For a man whose long, literary life has been built on a keen critical stance toward American culture, Norman Mailer is at pains to point out that this attitude is quite different from what he sees as the easy cynicism of today.
"Cynicism has a limited value," says the cultural icon, who is featured in PBS's "American Masters" series (Wednesday, Oct. 4, 10-11 p.m.) during its 15th anniversary season.
"It's good for quick results," adds the Pulitzer Prize winner who has helped to define a century of American culture through his prodigious novelistic output.
PBS launched this pioneer biography series in 1986. Since then, the on-air profile format has been copied but never duplicated. Mailer appears in the second show of this season in sharp form, full of careful observations about the state of American culture.
"Good, available writing almost always is funny and sharp and biting and cynicism is perfect for that. But cynicism is really a roadblock to becoming a bit of a philosopher." That mental attitude is the key to truly good writing, he adds. "It's impossible to become that really good novelist without, in a sense, developing a philosophical search in the course of your life."
Never one to lack an opinion, Mailer suggests this willingness to search is the key to mental clarity. Once a writer has stepped back sufficiently to cultivate that philosophical attitude, "you have more and more and more to say, one way or another, usually better, not directly, but in one way or another about what you think is the nature of the universe, the nature of life, the nature of human effort." Cynicism corrodes that ability, he says.
"It can poison your highest faculties," says the novelist, who adds that he is not above appreciating a sharply observed satire.
"I'll delight in cynicism that's sharp and good and to the point, but it's not what I really am interested ultimately in writing about. It's funny, it's too easy, and gets in the way of doing more."
In a Monitor interview earlier this summer, he said that Americans have always been wary of their nation's intellectuals. This particularly weighs on his thoughts in an election year when he says the country ought to be engaged in a national debate about vital issues. Instead, he suggests, what we are seeing tells us much about our own intellectual maturity.
"This culture is distrustful of intellectuals," says Mailer.
"In Europe, everything matters, and they say it with great passion. Here, you can say anything you want, but it doesn't matter." Nobody is paying attention, he says.
Television is partly to blame for this shared culture of "intellectual lite." "People want an easy read," he says in describing the lack of interest in serious writing today.
"Of all the art forms, television probably makes the least demand on the audience, and particularly, since if you're in the theater and you're seeing something you don't like, it's a serious social matter to get up in the middle of it and walk out. But there's nothing on television and you can turn off anything. In fact, probably half the people who watch television today go in channel surfing."
Including, apparently, the word maestro himself.
"I must confess it's my favorite vice," he says with only the tiniest guilty laugh. "I love the idea of watching something on television until the moment when I figure out what's going on, and then I switch to the next show."
The only programming that holds his attention must have the element of genuine improvisation. "The only shows I really watch for a long time are the animal shows, because those are the only ones where I don't know what's going on."
Life is not as pleasurable for writers today, he admits. Mass culture has turned away from the written word. Some 50 years ago, when he was starting out, it was a different story. "We had a much better time back then, because there was nothing more glamorous, more exciting, than the notion of being a major novelist...."
Today, young artists gravitate to film, he says, adding that he understands this shift completely.
"There isn't that sense that you're entering an honored and powerful and difficult and exciting profession," he says. "I sometimes think that if I started today, that I might be much more interested in being a screenwriter with the idea of becoming a movie director."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society