The Individual and Sex in Dystopia
Themes of sexuality in Mailer’s “The White Negro” and The American Dream
“The White Negro” by Norman Mailer explores the quest for individuality among white males during the post-World War II era. WWII brought several major issues to the forefront such as racial segregation of soldiers, soldier death in the trenches, and death by concentration camp or nuclear weapon radiation. Individuals during this period bought houses and cars on credit in search of the promised “utopia” that would follow the post war years.
The Second World War presented a mirror to the human condition which blinded anyone who looked into it. For if tens of millions were killed in concentration camps out of the inexorable agonies and contractions of super-states . . . one was then obliged also to see that no matter how crippled and perverted an image of man was the society he had created, it was nonetheless his… collective creation… and if society was so murderous, then who could ignore the most hideous of questions about his own nature? (“White Negro”)
At the beginning of the essay, Mailer explores the psychic havoc caused by the suppressed knowledge that we are all doomed to die, and while this should have preserved the individual, it instead caused extreme conformity(“White Negro”). To be an individual meant to put oneself in harm’s way, and those who dared to be different were viewed as “outlaws” or “thugs”. To reject conventional ideas, the hipster emerged.
Mailer’s hipster was considered an outlaw, refusing submission, and as a result, they could only function on the outskirts of society. Theoretically speaking, the hipster shot American society a proverbial bird and ran like hell. Mailer praises the white negro as a “philosophical psychopath”, whose role it was to test the fear-soaked conformity of the time by rejecting “that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness.” The white negro searched for individualism through drugs, sex, and violence in quest for a personal utopia. Mailer was convinced that the only way for the white male to break free from society was to adopt the Black American culture (Burke).
Mailer added violence into the equation for its potential to transform the individual. The logic in the idea stems back through generations of racial violence and tension experienced by the black community.
“Mailer had a continuing theory that living close to violence, the kind of violence that is an intractable of your race’s metaphysical being, was an entry to spectacular influxes of new perception and awareness that dismantles the many veils of false consciousness” (Burke).
Rabkin connects sexuality with dystopia, stating:
We all know, from personal experience and as the myths remind us, that sexuality and the knowledge of good and evil are destabilizing phenomena. The writers of utopian literature know this as well, and whether they are pointing up a bright future or a dismal one, they know they must deal with the power of sex and they often remind us of the paradise that sex once cost us. (3)
In The American Dream, Stephen Rojack becomes the hipster described in “The White Negro.” In his search for individuality, Rojack partakes in murder, sex, violence, and in doing so, he breaks away from the conformity of society.
In “The White Negro,”Mailer states:
This is the terror of the hipster — to be beat — because once the sweet of sex has deserted him, he still cannot give up the search. It is not granted to the hipster to grow old gracefully — he has been captured too early by the oldest dream of power, the gold fountain of Ponce de Leon, the fountain of youth where the gold is in the orgasm (4).
Rojack is the epitome of the hipster, finding himself while on a path to destruction. However, the American dream of deluxe apartment buildings and lavish living is not the harsh reality that awaits Rojack. His frantic search for freedom comes across as a lost man who is confused and alone. He uses pursuit of sex as a tool for individual freedom, and sex stands as Rojack’s escape from the dystopia in which he exists.
However, in other dystopian works, sex acts as the cause of dystopia and not the escape. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood places the reader in a dystopian society caused by sexual suppression. Offred is a handmaiden who has no power over her body, and her only purpose is to bear children with no control over the process. Offred is forced to relinquish control of her body for the good of the state.
In Zamyatin’s “We,” sex costs D-503 peace of mind after the start of a lusty relationship with I-330 changes his world into a dystopia.