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Carnival andJeremiad: Mailer'sThe Armies of the Night Maurice A. Mierau·-rmnot so sure I want a revolution," said Norman Mailer less than four monthsafter the completion of The Armies of the Night, "some of those kids areawfullydumb." 1 Mailer's ambivalences, evasions and self-deceptions about hisrole as a political prophet have rarely been as cogently expressed. These ambivalences,however, exist as much in Mailer's "nonfiction novel'' as they doin his casual remarks, and they are evidence of a consistent failure in Armiesof the political in favor of the mythic and the esthetic. Andrew Gordon, commenting on the book, proposes that "form is, among other things, a systemof defense," and he goes on to cite Mas'ud Zavarzadeh's belief that theform Mailer's "defense" takes is a kind of literary "schizophrenia." 2 If, as RobertMerrill claims, Armies is indeed a "powerful synthesis of Mailer's artisticand prophetic ambitions," 3 formal "schizophrenia" should not be any partofit. Yet it is apparent that any "nonfiction novel" is at odds with itself in ways that contradict grandiose ambitions on the part of its author; thus Gordon perceptivelyentitles his chapter on Armies "Mailer vs. Mailer" (p. 186). Inhis ambitious attempt to wed, however schizophrenically, history and thenovel,cosmic vision and politics, prophecy and personal comment, Mailer resortsto a form that Sacvan Bercovitch has written about as "the American Jeremiad." The American jeremiad, according to Bercovitch, is rooted in earlyNewEngland sermonizing and electioneering, where it began to function asafusion (often self-contradictory) of sacred Christian mission and secular Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 1986, 317-326 318 Maurice A. Mierau ambition. He describes Mailer's book in terms of the jeremiad's characteristic self-contradictions, seeing Armies as "a self-enclosed bipolar vision," which makes it something of what he terms the "anti-jeremiad," or "the denunciation of all ideals, sacred and secular, on the grounds that America is a lie."4 Of course, there isa fundamental ambiguity, if not contradiction, in this definition since no one who gets worked up enough to write or deliver a jeremiad i~ utterly without idealism or hope. Mailer's novel is a bravura exercise on this ambiguous ground, and the political (non)implications of this exercise need to be pursued. The double-edgedness of the American jeremiad finds its great locus,writes Bercovitch, in American literature: "American writers have tended to see themselves as outcasts and isolates, prophets crying in the wilderness. So they have been, as a rule: American Jeremiahs, simultaneously lamentinga declension and celebrating a national dream. Their major works are the most striking testimony we have to the power and reach of the American jeremiad" (p. 180). This double movement of the jeremiad, "lamenting" and "celebrating," is very close to Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the medieval carnival, or the carnivalesque, which both parodies official norms and religious formulas and functions as a renewing mechanism for the whole community. This conjunction between the jeremiad and the carnivalesque is important in that it provides a powerful tool for interpreting American literary and cultural history. Bercovitch, for example, observes that "The American Puritan jeremiad was the ritual of a culture on an errand-which is to say, a culture based on a faith in process. Substituting teleology for hierarchy, it discarded the Old World ideal of stasis for a New World vision of the future" (p. 23). Given this definition of the jeremiad in the New World, it is not at all far· fetched to say that Bercovitch sees the New World as a carnivalesque onein the Bakhtinian sense, for Bakhtin defines the carnivalesque as follows:''As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed" (p. 10). In other words, the carnivalesque and marketplace forms of expression of the classical medieval period were at base anti-European just as, in Bercovitch's formulation, was the Puritan errand. The belief...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 317-326
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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