Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings is a novel that grows in stature as time passes.
On first publication, Ancient Evenings was ridiculed in the popular press. After a decade of work on its near 700 pages, Mailer’s novel seemed both an anomaly and an outrage. That so much effort should be given to a novel that literalised Egyptian mythology and W.B. Yeats’s theosophical interpretations of that same mythology; tying that mythology to Mailer’s own ruminations about death as an existential beginning, the psychic substance of semen, feces and buggery; and finding equivalences between the ancient forces of the Egyptian psyche and contemporary America, was too much. Even today, Mailer’s novel still polarizes, though it has its fierce supportive partisans, of which I am one.
If that wasn’t enough, reviewers who were able to hold their noses in the presence of Mailer’s dialectics of sex and death, the cavalcade of buggery, rape, incest and excrement, were more offended that all this is worked out in a novel that barely has a traditional plot. To summarize briefly: Meni, whom Menenhete relates his narrative through, is dead. He awakens and struggles to gain self-awareness moving uneasily and unreadily through the Land of the Dead. Making the journey difficult is that his ka, one of the nine components of the self, must find a way to reunite with the body. Things only gets worse. Meni discovers that the tomb has been broken into and desecrated. Soon Meni meets his great-grandfather Menenhete, where after having Menenhete’s penis inserted into his mouth, Menenhete begins to recount his exploits, from an ambitious solider to a general fighting against the Hittites with Ramses Usermare II. Things go badly for him soon after as Ramses demotes him after raping him. After he is born again, he becomes a High Priest of Amon. In his second and third lives, he never attains the glory or position he had in his first life. While he does achieve in his fourth life some semblance of his earlier glory and power, Menenhete becomes depressed that he could not bring about the removal of the Pharaoh. He once more succumbs to despair and loneliness. Meni remarks that his great-grandfather never found what he most desired and Mailer’s novel suggest that Menenhete’s psychic burden is what prevents him from having a final death. Meni, it seems, now must take on that enormous burden.
Harold Bloom warned in his passionate and supportive review of the novel that “if you read Ancient Evenings for the story, you will hang yourself. There is a lot less story than any summary would indicate, because this is a book in which every conceivable outrage happens, and yet nothing happens, because at the end everything remains exactly the same.”
Ancient Evenings demands to be read several times to see how Mailer carefully constructs the novel and how his use of Yeats’s theosophical works and Egyptian mythology illuminate the contemporary American psychic landscape. It is not possible to detail all of what Mailer does, but it is sufficient to draw attention to two key elements of Mailer’s novel. Mailer draws from Yeats the insight that the self is never stable, that minds flow into one another and become a single mind. When Ra in The Book of the Dead states “I poured seed into my mouth, I sent for issue,” Mailer takes that statement literally. Meni must take Menenhete’s member into his mouth, his seed, in order for Menenhete’s and Meni’s memories to issue forth. Another element Mailer takes from Yeats is the image of the spiral, that great gyre of energy and endless return and circling. Mailer’s novel turns on itself. Memory, the self and time spiral and merge as Meni and Menenhete come together and become indistinguishable at times. History is dynamic, never linear. It repeats both in the world of the living and in the dead through the great cycles of rebirth and regeneration, both bloody and terrifying. The image of the Nile and its flooding is tied by Mailer to excrement and the place it has in life and regeneration — and of violation.
There are deep primal forces, tied to the deepest recesses of the psyche, that drive these characters to assert themselves, to dominate their world and other people around them. Menenhete both loves and hates the Pharaoh, who both gives him his glory and then casts him down. This dynamic becomes sadomasochistic. Ramses sodomizes Menenhete. Menenhete later rebels by sleeping with the Pharaohs’ mistress. Menenhete watches the Pharaoh’s sometimes violent sexual exploits and later acts out the scenes he has witnessed with available mistresses.
Still, Menenhete is always in a subordinate position, a feminine position. Mailer explores this dynamic in greater detail in the last two books where critics find the sadomasochistic elements overwhelming. For Mailer, the assertion of masculinity, the striving for dominance on the personal level or on the world stage through Imperial and political domination, involves male domination of other males. This is experienced though male-on-male rape. Mailer had been exploring aspects of this dynamic for some time, from the Kennedy presidential campaign he chronicled and later collected in The Presidential Papers, on blood sports as boxing and in such stories as “The Time of Her Time” that first appeared in Advertisements for Myself.
This is what most critics find find difficult to accept and produced the most resistance when the novel was first published. There are other depths to the novel left untouched here, but I will say that Mailer’s Ancient Evenings will come to take a central and important place not just in Mailer’s canon, but in American literature. Like Melville’s Pierre and Israel Potter and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, its mythic constructs and characters throws a light on the “crude thoughts and fierce forces” that animate America’s psychic and political landscape even to this day.