Norman Mailer, who has long since ceased to matter, comes pouncing back with lists akimbo in the November Esquire, ready to take on not just the world - but television. Alas, the elusive shadow box dodges every drunken punch and leaves the old palooka painting. TV has weathered zetier attacks and prevailed: this gnat will scarcely leave a scar.
Television is out to sever "the nerve of Being." Mailer warns. He compares TV to that other pop villian, Richard M. Nixon. "It's message," he says of the TV set, "was equal to Nixon's: "I am here to deaden you - you need it!"
Amid the usual Mailer maelstrom of third-person autobiography - "when he (Norman) stabbed his (Norman's) wife" - and garish sexual imagery - "the Phallic immanence of the microphone" - the Snidely Whiplash of American letters brands TV a "multimillion-celled nausea machine, that Christ-killer of the ages," a "malignancy" and for good bowels of communication" and for good measure, a "vampire" seeking to drain us of our precious bodily fluids.
Nut y? Maybe, but symptomatic of what passes for a school of thought. It is implied in some circles that television is the enemy of human thought and feeling and that one of its most insidious goals is the extermination of literature and the banishment fo the literati. As one reads Mailer's protracted rant, however, one is inclined to think, "and the sooner, the better."
Mailer and crowd are like the military men in "The Thing . . . From Another World" who didn't want to try reasoning with The Monster: they just wanted to kill it before it ate them. Of course in truth it must be conceded that they were right it must be conceded that they were right; the monster had no interest whatsover in civilized discourse.
Television, however, is not a marauding stalk of asparagus from another planet. People created it, people control it and there is no evidence that we all have been struck defenseless against it. There has not been a single known case of a television set attacking or eating a human being.
But while Mailer's harangue may make for giddy table-chatter at Elaine's real people in the real world will be completely unaffected by it. That's what really irks the alleged intelligentsia so much about television: its ineffable populist appeal. Mailer speaks with contemp of a Mery Griffin audience - "Something in their faces spoke of high school as the summit of their lives, the end of their development" - and he refers sneeringly to people who would stoop to playing "pinochle" or have the boorish, oafish gall to live in such a place as "Utah."
It doesn't occur to people like Mailer, clinging with desperation to their typewriters, that television may not be murdering literacy so much as replacing it, that the video image will simply succeed the printed page as the principal medium for information and socialization in our culture, that to rail and whimper over the pernicious spread of television is to ape the shortsightedness of those who thought the printing press should be destroyed immediately upon its invention.
Mailer recalls hours spent - "waisted" - in front of the allegedly numbing "tube"; indeed, he could have been tossing off another masterpiece during such lost interludes. He also brings back for encores some of his greatest hits on TV talk shows, during which he proved as willing as anyone else to grovel for the camera in order to sell a few books.
His sublime moment on the air was probably on ABC's old "Dick Cavett Show," when Cavett was so shaken out of his usual fey lethargy by Mailer's pugnacious verbal brawling that he actually took a stand - actually, he took a seat, next to Mailer foes Janet Flanner and Gore Vidal, while Mailer sparred with the crowd, at one point conceding he was "crude and a lout and a clod."
Since Mailer thinks his bullying style confirms his manhood and, somehow, his writer's soul, it's probably pointless to argue with him. You wonder that he can't see a few of his own inconsistencies though. He derides Vidal for bringing up the name of Eleanor Roosevelt on television in order to associate her with himself, to use and wear her.
But soon after, Mailer is brandishing his own imagined badge of honor - an entry from the file that the FBI kept on him for 20 years or so and which he obtained through the Freedom of Infromation Act. This is the liberal's new crown of glory and status symbol. If you can't win a little righteous sympathy by claiming to have been a victim of Joe McCarthy (someday children may ask, "What did you do during the blacklist, daddy?"), you flaunt the thickness of your FBI file and the degree to which the agency imagined you a threat. Mailer proudly notes that his consists of some 300 pages. What a hero! What a man!
Perhaps outbursts like Mailer's defy rational analysis. Yet you can't help feeling a little sorry for the people who will read his tirade and think Mailer has really devastated television. And All It Stands For. It's a little sad, too, that the piece appears as a feature attraction of Esquire magazine, which has been purchased by Clay Felker, Milton Glaser and a British media group who will reportedly be turning it into a lively, topical bi-weekly - in other words, another television-influenced magazine.
Presumably this Esquire of the future will not have room for all the inconsequential fiction it's been publishing of late, for all those loonily irrelevant articles about gold and the accompanying golf fashion spreads, nor for such flights of frenzy as Norman Mailer's pathetically ineffectual attack on television.