Norman Mailer & Grotesque Technology

The use of such symbolical grotesques by the sage to provide the climax of argument and satiric attack continues in the twentieth century. Mailer brilliantly creates a modem grotesque in "Some Origins of the Fire" when he describes how he stood in line for almost an hour while waiting for a cold drink in the Florida heat. As he proceeds to describe the inadequacies of mechanical solutions to creature comforts, he indicts his society, for, a true descendant of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold, he perceives and fears the extent to which modem society has become mechanical. He fears this domination of the machine particularly because he perceives that such domination has rendered man himself mechanical and inhumane. Since the main purpose of his history of the first voyage to the moon is to explore the possibilities of human heroism and the human ideal in an age of technology, such a set piece reverberates throughout the volume. Mailer begins by setting the scene: "In back of the Press Site,

more than a hundred radio and TV trailers were now arrayed behind one another in ranks and rows of huge white ruminants, the very sacred cows of American technology. Yet there was only one trailer reserved for food" (91). Admitting that it "was next to heartwarming" to discover a piece of poor planning amid the "icy efficiencies" of NASA, he describes the grotesque results of placing one's faith in machines when it should be placed in men.

The trailer was inadequate to the needs of the Press — over a hundred waited in line, more than a hundred walked away in disgust. The line drifted forward about as fast as a tide works up a beach. The trailer interior consisted of a set of vending machines for chiliburgers, hamburgers, pastries — all people wanted were cold drinks. So the line crawled, while everyone waited for the same machine. Nobody was about to have machine-vended chiliburgers at halfpast eight in the morning.

But so many demands on the iced-drink machine caused malfunctions. Soon, two vending machine workers were helping to service the machine. Still it took forever. Coins had to go into their slot, change be made, cups filled, tot of cracked ice dropped, syrup poured, then soda. Just one machine. It was pure American lunacy. Shoddy technology, the worst kind of American shoddy, was replacing men with machines which did not do the work as well as the men. This crowd of a hundred thirsty reporters could have been handled in three minutes by a couple of countermen at a refreshment stand in a ball park. But there was an insidious desire to replace men everywhere with absurd machines poorly designed and abominably put together; yes, this abominable food vending trailer was the proper opposite number to those smug and complacent VlPs in their stands a half mile away; this was the world they had created, not the spaceship. (91-92)

Thus, what begins as a small-minded complaint about some trivial personal discomfort that the writer has experienced soon metamorphoses into a type, a representative example of underlying laws and rules that can serve as a door to greater understanding. The comical situation quickly changes before our eyes into an emblem of what is wrong with our society. Like Carlyle and his many nineteenth-century heirs, Mailer draws his reader's attention to an apparent triviality which he first reveals to be one 102 of the Signs of the Times and then proceeds to explain. The very metamorphosis of the event into something worthy of consideration and interpretation makes it a device characteristic of the sage. Mailer demonstrates to the reader not only that such apparent trivialities contain essential truths but also that he, Mailer as exegete and bearer of wisdom, is the only one who can perceive them.

Furthermore, Mailer demonstrates that the phenomenon he chooses to present to the reader in all its grotesque significance proves not merely meaningful, not merely something that bears significance. but rather something that stands as a synecdoche of the society as a whole, for according to him the absurd scene, in which two men who could easily serve the one hundred reporters far better and more humanely than any machine, instead serve as acolytes to an inefficient machine, reveals a flaw of American society. It reveals, in other words, the way Americans (or at least Americans in authority) have placed their faith in machines rather than in human beings when such allegiance turns out to be particularly, absurdly, grotesquely inappropriate.

Such an emblem of American reliance upon shoddy technology threatens to demonstrate that the entire attempt to voyage to the moon is equally absurd since it obviously embodies American faith in technology. But Mailer, perhaps to our surprise, given the opening of this book, does not elect to make the soft-drink machine represent the forces that have created the moon shot. No, instead he distinguishes between good and bad technology — between that technology which fails to improve the lives of people and that which serves them. What makes the technology behind the moon voyage so privileged for Mailer, so different from that embodied in the soft-drink machine's grotesque inappropriateness, is simply that it permits people to test themselves, to search for the limits of human capacity — in a phrase, to explore the nature and limits of humanity.

Near the opening of Of a Fire on the Moon, he posed one of the problems the book would survey when he admitted "that he hardly knew whether the Space Program was the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity" (15). When presenting the soft-drink trailer as what I have termed a symbolical grotesque, Mailer aligns the "lunacy" that created this inefficient way to serve human needs with what he finds wrong with America and the modem world but, pointedly, he does not align it with the space program.

Considering this instance of the symbolical grotesque within the context of the entire book, we perceive that Mailer has managed to distinguish two basic forms of American technology and assign value to each. In so doing he also manages to convince us that he has perceived a central fact about America — that he has, in fact, properly perceived and read the Signs of the Times. Further, he convinces us that whatever value he may finally discover in the moon voyage itself will not turn out to be the same as that embodied in shoddy technology. The machine, in other words, takes various forms, not all of which threaten human life.

Joan Didion's Symbolical Grotesques

Like Mailer, Didion chooses particularly grotesque phenomena as Signs of the Times. And like Carlyle, she reveals both the representative and grotesque qualities of a religious figure as part of her knife thrust at the heart of the age. In "James Pike, American" she presents a lapsed Episcopalian bishop as her predecessor presents the amphibious pope — that is, as the embodiment of the grotesque spiritual ills of the age. She finds him, first of all, "a character so ambiguous and driven and revealing of his time and place that his gravestone in the Protestant Cemetery in Jaffa might well have read only JAMES PIKE, AMERICAN" (White Album, 53). Pike Represents to Didion modern amorality, for this once-bishop of California was a man who, she emphasizes, felt himself bound to no oath and no responsibility. For example,

he invented an ecclesiastical annulment to cover his divorce from 'his first wife' Jane, although no such annulment was actually granted. 'In his mind,' his biographers explain, 'the marriage was not merely a mistake, but a nullity in the inception.' In his mind. He needed to believe in the annulment because he wanted to be Bishop of California. [55-56]

Didion relates that she first encountered Pike's approach to life and religion in his pastoral tract If You Marry outside Your Faith, "and I was struck dumb by Bishop Pike's position, which appeared to be that I had 104 not only erred but had every moral right and obligation to erase this error by regarding my marriage as null, and any promises I had made as invalid. In other words the way to go was to forget it and start over" (56). As she concludes, here was a man who believed that the world could be reinvented whenever such would convenience us, a man who felt no responsibility to anything but his present need — and yet (and this is what makes him a Representative Man) who considered himself a spiritual leader.

"Here was a man," Didion marvels, "who moved through life believing that he was entitled to forget it and start over, to shed women when they became difficult and allegiances when they became tedious and simply move on, dismissing those who quibbled as petty and 'judgmental' and generally threatened by his superior and more dynamic view of human possibility" (51). As she concludes, Pike's belief that "the world can be reinvented smells of the Sixties in this country, those years when no one at all seemed to have any memory or mooring" (57-58). Like Carlyle's pope, Didion's bishop embodies the spiritual disease of the age and as such stands forth a pathetically grotesque Sign of the Times.

If her discussion of Bishop Pike reminds us of Carlyle's earlier treatment of George Hudson, a stock swindler he made the subject of one of the Latter-Day Pamphlets, that of the vulgar late nineteenth-century mansions in "The Seacoast of Despair" reminds us of Ruskin's Stones of Venice and "Traffic," in part because Didion repeats the Ruskinian strategy of using a nation's taste as an index to its spiritual state and also because she alludes directly to the Victorian sage.l6 Throughout this brief piece

Such use of individual people as symbolic grotesques appears elsewhere throughout her work. For example, in Slouching towards Bethlehem, she had earlier treated Michael Laski as such a symbolic type in "Comrade Laski C. P. U. S. A. (M.-L.)" and Howard Hughes as one in "7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38." She concludes that we dwell upon Hughes because he reminds us that "the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power's sake . . ., but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy" (71).

Similarly, Tom Wolfe's Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1982) both follow the Ruskinian tradition. The Painted Word, like much of Modern Painters, attacks established critics for blindness and pretentiousness, while From Bauhaus to Our House follows both The Stones of Venice and The Seven Lamps of Architecture. in attacking contemporary architects for incompetence, ignorance of the past, and false professionalism.

Didion points to the meaning and significance of the worship of Mammon. According to Didion, "Newport is the monument of a society in which production was seen as the moral point, the reward if not exactly the end, of the economic process. The place is devoid of the pleasure principle" (White Album, 210). Thus far she makes her points much in the manner of the great Victorian creators of this genre, but when she proceeds to examine the life led within these houses, she makes a woman's criticism of it. She points out that although these lavishly decorated mansions would at first seem to have been the province of women and their very reward for having attained the status of wife to a Captain of Finance and Industry, in fact the very opposite is the case: these are men's houses in which women have only an illusory freedom. Furthermore, "the very houses are men's houses, factories, undermined by tunnels and service railways, shot through with plumbing to collect salt water, tanks to store it, devices to collect rain water, vaults for table silver, equipment inventories of china and crystal and 'Tray cloths — fine' and 'Tray cloths — ordinary"' (212). These mansions are great machines which crush rather than free their occupants. "The mechanics of such houses take precedence over all desires or inclinations; neither for great passions nor for morning whims can the factory be shut down, can production — of luncheons, of masked balls, of marrons glacés — be slowed" (212). Newport turns out to be "homiletic," according to Didion. It turns out to be "a fantastically elaborate stage setting for an American morality play in which money and happiness are presented as antithetical." The builders of these mansions "had apparently dreamed the dream and made it work. And what they did then was to build a place which seems to illustrate, as in a child's primer, that the production ethic led step by step to unhappiness, to restrictiveness, to entrapment in the mechanics of living. In that way the lesson of Bellevue Avenue is more seriously radical than the idea of Brook Farm. Who could fail to read the sermon in the stones of Newport?" (213). Or perhaps we should say, who, now that Didion has instructed us, could fail to find this sermon there?

Tom Wolfe's Put-Together Girl

Comparing the way Tom Wolfe and Germaine Greer turn similar phenomena into symbolical grotesques tells us much about the use of this device of the sage in other related forms of contemporary nonfiction. In The Pump House Gang (1968) and other early writings, Wolfe constructs entire essays — he calls them "stories" in the first sentence of his introduction — upon a single grotesque phenomenon that he makes a Sign of the Times. "The Put-Together Girl," for instance, takes the form of a profile of Carol Doda, a dancer in a San Francisco nightspot who acquired a brief moment of notoriety by having her breasts injected with silicone until they ballooned into a technological parody of female secondary sexual characteristics. Wolfe begins his examination of what happens when one violates nature by describing Doda in a particularly appropriate setting, the stunted urban landscape that both provides the background for her daily life as a nightclub entertainer and also embodies the essential problems of which she is a living emblem.

Wolfe begins, therefore, on San Francisco's Broadway, a section of which contains the city's "skin-show nightclubs, boho caves . . . and 'colorful' bars with names like Burp Hollow. There is one tree on Broadway. It is about three inches in diameter, about 12 feet tall, and has 342 minute leaves on it and a tin anti-urine sleeve around the bottom. Carol Doda was standing under this tree as if it could hide her" while someone tries to get her a cab." She cannot stand out in the street and signal one herself, because "there is no telling what would happen or how many flaming nutballs would stop or — who the hell knows what? — because of 'them,' them being her breasts" (83).

Writing without the magisterial tone and diction of the Victorian sages, Wolfe adopts those of the people he is dissecting and alternates between a fairly formal analytic prose spiced by a few words or terms employed by his subjects and one learned from Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner that he uses to get inside their consciousness, often so he can at the end attack them the more savagely. Wolfe begins his wry consideration of a person who forces us to examine our notions of the limits and definitions of the natural and the human with a snapshot of bleak, starved nature. This ambiguous image of the puny tree clearly represents whatever natural exists in this part of Carol Doda's world: Someone cares enough about preserving a bit of nature to have placed a metal sleeve around the base of its trunk to protect it from dog urine, but that artifact around the base of this starved, pathetic exemplar of nature only emphasizes how little of the natural still exists — and that it is losing the battle for survival — in this world. As Wolfe makes us recognize by the close of "The Put-Together Girl," nature, which Doda has tried to reject, cannot protect her and threatens its revenges upon her. After thus presenting to us an emblematic picture of Carol Doda and her surroundings, Wolfe begins to explain what she has done, why she has done it, what benefits she has received, and what they have cost her — all of which facts together reveal her as someone representative of the modern world and hence as a warning about its dangers. He follows his initial mention of them, her breasts, by cataloguing the adverse effects they have had upon her life: Old Italian women walk by and call her a witch because of them, other women accuse her of being a prostitute because of them, and "grown men wearing rep ties and just emerging from long ... liquid lunches walk by her and grin and aim their fingers at her like needles or guns or something and say, 'Pop! Pop!' — because of them" (84). Even she has begun to think of her artificially enlarged breasts as if they are not a part of her but possessions, things she has acquired that now dominate her existence. They provide her with a living and notoriety, if not fame, but they become the major fact in her relationships with other people, men or women. They have cost her the old easy-going relationship she used to have with her audience when she was just a dancer at the Condor. She can no longer walk in the street or even sleep normally since lying on her stomach or side produces too much discomfort. In return, she has become something of a celebrity — one of San Francisco's resources, mocks Wolfe and she enjoys the fact that crowds line up outside the nightclub to see her. Every night, seven nights a week, she dances standing on a piano as it is lowered to an eagerly awaiting audience, and although she is virtually nude, almost no one notices that fact, they are so eagerly craning their heads and waiting for them. When the piano finally descends, the audience sees the perfect Put-Together Girl, a parodic embodiment of all American tendencies to make something of oneself.

The piano settles down, Carol Doda is on top of it dancing the Swim, the jerk, the Frug, the Jump, the Spasm, the — her face is up above there like a pure white mask, an Easter Egg yellow explosion of hair on top, a pair of eyes with lashes like two sets of military shoe brushes, ice-white lips, two arms writhing around, her whole ilial complex writhing around, but all just a sort of pinwheel rosette for them. Carol Doda's breasts are up there the way one imagines Electra's should have been, two incredible mammiform protrusions, no mere pliable mass of feminine tissues and fats there but living arterial sculpture — viscera spigot — great blown-up aureate morning-glories. (85)

Wolfe's description, which makes his repugnance clear, emphasizes that good old-fashioned animal sexuality has been neither the goal nor the result of Doda's silicone injections. However wrong, however unnatural we might find her transformation, it relates only distantly to sexuality and sexual pleasure. Indeed, her entire performance, nudity and all, contains little of the conventional striptease and remains conspicuously unerotic. As Wolfe points out, "it is not a strip tease, it is no kind of tease, it is an animated cartoon, like the old Tom & Jerry cartoons where Tom, the cat, sees the bulldog coming and about forty-four sets of round white eyes — boing — go springing out of his eye sockets." Her routine has none of the bumps and grinds of the old-time burlesque house, and she seems absolutely unconscious of sexuality as she unsmilingly dances "like any little high school bud from the garden apartment next door at the Saturday-night dance bumping away doing the Monkey under a strawberry Feather Duster coiffure while her mother looks on from the side with a pleasant smile on her face as if to say, Well, yes, Carmen is very social" (86). As Wolfe's sardonic analogy makes clear, he sees Carol Doda as typically American and typically modern in her conventional, unerotic use of the erotic.

In revealing the short distance that separates the high school bud, an ordinary adolescent, from this Put-Together Girl, Wolfe in Carlylean fashion provides a voice for contemporary phenomena, and like Carlyle, he invents an unidentified representative speaker. This voice tells us that Carol Doda's doctor has a long waiting list of women, "not showgirls," who want silicone injections: "Well, why," the voice asks, "should any woman wait — wait for what? — when the difference between dreariness and appeal is just a few centimeters of solid tissue here, a line stretched out there, a little body packing in the old thigh, under the wattles there — or perfect breasts? The philosophy of 'You have only one life to live, why not live it as a blonde?' — that is merely the given" (89). Claiming that even "conservative" New York hardly has left any older women with undyed hair, this California voice asks why people still speak of "'the natural order'? Such an old European idea — one means, well, the wheel violated the natural order, for god's sake; hot and cold running water violated it; wall ovens, spice bars, Reddi-Tap keg beer and Diz-Pos Alls fracture the natural order — what are a few cubic centimeters of silicone?" (89-90). A possible invitation to a visit by deformity or death, it turns out, says Wolfe, but the voice takes no account of such dangers.

This voice, which defends silicone injections as the typical action of a typical American woman, in one sense is the idealized voice and consciousness of Doda herself, but I believe it is better understood as the voice of Modem America, which elevates artificiality above the natural without recognizing its cost. What makes Wolfe's parodic defense of such extensions of technology into our lives devastatingly effective is that he so thoroughly captures all the usual arguments for self-improvement. But what makes it resonate so disturbingly is that however much its colloquialisms and slovenly thinking undercut this defense, it embodies the fundamental assumptions, albeit in vulgarized form, of America and indeed all modern Western industrial democracies. We have the assumption, prevalent in advanced thought since the French Revolution, that nature and the natural set no limits for human beings — only evil societies do that — and therefore we can be anything we wish. The modern faith in technology, which implements such assumptions, has produced antibiotics and wall ovens, modem sanitation and silicone-injected breasts. And although we might be tempted to respond that Wolfe's voice of the age has made a basic error by thus glibly claiming that the wheel, plumbing, and silicone-enhanced breasts are all technological improvements that violate natural order, we find distinguishing among them on these grounds difficult, and Wolfe does not assist us.

Although he does not help us answer these crucial questions about where the proper limits between nature and technological artifice lie, he does, in the manner of the sage, reveal further meaning in "The Put-Together Girl." First, Wolfe makes clear that the germ of this particular technological distortion of the ;human body lies in male attitudes toward women's bodies. Second, he shows that women's willingness to conform to men's attitudes arises, not out of sexual needs, but out of the universal need to acquire stature for oneself. After having the voice defend silicone injections as just another example of modern technological improvement, Wolfe includes a paragraph of straightforward exposition that sets forth some of the obvious physical dangers of these injections, and he points out that women in California and Nevada are nonetheless willing to risk cancer or other as yet unknown illnesses themselves, and they are also willing to risk the health of their teenage daughters "because they aren't developing fast enough to ... compete; well, Carmen is social. And actually it's such a simple thing in a man's world where men have such simple ideas" (90; ellipsis in original). Carol Doda, then, exists in Tom Wolfe's essay as a symptom and a warning — a Sign of the Times — of modem man's pathetic attempts to create importance for himself in the absence of natural and other standards. The specific occasion of the warning is a young woman who has had her breasts enlarged with injections of a silicone compound to make something of herself, and like so many of us, implies Wolfe, she has made something artificial and unnatural of herself. She embodies the dangers of modem technology, the absurd relations between men and women, and the results of a universal drive for status and significance, one that Wolfe apparently finds more influential in a well-fed modem society than those of hunger or sexuality.

Like Carlyle, Wolfe takes apparently trivial contemporary phenomena as his subject and reveals that they provide unexpected ways into a nation's state of mind and soul. Furthermore, like the orthodox sage, he expends considerable energy mocking contemporary destructions of language and explaining what some key words mean, though often from his subject's and not his own point of view. As we shall see in chapter 4, he also acts like those sages who purport to be Masters of Experience, promising to give accounts of phenomena from the inside and thus providing experiential truths otherwise unobtainable to us. At the same time, he is an expert at creating credibility for the seer's voice that dominates his many excursions into the weird and wacky world of the sixties and seventies. Nonetheless, in "The Put-Together Girl" and similar writings Wolfe is not writing as a sage in the manner of Carlyle and Thoreau because his works lack two chief requirements of the genre: Writing as a brilliant satirist, he has no positive program and no final, solacing vision; and furthermore, because he does not have such a positive program, he does not employ the full prophetic pattern. His brilliantly mordant pieces begin by picking up some bit of grotesque contemporary trivia which he then interprets, and although his interpretations contain implicit judgments and warnings for his audience, he neither attacks it directly nor offers a closing visionary promise. Such modifications, extensions, and attenuations of a literary form always mark the later stages of genre development.

Germaine Greer's Put-Together Girl

If Wolfe's represents one possible modem extension or intonation of the genre of the sage, Germaine Greer's use of grotesque technological manipulation of the human body exemplifies how work in other forms of nonfiction can employ symbolical grotesques. At the close of her discussion in The Female Eunuch of the sexual stereotypes that confine women, Greer tells the tale of April Ashley, who was born male but so longed to become a woman that he had an operation to change his sex. "He wanted," she adds, "soft fabrics, jewels, furs, makeup, the love and protection of men" — all those things women typically desire, according to the stereotype. Impotent and not attracted to women, he also did not "particularly welcome homosexual addresses. He did not think of himself as a pervert, or even as a transvestite, but as a woman cruelly transmogrified into manhood.''

He finally found a doctor in Casablanca who proposed a solution acceptable to Ashley: He would remake him into a woman, or something very like a woman, slicing away the unnecessary apparatus and re-engineering it into something more desired. "He was to be castrated, and his penis used as the lining of a surgically constructed cleft, which would be a vagina. He would be infertile, but that has never affected the attribution of femininity." After hormone treatments had removed his beard and produced tiny breasts, April retumed to England, "became a model, and began to illustrate the feminine stereotype as he was perfectly qualified to do, for he was elegant, voluptuous, beautifully groomed, and in love with his own image."

Unfortunately for him (her?), April made the mistake of marrying an heir to a peerage, thus "acting out the highest achievement of the feminine dream, and went to live with him in a villa in Marbella." The marriage was never consummated, and Justice Omerod ruled that April remained in law a member of the male sex.

About this failed attempt to make something of oneself, Greer concludes that April's sexual incompetence as a woman is to be expected from a castrated male, but in fact it does not differ from the impotence of stereotypically "feminine women," who endure sexual relations without experiencing sexual desire. As long, says Greer, as the feminine stereotype "remains the definition of the female sex, April Ashley is a woman, regardless of the legal decision ensuing from her divorce. She is as much a casualty of the sexes as we all are. Disgraced, unsexed April Ashley is our sister and our symbol." Like the Victorian sage, Greer has taken a contemporary phenomenon, in this case an identifiable person, and by looking closely at this person, she has transformed him into a grotesque emblem of woman, a sexual Sign of the Times.

Similarities obviously exist between Greer's treatment of April Ashley and Wolfe's treatment of Carol Doda: Both take as the object of interpretation living human bodies that physicians, using the latest technology, have modified to attract men. Both writers make clear that although these technological reconstructions have made female celebrities of the people involved, the knife and the needle failed to create true sexuality; technology can parody, not create, the natural. Although both authors present suitably chilling descriptions of the procedures involved, they concentrate instead upon the meanings implicit in having chosen to undergo such changes and deformations. Both Greer and Wolfe, in other words, present a person as a grotesque Sign of the Times, an incarnation of the sickness of the age. Both authors emphasize that society dehumanizes women's bodies, and both derive this dehumanization at least in part from the power that men hold over women. Both, finally, employ their satirical grotesques as a means of discussing the nature of power and status in modem life.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that they have many of the same ideas and emphases, they use this technique of the sage for somewhat different literary purposes. Wolfe employs his symbolical grotesque as the stylistic and formal center of "The Put-Together Girl" — it essentially generates his entire essay — whereas Greer uses hers, much as Ruskin often does, to provide a set piece that sums up and extends all the ideas of a chapter. Furthermore, although one can justifiably categorize Wolfe's "Put-Together Girl" and similar essays as new or extended versions of the genre of the sage, one cannot do the same with The Female Eunuch, a work that exemplifies the ways individual devices of this genre have become common property in recent nonfiction. I must emphasize that when I claim one work belongs to the genre of the sage and another does not, I am not making judgments concerning their literary value or even their polemical effectiveness. In fact, in the case of Greer's and Wolfe's Put-Together Girls, I have chosen examples that both work equally well, though in quite different literary and ideological settings. If my hypothesis that defining such a genre makes for better reading of nonfiction proves correct, then I hope it would follow that one can cast light on related literary forms, including the novel, by showing how the sage has made particular techniques popular and available.


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Last modified 14 July 2008