate the next stage of ritual, as the dialectic continues onward, towards the climactic—but also open-ended—confrontation with dread.
Aside from Rojack’s walk along the parapet in the novel’s final chapter, the most important ritual of initiation through regenerative violence is Rojack’s encounter with Shago Martin, the jazz-musician boyfriend of Cherry (114-20). Rojack’s encounter with Martin, in which Rojack defeats Martin in physical combat, recapitulates a number of ideas from “The White Negro,” notably Mailer’s highly problematic construction of the black male as noble primitive. The scene in which Rojack defeats Martin can be read in ritualistic terms, as another moment of regeneration through violence; but no reading of the scene can ignore the problematic implications of Mailer’s construction of black masculinity as a threat to Rojack’s dominance that must be neutralised. (Along with the scene in which Rojack sodomises Ruta, the scene in which he bests Shago Martin is one of the least defensible in all Mailer’s fiction.) The difficulties become evident at the very beginning of the scene, when Martin arrives in Cherry’s apartment and tells Rojack to “Get out.” Rojack refuses to move. Martin, impressed, says, “You got yourself a stud who can stand” (184). When the situation turns violent, Rojack easily defeats Martin. The injured Martin is then described in explicitly feminine terms: “‘Why shit,’ said Shago, ‘you just killed the little woman in me’” (194).
This is a scene with many deeply problematic elements: it constructs black masculinity as inherently inferior to white masculinity and validates the violent suppression of the black other (as embodied by Martin). It also recapitulates and endorses stereotypes of the black male as threateningly virile and physically imposing. There is also a great deal of crude Freudian symbolism at work in this scene: crucially, Rojack’s defeat of Martin involves Rojack divesting Martin of his phallic umbrella, which he carries with him as he goes to see Barney Kelly at the Waldorf Towers in the novel’s final chapter. Martin’s umbrella represents, totemistically, the phallic power that Rojack has accumulated in his contest with Martin; Martin, divested of his umbrella, is deprived of his phallus and harbours a “little woman.” This scene reveals deep fault lines in the novel’s conceptions of race and masculinity, fault lines that run throughout much of Mailer’s corpus during the period 1948-1968. Rojack’s battle with Shago Martin may be problematic, but without minimising or ignoring those problematic elements, it can be read within the novel’s structuring mythology of regeneration through violence. In the scene above, Rojack sheds the “hard-lodged boulder of fear” he had for “Negroes.” This is irrational and nonsensical in the real world, but here Martin represent one more “other” to be defeated. In epic terms, this is a battle between agents of power representing different aspects of the frontier. Rojack is not a leader but an example of the depths required to release the power within. Once he defeats Martin, Rojack finds that he has been fortified for the novel’s final ritualistic confrontation: the meeting with Barney Oswald Kelly and the encounter with the dizziness of freedom’s possibility—Mailer’s concept of dread.
Tony Tanner, in City of Words, adumbrates Mailer’s concept of dread as follows:
Primitive man had an instinctive sense of dread in his relationship with non-human nature; civilised man has disrupted this by believing himself to be permanently elevated above animals and the jungle. As a result that sense of dread which is requisite for psychic and spiritual health has been greatly attenuated […]. If a man becomes aware of those dimensions of nature and super-nature […] where does that leave him standing? By analogy we might say on an edge as precarious as the parapet round a balcony. (359)
Here Tanner identifies the suggestive power of the parapet scene, which stages a climactic confrontation with Kierkegaard’s sense of dread that is “requisite for [Rojack’s] psychic and spiritual health.” In an intervention crucial to my reading, Kierkegaard also makes clear dread’s relationship to the notion of moral anarchy—to the possibility of all possibilities being possible, including those possibilities that must be seen as immoral or unethical. Rojack, Mailer’s “dreaming spirit,” sets in motion his confrontation with the dread attendant upon “the infinite possibility of being able” by murdering Deborah and thereby putting himself beyond the law. Rojack enters into a realm of supra-ethical behaviours where “freedom’s reality” is indeed “possibility for possibility.” For Kierkegaard, the experience of dread produces a “dizziness,” a vertigo, as the “dreaming spirit” becomes aware of the possibility of all possibilities. For Kierkegaard, a radical undecidability characterises the moment of genuine freedom:
Thus dread is the dizziness of freedom which occurs when the spirit would posit the synthesis, and freedom then gazes down into its own possibility, grasping at finiteness to sustain itself. In this dizziness freedom succumbs. Further than this psychology cannot go and will not. That very instant everything is changed, and when freedom rises again it sees that it is guilty. Between those two instants lies the leap, which no science has explained or can explain. He who becomes guilty in dread becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to be. (Dread 55)
It is the “dizziness” of “freedom succumbing” that Rojack experiences on the parapet of the Waldorf Towers. For Mailer as for Kierkegaard, the experience of dread is an instant where “everything is changed.” Rojack—already guilty of murdering his wife—now confronts the guilt inherent upon any confrontation with “the dizziness of freedom” in his attempt to “posit the synthesis,” or, in Mailer’s terms, to grow. Rojack on the parapet confronts the radical infinitude of possibility inherent in every crisis of growth, as thesis meets antithesis and the question of growth is decided and guilt becomes “ambiguous”—a term which might be applied to the terrain of the novel.
This confrontation is regenerative for Mailer. In The Presidential Papers,Mailer writes: “What is never discussed: the possibility that we feel anxiety because we are in danger of losing some part or quality of our soul unless we act, and act dangerously” (165). This concept of dangerous action as spiritually regenerative is echoed in Mailer’s later work Cannibals and Christians,in which Mailer writes, “A dramatic encounter with death, an automobile accident from which I escape, a violent fight I win or lose decently, these all call forth my crossed impulses which love death and fear it. They give air to it” (Cannibals 303-04). Rojack’s walk along the parapet at the climax of An American Dream represents the first point in the novel at which he confronts his own death, rather than the death of another. It is the first confrontation in which Rojack is pitted not against another archetype of the dream world but rather against himself. As he prepares to climb onto the ledge, he thinks, “I guess I am ready to die” (256). Once he has mounted the parapet, he experiences terror and nausea:
I took a third step and stopped, and felt the huge sleeping bulk of the hotel, the tower behind me, and walls rising to right and left across the chasm of the drop, and down below, walls falling down to ledges and other walls and falling again in a waterfall of stone. (257)
Circumnavigating the edge of the Waldorf Towers, Rojack confronts his own mortality for the first time. He must indeed be “ready to die”: it is not sufficient for him merely to risk his life; he must be drawn to the possibility of death. This is what dread means for Rojack on the parapet. As Schrader writes: “Dread is, as it were, always one step ahead of the individual, enticing him on with undetermined possibilities” (Braudy 84), or as Kierkegaard writes in The Concept of Dread, “Dread is a desire for what one dreads, a sympathetic antipathy […]. [O]ne fears, but what one fears, one desires” (xii). Kierkegaard continues, “In dread there is the egoistic infinity of possibility, which does not tempt like a definite choice, but alarms (angster) and fascinates with its sweet anxiety” (55). Rojack’s relationship with dread exhibits a classically Kierkegaardian ambiguity, in which dread both attracts (seduces) and repels: “He cannot flee from dread,” Kierkegaard writes, “for he loves it; really he does not love it, for he flees from it” (40). Rojack, dizzy with dread, thinks, “I had a desire to leave the balcony and fly” (259).
In The Concept of Dread, Kierkegaard compares dread to the vertigo experienced upon staring into “a yawning abyss” (Gardiner 113). The parapet scene of An American Dream enacts a literalisation of Kierkegaard’s confrontation with the abyss, as Rojack stares into the “abyss” from atop the Waldorf Towers. Here Rojack experiences both a literal vertigo and a metaphorical vertigo—the vertigo of freedom’s possibility for possibility. It is a classic moment of Mailerian crisis. And for the first time in Mailer’s work, the crisis issues not in another moment of crisis—another dialectical synthesis that is also a new thesis—but instead in a radically excessive experience of faith.
Faith, for Kierkegaard, must always be excessive. In Fear and Trembling (Frygt og Baeven, 1843; trans. Alaistair Hannay, 1985), Kierkegaard writes that faith “begins precisely where thinking leaves off” (11). Faith, according to Kierkegaard, must always operate beyond conventional discourses of rationality, ethics, or aesthetics; it cannot be thought within these categories. Faith, therefore, exceeds boundaries; it cannot be contained within a dialectical conception of growth and must therefore be seen, as in Mailer’s novel, as a radicalism beyond radicalism, a transcendental signified that is not contained by or defined within Mailer’s dialectical conception of growth and therefore represents a transcendent or excessive stage of growth that cannot be represented in the novel. Faith is the crucial issue at stake in Rojack’s confrontation with dread, as, atop the parapet, he confronts his climactic moment of existential undecidability. To recognise that the ultimate effect of our actions must be unknowable—that every moment of crisis must be experienced as both radically subjective and radically unresolved—is to confront the Kierkegaardian crux whereby we cannot know at any given moment whether we are living in bad faith or good. Rojack’s walk along the parapet dramatises this crux.
Faith, for Kierkegaard and for Mailer, is, then, a radicalism beyond radicalism—the transcendental issue of the dialectics of growth that is yet not of that dialectics. Faith arrives for Rojack at the end of a ritual of expiation, a ritual in which he confronts and exorcises his guilt over the murder of Deborah. Rojack’s guilt is, of course, a paradoxical guilt, or an innocent guilt. He is, in Kierkegaard’s terms, “as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to be.” Rojack’s guilt is the guilt of the man who has succumbed, not to moral temptation, but to the dizziness of existential dread. As Kierkegaard writes, “[H]e who through dread becomes guilty is innocent, for it was not he himself but dread, an alien power, which laid hold of him, a power he did not love but dreaded – and yet he is guilty, for he sank in the dread which he loved even while he feared it” (39). In Kierkegaard’s analysis of dread as the root of sin, we are drawn towards that which we dread, yet which we cannot be drawn towards because we dread it; and in the irresolvable ambiguity of this paradox, we make a leap—a leap into sin. And our remorse, for Kierkegaard, must be as ambiguous as our dread, because we were and are suspended before the ethical. We are guilty and yet innocent. This is the enormous task facing the hero. Can he or she survive such knowledge and doubt? Kierkegaard’s answer to this seemingly irresolvable paradox is, of course, faith, which enables the hero to locate himself or herself in the ongoing dialectic of innocence and remorse, in a transcendental “synthesis”:
The one and only thing which is able to disarm the sophistry of remorse is faith, courage to believe that the state of sin is itself a new sin, courage to renounce dread without any dread, which only faith is capable of – not that it annihilates dread, but remaining ever young, it is continually developing itself out of the death throe of dread. Only faith is capable of doing this, for only in faith is the synthesis eternally and every instant possible. (104)
As Rojack walks around the parapet a second time, he begins to experience the growth of a regenerative faith: “[M]y limbs came alive again; each step I took, something good was coming in, I could do this, I knew I could do it now. There was the hint of when I would finally be done – some bliss from infancy moved through the lock of my lungs” (259-60). Once he has completed his second walk around the parapet and left the Waldorf Towers, Rojack goes to find Cherry, for whom he feels “the beginning of a heart of happiness” (261). But Rojack is changed now by his experience as he has completed his ritualistic re-enactment of the American myth of regeneration through violence. He has exceeded the terms of the myth through a confrontation with dread, and he must now leave the dream behind. Thus, he finds that Cherry has been murdered (263), and the last of his reasons for staying in New York is gone. Rojack must now transcend the “American dream” altogether. In the novel’s final lines, he sets out on “the long trip to Guatemala and Yucatan” (270), which must be read as standing for a landscape of excession, indescribable in the dialectical terms that shape the text.
At the end of An American Dream, Mailer’s politics of growth issues, finally, in a radical transcendence, as Rojack and his creator brace themselves for another assault on the potentiality of potential itself: the potentiality of all human beings, the potentiality of America, and, critically, the potentiality of the artist to deliver the truth.
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