The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America

Norman Mailer and John Buffalo Mailer, The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America (New York: Nation Books, 2006).

“Heidegger spent his working life laboring mightily in the crack of philosophy’s buttocks, right there in the cleft between Being and Becoming.” Thus spoke Norman Mailer in “Existentialism—Does It Have a Future?” Speaking of Sartre, Mailer says, “If only he had not been an existentialist!” Mailer comes at these philosophers with a playful, incisive, polymorphously perverse dexterity. He finds in Heidegger a redemptive opening, but wonders if that isn’t just Heidegger masquerading more bad faith. He finds in Sartre an unsatisfactory “endemic nothingness installed upon eternal floorlessness,” but he applauds Sartre’s journey to socialism.

Mailer’s essay on existentialism first appeared in Liberation in 2005; it reappears in 2006 in The Big Empty, in which Mailer, age 82, is interviewed by his son John Buffalo Mailer, actor, playwright and journalist, age 27. Partaking of the spirit of Hegel’s dictum — “The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk” — John Buffalo performs an important service interviewing his dad, getting the stories down, letting us draw from the well of wisdom, if such there be, of those who lived through most of the twentieth century, soon to pass into the night. Norman Mailer is a great American story-teller; existential detective dissecting the Zeitgeist; gadfly, provocateur, social critic and philosopher.

The son engages in the joyful task of amanuensis and sparring partner. The transgenerational result speaks to the most important issues of our time. It is also a model of lucidity, fluidity and wit. Interspersed between the interviews are several short essays and speeches from the twilight phase of Mailer’s career. The book as a whole makes clear — because it is the guiding thread through the labyrinth — that, yes, these are times that try our souls; and the twin issues which are putting our nation most at risk are corporatism and sophistry — i.e., the corporate takeover of America, and what Eric Alterman once called “the mutually reinforcing nonsense that passes for [American] political discourse.”

The Big Empty
is a set of “Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America.” The key is bad conscience, a translation of Sartre’s mauvaise foi, also called “bad faith.” A faith that is troubled, anxious, haunted; cracked, split, schizoid; because resting on self-deception. Sartre said: “It is as hard to wake up from self-deception as it is to wake from a dream.” Such is our current collective predicament; the ongoing American nightmare: those with money, power and control committed to what Chomsky calls “rational lunacy,” driven by what Mailer calls “elephantiastical conceits.” The most nefarious con game in history is the world’s only superpower trapped in a will-to-power fantasy that threatens the planet. “Hegemony or survival,” says Chomsky; “that’s our choice.”

Introducing the book, John Buffalo says: “The parallels between the rise of fascism in Europe and the current ‘war on terror’ were the primary topics I wanted to discuss with my father. They seem to me to be, in many ways, uncomfortably familiar.” He reflects and summarizes: “Our conversations have left me with the realization that my generation has only just begun to reckon with the gravity of the times we are inheriting.” John Buffalo’s “realization” mirrors a comment by Mike Marqusee in Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art: “The ’60s may someday come to seem merely an early skirmish in a conflict whose real dimensions we have yet to grasp.” The Big Empty helps us to grasp and redirect our fate; and it does so with Nietzsche’s “light feet,” embracing Michael Parenti’s advice: “It is always better to swim against the current than to be swept over a cliff.”

Mailer asserts: “The Center which Yeats was so certain could not hold is Corporate Capitalism itself. Anyone who reads this book will know what we think about that. In doubt, refer to the title.” Corporatism gone amok — the temporary triumph of the Reagan counterrevolution against the spirit of the ’60s — has emptied America of any trace of national authenticity. The omnipresent commodification of experience confirms for us now what Nietzsche said of Germany 120 years ago: “This nation has made itself stupid on purpose.”

Says Mailer: “I love this country with all its faults, but one of its huge spiritual crimes is that we’re the bullshit kingdom of all time.” Sophistry so pervades the social fabric — engendered by government sold to the highest bidder — that the lies told come to be believed, by the tellers as well as the duped, and constitute a national fantasy, myth, dream; dehumanizingly hollow at its core. A high-tech version of Plato’s cave, where the social facticity of economic apartheid — the distance between is and ought, measured by the distance between haves and have-nots — is covered by “united we stand,” imperial hubris, and divine sanction. Says Mailer: “Myths are tonic to a nation’s heart. Once abused, however, they are poisonous”:

America [is] pleasure-loving, which, for exceptionalist purposes, [is] almost as bad as peace-loving. So, the [Bush administration’s] invasion [of Iraq] had to be presented with an edifying narrative. That meant the alleged reason for the war had to live in utter independence of the facts.… Fantasy would serve. As, for example, bringing democracy to the Middle East,… [which] proved to be nearer to Grimm’s fairy tales than a logical proposition.

America’s institutions are designed to ignorate; to keep us prisoners in what Gore Vidal calls “The United States of Amnesia.” Chains of illusion are cheaper and more effective than a club. Howard Zinn observes: “The truth is so often the opposite of what we are told that we can no longer turn our heads around far enough to see it.” It’s gotten to the point, says John Buffalo, where “the left is beginning to figure out that they can’t beat the right with intelligent argument.” Mailer responds:

The primal fight…, the one that underlies all the others — is the level of American intelligence. Is it going to improve or deteriorate? A democracy depends upon the intelligence of its people, [by which I mean] a readiness to look into the face of difficult questions and not search for quick answers… Patriotism gobbled up, sentimentalized, and thereby abased is one of the most powerful single forces to proliferate stupidity.

Noam Chomsky observes the Gordian knot, the epistemological conundrum at the heart of America the Absurd: “The problem is not that people don’t know; it’s that they don’t know they don’t know.”
Mailer adds:

We’re in danger right now of losing our democracy…. Global capitalism … does not need or look for inquiry into delicate matters. Its need, rather, is to keep the bullshit train running at top speed.… Global capitalism… is alien to… creative possibilities.

America pretends to be a Christian nation, yet worships at the altar of profit; pretends to revere the Prince of Peace, yet is never not at war. This contradiction is the bad faith, the troubled conscience, which haunts the American psyche; its most shameful secret, for which it compensates with flags and Patriot Acts. The Disneyfication of experience leads inevitably to abuse of power, betrayal of the social contract, political apocalypse and collapse.

Mailer asserts: “The war against the corporation is profound, as it should be.… To win this war… will take, at least, fifty years and a profound revolution in America.” To help us move from the Wasteland to democratic socialism, Mailer invites the Democratic Party to cease being “Republican-Lite”; to

separate itself from The Big Empty; and… [to] recognize there’s two kinds of capitalism — each opposed to the other — the capitalism of the corporation and that of small business. The latter is creative and the first is a totalitarian leviathan… I’ll take socialism over corporatism. At least [socialism] is not slavishly dependent on market hype.

Mailer notes that if John Kerry had won the 2004 presidential election, “the situation down the road could have proved disastrous for Democrats. Kerry… would have had to pay for all of Bush’s mistakes in Iraq. He would then have inherited what may yet be Bush’s final title: Lord Quagmire.”

The Big Empty
is a raucous and rueful ride. Mailer is too quick to dismiss Bush administration complicity in 9/11. He mistakenly thinks “ethnic unresolvables… ravaged Yugoslavia,” failing to note Bush the Elder’s proposal in the 1991 Fiscal Appropriations Act, approved by congress, to do for Yugoslavia what Nixon and Kissinger did for Chile: “make the economy scream.” And while it’s true that in Russia, “after the Soviet Union broke down… corruption and greed came roaring to the fore,” he fails to note Harvard’s complicity in US/IMF strategic restructuring. From the womb of a genuine social democratic revolution emerged a disenfranchised, fourth-world population overlorded by a US-friendly mafia. One would think that Mailer would be more finely tuned to historical causality.

But if Mailer misses some of the details along the way, his voice is still prophetic. He digs right down to the cognitive dissonance at the heart of American dysfunction. Quoting Hermann Goering’s advice to warmongering politicians (“All you have to do is tell [the people] they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism…”), Mailer remarks: “It is one thing to be forewarned. Will we ever be forearmed?”

Reviewed by Stefan Schindler
La Salle University

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