Tuesday, March 03, 2009
The Armies of the Night
I've been reading "Armies of the Night", by Norman Mailer. It is about an anti-war protest in 1967, when masses converged in Washington to March on the Pentagon. Maybe it is depressing to find the mistakes of the past repeated in tiny, derivative, timid, inconsequential ways in the mistakes of the present. It might be impossible to "learn from the past," because history is a scam (Mailer writes this book as a novel precisely to indicate that when dealing with events so charged with politics, and with hundreds of thousands of attendants, and multiple fronts of action, to render the story as a history is to be unfaithful to the reality: everything that happened that day was subjective to the person to whom it was happening), and in the same way, it is impossible to be "doomed" to repeat it, because to do so would be an improvement on the present. I don't know explicitly know how the past is an improvement on the present, but at least the mechanics of resistance seemed much clearer then. Mailer describes the confrontation as a battle, with fronts and attacks, ambushes and strategy. His "armies of the night" could have achieved their symbolic victory, according to Mailer's analysis in Book 2, if they had been more strategic. He chalks their failures up to the lack of common ground between the pacifists and the revolutionaries. But, if Mailer thought there was fragmentation in the Left in 1967, he should've been active now. Now... now... now... God! If he defined the factions then as Old and New: now, there is every age in between that, and some who lie about their age and say they are immortal. Some of the factions in the current Left hate each other as much as they hate the Right. As different as the eras are, I see so much now of the broad themes that Mailer outlines, around resistance and protest. He certainly describes the guilt accurately. For example, on page 193: Mailer and many others have been arrested. The protest started with a peaceful rally, after which those who chose to could challenge the war-makers more directly by marching from the rally site (the Lincoln memorial, in Washington D.C.), across the river and towards to Pentagon. Those who wished for even more confrontation provided by the March separated themselves from the mass of and tried to break through the line of military police that were containing the protest group to the street. The end goal was to break into the Pentagon itself and hold a sit-in. Those who tried to get that far were all arrested. See, I can understand this frustration. This group of thousands feels alienated by their government, morally soiled by their government's actions, implicated in the murder of the innocent. It would be tremendously ironic and lobotomizing to carry our a protest of this situation with the endorsement of the sickening government one is so disgusted by. I, too, would find the whole exercise disappointing unless I finally broke through the line of police, finally challenged directly one of the arms of the corrupt creature. However, in their prison cells, another moral dilemma presents itself: the protesters are offered a deal. They are to plead "No contest," accept a suspended sentence of 5 days, and a $25 fine, on the grounds that they agree not to return to the Pentagon for the next 6 months. This is a good deal, people get out of jail within hours. But is it moral? Tuli Kupferberg didn't think so. To agree to not return to the Pentagon for six months would mean collaborating with the government, the same corrupt, murderous machine they were trying to combat. He told the judge he would not promise to stay away, and so had to serve his 5 day sentence, instead of being released like the others were. His stand was not popular amongst the other prisoners. He turned a glaring light on their desires to go home. But Mailer's analysis of the situation turned this into more than a conflict between desires and morality: he sees it as a continuum, every step step simultaneously carrying you closer to righteousness and closer to disappointment. Read this: "Mailer listened to (Kupferberg) with a dull ear. He hated to become enmeshed in these unmanageable connections between politics and personal morality. To a part of him, Kupferberg seemed absolutely right ... there was a definite taint of an unholy desire to get out." However -- Mailer's internal narration continues -- what is really at stake here? "Prison could be nothing but an endless ladder of moral challenges: each time you climbed a step, another higher, more dangerous, more disadvantageous step would present itself. Sooner or later you would have to descend. It did not matter how high you had climbed. The first step down in a failure of nerve always presented the same kind of moral nausea. Probably he was feeling now like all the people who had gone to the Pentagon , but had chosen not to get arrested, just as such people, at their moment of decision, had felt as sickened as all the people who should have marched form the Lincoln memorial to the Pentagon, but didn't...One ejected oneself from guilt by climbing the ladder - the first step back: no matter where, offered nothing but immersion into nausea. No wonder people hated to disturb their balance of guilt. To become less guilty, then weaken long enough to return to guilt was somehow worse than remaining cemented in your guilt. " And so, Mailer rejects Kupferberg's path because the shame of giving up now would equal the same of giving up eventually. Finally, he judges that remaining cemented in your guilt is better than leaving it momentarily only to return to it out of weakness. I know people in my own life who have taken this stance. I know, too, the self hatred that returning to your guilt instills, the contradictions of a life hating the establishment carried out within the establishment. I don't know if Mailer regreted his decision to leave New York to go to the protest: to begin that climb up the ladder. I haven't read anything he wrote other than this book, and I haven't read anything more comprehensive about his life than the eulogies that appeared in newspaper after his death. So I am forced to assess his words on their own merit: and I reject them. I know for me, there is no option to remain cemented in my guilt. Nor do I feel very attracted to the idea of turning into a parrot of myself, living in limbo with irreproachable but suspended ideals. The only way for these continuous incursions away from ones guilt to be better, than, are for them to accomplish something concrete. Which brings me back, as always to the same question: what am I going to DO!?