Norman Mailer on Word for Word

I listened to this Feb. 2007 interview with Norman Mailer on APR’s Word for Word, re-broadcast on my local public radio station at the end of November.

I’ve been thinking since about two things in particular that Mailer said, among his many cogent comments; they concern a brief comparison of the evil of Hitler and Stalin and a brief comparison of the usefulness of fact and fiction. Interestingly, both Stalin and this fact/fiction dance are ongoing motifs in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which I read last week:

The first comment of Mailer’s was in response to a question about why Hitler (the subject of Mailer’s last book) is “considered almost uniquely representative of evil”:

“He murdered millions of people — by category. His competitor in evil was Joseph Stalin, … and Stalin was also a monster, but he was a human monster that we can comprehend. He was a very hard, cruel, determined man who was determined to win at all costs, and he saw his enemy as someone to be destroyed —  but he was killing his enemy. The difference is Hitler was creating an enemy that was not an enemy but he had chosen to make them an enemy. So it was a much more cowardly sort of mass murder. Not that I’m defending either variety of mass murder, but Hitler’s was a far worse variety of mass murder than Stalin’s. And after Stalin and Hitler I don’t know who you’re going to compare them to. I mean, it’s a joke to talk about Sadaam Hussein in the same sentence as Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin.”

I’ve been thinking about what Mailer is getting at when he says that Hitler’s actions were worse because he “created an enemy” where there was none. Is Hitler’s evil greater because it was strategic? Certainly Stalin’s killing of his own people was strategic, in a short-term way, to protect himself from nay-sayers, and those he killed by sending them in unprepared droves to fight were also killed for his own strategic purposes, i.e., he saw them as an expendable force to mow down his enemy.

And it seems to me that perhaps Hitler considered Jews, gays, gypsies, the disabled, and other ‘flawed’ people (by his standards) his natural enemies, or certainly natural enemies of the Fatherland. Did he really ‘create’ them? It may seem like that to us, but to Hitler it may have seemed like the ‘right’ thing to do, not some manufactured rationale for killing categories of people.

Also, haven’t other mass murderers killed by category, even if the categories consisted of ethnic groups they considered enemies for one reason or another?

The second comment Mailer made concerned the way facts distort reality while fiction can help us understand it (I thought about that often when I was reading The Golden Notebook, where it seems that Anna came to the same conclusion):

“Novels, precisely because they’re not factual, enable us to understand our existence better than factual books, because facts are always skewed. The more one deals with facts, the more one discovers that any given fact you have at any given moment is slightly warped, at best; and we tend to build our understanding of matters on collections of facts that don’t even necessarily associate well with each another, but we’ve absorbed the facts. … Facts distort reality, whereas a novelist, working alone, can very often come up with a notion of existence that doesn’t have to be accurate, certainly doesn’t have to be factual, but it can create a creature, a psychic creature is created, that can pass over to other people, and improve their brain, so that they begin to see reality in more interesting ways, and they begin to have a deeper sense of what their notion of reality might be. The point of the novel is to open conscious for people, which facts don’t always do; facts often close up consciousness, in that when we argue, we say, ‘Well, look at what the facts are.’ In other words, I’m not interested in opening your consciousness at that point, I’m interested in winning the argument.”

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