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Lives, work run parallel on paths to heroic art

December 15, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Within less than a month, we lost two marvelous megalomaniacs. Few obituaries of Norman Mailer, who died Nov. 10 at 84 after a long illness, got very far without mentioning the vastness of the American writer's ego. Ditto for the outsized self-esteem of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German composer/guru who died suddenly and unexpectedly last week at 79. Heroic artists who made themselves into legends, they are thought to be titans with great flaws who had more or less used up their talents by the end.

I don't agree. My enthusiasm for their work began in the '60s, when they seemed to encapsulate the idealistic, revolutionary spirit of the time, and I stuck with them from then on, no matter how trying that could sometimes be. But given the radically different natures of their personalities, cultural backgrounds and art forms, I can't remember ever thinking of Mailer and Stockhausen as being alike.

I doubt they ever met or paid much, if any, attention to each other. Now that their stories are complete, however, I am struck by similarities, astonishing similarities, of these creators of some of the greatest and most meaningful -- at least to me -- art of our age.

Both men were shaped by World War II, made insufferable by early fame and transformed by the ideals and lifestyles of the '60s. They saw themselves as leaders and had an enormous gusto for the public arena. They were artists for their time yet obsessed by history. They took on big issues, especially those of good and evil, and presented the big picture in cumbersome works that demand time, patience and considerable hard work to comprehend.

Absurdly macho, they nevertheless shared a spiritual soft side, believing in God as a supreme artist. Stockhausen was the wackier of the two. He figured someone as artistically advanced as he was must have been trained on a more advanced planet, such as one orbiting the star Sirius. Mailer was a little more realistic, although he insisted that facts distort reality, which is what gives the novel its value. Like Stockhausen, he came to take reincarnation seriously, causing friends to worry about senility having set in.

Mailer and Stockhausen would not have been Mailer and Stockhausen as we knew them without Hitler. Growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn, Mailer learned to hate Hitler in 1932 when he was 9 and his mother prophetically warned him that this psychotic German would attempt to eliminate the Jews. Stockhausen, whose father was a poor Roman Catholic schoolteacher outside Cologne, Germany, lost his mother -- who had a nervous breakdown when the boy was 4 and spent the rest of her life institutionalized -- to Hitler's policy of "euthanasia."

In 1944, they were drafted and went to war, spending the last two years of the conflict in horrible, unforgettable circumstances. Mailer used his experiences on the Pacific front to write "The Naked and the Dead," which proved him a great chronicler of the human condition at its most banal and most extreme.

Stockhausen served as a hospital orderly. Many of his patients had such badly mutilated faces from phosphate burns that he couldn't find their mouths to feed them. He comforted them in their last minutes playing the sentimental ballads they asked for on the piano.

Convinced that art had the capacity to drive societies into certain mind-sets and actions, Mailer and Stockhausen came out of the war with the drive to create new ways of thinking and of opening consciousness. They made it a matter of pride to never repeat themselves.

Stockhausen wanted a new music that didn't remind him of prewar music, and he thoroughly examined the scientific and mystical aspects of sound. With each work, he came up with original ways of producing and organizing sounds, to say nothing of liberating them from the constraints of gravity. He even asked his musicians to be acrobats.

Mailer liberated prose and psyches. He wanted to see what made people tick and to tick along with them. He was not a stationary writer but one who, at cocktail parties, would throw a drink or a punch at an adversary (and even stabbed a wife).

Mailer and Stockhausen had existential crises in the '60s. Mailer reinvented himself as a journalist/novelist, along with making films and running for mayor of New York. Stockhausen came to California to teach at UC Davis and got turned on by the whole scene. He left his first wife and married an American painter, Mary Bauermeister, on a houseboat in Sausalito in 1967.

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