Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex started life as an entire issue of the magazine Harper’s, appearing in America at about the same time Kate Millett’s book ‘Sexual Politics’ – Mailer’s main target – opened up shop in this country. Doing a radio programme on Millett and looking for ammo, I ploughed through an imported copy of the magazine with growing disappointment and steadily lessening velocity as the prose piled shoulder-high: if Millett’s apocalyptic argument needed a counterblast, Mailer’s metaphysical posturing wasn’t it. The scene needed cooling out, not hotting up. But now that his long article has appeared in book form, Mailer’s position starts to look more substantial.
It is often the way with him. I don’t agree that he is a more interesting essayist than novelist – he has never written anything better than ‘The Deer Park’ – but certainly his essays have a way of sneaking up on you, usually long after you have finished shaking your head at the ego-tripping antics. His role-playing is a clownish tactic that has the effect of making you overreach yourself, so that you topple forward within a range of a sudden welter of dizzying argument. He’s been a Contender and a Candidate; he’s been Aquarius; and in this book he kicks off as the Prizewinner. An opening statement like this one has to be disarming: if you took it at its face-value, you’d be honour bound to chuck the book out of the window:
Near the end of the Year of the Polymorphous Perverse (which is to say in the fall of ’69) there were rumours he would win the Nobel.
Not bad for openers: old Aquarius is in the third person again, which is clinically appropriate to his proudly flourished paranoia. But the Prizewinner, having got us softened up with polite embarrassment, quickly metamorphoses into the Prisoner – the Prisoner of Sex. And to find out why he’s behind bars, you have to read through to the end, by which time he’s got his knees on your chest. Here is a bucketful of Stygian viscosity drawn from the last paragraph of the book:
Finally, he would agree with everything they asked but to quit the womb, for finally a day had to come when women shattered the pearl of their love for pristine and feminine will and found the man, yes that man in the million who could become the point of the seed which would give the egg back to nature, and let the woman return with a babe who came from the root of God’s desire to go all the way, wherever was that way. And who was there to know that God was not the greatest lover of them all?
To get from the first quoted passage to the second in only 230 pages of large print is the work of a prince among line-shooters: on the terms he establishes in the book I find this flag-waving finale perfectly intelligible, yet I present it with utter confidence that the reader will understand not a word. How to summarize what has gone before?
There are two components in Women’s Lib, the reformist and the revolutionary, and the reformist component is often put forward in revolutionary guise. We might call the first component realistic and the second rhetorical. Whether asking for the overthrow of all institutions or the complete restructuring of the male psyche the rhetorical component in Women’s Lib seems to me counterproductive, spoiling the chances of the realistic component that all men of good will are bound to uphold. Mailer is ready to back the realistic component (he has good words for Betty Friedan) but only in the interests of a rhetoric of his own. And at the centre of his own rhetoric is a notion of the sexes’ separate roles in . . . what is it? (Here one’s powers of paraphrase down tools.) The search for the godhead? The furthering of destiny by Will? Anyway, it appears that a woman is mad to deny her Inner Space, for doesn’t Mailer himself tell us that its very eggs are all agog to be favoured by selected spermatozoa (only two or three of the released millions are the true herrensperm) from a Man who is himself selected on principles that she, poor thing, might fail to understand with her merely conscious mind
Strike me dead if it isn’t true, but I now have it on Mailer’s authority that the birthrate ‘may’ have gone up because of contraception – psychically bamboozled by technology, women have lost their erstwhile capacity to choose (by secret night-time mental processes unrevealed to their conscious minds or to any other agency than the Prisoner’s snoopy-peepy back-pack detector) not to be pregnant! Good to have cleared that up.
No, (and here I help myself to the Prisoner’s technique of tossing in a Yes, comma, or No, comma, at the very moment when the reader is yelling Hold On exclamation mark) Mailer isn’t being as crass as all that. His argument can as easily and neatly be attached by metaphysical sky-hooks to the perennial sense, which most of us share, that there is a natural dispensation which we are crazy to flout beyond a certain point. He has seen that the revolutionary component of Women’s Lib is in thrall to technology: he is against it for that, and he is right. But in arguing that every act of love which is carried out without the possibility of conception in mind is a death-dealing waste, he is making the universe into a work of art whose plot-line is the working out of a purpose. Mailer once offered us the notion that hate, frustration and lies cause cancer. But good men and women get it, and children get it, too. Anyone struck by the arbitrariness with which divine favour is handed out will always find substance in the remark that the only excuse for God is that He does not exist. If He does, He can certainly be a clumsy lover.
There is a tragedy in The Prisoner of Sex that its author is not aware of. He deals with Millett’s arid technologizing well enough, but he can make nothing much of Friedan beyond a pious regret that the possibilities of bringing about a social equity are small. It’s a sad prospect: a social fabric unravelling towards ruin, while a good creative mind can find little to do except sling rhetoric in the void left by the banishment of realistic discourse.