“The psychopath knows instinctively that to express a forbidden impulse is far more beneficial to him than merely to confess the desire in the safety of a doctor’s room.”The dream of the psychopath is that he seeks love. Not love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it. Orgasm is his therapy."
—Norman Mailer, “The White Negro,” 1957
Norman Mailer was among those who did not find the sweetness and light of the Fifties to his liking. He declared that “creeping totalitarianism” in America amounted to “slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled.” Morris Dickstein, a historian of the Sixties (1977), calls Mailer’s psychopathic hero
a bomb that explodes beneath the bland surface of the Fifties, constructed out of all its repressed violence and rebelliousness, the longing for personal autonomy and extreme experience that could not be satisfied by respectability, maturity and competitive success.
This Chapter presents the prophetic ideas of Norman Mailer, who expanded upon Reich’s notion of the liberating potential of orgasm. The “hipster” or “white Negro,” according to Mailer, was a newly emerging American type who “lived by his senses and sought kicks and adventure in the urban night.”
Mailer and “beat” writers like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac put forth a critique of the American middle-class character: the “square.” Steven Marcus (1966) said that the middle-class character was involved in “an immense effort of self-discipline and self-denial, the ability to learn how to defer gratification indefinitely and to persist in the deferral.” For some, this ascetic approach to life no longer made sense.
Ginsberg in 1959 sensed a “crack in the mass-consciousness of America—a sudden emergence of insight into a vast national subconscious netherworld." He wrote: “America is having a nervous breakdown.” Kerouac defined the Beat Generation as a “swinging group of new American men intent on joy.”
This Chapter explores the birth of this revolutionary impulse in the late Fifties, showing how it was the source of the Sixties counterculture, generating a “breakdown” in traditional American morality.
According to Mailer, the essence of “hip morality” was the “divorce of man from his values, the liberation of the self from the Super-Ego of society.” To be hip was to “do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible.” An analysis of the Beats found that writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso shared the same “dissatisfaction with conventional American life, its obsessive sense of responsibility, its monolithic conformity.”
Evil was defined in terms of whatever inhibited experience or “impinges on the spontaneity of the individual soul.” Beat Philosophy was “a brand of hedonism” that reduced to “the psychology of self-expression, an attempt to murder the super-ego and liberate the id, a desire to break out of the traditional forms for living, to rediscover the innocence of the natural man who lives by instinct rather than by reason.”
This Chapter shows how the ideas of Mailer and the Beats represented the first substantial challenge to the “American way of life.” They generated rebellion against society by believing—with Freud and Reich—that “civilization” was a source of discontent—inhibiting spontaneity, sexual desire and joy.
The “struggle against the super-ego”—against conventional morality—was to become a central theme of the Sixties. Mailer set the terms of the struggle: “One is Hip, or one is Square, one is a rebel, or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society.”
Psychoanalysts use the term “acting out” to describe a patient who acts upon his impulses and desires rather than examining and suppressing them. Moreover, the bellwether of the “middle-class character” had always been “postpone of gratification;” to modulate and control one’s impulses in expectation of future rewards.
Mailer set himself in opposition to these tenets, idealizing the psychopath—one who was strong enough to act upon his impulses rather than to suppress them.
What occurred was a “transvaluation of values:” What had been “good,” the capacity to control one’s impulses and to postpone gratification, came to be perceived as a sign of weakness; an inability to experience and express desire.
The “square,” or “well-respected man” (title of a song by the Kinks) came to be viewed as a person who blindly followed society’s norms; was obedient, dull and lifeless. Whereas one who was “hip” did not take the moral norms of society so seriously. The hip individual was in tune with his inner desires—particularly sexual ones—and not afraid to act upon them.
Whereas the patient in psychoanalysis was expected to examine his fantasies, Mailer’s psychopath was difficult to psychoanalyze because the “fundamental decision of his nature” is to try to “live the infantile fantasy.” This Chapter explores Mailer’s prophecy that the psychopath might indeed be the “perverse and dangerous fore-runner of a new kind of personality which could become the central expression of human nature before the Twentieth Century is over.”
We examine the psychological process whereby what once was furtive, hidden, mysterious, and suppressed—came to be articulated and enacted in society. Themes of rape, sexual abuse, homosexuality, sadism, and masochism now are common themes of public life.
How did this transformation come about? The world of the Fifties was governed by ideas such as self-control, postponement of gratification, and inhibition. Why did these ideas go out of fashion? How did the breakdown of middle-class morality come about?
This Chapter shows how Norman Mailer’s idea of the “hipster” became a model for what came next. In advocating the liberation of the self from the “Super-Ego of society,” Mailer was following Freud’s example—attributing human “discontent” to “civilization.”