A great review of an interesting book

J. M. Coetzee reviews The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer

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Kevin Schnaper
Kevin Schnaper
17 years ago

Very interesting and well written article. Thank you for pointing it out.

I have seen Mailer twice on US television in the past two days. He was, as usual, fascinating to listen to. And some of Mailer’s onstage remarks about Castle hinted that there was mischeiviousness in the writing itself. The meaning and purpose of which remained opaque throughout his remarks.

Onstage he tended to talk about The Castle in the Forest only breifly in each session, getting caught up in his conception of the devil, seemingly, then spinning out into literary theory and his insights into the character of the American Nation and the “hollowing out of the American culture” by television.

Possibly this is because his audiences seemed to bristle at his onstage theological exegesises. Indeed I believe the religious questions were wholly ignored at question time.

For myself I was disturbed by Mailer’s stated belief in an existent God, which he just as often referred to as “my conception of God.” He seemed to draw no distinction between his conceptions and reality. In effect he was saying, he believes in something he concieves. He made the point that he knew and understood why people would react in befuddlement to these kinds of statements. His defense was he simply couldn’t believe that life held no meaning therefore there must be a God. Does that argument even rise to the level of sophistry?

On a lighter note, at one point Mailer railed against a critic — a “Mediocrity”, in his words — of Castle who had missed his intent entirely in a long newspaper review. Mailer proceeded to correct a few of the critics points, said the review itself was babble, (all without mentioning the critic’s name, unfortunately), and clearly was emotional about it onstage. But then Mailer softened a bit and said in the reviewer’s defense, “But then again, what’s the use of being a mediocre critic if you can’t misread books?”

On the Arendt-Jasper exchange…

I was struck by Arendt’s quick capitulation to the reasoning of Jaspers’s point that “if one claims that Hitler was more than a criminal, one risks ascribing to him the very “satanic greatness” he aspired to.” There seems in this argument the whiff of the metaphysical, which is the very thing Jaspers is rejecting in Arent’s characterization of Hitler in the first place.

Specifically, I find the idea peculiar that Arendt’s and Jaspers’ judgments of Hitler will mean anything to Hitler now that he is dead. They are not depriving Hitler of anything, by refusing to cave into his history-book ambitions. Hitler is in the ground. His ambitions shouldn’t influence in the least perceptions of the reality of what he “achieved”. In that sense Arendt and Jaspers are being led in the argument by Hitler’s almost religious conception of himself and his ambitions, to something like a polar opposite secular metaphysical idea — That history is a real thing in which the dead have a stake.

If they want to reject metaphysics altogether, that’s fine. But to attempt to reject metaphysics with metaphysics seems inconsistent.

Anyhow, great essay by Coetzee.