David Mamet confirms—with no small amount of chutzpah—that all politics is personal, argues Lee Siegel ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
David Mamet’s latest book, “The Secret Knowledge”—a tale of his bitter disenchantment with liberalism—has so far met with the predictable responses. The conservative Wall Street Journal ran a review that mostly liked it, and the liberal New York Times published one that mostly disliked it. The most accurate appraisal, it seems to me, came from the other side of the pond. The Economist’s reviewer called Mamet’s baroque lucubrations a “tedious and simplistic rant”, yet added that his “vehemence commands a certain admiration”, and praised the playwright for penning sections of the book that were “wonderfully entertaining.” There is nothing liberal or conservative about a literary gift, or about the authenticity of a passion.
Here in America, the basic issue of Mamet’s conversion tale seems to have gotten lost. As the doctor father of a friend of mine habitually asked about life: “How did it happen?” How did a remarkably successful playwright and screenwriter become obsessed with the free-market theology of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman? To begin to arrive at an answer, a historical contrast is useful.
On the surface, Mamet’s book falls into a long tradition of similar turns to the right. Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer—they were all Jewish intellectuals who began as radical idealists critical of capitalism and ended as anti-government firebrands and apostles of the free-market. Mamet would seem most of all to resemble the conservative curmudgeon Saul Bellow, like Mamet an artist rather than an intellectual, and just as famously associated with Chicago.
But the differences are telling. Kristol, et al, were political animals to begin with. Their turn to the right entailed strong convictions, wrenching introspection, and total immersion in the shifting political tides of their time, from Trotskyism, to liberal anti-communism, to a neo-conservatism that was, to a great degree, a reaction against what these men considered the New Left’s vulgar parody of their earlier radical ideals.
As for Saul Bellow, he never once articulated any kind of right-wing political position, let alone an economic policy. Rather, his conservatism was like the anti-democratic postures of such genius-monsters as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and D.H. Lawrence: it was the instinctive reaction of a lone man with exceptional gifts to a rising tide of egalitarianism. For such figures, the liberal commitment to a communal ethos was like a dagger aimed at their singular nature as artists.
It is interesting to note that both Bellow and Kristol & Co. transformed their politics as their material status changed from penniless youths to prosperous adults. Mamet followed a differente trajectory. Far from wrestling with politics in the teeth of changing events throughout his life, he seems to have comfortably drifted into his current apostasy from the misty heights of a fairy-tale affluence. Far from seeking to protect his individuality, he seems to be asserting it with a kind of Hollywood droit de seigneur. He drolly claims that his conservatism was initially inspired by the negative reviews heaped on his 2007 play “November”, whose political incorrectness, he believes, was punished by liberal cultural commissars. Hence the title, “The Secret Knowledge”, by which Mamet means the liberal belief in the necessity of government to organise and manage social life. This “knowledge”, claims Mamet, has a hermetic quality because it resembles a religious conviction, irrefutable by reason or contrary evidence.
Having made a fortune in Hollywood, Mamet seems to have eased himself luxuriously into his new politics. In “The Secret Knowledge”, there is no intricate existential reckoning of the sort you got in Norman Podhoretz’s legendary memoir of conversion, “Making It”. There is no Bellovian grandeur of social perception. There is only a kind of mechanical, scripted enthusiasm for his new ideas: “Government cannot create wealth.” The book reads like Mamet’s theatrical dialogue: deliberately artificial, designed to prove that the very stuff of reality is pretence, artifice and illusion.
And therein lies the answer to the question of how Mamet’s political conversion happened. It was not a conversion at all, but a cynical attempt to rescript himself as a new character. Surrounded by the showy, reflexive and often grossly hypocritical liberalism of his fabulously wealthy Hollywood friends, the fabulously wealthy Mamet used his dramatic imagination to purchase for himself a new persona. The model for his political conversion was not Kristol, or Podhoretz, or Bellow. It was a gift given to him by another famously right-wing Hollywood celebrity: “I would particularly like to thank Jon Voight,” Mamet writes in his acknowledgments, “who, among other acts of kindness, gave me Whittaker Chambers’ “Witness”.
“Witness” is the most riveting American memoir of political conversion ever written. It is in fact not a journey of politics at all, in the manner of the later neoconservatives, but the dark night of a highly peculiar soul. Educated at Columbia, highly intelligent and cultivated, Chambers had been a member of the American Communist party and a Soviet spy. “Witness” recounts all this, and goes on to record Chambers’s break from the party, his conversion to Christianity and his testimony against Alger Hiss.
Chambers the man was an utterly original personality: multi-layered, conflicted and partly hidden, even from himself. A spy, a closeted homosexual and the married father of two children, Chambers was hedged by secrets. And then he converted from dedicated spy to devout Christian. That is to say, he went from being a secret to becoming a mystery. His persona is just right for a Hollywood figure such as Mamet, who wishes to reinvent himself along lines that might dramatically distinguish him from his Hollywood peers. There has always been a cock-of-the-walk quality to Mamet’s plays, which strut their macho aggression even as they deconstruct it. With his recent conversion to conservatism, Mamet can flaunt his new contrarian feathers in defiance of the dominant and dominating liberal values of his social group. He can rise above his tribe.
Surely this explains why Mamet quotes Chambers at length, toward the very end of his book, on the deadly nature of communism, an issue that has little relevance today. It is not Chambers’s ideas, such as they were, that interest Mamet. It is that Chambers applies his unique, outsized personality—as communist, spy, traitor, betrayer, militant Christian, “witness” of the truth and of the falsity of others—to challenging the conviction (ie, the “secret knowledge”) of communists. Against the similar mystical certitude of liberalism, Mamet has declared that his beliefs are not only rooted in politics, but are justified and reinforced by his own unique, outsized personality. He seems certain that this personality is the only foundation he needs for either politics or ideology.
Personality as the touchstone for reality is also called "celebrity". Celebrity happens to extend far beyond liberalism and conservatism, and it has the resources—and the chutzpah—to do, say, and write whatever it wants.
Lee Siegel is a New York writer and cultural critic who has written for Harper's, the Nation, the New Republic, the New Yorker and the New York Times, among other places. His book "Are You Serious?: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly" will be published by Harper in America on June 28th. Picture credit: AP