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Critical Review by Robert Gorham Davis
SOURCE: "Excess without End," in The New Leader, May 16, 1983, pp. 14-16.
In the following review, Davis offers a generally unfavorable assessment of Ancient Evenings. Though acknowledging the novel's "virtuosity and inventiveness," Davis finds shortcomings in Mailer's uninspired ideas and fascination with debauchery and violence.
This is a work of staggering ambition, far exceeding in inventiveness and scope anything Mailer has attempted before. Several reviewers have supported—and then backed away from—the publisher's claim that it is one of the major novels of the 20th century. On that level the obvious comparison is with Thomas Mann's vast tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers. As efforts of the archaeological imagination trying to recreate the world of the Pharaohs they are strikingly similar; by standards of maturity of thought and humane social concern there is no comparison at all.
Thomas Mann's Joseph rose from the pit where his brothers cast him to become chief adviser to the Pharaoh. He did it all on his own, through beauty, prudence and skill as a diviner of dreams. Joseph used his great powers for the good of the people, in ways that showed how Mann was stimulated by Roosevelt's New Deal. (The novel was completed in this country in 1943.)
Mann's Pharaoh is the reformer Akhenaton, husband of the beauteous Nefertiti, who tried to impose monotheism on the Egypt of a thousand gods. His hymn to the sun turns up as the 104th Psalm in the Old Testament. (Moses and Monotheism, Freud's most heretical work, makes Moses an Egyptian disciple of Akhenaton and Judaism their joint product.)
Egypt's magnificence, so alien, so remote, and yet still there to be seen, has always attracted inventive minds. Herodotus attributed to the ancient Egyptians—probably falsely—the belief in incarnation that Mailer finds especially attractive. And if the Egyptians did not believe in some of Mailer's wackier physiological notions, this can be imagined.
Mailer deals briefly with Moses, but for monotheism he has no use. Ancient Evenings abounds in gods who experience outrageous combats, violent sex and painful animal transformations, difficult for humans to match. In a dusty, stinking pillaged tomb, Menenhetet I vividly describes the wilder antics of these gods to his great-grandson Menenhetet II, who has just consciously suffered his own embalming. "I was in the most peculiar situation," Menenhetet I says. He had died much earlier, after his fourth incarnation, and could keep his ka alive in the ruined tomb only by eating the embalmed organs of very early Pharaohs.
The principal part of Ancient Evenings, 400-500 pages, takes place while both Menenhetets are alive. At a select dinner party, on the Night of the Pig when everyone is supposed to tell the truth, no matter how scandalous or physically disgusting, Menenhetet I, in his fourth incarnation, describes in enormous detail his adventures during the first. Present are his granddaughter Hathfertiti; her husband, cosmetician to the Pharaoh, a man of no account whose "sly smell" entices her; the Pharaoh himself, the host, who is thinking of making Menenhetet Grand Vizier; and Menenhetet II, now a frighteningly precocious boy of six.
Menehetet had had sex with his granddaughter when she was a child, and her son is to have sex with her when he is a man. That incest was practiced openly among noble Egyptians is one of their appeals for Mailer. Nothing is Freudian in this novel, for nothing is repressed. During the dinner the Pharaoh and Hathfertiti retire to make love. In young Menenhetet's sleepy consciousness as he listens to his great-grandfather's tale are states of awareness that go beyond anything ever attempted in literature before. The boy's telepathic powers let him know what his father is thinking, what his great-grandfather is remembering but not telling, even the thoughts that come to his great-grandfather from other incarnations. He not only knows what his mother and the Pharaoh are doing, but senses it physically in a body already awakened by the ministrations of his nurse.
Mailer is an élitist, an admirer of strength. He has always been fascinated by publicity and power, by the bodies of prize fighters and celebrated beauties like Marilyn Monroe—the latter attracting men of power who can make love to each other through women. In Presidential Papers, Mailer set out to be a councilor, a diviner of dreams for John F. Kennedy as Joseph was for Akhenaton.
Mailer's Pharaoh is Ramses II, best known of the Pharaohs because he erected great self-glorifying statues and temples all over Egypt. The battle of Kadesh is the best known of ancient battles because Ramses covered temple walls with graphic and verbal accounts of it, exaggerating impossibly his exploits. He told how he took on the powers of two different gods and single-handedly drove to destruction 2,500 Hittite chariots. In Ancient Evenings, Menenhetet I is by his side.
Born of the basest peasant stock, Menenhetet rises by his skill as a charioteer to become chief companion, confidant and love object of Ramses II, who has a true taste for "the buttocks of brave men." Ancient Evenings is a hymn to anality. One of its obsessions is homosexual rape, so much a part of the nightmare life of prisons. Menenhetet still loves the Pharaoh, but feels unmanned by him. You can bugger (Menenhetet has done it a hundred times) but not be buggered. He dreams thereafter of revenge.
The battle of Kadesh, the centerpiece of the book, is sheer horror. On the battlefield carnage by day gives way to orgy at night among and even with the dead. But Menenhetet glories in it. A man is not quite a man until he has killed.
After Kadesh, alienated from the Pharaoh, Menenhetet is sent off to take charge of a Libyan gold mine where slaves are worked and whipped to death. There he meets a Hebrew who has learned from Moses an un-Biblical secret—basic to the novel—of how to reincarnate yourself by managing to die or be murdered at the moment of orgasm. As for the Exodus: some forced laborers kill their guards and flee the country under the leadership of Moses—no 10 plagues, no killing of the first-born, no parting of the Red Sea. Here Mailer distinguishes himself sharply from Thomas Mann, who drew so fully on the familiar patriarchal narratives, on the Christianity they foreshadowed, and on the 19th century thought from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche that they evoked.
Implausibly, Menenhetet is brought back to run the Pharaoh's harem and, more implausibly, is subsequently made custodian-companion first to Ramses' sister and Queen, Nefertiri, then to his second Queen, the Hittite princess, Rama-Nefru. All three responsibilities Menenhetet betrays. With a fat sorceress in the harem and with the two queens he reaches peaks of differentiated ecstasy it takes a Mailer to describe.
Menenhetet is both prisoner and warden of sex. Except for a little dabbling in magic, he has nothing else to think about or do, and so we are given, for pages and pages and pages, unrelieved, breathless descriptions of the polymorphous, inexhaustible sex that is now so repetitively obligatory in American novels. Menenhetet even has to attend the Pharaoh's love-making and hold his hand while it is going on.
It is in the cruel, macho homosexual passages, however, that Mailer aggressively carries to a defiant extreme the qualities that have troubled his admirers ever since American Dream and "The White Negro." When Menenhetet is on a secret mission to Tyre he sees two men in the woods, thieves probably, but no threat to him, for they do not notice him. He approaches them smiling and gratuitously, swiftly, kills one with his sword, "with a bliss he had never known even with his Pharaoh." The other he stuns with a rock, and beats until "he was soft like a steak that is pounded." Then Menenhetet sodomizes his half-dead victim repeatedly until he feels he has worked out of his own system the evil deposited in it by the Pharaoh.
Mailer's gloating over cruelty in Ancient Evenings is not new, nor are his regressively unscientific ideas about the body. We did not have to go to ancient Egypt for them. He has expounded in interviews his thoughts about bodily secretions and discharges and what happens psychically when they are traded back and forth among human and animal bodies.
In Ancient Evenings some of Mailer's worst notions get the fullest treatment. This is often done with great ingenuity, but sometimes it is in the spirit of the fat boy in Dickens who wanted to make our flesh creep—or our throats gag. The novel indulges in great play with severed nipples, severed hands, a severed toe. And of course with shit. Menenhetet is an eater of bat dung, for sound mystical reasons; one of the other characters has amassed a fortune collecting and marketing shit.
Despite its virtuosity and inventiveness and the sheer hard work behind it, Ancient Evenings is inferior in two respects to the major novels with which it might be compared. The first has to do with its ideas. Many of them simply do not bear thinking about; they are the stock in trade of fakirs and mass cultists, yet have some murky role in Mailer's creative unconscious, presumably a necessary one, for he is too intelligent to entertain them otherwise.
The second respect is formal and stylistic. In Why Are We in Vietnam, where he had many of the same obsessions, Mailer invented a style entirely appropriate to them. It was artificial, yet compounded of exactly the right American speech and allusion. How could the equivalent be found for two Egyptians of the 13th century B.C.E.? Mailer does not really try. In the whole book there is hardly a distinctive phrase or metaphor, an unexpected choice of words. Some of the sentences, apart from their content, could have come from a historical novel in the period of Lew Wallace or Bulwer-Lytton. Even on the Night of the Pig, Menenhetet should have been embarrassed to report that Queen Nefertiri could say to her peasant lover, "Oh how I adore how dreadful you are. Did you visit the Royal Stables? Did you rub the foam of a stallion on your little beauty?"
In the Paris Review Mailer once said that civilization is as bad as it is because we are "afraid of violence, cannibalism, loneliness, insanity, libidinousness, hell, perversion and mess … states which must in some way be passed through, digested, transcended, if one is to make one's way back to life." Mailer has passed through them again and again in his works with mounting intensity, but no sign of transcendence.
The word "transcendence" does appear, though, on the last page of Ancient Evenings. It has led Harold Bloom, in a kind of rescue operation in the New York Review of Books, citing Emerson, to place Mailer in an American Gnostic tradition.
Climbing the ladder in the afterworld, Menenhetet hears the scream of earth exploding but sees radiance at the center of a pain such as never was previously felt. He wonders if Osiris, who gives strength more credit than purity or goodness, may not still put him to serving "some useful purpose I cannot name."
These closing two pages are preceded by over 700 abandoned to betrayal, gloating cruelty, and the immediate gratification of every impulse at whatever cost to others. Is it more than an easy out, a rhetorical flourish, to flash a light and speak of transcendence when there has been heretofore not a hint of what a noble purpose might be or how it is achieved—especially when one obvious noble purpose is to try to prevent that very explosion of the earth?
This section contains 1,918 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)