A Tale of Two Modernisms – 2/27/07Notes for presentation at Norman Mailer Society convention October 2007, Provincetown, MA
Preparatory note: During the mid- eighties, after a run of several years, the television sitcom “Happy Days” starring the greaser “The Fonz” took a downturn. It became clear that the writers for the show had run out of ideas when they developed a weird and non-sensical story line that had The Fonz jumping his motorcycle over a tank of sharks a la Evil Kneivel. Since this episode, the term “Jumping the Shark” has meant the point where any endeavor takes a turn toward its eventual demise.
Kodalith photography paper divides the gray scale in half turning all shades deeper than 50% gray into black, washing out all shades lighter than 50% gray into white. It is time to examine the zeitgeist of Western Civilization in these severe terms in order to clearly identify the antipodes of our politics, architecture, music, literature, physics, dance, and methods of scientific pursuit in order that the moiling mush of the center, the soft, gooey, contradictory, ambiguous, and uncertain center might realize some definition by default from clearly conceived extremes.
We live in the epoch of two modernisms: the Citra and the Ultra, the black and the white, the lateral and the linear, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the left and the right, the liberal and the conservative, the right brain and the left brain, the intuitive and the analytical. This is not a news- flash, we have lived with this schizoid intra-cultural convection, this upwelling, since the dawn. The schiz is our engine, our driving force, our built-in, guaranteed turmoil. The universe delivered mankind two brain types as a cleansing mechanism. The pendulum swings. There have been epochs when Citra is center stage (pre-history, Medieval, Twenty-first Century), There have been epochs when Ultra is center stage (Ancient Greece, The Renaissance epoch of the descended grid (1412-1912). The Twentieth Century was the period of great chaos that occurs between epochal paradigm shifts. Two Modernisms at war with each other. The phenomenon of the domination of a hemisphere of thought (right / left brain) in a society is as inevitable as gravity or cold dark matter. If you have one hundred people and all of them are pinned, gridded, left-brained Apollonian rationalists you live in an Ultra culture. If sixty of those people are pinned / gridded and the remaining population of the one hundred are unpinned, off-grid, right-brain Dionysian creatives then you still live in an Ultra culture but it has a powerful overtone of the Citra. Most people struggle to contain both types simultaneously. For many, it is our All-American, cold, wet washrag to infant genitals that sends the Citra into remote fastnesses of our consciousness prior to ripening. Our culture guarantees schizophrenia and a thriving pharmaceutical industry. It is no small irony that our present, fiercely accelerated Ultra culture has produced a hyper-grid computer technology and the internet that has given a growing voice and gravity to the non-white, non-industrialized people of the world and has bred a CitraDemocratic global ethos in the youth of the West. The Grid eats itself! The late Twentieth Century fever of rationalism is the fiery blast of a supernova prior to collapse. Our public schools with their six daily periods of preparation / brain-washing for the disappearing jobs of the grid have become the ten percent who never got the word. The Enlightenment Project with its worship of rationalism jumped the shark by the end of World War I. The Fonz fades. The George Bush phenomenon with his stunt in Iraq book-ending Teddy Roosevelt’s snatching of a little bit of Columbia, is proof, that the Titanic has sunk, the smart rats, having leapt from the yardarms, are swimming either to shore or to oblivion.
During the Dark Ages from 300 to 1400 AD Apollonian rationality in the West was buried. After a six hundred year run, we are now in an age of exhausted Apollonian UltraModernism colored now by the burgeoning vitality of a maturing CitraModernism. The third world has reared its head with its aching presence of population, disease and devastation of nature. The Earth continues to be dominated and abused by the UltraModern industrial ethos, tortured offspring of the Enlightenment Experiment . It spreads through China, India, Indonesia Eastern Europe and Russia. The Earth is in open rebellion – the ice caps are melting.
The American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War had a deep effect upon Europeans. Our revolution of 1776 reified the notion that all men are created equal, spawning the French Revolution. The U.S. Civil War drove this point hard and deep into Western consciousness. The death of 600,000 Americans in the cause of acknowledging the humanity of black people softened France in particular to the idea that non-white, non-industrial cultures are fully human and that their way of life and their artifacts are of interest and of value. Picasso got the message and by his conflation of Sub-Saharan sculpture and Cezanne’s swerves from the pinned station point, he invented Cubism – Cezanne extract. Picasso and Braque along with, Joyce, Mieles, Einstein, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Pound , Diaghalev, and Frank Lloyd Wright, each in his own endeavor, expressed the distillation the emerging unpinned, multi-valent, ambiguous ethos of the CitraModern. Picasso, encouraged by exhibits in the Museum of Anthropology in Paris; Stravinsky, inspired by the primal rituals and rhythms of a pre-modern forest people; and Wright inspired by the poetic/organic Japanese, created the lateral, intuitive, Dionysian CitraModern.
Norman Mailer, America’s philosopher, delivered the CitraModern to a mid-century United States just as Picasso and Braque delivered it to Europe in 1912. With Mailer’s sixty year gift of right-brain, deep intuition and lateral thinking, beginning with his gut-felt novel The Naked and the Dead in which enlightened and well-armed man returns to the jungle, to life immediate, to the stink and sweat and fear of the unknown . Later in 1956, Mailer, in the role invented by Picasso, acknowledges the power of the black gift, the mojo, in his seminal essay “The White Negro”. In this work Mailer discusses a cross-racial transfer of cultural signifiers. The signifier of the anxiety of living life in the moment, the uncertainty of a life of relentless risk and danger, the Hipster ethos embodies the ambiguity of Foucault’s “Other” not only of Other’s existence but his possession of qualities worth emulating, and perfecting: sexual prowess, sexy music, dance, and language, the mano –a- mano dominance rituals steeped in risk of self. Mailer explains Elvis in “the White Negro” and in so doing explains all of rock and roll and so all of the Nineteen-Sixties Boomer counter-culture which was saturated in black music, black dance, black civil rights, the celebration of black heroes in Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X, Shaft, Eldridge Cleaver and Martin Luther King. Every white kid with a garage all across America got in touch with the 4/4 beat of his inner black. One half of a generation of negroes white and black goes to war in Vietnam and the blacks re-up for an extra year of jungle firefights to delay their return to the guaranteed daily violence of the inner city with no jungle cover. The UltraModern war machine gets dismantled in the tangled, putrefying foliage that it first encountered in the Phillipines from 1909 to 1924 then again During World War II as recounted in Mailer’s the Naked and the Dead. As the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 symbolizes the jumping of the shark of UltraModernism, the Vietnam War symbolizes its final throes and the Iraq war its twerpish but deadly last gasp. Norman Mailer, the voice of the CitraModern ethos in America for sixty years. Mailer is the chronicler and an accelerating force for the demise of the UltraModern. The Enlightenment Experiment, now tainted by a century of war and holocaust, tucks its tail and slinks to the sidelines of Western Civilization with our daily newspapers in tow. Mailer is a clarion of expanded consciousness – a realization of our connection to a deep, visceral, tribal power. If Norman Vincent Peale was our expositor of the power of positive thinking then Norman Mailer is the Godfather of the power of lateral thinking, of thoughts big and broad, of thinking not just black and white but deep, thinking from the reptilian brain, from the whole body.
Norman Mailer is fascinated by Picasso. During the nineteen-seventies he examined over 60,000 images of Picasso’s artwork in preparation for a tome. A text emerged, his intense distillation, Picasso as a Young Man. In this work Mailer describes the personal, cultural milieu that super-saturated Picasso, Cubism was distilled, crystallized from a great density of ideas discussed in this book. Picasso locates the deep fear and resonance of tribal existence and gives it expression in painting. Norman Mailer sensing a brotherhood with Picasso defines and conveys this broad avenue back to the surface of the earth in the written word. Mailer’s writing has tribal passion, rooted as much in Africa as in his own dark, ancient forests of Europe. Mailer slipped the stifling conventions of the UltraModern zeitgeist beginning in the 1950’s as he slipped a punch or two from Jose Torres. The UltraModern wants to bury you, dominate and separate you, to mother-smother you and kill you with science, precision and high-fructose corn syrup. The UltraModern is being dismantled now with the passion and precision of art. Norman Mailer is a relentless, powerful and courageous weapon of the CitraModern against a stifling, strangulating grid. Mailer has explained Picasso’s great achievement from so many angles in his sixty years and counting on the American stage. A Cubist onslaught of ideas and language.
If the Civil War introduced the non-industrial people of the world to the industrialized West as fellow humans, Picasso announced their presence in the heart of art, delivered tribal seed into the wilted vagina of high, white art, laid it wide, inseminated and invigorated it with new life. Elvis sings from the shoulders of Picasso as Steven Weinberg postulates from the shoulders of Einstein. Frank Gehry stands on the shoulders of George Braque waiting to fly. Mailer is telling this story. He is our American Picasso. He turns the soil of the life of our time and our mind so that this culture might survive. With his novel The Castle in the Forest, the story of the early life of Hitler, Mailer has once again penetrated into the heart of the matter. It was Hitler who tried to undo the Civil War with 600,000 deaths times 10 but to no avail. There is no turning back, the sterile grid is dead. Lincoln, the enabler, ushered in our new epoch, Picasso distills the epoch with a new language, Hitler the disabler tries to revive the dying UltraModern, Mailer enacts the new CitraModern epoch in a great nation and explains it to us in word and deed in a life that continues to reinforce our founding creed: All men are created equal.