I have been reading a broadly respectful press about Norman Mailer's new novel 'The Castle in the Forest'. I haven't read it and almost certainly will not do so but there are things that I have read and heard that make me uneasy.
Mailer has a way with sweeping and alarming statements. His Hobbesian view of Iraq was exposed on a Radio 4 interview with Mark Lawson when he said that democracy could not be imposed by force as Iraqis did not want it. And how about this from an interview with Robert McCrum in the Guardian, 'the real damage Hitler did to the Jews, after killing six million, was to wreck the minds of the survivors. Before Hitler, the Jewish mind was more inquiring and much more elegant.' What on earth does that mean?
The real problem though is the way he describes his novel; it is about Hitler's father and his childhood. In the Guardian article he is quoted as saying that Hitler 'was an order of evil that can't be understood'. The historian in me bristles given the extensive research that is swept away by this seemingly casual remark. However, the Radio 4 interview made it clear that the theme of the book, diabolic intervention, is not a literary device or a metaphor, he is being literal. He appeared to argue that you can only understand Hitler by seeing him as an agent of the Devil. He sacralises Hitler as a satanic force for evil.
In fact, the whole point about anti-totalitarianism is that it recognises that there is a distinct and recognisable political and historical phenomenon, totalitarianism, which is not unique or supernatural. It is human, secular and malignant. It has to be recognised and opposed and it neither started nor ended with Hitler. By refusing to countenance a supernatural explanation, by rendering totalitarianism human, it makes resistance possible and practical. I do not think that Mailer is helping the cause, however fine the novel may be as a work of art.
Follow Will's link for a wonderful review. It describes the book as 'nearly five hundred of the most revolting pages in recent American fiction'.
The conclusion is spot on 'What is most vexing about such diabolical fatalism is that by foisting responsibility for man's evil onto an army of devils, Mailer effectively strips humanity of its moral agency, and thus of its ability ever to inhabit fully the deepest mysteries of the heart. If the last sixty years of meditation on Hitler's character have taught us anything, it is surely that the Nazis were neither gods nor demons, but finally all too human, and that is the most terrifying thing of all'.