ON AMBIVALENCE, guest author Mary Gaitskill

I was moved to be staying at the Norman Mailer house because of what he meant to me early in life, by which I don’t mean to say that I was a Mailer fan early on; in fact I was not. My response to him was in a way deeper than simple admiration or enjoyment. He was perhaps the first author, certainly the first socially engaged author who made me aware of my own ambivalence, and, by extention, the ambivalent nature of truth. The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote about Norman Mailer which was published in A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, and published by Harvard Press:

I first encountered Mailer at the age of 15 when I read Kate Millet’s feminist polemic Sexual Politics. In a special sexism-in-literature section, Millet quoted at length from Mailer’s novel An American Dream, a luscious comic-book story of society, magic, music, murder, love and sodomy which in Millet’s censorious context seemed even more thrillingly dirty than it actually is. At fifteen I had a complex streak of practicality which was both cheerful and dour, and which allowed me to retreat into my private cave to thoroughly enjoy Mailer’s fantasy as presented by Millet, only to momentarily emerge full of righteous outrage at it; I saw nothing questionable about this.

When I heard that Mailer would be appearing on The Dick Cavett Show to discuss feminism with Gore Vidal, I watched, anticipating a full complement of outrage and enjoyment. To my surprise, I was surprised: watching Gore Vidal was like watching a snake in a suit, all piety and fine manners, standing up on its hind tail to recite against the evils of sexism. Before this fancy creature, Mailer was nearly helpless, lunging and swiping like a bear trying to fight a snake on the snake’s terms. At one point he spluttered “You know very well I’m the gentlest person here,” which made the audience laugh while Cavett and guests made ironic faces—but (horribly enough) I sensed that this was quite possibly true, even if Mailer did head-butt Vidal in the dressing room, even if yes, he did stab his wife in the dim past of a drunken party. For a gentle person who has been stung by clever, socially armored people adept at emotional cruelty may respond with oafish brutality; it is precisely because he is gentle that he can’t modulate his rage or disguise it the way a naturally cruel person can. I watched the bear-baiting spectacle with a painful sense of cognitive dissonance dawning in me, both sides of my peculiarly American schizophrenic self finally present and blinking confusedly. The only other person who had aroused such feelings in me before was Lyndon Johnson, whose ugly, profound, helplessly emotional face had made me feel like crying for reasons I could not understand….

Such “cognitive dissonance” is for me a precursor to union and watching Norman Mailer at that moment was more powerful for me than watching/hearing any number of people I might more naturally have agreed with at the time. That experience deepened as I read his work later in life. It was of great value to me and I am honored to stay at his house.

Mary Gaitskill is an author of fiction. Read her full bio on our Visitors and Guest Speakers page.