It was really just one small moment in an entire life: in 1960, Norman Mailer had a drunken, stoned argument with his then-wife Adele Morales at a party, and he stabbed her. The knife in question was a rusty two-and-a-half-inch penknife, and the wound very nearly killed her. It also put Mailer into Bellevue for several days, but Morales refused to press charges and he was eventually released. Yet at the time, it seems, everyone felt it was Morales who ought to have behaved better. Even a reflective Mailer, years later, told New York magazine that his literary friends “closed ranks” behind him. “I guess that once you bring a violent man to a party, people are generally polite to him,” he added.
Well, indeed, people have been polite about this in Mailer’s case for going on a half-century now. This week, in the New Yorker, Louis Menand hops on one foot around it. He does chastise the author of a new Mailer biography for not giving Adele’s side of the story, or really any woman’s side of the Norman Mailer story, for that matter. But when it comes to the more uncomfortable subject of how everyone else treated the stabbing, Menand retreats somewhat, reporting the reactions of others without his own analysis:
In the literary world, the act was interpreted by the lights of the modernist myth of the artist. James Baldwin, no admirer of “The White Negro,” [one of Mailer’s most controversial essays, which is really saying something] explained that, by trying to kill his wife, Mailer was hoping to rescue the writer in himself from the spiritual prison he had created with his fantasies of becoming a politician: “It is like burning down the house in order, at last, to be free of it.” Lionel Trilling told his wife, Diana, that the stabbing was, in her words, “a Dostoevskyan ploy”: Mailer was testing the limits of evil in himself.
This sort of post-hoc aesthetic theorizing has always bothered me. First of all, whatever else is true, it seems clear that Mailer’s own explanation for this act was that it was largely an impulse. Yes, he gave a bizarre interview, days after the stabbing, declaring that, “My pride is that I can explore areas of experience that other men are afraid of. I insist that I am sane.” But he also, towards the end of his life, expressed actual regret about it:
It changed everything in my life. It is the one act I can look back on and regret for the rest of my life. And it happened out of the way I was living. There’s no question about that. What happened is I was getting into more and more of a violent edge.
The two statements are not entirely incompatible, “a violent edge” potentially being “an area of experience that other men are afraid of.” But that Mailer seems to have (eventually) recognized the wrongness of it all suggests that it was, in some way, a curtailment of the freedom he was prone to banging on about in those long essays. It changed who he was. And yes, Mailer’s violence may have acquired a certain symbolic character ex post facto, partly because his public persona was so tied up with bombast and machismo. But it was wrong, was always wrong, to suggest that just because you could offer a flowery interpretation of the stabbing, any discussion of its meaning needed to end there. As for Mailer, the meaning evolved over the years. Nowadays we should be able to state unequivocally that it was a pretty big stain on whatever reputation you choose to ascribe to him. It was a thing he did, “the only thing,” as he said, that he regretted. Reducing it to triviality or irrelevance would be to ignore his own statements on its importance in his life, among other things.
Of course, some people will say condemning Mailer for the act of stabbing his wife is too harsh, ignores all his wonderful writing. In this is a curious belief that writing has or should have the power of absolution, a belief that many writers would themselves dispute. (No one feels very forgiven by producing even the most brilliant draft of a novel.) But look: I think we can all be reasonably said to agree that people ought not to pick up knives and stab their spouses, full stop. This is true no matter the alcohol content of their blood nor the particular epithets anyone, the spouse included, was screaming at the knife-wielder at the time. There is good reason to be completely and utterly rigid on this point. Granting that life is complicated (and marriage perhaps more so) in fact strengthens the need to have a hard-and-fast rule on the idea that stabbing someone else is a horrible, life-defining event. It’s just that sort of paradox, after all, that all the greatest writers are able to recognize.