Mailer on the '70s—Decade of "Image, Skin Flicks and Porn"

Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for The Armies of the Night.

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This story originally appeared in the December 10, 1979, issue of U.S.News & World Report.

"Curiosity must attach itself to something"

The '70s was the decade in which people put emphasis on the skin, on the surface, rather than on the root of things. It was the decade in which image became preeminent because nothing deeper was going on. If there is nothing happening in the depths, then people pay a great deal of attention to the surface. The human energy that is grounded in curiosity must attach itself to something. If nothing is going on down below, we will look very carefully at the skin of things. That is why skin flicks and pornographic magazines have been so successful.

Carter: "Not philosophical" can mean "dangerous"

Leaders today are much less philosophically oriented than they used to be. They lack the sense that there is a world beneath the world of appearances. To be philosophical, you need to have some sense of responsibility to matters other than the immediate social problems before you. You need to see what you do in perspective against a historical framework or social setting rather than just as a technician who is tightening nuts and changing gaskets.

A leader who does not have some philosophical turn of mind is a dangerous leader. If there is anything dangerous about Jimmy Carter, it's that he is not a philosopher. But everything in the scheme of things today tends to destroy what little philosophical potential a leader has. You can't be very philosophical if the most exciting event in your day is to get the news out for the evening TV shows. What does that—finally—have to do with anything?

Journalism's "psychopathic appetite"

The press is like a doctor who gives you too many injections. It is a bad physician who won't let the patient arrive at anything by himself. I'm terribly cynical about the way the press works. I know enough about writing to be pretty certain that very often you can't find a story even after months of the hardest work. You can't be too certain about what happened. So I believe there is a fundamental irresponsibility in the very act of journalism. The idea that news can be reported on the same day it happened has something monstrous about it.

There is an appetite in journalism for immediate satisfaction. When we find that appetite in an adult, we call it psychopathic; we say that anyone who can't wait for satisfaction is unbalanced. Yet when it comes to journalism, we insist that we get our news immediately. That has to destroy all sorts of careful social processes: It makes people who are engaged in these processes more secretive than ever; it institutionalizes paranoia in government behavior.

Superhighways vs. "spiritual well-being"

There is something about technology that is insidious, debilitating and depressing. But the worst things technology does are so subtle that if one fulminates against it, one is in danger of always sounding hysterical. No one in power seems to have any political concept that can deal with the impact technology is having on our spiritual well-being. It is hard to conceive of a responsible politician getting up in Congress and saying: "There may be something fundamentally wrong with superhighways. They may be deadening to the human spirit." If anyone spoke that way, his qualifications for office would be questioned.

Yet there's a profound question about whether the superhighway makes any sense whatsoever. It's the most disagreeable way to pass through a landscape. You've also got the totally disagreeable experience of traveling at 55 and 65 miles per hour on a road designed for cars moving at 70 and 80.

The sense of adventure we're deprived of by traveling on a superhighway, the sense of satisfaction one gets from navigating by a road map and figuring out how to make three or four highway changes—these small demands and stimulations have been removed. All this saps the spirit slightly.

"Totalitarianism is natural for technology"

Totalitarianism is the natural form of government for technology. Technology prides itself on making immense moves, in performing feats.