30 June 2008

The Armies of the Night

Conspiracy is contingent on authority. Without a dominant philosophy, there can't be a subversive one. The authority, often the government or governing body, gives an official account--JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone--and theorists construct a counter narrative.

Reading Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night gave me an interesting perspective on my "conspiracy" project. Mailer was far from a conspiracy theorist, but he was absolutely anti-establishment, and was one of the previous centuries primary inventor of narrative, especially narrative that used political and historical--non-fictional--elements. Mailer was also very famous, which would have made it difficult to be a good conspiracy theorist.

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It's hard for someone of my generation to really understand the impact that The Armies of the Night had. Although I once would have considered myself a political activist, I have never actually attended a protest of anything. The climate of political activism at my alma mater, Wesleyan, when I was there, was a sad imitation of the school's history. Thus it's hard for me to imagine a protest, or any collective activism, as being anything other that vaguely annoying. So when I started reading Mailer's book, I kept thinking, What's the big deal? The author is know for a robust ego, and the few days that he spent in jail, missing some party in Manhattan, hardly seemed like a heroic effort. I interview my father, who was alive during the 60s, after the jump.

So, in order to better understand why Mailer wrote 288 pages on a few days during which seemingly little happened, I called my Dad, in order to understand the time period. At the time of the march on the Pentagon, October 1967, my Dad was still in high school, and a self-described "young republican." He grew up in Akron, Ohio, which I can only imagine was absolutely thumping with bibles. In 1967, four months before the Kent State shooting and almost a year before the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, it was incredibly unpopular to be against the Vietnam war. Later in college my Dad would adopt a liberal anti-war stance, and attended a march in Washington in March of 1970, by which time it was more acceptable and even popular. But in 1967 it was considered unpatriotic.

This reminds me of 2003, when similar rhetoric was used concerning the war in Iraq. I remember being absolutely confused at the overwhelming support for the war by politicians. I was seventeen at the time, and actually thought that Congress wouldn't allow Bush to go into Iraq. Naive I was. Still, when I was talking to my Dad I realized that Vietnam was a completely different thing. I mean obviously, but for some reason I had to hear from him to believe what I had read in Mailer's book. According to my Dad, the reaction of the government authorities to protests was more violent than they would be now, and--though by the time my Dad was involved the demonstrations had become more peaceful--the leaders of the protests also tended toward violence.

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In an earlier post I talked about the movie "Chicago 10" and it's "protagonist," Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman plays a minor role in The Armies of the Night, in that Mailer mentions him being around, along with Jerry Rubin, also in the Chicago Seven. In my criticism of the film, I basically said that Hoffman was unsympathetic as a martyr figure, because he represented white privilege and reckless, hippie, trendster anti-establishmentness. I'm not exactly reversing my judgment on this, but maybe giving him a little more credit.

Mailer, however, is reluctant to make himself a martyr--at least a little bit. His arrest is symbolic and he goes into it planning to be arrested. He doesn't expect to actually go to the Pentagon, and basically forces a young National Guard officer to arrest him, later regretting that spending five days in jail--when he thought it would only be a few hours--would make it seem like too big of a deal.

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Mailer does share with Hoffman an interest self-invention. The formal innovations in The Armies of the Night (History as Novel, The Novel as History) reveal Mailer's approach to writing and political activism as interwoven and inextricable. His next book was a more objective look at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and Miami, but The Armies of the Night is as much about Mailer as it is about history. He is both the narrator and the protagonist in the first section of the book, the novel, during which the plot construct is ironic and deliberate. It may be a superficial device, and he may be pointing that out, but the formalism of Mailer's book goes a long way to capture the seriousness of the movement than does Hoffman's absurd theatricality.

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