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Philosophical Psychopathy:
Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro”

3,841 words

Norman Mailer became a much-celebrated author of several novels, some quite dreadful, as well as a founder of The Village Voice. He wrote numerous essays, of which “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster [1]” became the most famous. It essentially served as an iconic manifesto for the nascent Counterculture. The following is a distillation and analysis of its ponderous sentences and floating abstractions.

The title hasn’t aged perfectly, which might lead to some misunderstanding. Today’s wiggers and hipsters are victims of two different varieties of culture-distortion, but that’s not what it means. This came out in 1957, and the “hipsters” then beginning to evolve from their beatnik predecessors eventually became called “hippies.” Although there’s a relation to the present-day phenomenon, what he meant was distinct from today’s herd of nonconformist young bugmen [2] who think differently like all their friends.

So you wanna be an old-style hipster. . .

After a long introductory quote, Mailer’s essay begins:

Probably, we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years.

More cheerful thoughts continue. With one arbitrary decision, we could be reduced to a forgotten pile of ash, human nature is responsible for this possibility; that kind of thing. Then — believe it or not — some good stuff emerges:

Worse. One could hardly maintain the courage to be individual, to speak with one’s own voice, for the years in which one could complacently accept oneself as part of an elite by being a radical were forever gone. A man knew that when he dissented, he gave a note upon his life which could be called in any year of overt crisis. No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve. The only courage, with rare exceptions, that we have been witness to, has been the isolated courage of isolated people.

Hey, could this Norman Mailer guy be on our side? Oh, wait a minute; this one is all about being a rebel without a clue. Like, bummer, man! Then:

It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist — the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war, relatively quick death by the State as l’univers concentrationnaire, or with a slow death by conformity. . .

His assertions seem rather strange at this point. The general public was well aware of the specter of nuclear war. Even schoolchildren knew what was at stake; the Duck and Cover movie had been distributed for several years by then. Still, this realization alone doesn’t make people Hip. The definition isn’t yet complete.

The second item either sounds like fearmongering, or that he got traumatized from too much wartime propaganda. (He also had mentioned tens of millions dying in concentration camps during the Second World War; exceeding the official narrative greatly.) Did he really think that any day he could get rounded up and put in a concentration camp over voicing an unorthodox opinion? That wasn’t about to happen. Back in those days, even liberals believed in freedom of speech. Other parts of the document more or less describe 1950s America as a totalitarian hell, which also was stretching things a bit.

The last item — death by conformity — is left vague. Did he mean that work sucks? That much is relatable now, but these were the days when a recent high school graduate could fairly easily get a unionized factory job paying enough to support a family. (The Boomers didn’t know how good they had it!) Mailer probably had something more expansive in mind than labor practices, but that was probably part of it. However, he doesn’t explicitly recommend socialism here, or even anarchy, much less how to make a better system work (money growing on trees would help). That’s a major problem with critical theory style rhetoric: all criticism, no concrete solutions.

The only answer seems to be dropping out of society. What if everyone does that? Then we’d trade “work sucks” with “starvation sucks” after everyone quits their job to go write poetry or something. Perhaps he didn’t realize that the “Hip” needed the “Square,” but not the other way around. The Dionysus / Apollo dichotomy that the essay often hints at isn’t exactly new. The parable of the grasshopper and the ant also is instructive.

Still, if you’re going to get killed one way or another, then:

. . .the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. In short, whether the life is criminal or not, the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself. . .

It sounds like he had a wild ride in mind. These days, though, social atomization and rootlessness are problems, not fun adventures.

Sociology is remarkably vague and fuzzy [3], and effectively a propaganda delivery device to indoctrinate students, but one of its few coherent and valid principles is that people want to have a sense of belonging. Without this feeling of being part of a community or a tribe, people are profoundly unhappy, a condition called anomie. (Imagine, for example, having nothing in common with your neighbors who might not even speak your language, or having to be stuck at home for weeks on end.) In large part because of cultural Marxism which is purposefully designed to fracture social bonds [4], and hordes of leftist intellectuals and literati like Mailer pushing similar lines, we got anomie in spades.

Speaking of spades. . .

The essay continues that it takes courage to live in a totalitarian society, and even more in a partially totalitarian one, therefore:

You can buy Greg Hood’s Waking Up From the American Dream here. [5]

. . .It is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro, for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.

Mailer describes the importance of jazz to export Hip into American subcultures. Then this:

Sharing a collective disbelief in the words of men who had too much money and controlled too many things. . .

Is that a Freudian slip?

. . .they knew almost as powerful a disbelief in the socially monolithic ideas of the single mate, the solid family, and the respectable love life.

One could point out the enormous damage caused to the black community when LBJ started subsidizing this, but that’s another topic of its own. Mailer delves into libertinism as a cornerstone of hipness. He discusses further influences, like D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Wilhelm Reich. (I’ll add that Margaret Mead [6], backed by Franz Boas, was all over that too.) Finally:

What fitted the need of the adventurer even more precisely was Hemingway’s categorical imperative that what made him feel good became, therefore, The Good.

This passage could have contributed to the shortened version — “If it feels good, do it.” This became a hippie catchphrase almost as common as “Make love, not war” by Herbert Marcuse.

In such places as Greenwich Village, a menage-a-trois was completed — the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black, it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.

Where does one even begin with this stuff?

A strange combination of victimization porn and bravado leads into a “noble savage” portrayal — endless oppression (a narrative which is pretty silly now but remains au courant), upholding their true primitive spirit in the face of that, etc. The rhetoric increasingly becomes sexualized and trails into the subject of jazz, the music of orgasm. It’s pretty vivid, but there’s little wonder why some blacks found Mailer’s essay irritating too. Then this, at last arriving at the big concept:

The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.

For all the talk of keeping it real, this isn’t exactly the path to authenticity. White Americans actually have a culture too, which is distinct from mass culture, as well as roots in European cultures. Perhaps delving into this rich vein of tradition might have been more fruitful than leaping onto a new fad as a salvation from malaise.

A discussion follows about existentialism, veering off into a postmodern riff, then into atheism, then basically ¡Viva la Muerte!, ultimately boiling down to living in the moment (or something like that). Some of it sounds rather like Nietzsche. Still, I might need to read Also Sprach Zarathustra to clear all that out of my head after this.

Madness is groovy

Mailer continues:

It may be fruitful to consider the hipster a philosophical psychopath, a man interested not only in the dangerous imperatives of his psychopathy but in codifying, at least for himself, the suppositions on which his inner universe is constructed.

The long paragraph discusses being beyond good and evil, as well as the will to power. (Again, that’s recycled Nietzsche.) It wraps up with this:

If there are ten million Americans who are more or less psychopathic (and the figure is most modest) there are probably not more than one hundred thousand men and women who consciously see themselves as hipsters, but their importance is that they are an elite with the potential ruthlessness of an elite, and a language most adolescents can understand instinctively for the hipster’s intense view of existence matches their experience and their desire to rebel.

Much discussion of psychopaths follows, praising their flouting of societal inhibitions, particularly for violence and lust. It’s a common theme throughout this essay. His enthusiasm makes it clear where his sympathies are. By now, it’s pretty clear that Mailer was a mattoid [7]. (Unlike most, he wasn’t even trying to hide it.) Among this wall of text is the following, which seems rather close to another Freudian slip:

. . .psychopathy is present in a host of people including many politicians, professional soldiers, newspaper columnists, entertainers, artists, jazz musicians, call-girls, promiscuous homosexuals and half the executives of Hollywood, television, and advertising, it can be seen that there are aspects of psychopathy which already exert considerable cultural influence.

Then he discusses Freudian sublimation, asserting that it loses effectiveness during times of rapid change, resulting in psychopathy. Occasionally he gets near some good points. I’ll add that this is a reason why culture-distortion is bad.

More lengthy praise of psychopathy and their criminality follows, fairly similar to recent rhetoric about neurodiversity. The discussion trails into orgasms, blacks, their criminal traits, and the essence of Hip. An interminably long ramble about hipster slang follows, reading far more significance into it than necessary. (Perhaps Mailer snorted another bump of dumb dust to produce this part.) The subject returns to hipness, trailing off into recycled Gorgias:

Character being thus seen as perpetually ambivalent and dynamic enters then into an absolute relativity where there are no truths other than the isolated truths of what each observer feels at each instant of his existence.

We get it! “Nothing is real” — can we move on already? He continues along with the discount store nihilism. The summation of Plato’s Republic argues that self-control is liberation, while Mailer keeps arguing the opposite.

Revolution is groovy

Then there’s some discussion of libertinism which turns vaguely revolutionary. The future of Hip depends on whether blacks become “a dominating force in American life.” The next couple of sentences seem rather gleeful about the possibility. (One can imagine Mailer with a greasy smirk, rubbing his hands together.) Then the rhetoric becomes explicitly revolutionary:

You can buy Greg Johnson’s From Plato to Postmodernism here [8]

With this possible emergence of the Negro, Hip may erupt as a psychically armed rebellion whose sexual impetus may rebound against the anti-sexual foundation of every organized power in America, and bring into the air such animosities, antipathies, and new conflicts of interest that the mean empty hypocrisies of mass conformity will no longer work. A time of violence, new hysteria, confusion, and rebellion will then be likely to replace the time of conformity.

The discussion leads exactly where you expect it to at this point, including the following:

So, when it comes, miscegenation will be a terror, comparable perhaps to the derangement of the American Communists when the icons to Stalin came tumbling down.

On the home stretch at long last, he rambles about the possibility of future war and revolution. Then there’s another embarrassing passage about how “an alien but nonetheless passionate instinct about the meaning of life has come so unexpectedly from a virtually illiterate people” which should serve as a source of inspiration. Then he discusses the necessity of developing Marxist theory further, bubbling forth about the possibilities.

Bum trip, man!

This wasn’t merely a strange presentation of Hip philosophy that did its part to usher in the 1960s Counterculture. This also served as a mattoid manifesto, exhorting its audience to burn it all down [9]. Mailer revealed himself as one of the types that the KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov called half-baked intellectuals. If this was Mailer’s most popular essay, they must’ve been smoking some powerful weed back then! It’s hard to imagine the young bohemians following the rambling digressions in detail, but it did serve as a powerful emotional appeal to reject society.

One problem with all this is that it makes the phenomenon seem a lot edgier and cooler than it really was. These were kids who liked listening to beat poetry and experimental jazz, sometimes while sucking on a joint. Although the Hip scene made for a rewarding shared experience, it didn’t make anyone a Byronic antihero or a philosopher loftily transcending the confines of human existence and all that. Manifestos often are bombastic, but this is a little much.

According to the description, hipsters considered themselves outsiders who set themselves apart from the stifling confines of their culture. Still, the truth is that they were only a fashionably eccentric subculture, and depended on Square society for their daily existence. Who was growing the crops, managing the supply chains, and running the supermarkets? Moreover, to paraphrase the old joke, an anarchist who gets mugged calls the police. All that is just for starters, of course.

In the following decade, hippies did get more serious about going back to nature, living off the land, and building their own alternative societies. Still, their communes tended not to be very enduring. Similar experiments in the 19th century, usually based on a common religion, often lasted a lot longer. It requires much effort to make planned communities work. Even with all their idealism, the young burnouts just didn’t have what it takes to hack it.

Finally, expanding on the parable of the grasshopper and the ant, the Hip “grasshoppers” ultimately need a large population of Square “ants” to support them. If a country has a modest but productive bohemian scene creating high-quality poetry, music, art, and so forth, then the arrangement is workable. It’s an entirely different matter if the bohemians are an unsustainably large fraction of the population, scorn the larger society, their aesthetic efforts often are mediocre to awful, and otherwise form an unruly lumpenproletariat.

All in all, we got tie-dye shirts out of it, the music scene had its high points, and leftists became enthusiastic about ecology, but otherwise, the 1960s Counterculture was mainly a bust. For whatever its flaws, the USSR successfully kept up a high culture scene. Meanwhile, surely they were happy that their chief rivals were becoming overrun with unruly “grasshoppers.”

Significance for the beginning of the Counterculture

This early anthem to the embryonic hippie movement wasn’t the only one of its kind, exhorting the youth to tune in, turn on, and drop out. Several other highly promoted efforts signal-boosted the alienation theme, too, and ultimately shaped the 1960s in all its glories. Many notables — some attaining celebrity status from it — specialized in packaging rebellion, making it cool and trendy, and sending it the direction they wanted. There’s another term for this: ideological subversion.

Another famous text emerged, One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, also arguing essentially that Square society was no good. (It does have its points, but cultural Marxism is the wrong answer.) His Eros and Civilization argued in favor of libertine polymorphic perversity. These reached students as assigned reading, and after they got their minds reprogrammed in college, they brought these ideas into the Counterculture. Still, although Marcuse’s style was more accessible than some other Frankfurt School members, his writings were geared toward an academic audience.

Therefore, The White Negro and similar fare — Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Jerry Rubin’s Do It!, and so forth — were a better fit to reach the general public with the alienation message. Efforts like these were signal-boosted by the literary establishment and funneled down the usual distribution channels. The Counterculture grew by leaps and bounds, also reaching a wide overlap and synergy with the peace movement. The young Boomers had grown up in America’s last normal decade, in a time of unprecedented prosperity, and their country was in several other ways the best place in the world. When large masses of them started believing that it was all for the birds, that didn’t just happen all by itself.

The seeds of ideological subversion took root and the Counterculture went off into some very strange directions. One result was a mass movement of sophomoric lotus-eaters who smoked weed and thought they’d taken the Red Pill. As I wrote in Deplorable Diatribes [10]:

The majority of them only absorbed a watered-down version of leftist ideology — “Communism Lite” — but the effort in leading the youth astray wasn’t wasted. They burnt their draft cards, contributed relatively little to the economy during their extended adolescence, and would’ve handed out flowers if the Soviets had invaded. Actually, I could name a few good things about the hippies. However, it’s also true that they were unwashed potheads who disliked their own country. Eventually, they turned into silly liberal yuppies who became cogs in the new globalist Establishment.

Another result was the Generation Gap, in which a wedge was driven between parents and children. Surely this was a painful time for all the happy families which quickly became turbulent following some youthful mistake or another advertised as the Hip thing to do. Perhaps a promising son returned from his freshman year and denounced his relatives as bourgeois running dogs. Maybe a beloved daughter ran off to some grubby commune to “find herself.” Some other possibilities were considerably worse. Most of the misguided youths like that would’ve remained pretty normal if not for Pied Pipers encouraging them to become rebels without a clue.

After “The White Negro”

Mailer also became known for some particularly odd missteps, to put it a bit too charitably. Late in 1960, he entered New York City’s mayoral race. The party beginning the campaign, basically a mixer between the elites and the lumpenproletariat, soon went horribly awry, but the worst was to come. The candidate left his own celebration while extremely drunk, returning much later in a similar condition as the event was nearly over. He began arguing with his wife (the second out of an eventual six). He stabbed her twice — nearly fatally — and exclaimed, “Don’t touch her. Let the bitch die.”

One could say that this was taking the “philosophical psychopath” pose a bit too far! For this, he got a brief trip to the funny farm, copped a plea bargain, and the law let him off with a slap on the wrist. His friends made comically intellectual-sounding excuses for his behavior. (The details are reminiscent of Louis Althusser [11], who got a celebrity pass after strangling his wife, except that the eminent Marxist professor finished the job.) Mailer and his wife split up in 1962. In 1969, he ran for mayor again and predictably lost.

In 1961, while his electoral aspirations were on hold, he helped launch the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. As one might expect, this pro-Castro front group included some known Communists and their sympathizers among the other founders. In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald became a member, soon to become notorious for something else, and the group folded in the aftermath of that. How embarrassing! This isn’t to say that Mailer and Oswald necessarily agreed about much other than Cuba, of course. Rather, keep in mind that a “guilt by association” episode far less than that would’ve spelled absolute doom for any figure on the Right.

In 1977, he befriended Jack Henry Abbott, a chronic jailbird who was incarcerated for murder at the time. With Mailer’s help, he authored a book called In the Belly of the Beast denouncing the penal system. (Prison sucks, film at 11.) A surreal NYT review [12] quotes from Mailer’s foreword with rhetoric reminiscent of “The White Negro”:

Mr. Mailer is feeling romantic, which means that he doesn’t mind what he says. ”Not only the worst of the young are sent to prison,” he writes, ”but the best — that is, the proudest, the bravest, the most daring, the most enterprising, and the most undefeated of the poor.” He speaks of ”juvenile delinquents” who are drawn to crime as a positive experience — because it is more exciting, more meaningful, more mysterious, more transcendental, more religious than any other experience they have known.

For obvious reasons, the public was getting sick of leftist glorifications of the criminal lifestyle by then. Mailer also championed Abbott’s effort for parole, and with his help, the dashing bon vivant got out of prison. The problem was that six weeks after release — and the day before his NYT book review hit the newsstands — this adventurous new literary genius murdered someone else. Jerzy Kosiński (Józef Lewinkopf) and Susan Sarandon took up Abbott’s cause this time, but he got convicted nonetheless. Eventually, he hanged himself in prison. Surprisingly, Mailer rather uncharacteristically concluded that he’d made a mistake.

Whew! Stunts like that make John Lennon’s “Lost Weekend” pale in comparison. One might suspect that Mailer wasn’t quite as smart as he thought he was. Still, none of that was a serious impediment to his popularity. He continued to churn out essays and novels of questionable quality until the end of his days, to the wild praise of the reviewers, and making a heap of cash from this racket. Such is the life of a Leftist celebrity anointed by the literary establishment.

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