Thursday, November 5, 2009

LOL And Void

Writers are increasingly marginal, which may be best. Techno-distractions shred traditional thought patterns, reducing the young to monosyllables, grunts, and nods. Attention spans crumble in the slightest breeze. Add a fixed political arrangement, corporate assaults on what remains of public life, endless war abroad, religious insanity at home, and what's the point of reading, much less writing?

Part of me fantasizes about a post-literate age, where minds expand through memorization, and the human race reboots its lizard brain for the next phase of conscious existence. The whole Hans Magnus Enzensberger trip. Sadly, my romanticism is misplaced, for we the observant know what's coming. We may not recognize every approaching profile, but if present life is any indication, it ain't arriving with a smile and a handshake. More likely a head filled with bad chemicals and frayed wiring. Chest bumping will be the new hello.

Like other aging fools, I find solace in what was, to the extent was has anything to offer. TV talk shows shaped much of my early thinking, primarily Dick Cavett's, where extended discussions sailed above my young head, forcing me to run along and jump at them, grabbing what I could. I didn't understand many of the references, but I knew something good was happening, and soon I began using a dictionary in order to keep pace. (Being an autodidact, I often mispronounced new words I learned, holding back in conversation until I heard someone else speak correctly.)

A regular Cavett guest was Norman Mailer, who usually mystified me. Mailer was perhaps the most noticeable American intellectual of the mid-20th century, always performing, playing to his brand. Mailer would have been a Smoking Gun regular, given all of his feuds, scrapes, and fights. But he possessed undeniable energy and charm, metaphors shooting in all directions, sometimes making no sense whatsoever. Being a TV baby, I preferred Mailer onscreen to Mailer on the page. I found much of his writing sloppy, narcissistic, shallow, and painfully obvious, but then, Mailer's prolific output guaranteed such lapses.

However, these traits served Mailer well on television. Here's the only clip of Mailer on Cavett that I can find, and it's a truncated piece of a much juicier whole. Hopefully, Cavett will release a box set of his interviews with authors. If he does, this show must be included.

I'm sure some of you have seen this. Mailer, drunk, angry, goes after Gore Vidal for an essay where Mailer's opinion of women is conflated with Charles Manson's much deadlier view. The New Yorker's Janet Flanner looks on, disgusted, while Cavett tries to hold it all together. This was considered rough sailing back in the day, but compared to contemporary cable slap fights and clichéd exchanges, the below segment crackles, as if from another world. Which it was.

Here's an appearance I recently discovered, where Mailer butts egos with William F. Buckley. It's from 1968, before Nixon's election, amid the chaos of that period. I found this debate very entertaining, if unsatisfying in certain areas. Mailer celebrates Fidel Castro, yet offers no solid defense of the Cuban revolution when challenged by Buckley, whose claims are easy to rebut. Mailer's less interested in geopolitical fine points than he is in the Great Man theory of history, preferring broad strokes to detailed precision. Still, it's music to my weary ears.

Where on today's tube do you see this style of argument, using such vocabulary? (The rest can be seen here.) It even makes me a bit soft for reactionary Buckley. At bottom, WFB was a propagandist, but an amusing one who understood the era he thrived in. (I'd love to see the entire show where he engaged Allen Ginsberg.) Confession: When I began to speak publically about politics and media, I copied Buckley's body language, finding it lithe and theatrical (with a bit of Hitchens mixed in). Here's a brief glimpse of what I mean. Note the clipboard on lap and pen in hand. It was how a young polemicist prepared.