Skip to comments.Of Mailer and Murder
Posted on 11/27/2006 4:48:20 PM PST by ventanax5
On a recent visit to New Zealand, I happened across a book that I had long intended to read, In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott. (Before the advent of the Internet, which equalised world prices, New Zealand used to be the best place in the English-speaking world for second-hand books.)
The name probably faintly rings a bell. He was a career criminal, and had spent the vast majority of his life in penal institutions of one kind or another. At the time he first wrote to Norman Mailer, he was serving a sentence of up to nineteen years for having killed another inmate. Previously, he had broken out of jail and robbed a bank. For whatever reason, he was not a good man.
Mailer was much taken, however, by his literary ability, his prose style and his thoughts (among other things, he was a communist, and was of the opinion that the American penal system was far worse than that of the Soviet Union, even in the time of Stalin). Mailer supported Abbotts appeal for parole, and Abbott was duly released. His book was published, he became for a short while the lion of the New York literary scene, a kind of interesting specimen (a petty criminal would have been of no interest, of course), until, a couple of days prior to the publication of the favourable review of his book in the New York Review of Books, he killed again, only six weeks after his release. His victim was a young man, an aspiring writer, who was working temporarily as a waiter, with whom Abbott had an impulsive quarrel. He stabbed him with a knife that he happened to have on him.
(Excerpt) Read more at newenglishreview.org ...
I remember this double tragedy. One, for the release of this slimebag and, secondly for his impulsive murder of a total innocent. Too bad he didn't shake down Mailer and slice him up instead.
I remember attending summer school at Howard U., in DC, in 1985. I took a criminology class and the teacher was giving away free tickets to a play based on In the Belly of the Beast. She explained who Abbott was and asked me if I wanted a ticket. I politely declined. Near the end of the summer semester she encouraged us to get involved with Amnesty International. I wasn't into politics back then, but I knew that there was something wrong with her and her world view. Now I see she was a barking moonbat.
I'll only comment on the Mailer part of this piece, not the New Zealand Judicial system part of it. Better to remember my blood boiling many years ago than to feel it boiling again at the tragic foolishness of the judiciary of another country. Some things I remember about the Abbott stabbing: The waiter's name was Richard Adan, a very young aspiring actor, working as a waiter. Abbott was in the company of two young women at the restaurant who obviously were smitten at the whiff of celebrity emanating from him. He asked the waiter to use the restroom. The waiter had to inform him either that they didn't have one or that it was out of order, but offered to show him a spot in the alley where he could relieve himself if he really had to go. Both the waiter and Abbott went out the back way into the alley, where the waiter pointed out a corner near a dumpster where people often peed. This was apparently too much for Abbott who either felt humiliated or threatened, or whatever. Whereupon he pulled out a knife and stabbed Adan, killing him nearly instantly.
Mailer, very soon afterward, went public, and beating his breast, admitted that "my role in this is very large".
The late William Styron, hearing about this, said at the time "My heart went out to him", meaning Mailer, not Adan.
You know, something about one Famous Writer feeling sorry for another Famous Writer's attempt to "do good".
When Mailer was petitioning to get Jack Abbott freed from prison so he could work on another book , probably under Mailer's tutelage, he said "Let's do it! Culture is worth a little risk".
Richard Adan's father-in-law-to-be wrote a letter to New York Magazine regarding a feature article they ran on the tragedy, in which he tried to convey how much he loved Richard, what a good person he was, and in which at the end, he lamented and bemoaned the fatal vacuity of Mailer's "hollow Liberal zeal" in working to get someone like Abbott out of prison.
That phrase seemed to me perfect at the time, and I have used it at least a hundred times in conversation, whenever I encounter that particular feature of the Left-wing mind, in which the need for violence, and the breathless expectation that it might happen, always masquerades as pious concern, and successfully sells itself as "doing the right thing, doing good". "Hollow Liberal zeal".
But Mailer lived in a world (that of radical politics protected by a bourgeois order) in which words never really meant what they said or said what they really meant, in which moral exhibitionism was the highest good and the sine qua non of the regard of ones peers.
There is another sine qua non involved here as well, and that is the sneering contempt that the radical must show toward the bourgeois order that protects it. Here Mailer is as guilty as anyone. Additionally there is the moral absolution that comes from adopting the radical role that comes between them and the real-world consequences of their actions. That is why Mailer, although "not proud" is also not punished - the young man murdered was not, we are told, as valuable to society as the articulation of the prison thug who knifed him or the literary thug who enabled it.
What is monstrous here it the layer of abstraction that seems to insulate the intellect from the blood. It is dry, detached, profoundly inhuman and in the end profoundly anti-intellectual as well. And yet it clings to its willing hosts like a hideous parasite, soothing them that the victims aren't, somehow, as important as the ideas. For some it may be stated that this is possible because they don't actually know any real victims; for others such as Mailer there is no excuse at all.
Mailer, I have nothing but contempt for the man, but the plain truth is the worst I can say about this poseur and his work: they won't be missed.
That is a very good phrase, hollow liberal zeal, thanks for remembering so much about the poor murdered man, and also this phrase. I think we'll need to be using it a good bit in the near future.
Norman Mailer was not alone in his advocacy of Abbott's release, William Buckly and many others took up his cause. But I won't dispute Mailer's own assessment of his part as "very large".
I don't think Buckley had anything to do with Abbott; he was Mailer's cause:Buckley, IIRC, helped get someone named Edgar Smith out of prison, interviewed him, promoted him, then watched as Smith killed again, and admitted he was guilty for the murder that put him in prison in the first place. That, I think, was about 10 years before the Mailer-Abbott "affair".The infatuation with people like Cleaver and Abbott was over, the vogue having discredited itself very painfully.I myself was part of a group more than 15 years ago that worked to get a death-row prisoner freed, because we KNEW he was innocent: Randall Adams, subject of Erol Morris's documentary THE THIN BLUE LINE. But Randall had no literary pretensions, he was just INNOCENT!
I stand corrected, and btw, great tagline!
As for the tagline: I read somewhere recently that one finds "more good ideas" in Schopenhauer than any other philosopher, new or old. I think that's true. Though he was technically a philsopher in the "philosophical tradition" , he like Nietzsche, wrote far- and wide-rangingly over an amazing variety of speculative subjects that modern "thinkers" don't dare trespass on: the age of "experts" in "fields" has been upon us for too long, for anyone to think they could write a "book of life" like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, William James, or even Freud.