Sara's Reviews > Ancient Evenings

Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer
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Aug 25, 2008

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bookshelves: 20th-century-fiction, classical-history, mythology, supernatural
Read from November 08 to December 25, 2011

In a recent post on my blog, I spent a good deal of time discussing how ancient Egypt receives a disproportionate amount of popular attention as far as classical history goes. And then I promptly began reading a novel by Norman Mailer set in ancient Egypt. I learned about Ancient Evenings (and a number of other extremely interesting books) from a post by Wilfried Houjebek on the original and worthwhile site SpaceCollective. Houjebek describes it this way:

"[Ancient Evenings] is the autobiography of a Ka, the lowliest soul of the seven souls of the ancient Egyptians, which makes for unusual reading. Especially because Mailer uses an uncensored version of Egyptian mythology which, to put it mildly, differs from the version you get of it from the National Geographic. The Egyptians practised sex magic with the stamina of a bonobo. Mailer makes Aleister Crowley look like a prudish schoolboy. This is the boldest attempt to recreate a radically different mind from ours that I know of, and does so successfully."

Strangely and despite my bellyaching about all of the historical attention paid to ancient Egypt, reading this novel has underscored how seldom ancient Egypt has been explored in fiction. Science fiction has adopted Egypt as an aesthetic treasure trove from which to draw tropes and visuals (much like fantasy has used the Middle Ages), but fictive explorations of historical ancient Egypt remain scarce. Ancient Evenings in this respect certainly provides a thrill on par with Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's cinematic rendering of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization. For reasons best known to the 100,000th author to set a novel in Victorian London, we rarely get to place ourselves imaginatively in certain more neglected places and periods. It is a treat to go along with an author or filmmaker while they portray these lesser attended worlds and their inhabitants.

To work, this kind of venture requires at least a gesture towards the detail and methodological sophistication of an adept historian. It is not sufficient to project one's modern sensibility into a premodern time period; neither is it useful to envision all precursors to our modernity as quainter, rubish versions of ourselves. That kind of shortsighted anachronism seems clunky and unconvincing even when applied to time periods much closer to our own (a great - by which I mean rather dreadful - example of this is One Thousand White Women). The author undertaking such a project ideally realizes that past cultures operated not just in different material worlds than we do, but within truly foreign paradigms and cosmologies. The cultural assumptions upon which they based their value systems, their ideas of self and of the world depart radically from our own. When executed with sensitivity, such a project demands not merely sound research but a real shift of one's entire epistemological framework.

I think Mailer understood this and attempted it sincerely. He not only spent a good deal of time researching the world in which he set this novel, but his narrative choices exhibit an awareness that ancient Egyptians viewed the world and humans' place in it in a profoundly different way than do we. Their minds were not our minds. It took Mailer 10 years to complete Ancient Evenings and, without being an expert on ancient Egyptian civilization, I can offer that every time I looked up a reference which seemed either farfetched or peculiarly well-imagined, a factual basis existed for it. I have actually become so curious regarding the breadth of Mailer's research that I procured a couple of academic histories about ancient Egyptian society and culture. I expect by reading them to form a more complete opinion concerning Mailer's level of scholarship and authenticity* in portraying ancient Egyptians, but I suspect it is rather high.

Authenticity and historical imaginative responsibility aside, the book possesses other artistic merits. Mailer has given the novel a story-within-a-story narrative structure reminiscent of The Thousand-and-One Nights. As indicated above, we do begin with our protagonist Menenhetet's ka, or vital spark - that essence which distinguishes the living from the dead - as he awakens in an Egyptian necropolis and realizes he is dead but cannot remember who he was. Slowly, Menenhetet's ka recalls himself and, soon, meets the ka of his namesake great-grandfather. The story moves across generations, telling the story of the elder Menenhetet's four previous lives, and involves tales of charioteers, concubines, and priests, embroiled in wars, palace intrigue, and religious rituals; and yet, through Mailer's careful emplotment and through the almost supernatural connection of his ancient Egyptians to each other and to their own history, the reader gleans a coherent narrative from the maze. In contrast with The Thousand-and-One Nights, the story-within-a-story structure of Ancient Evenings supplies a feeling of unity rather than the Arabian tale's feeling of disjointed rabbit-holing.**

The most self-contained narrative episode of Ancient Evenings relates the story of the deities Isis and Osiris. But again, while discrete, this story adds much to the arc and cohesion of the novel as a whole given the centrality of deities to daily Egyptian life (and so, to Menenhetet's lives). The tale of Isis and Osiris introduces the reader to the main players in the Egyptian pantheon and also offers a good example of the gods' vacillating powers, aspects, and associations with one another. This information proves useful as we crawl into Mailer's well-realized, and highly religious, ancient Egypt. It also begins to inure us to the litany of sex acts, detailed descriptions of which we will have to wade through in order to make it to the end of this 700plus-page book.

Mailer does a reasonable job of linking sex to some sort of spiritual alchemy. Most Bronze Age cultures situated procreation and fertility, metaphorically and actually, at the center of their religious mythologies and rituals. Mailer's ancient Egypt reflects this. Sex comprises an exchange of power, equal or unequal depending. The sexual activity of the pharaoh, indeed all of his physical experiences, are tied to the land itself and to the vital cycles of the Nile. Sex can establish something like a psychic link; although in general Mailer's Egyptians are capable of hearing each others' thoughts and even seeing each others' memories. In short, sex certainly has a relevant place in the world of Mailer's story. Nevertheless, the endless (if inventive) sex scenes made me feel half like a baffled and enthralled, probably giggling, child nervously flipping through a pilfered porn magazine; and half like a bored adult, scoffing and rolling eyes, because I have actually had sex and now these images do not feed my curiosity, but seem superficial and disappointing.

I do not here lodge any accusation of rank sexism at Mr. Mailer, nor am I calling Ancient Evenings pornography. I have formed the distinct impression that Mailer truly used, or felt he used, his depictions of sex to communicate the centrality of sex-as-act and sex-as-metaphor to the spirituality of ancient Egyptians. That is, he does not treat his descriptions as gratuitous and I believe he meant by them to reveal how open and un-tabooed Egyptians behaved with regard to sex. Mailer's sex scenes tend to punctuate if not always further the plot. The sex he describes does not only involve bodies, but egos and psyches as well. Additionally, he references most types of sex imaginable: between men and women, men and men, women and women, people and animals; participants range from two to the hundreds (seriously, you have never seen battle depicted like this); oral, anal, manual and anything else you can imagine occurs; he portrays sex as it demonstrates (for both sexes) love, lust, domination, curiosity, rage and friendship; sex for Mailer's characters can yield shame, elation, or insight. As with actual sex in the actual world, the meaning all depends on context and participants.

In this way, I would not call Mailer's use or depiction of sex sexist. I am, however, tempted to call plenty of it juvenile. Mailer definitely crafts female characters with more agency than round-mouthed blow-up dolls, but the drives of their sexuality still seem to mimic the drives of men. They use sex the same way men do; they want the same things...ahem...thing. Compiling a list of Mailer's euphemisms for the penis would yield a monotonous, if periodically amusing, read. And this goes back to the feeling I kept getting while reading the novel; that I was, in fact, peeping at girly magazine. Ancient Evenings is not like porn insofar as it has a higher purpose than portraying sex for titillation. It is exactly like porn insofar as it is so profoundly phallocentric as to seem frequently comical.

The male member is described, referred to, manipulated, named, and prized to a farcical degree by Mailer via all of his characters. Women and at least one of their erogenous zones are not ignored certainly, and some female characters (only the most powerful and goddess-like, however) are more three-dimensionally drawn than others, but female sexuality as a whole in Ancient Evenings retains the unidirectional telos and raison d'être of porn: it's all about the cock.

True, many modern portrayals of sex, pornographic and otherwise, echo Mailer's phallus obsession. It is possible that ancient Egypt simply resembles our own time and place in this respect, but I rebel against this thought. I find the omnipresence of phallic symbols as fertility symbols very believable, but I assume Egyptians would know and employ other symbols as well and that female symbols of sexual power might also engage their sexuality. Ancient Evenings is an otherwise well-imagined portrayal of a people for whom the powers-that-be appeared more sexually balanced than strictly patriarchal, and who validated women's sexual appetites (and so, I dare to hypothesize, understood and even indulged them). It would have been refreshing to read about a group of women who do not behave as though they were reared on the assumption that their own sexuality exists primarily for the use and pleasure of men; or that their sexuality mirrors, in perfect inverse, that of men.

Observing the many-columned Temple of Hatshepsut, Pharaoh Ramses II says to the elder Menenhetet: "Only a woman would build a temple with nothing but cocks". (278) And there is no satire in this comment, no inkling of a minor truth that women learn when still little girls and continue to observe as the boys they know become men: many, many males are fascinated by their own dicks and project this fascination out into the world (and on to females) with an astounding lack of self-reflection. I suggest, only a man would imagine a woman would build a temple with nothing but cocks.

*Whatever "authenticity" may mean in this context.
** Small wonder given the folkloric and oral provenance of The Thousand-and-One Nights; I intend no criticism of that amazing work.
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06/06 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Lewis (new) - added it

Lewis Weinstein Had I read your review, I would have plugged on. But alas, I think I gave up too soon.

Sara Thanks - that's a compliment. I thought about giving up close to the beginning of the book, but it kept being so strange, so unlike anything I'd ever read that I just waded through the stuff I didn't like and kept at it. It took me a good long while to finish.

message 3: by Bryn (last edited Apr 07, 2012 09:12PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bryn Hammond Excellent review, full of thought. I'm trying to figure out whether to tackle this. Your perceptiveness has helped (it's a yes, but with trepidation). Have to agree with your last: that's in bad need of irony.

Sara Your trepidation is thoroughly appropriate. But if you do read it, I bet you find some things to recommend it. At the very very least, Norman Mailer put loads of work into the thing. Thanks so much for your kind words.

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