Thoughts on: Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism
June 1, 1961
It is easily imagined of Jean Genet that he is one those artists who so adore reality that they are obsessed with the ever-present possibility that it too will betray them.
Sitting through the too long evening of “The Blacks” or wending a careful and respectful way through the printed texts of “Deathwatch” or “The Maids,” we are overwhelmed by our sense of his distrust of us; his refusal to honor our longings for communion. Presently we understand that he does not seem to believe that is what we do long for and so, now and again, he drops even the remnants of his regard, and flails at us. He encloses the reckless and undefined dozen or so jokes; dismisses what he may consider to be the boundaries of even his own mind. He becomes the threatening soldier who may or may not put bullets in the gun, such being the depth of his contempt for the enemy. Of course, when whimsy does allow him to load and fire, we are shattered.
Norman Mailer’s discussion of “The Blacks” (Voice, May 11, May 18) was, therefore, in proper meter. Between the play and Mailer’s discernible reaction to it, a duet was indeed sung. The rise and fall of his coherence and incoherence alike strikes a stunning and, I think, significant kinship with the French writer. This is especially so in his lusty acceptance of the romantic racism which needed evocation to allow for the conceptualization of “The Blacks” in the first place.
For, at this moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, certain of the best of men have sent up a lament which is much concerned with the disorders of a civilization which they do not really believe in their hearts are to be set aright by invocation of either fresh “frontiers” or antique “grandeur.” Sensing the source of the disorders to be deeper than any of that, they have willfully turned to the traditional route of history’s more serious nay-sayers. They have elected the spirit and fraternity of what the balance of society is always pleased to hope are “the damned”: prostitutes, pimps, thieves, and general down-and-outers of whatever persuasion. They are certain, as their antecedents in all ages have been, that if the self-appointed “top” of society is as utterly rotten as it is, then the better side of madness must be the company and deistic celebration of “the bottom.” As far as they are concerned, history has merely inadvertently provided them with a massive set of fraternals in “the Blacks.”
Among the Negro artists and intellectuals whom I know it is a melancholy point of reference. Our life-eating sense of fatigue began with, of course, the appearance of Mailer’s “The White Negro” a few years ago, and has been fitfully nourished by those echoes of differing aspects of its theme in the “little magazines,” The Village Voice, living rooms and coffee houses: “The Negro is hell-bent for suburbia and the loss of his soul, dear God, dear God!” Nelson Algren agrees in print with Jonas Mekas that “A Raisin in the Sun” is, of all things, a play about “insurance money” and/or “real estate.” (This particular absurdity, it is true, is rendered a little less frightening only by the knowledge that there are people who sincerely believe that “Othello” is a play about a handkerchief.)
But to discuss this paternalism at all, one must underscore the innocence from which certain attitudes invariably spring. We have been locked away from one another and, sadly, it is not really curious that we seem to throw such strange and romantic shadows upon the windows. How else might Algren, believing, apparently, that materially deprived Negroes are, somehow, the only “true Negroes,” equate the desire to escape the grim horrors of the ghetto with the fancied longing of a people to cease being “themselves” and “get to the psychoanalysts as fast as white folks do”? And, for his part, Mailer pens a theatrical commentary which, in some passages, is primed with an ingenuous acceptance of the racial mystique.
After he had written what was cogent about “The Blacks”: “… the truest and most explosive play that anyone has yet written at all about the turn of the tide and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart … ” and after he was done with gratuitous suppositions concerning the sexuality of the actors, Mailer indulged himself mainly as a leading captain of the new paternalism, hardly pausing even to draw for us some of the richer implications of his own assessment of the Genet work.
For “The Blacks” is, as Mailer partially observed, more than anything else a conversation between white men about themselves. This seemed to me the final trick, not upon reality which tends to hold its own, but upon illusion. For it is only an illusion that Genet has written anything else. He is a man and can only begin where any of us can: within our own subjectivity. As an entity, he must fancy “Les Negres” only as he thinks they should be along about now in the history of the world: if they have been treated thus and so forth, then this is the way they should behave and feel. He has rendered an equation and calculated, one must say reasonably, for a sum. The result is an abstraction possessed of great flashes of power and all the inventive poetry of what is certainly an exquisite theatrical mind. But it is an abstraction which tends to remind one, through the absence of humanness, style or no style, that men have always found a dimension of nobility in their grandest guilts (have we not all seen the face of Eichmann in the dock?). Moreover, it seemed to me that we were spared the ultimate anguish of man’s oppression of man because the abstraction is utilized to affirm, indeed entrench, the quite different nature of pain, lust, cruelty, ambition in “The Blacks.” The dramatist does not impress upon us that it is the sameness of kind which oppressor’s most despise in the oppressed; that they do not lynch or castrate dogs or apes as a way of life because they do not find their own images in those creatures. It is the reflection of oneself that most enrages when we are engaged in our crimes against a fellow human creature. In “The Blacks” the oppressed remain unique; it is, interestingly, their shadows that have been abstracted into “the style.” In it, the blacks remain the exotic “The Blacks.”
This may be because they are seen, still, by their creator as entirely relative to the fact of the presence of The Whites in the world. It does not occur to the European or the white American, as yet, that they might exist in any other context. The characters in the play dream not only of their revenge but of “turning Beauty black” because even the most profound of white men find it incomprehensible that a black man may behold the moon and stars without agonies of concern for how those images may have seemed to — The Whites. The play most certainly has validity in its purgation of the whites (in the audience) but what I found to be its spectacular quality of detachment for the blacks (in the audience) must surely be a limitation which derives from the fact that, for all of its sophistication, it is itself an expression of some of the more quaint notions of white men.
It does not invalidate what we take to be Genet’s intentions because the whole play is, again, about the anticipations of white men; by the end of it we sense that they shall be disappointed if the blacks really do give more attention to building steel mills and hydroelectric plants throughout Africa than to slitting a few hundred thousand criminal throats.
With regard to Mailer and the new paternalism, it will be said, and swiftly, that Negroes cannot be satisfied; that, in this instance, the Negro intellectual is himself so “hung-up” that he does not understand at what Mailer is getting; that he has transcended what we still suppose to be the mark-off points of an old discussion and has found some more profound level where the white intellectual assumes all of that to be old hat and has moved on to where we can all really talk as the most inside of insiders, which is to say, as some obscure undefined universal outsider who may be known as “the hipster.”
It has had a numbing effect, the creation of “the hip” into an expanded formalized idea. Negroes seem to have met it mainly with a crowning silence because who knew where to begin in the face of such monumental and crass assumptions? A number of years had to dissolve before Jimmie Baldwin would remark in print, ever so gently: “… matters were not helped at all by the fact that Negro jazz musicians, among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip’ and Norman did not know this and I could not tell him … They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” (April Esquire: “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.”)
Naturally, whether or not some Negro jazz musicians think Norman Mailer or any other individual is or is not “hip” would be one of the great unimportant questions of our time — except for Mailer. He did not call his essay “The Hipster” or “The Outsider” or “We Who Might Swing” or any of that; he called it: “The White Negro.” He manufactured an absurdity and locked himself in it. He fabricated his own mythology concerning certain “universals” about 20 million “outsiders” and rejoiced because his philosophy fitted his premise. He is like Seymour Krim in that respect in symbolizing all who fashion their particular fantasies and take the A Train to Harlem to find them and meet some fraction of one per cent of 700,000 people who bulge the community and go back downtown and write essays not on the prostitutes they met but on — “Harlem.” It is beginning to seem an inexhaustible tradition. What is a little new is the scope of the new arrogance. The new paternalists really think, it seems, that their utterances of the oldest racial cliches are, somehow, a demonstration of their liberation from the hanky-panky of liberalism and God knows what else. Consequently, from the depths of his particular seven-league assumptions, Mailer blithely writes: “They cannot know because they have not seen themselves from the outside (as we have seen them) that there is genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land on earth … ”
The most that can be said for romance as desperate as that is to repeat that the shadows on the window are erotic. How can the man who wrote it know that Negroes are, by and large, not in any wise sufficiently improverished of spirit to need or want that? How can Mailer or Genet or Algren really be expected to know, really know, that the commonplace reverse assumptions among Negroes about everybody else (“The Others”) are just as touching, innocent, and vicious? I know very few Negroes who are not firmly convinced that “the roots of life” are in Puerto Ricans, Italians, and everyone else of “Latin temperament.” “Honey, those people really know how to live —” it runs. Seymour Krim does not know that when he left the most lowly of the bar-flies of Harlem, they re-engaged in chit-chat concerning the most traditional of very exotic notions of the Jewish people which are as grim and unworthy of them as they are any place else in America. Must we celebrate this madness in any direction? Is it not “known” among Negroes that white people, as an entity, are “dirty” (especially white women who never seem to do their own cleaning); inherently cruel (the cold fierce roots of Europe: who else would put all those people into ovens scientifically?); “smart” (“you really have to hand it to the m.f.’s”) and the rest of it? And never having been exposed to the glorious fury of a Moldavian peasant dance or the tonal magnificence of some mighty Russian folk song — we also “know,” like Mailer, that we “sing and dance better than white people.” Similarly do we “know” that we are “lazier” and “more humane.” Etc.
Moreover there is reason to now suppose that we (Negro writers) may have carried the skin-lightener hair-straightener references too far for a climate where context is not yet digested. Pride of race is not alien to Negroes. The Lord only knows that what must be half our institutions seem to function on the basis of nothing else! It may indeed be a long time after integration that it disappears out of the American black man’s consciousness. Black racialism in the United States may ultimately show itself to be more tenacious than even its mighty opposite. Nationalism dies hard, as is witnessed by the St. Patrick’s Day parade down our streets each spring.
Of course oppression makes people better than their oppressors, but that is not a condition sealed in the loins by genetic mysteries. The new paternalists have mistaken that oppression for the Negro. They are as certain as Genet that the source of the wily speech is tied to color; that the brooding hatred which intelligent whites are apparently able to see is, somehow, wedded to the blackness.
No wonder the single-mindedness of the middle-class Negro’s search for comfort offends: it is an ugly fall from “naturalness.” Don’t any of these people know that working-class social rules are not less in volume than those of more monied classes? There are just as many things which are forbidden — they are just different. A man who believes in the taboos of his order is not freer than another man who believes in his at a different level of society. In society we, all of us, merely flee from rigor to rigor.
That is why, blues or no blues, life roots or no life roots, Negroes of all classes have made it clear that they want the hell out of the ghetto just as fast as the ascendency of Africa, the courts, insurance money, job-upgrading, the threat of “our image overseas,” or anything else can thrust them. Worse, they have a distinct tendency to be astonished and/or furious that everyone doesn’t know it. Misery may be theatrical to the onlooker but it hurts him who is miserable. That is what the blues are about.
Prison of the Premise
Out of his distaste for the middle-class Negro, Mailer is led to assume, for some reason or another, that the actors in “The Blacks” who seem to him to act with inhibition and self-consciousness must be middle-class Negroes. Well, knowing most of them to be part-time hack-drivers, janitors, chorus girls, domestics, it is impossible to know what prompts the assumption other than the prison of the premise again. For my part, I am twice confused, because I genuinely thought the acting, almost without exception, brilliant. Especially Messrs. Browne and Jones.
It points up the incredible eagerness for the new villain: The true middle-class Negro simply amuses the life out of everyone because he stands on line at the opera; because of his attaché case; because he is as passionately opinionated on West Germany as Congo; he amuses because he plays tennis; because his fatuousness has the audacity to sound as deep-seated as the chap he is talking to. Above all he amuses and outrages because he now persists in home-hunting with the wife in his foreign car in Scarsdale, searching for his little niche in the Great Sterility. And he certainly offends if, of an evening, he expresses boredom of the eternal race question and/or disapproval of the fact that Lorraine Hansberry goes around in dirty sneakers.
Well, there is certainly nothing fresh in the spectacle of white people insisting on telling all sorts of colored peoples how they should behave to satisfy them. It is, to say the least, the most characteristic aspect of the nation’s foreign policy.
Out of the perversion of what they think they understand about The Rise of the Negro Middle Class, the very same paternalists who will study every nuance of Genet or Antonioni have no time for the nuances of the homely, working-class “Raisin.” They preferred a display of public dishonesty or stupidity by refusing to see that it was, more than anything else, a long and, perhaps, laborious assault on money values. One speaks of dishonesty because, in a subsequent discussion with the Mekas entourage, it turned out that what they found most objectionable was the fact that the hero did not make the payoff at the end: “He should have played the game,” his co-reviewer, Miss Juillard, told me, “that would have been the swinging thing to do.”
I plead guilty to the four corners of my aspirations for the human race.
As a matter of fact, contrary to the original thoughts of this discussion, it is better to dismiss Mekas almost entirely. To think of it is to be reminded, with pain, that his particular variety of paternalism is of the older and less sophisticated type which simply turns motion-picture criticism over to a mysteriously qualified 19-year-old Negro girl because, presumably, that is what is done when it comes to those “colored movies” anyway. This is the young woman who also explained to me that she thought the movie told Negroes that they should want to “be white” because of all those passages wherein the college-daughter persisted in her preoccupation with things African. Intellectuality, it was explained, is “white.” (To such jibberish nothing can be added. A dedicated Voice reader like myself can only hope that the paper will institute a motion-picture-criticism column of some stature.)
Finally, isn’t it a little late in this particular century for Mailer’s remark that “a bad Negro actor” reminds him of nothing quite so much as “a bad white actor”? There is something insane about that sentence unless one truly believes that there is, within the nature of being a Negro, some qualifying property which modifies all other adjectives in a sentence. Or that there should be. He reiterated, the following week, that this problem is, however, relieved when the actors, sure enough, dance and sing or are otherwise active as entertainers, which remains, in his considered judgment, the true forte, as we were saying, of “The Blacks.”
LOOKING BACK over the thoughts penned here, I am disappointed and saddened. The patches of anger and frequent flippancies do not, somehow, thrust my deepest and most sincere hopes through the window; crash the lock which gives birth to such misunderstanding in the first place. These gentle if impassioned artists whom I have mainly sailed into are not the “enemies” of Negroes. We all know that; that accounts for the afore-mentioned melancholy which colors all effort to try and really “talk to one another.” Heaven only knows that men fixed in a posture of consuming outrage because of the spectacle of this world have been, as I said at the beginning “the best of men” in all ages. Genet, Mailer, and Algren are right to be in contempt of the ghastly hypocrisy of their cultures; artists who are not are, indeed, lesser artists and lesser men. In any other context these three would deserve mainly salutation.
It is on this account that the tender evaluation of those jazz musicians of Mailer is genuinely touching. It is my own, even though I have never met him. One hopes only that, recognizing his public turbulence as merely an echo of all thoughtful people these days, he will not let those forces with which he battles force him into such a rage that he cannot loom larger than their expectations and definitions of him. One powerfully hopes that.
And, that above all else, he will not allow his apprehension of this world make him flail so; let him grow contemptuous, like Genet, of that which is his only hope for telling blows: his words. Not let flee discipline of thought; not let cadence itself become a shadow of his former powers. No, it is not the death of arrogance which is wished for Mailer; I do not know what humility has accomplished in the history of man, when all is said and done. The wish is only that the arrogance become not shapeless; that it does not lose confidence in those of us who await the words which carry it with such hunger and need, on this barren landscape, knowing all the while the source and its truly monumental possibilities.
Norman, write not of the greatness of our peoples, yours and mine, in the past tense because: “Vail kumen vet noch undzer oysge benkte sho!” — and “My Lord, what a mornin’!”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 30, 2020