The Ordinary’s Outer Limits, The Washington Post, 1996

Leslie Fiedler’s “The Tyranny of the Normal” is a wide-ranging volume that explores such subjects as the religious core of the 1960s counterculture, organ transplants, the lust of dirty old men for nubile women, and the images of doctors and nurses reflected in popular culture and literature.  Fiedler, the well-respected author of “Love and Death in the American Novel,” “Freaks” and many other works, is a literary critic with an iconoclastic streak and a drive to explore subjects outside an English professor’s usual purview.  As he notes in his introduction, he has been motivated throughout his career by “a yearning to open up communication … with those outside my own small compartment in the Ivory Tower—to talk to everyone.”

In his effort to speak to everyone about subjects of general concern, Fiedler willingly abandons the old-fashioned rigor of the critical essay.  The pieces in this volume, some of them more than 20 years old, are very personal performances, the subjects clearly stemming from his own compulsions and obsessions.  Bits of his life history often are incorporated into the text along with literary allusions and pop cultural analysis.  In an essay about cultural images of the handicapped, for example, he pauses to comment bluntly on his hatred of all euphemisms—“I would infinitely prefer to be described as ‘a fat old kike’ than as ‘a portly senior citizen of the Hebrew persuasion’—and in his piece about the 1960s counterculture, he discusses his joyful celebration of Jewish tradition with the circumcision of his grandson.

Fiedler professes a layman’s interest in subjects relating to biology, yet he approaches these subjects with his literary crticic’s bag of ticks.  This sometimes creates odd metaphorical leaps and alarming lapses in logic.  For example, in the essay “Eros and Thanatos” Fielder seeks to interpret the cultural image and the deep-rooted motivations of the “dirty old man.” He discusses Freud and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and argues that it is the suppressed urge toward father-daughter incest that drives old men “toward fertile girls they might have fathered.”

He adds, “It must be, then, its analogy with this abhorred yet irrepressible relationship that makes the passion of old men for young girls both suspect and alluring.” This seems to me unnecessarily tricky and unsupported by the brute facts of evolutionary biology, which dictate the older male’s desire to continue propagating his randy gene code by mating with young females.  Similarly, in his essay on the 1960s counterculture, Fiedler accepts illness as social metaphor, seeing in the hippies’ unsanitary practices “a half-conscious longing for disease as some ultimate symbol of liberation.”

Despite the personal compulsions that seem to fuel most of the essays in this book, Fiedler does not hesitate to make broadly ambitious—if somewhat ambiguous—claims for them.  He seeks to explicate myths or archetypes that exist in what he calls “the popular mind, the deep psyche of the mass audience.” He defines these myths in one passage as “the perceptual-conceptual grid through which a period, a national culture, a class, sex, or generation first ‘sees,’ then make sense of, the life it lives on both the conscious and unconscious level.”  This seems confusingly broad, and Fiedler frequently writes in a slightly disconcerting first-person plural, a “we” that reacts homogeneously to cultural images.

For instance, about sideshow freaks he writes, “Yet there would seem always to have been a hunger in all of us, a need to behold in quasi-religious wonder our mysteriously anonymous brothers and sisters.”  The strained syntax somehow belies his attempted categorical statement, and the repeated effect of such formulations is a bit like being tapped repeatedly on the shoulder by a boor monologuing at a dinner party.

In fact, in this later part of Fiedler’s career, he frequently comes across in his essays as the kind of fictional cranky professor-patriarch that could have been created by a Bernard Malamud or a Saul Bellow.  In the introduction he talks about his career-long fascination with “the Stranger, the Outsider, but chiefly as it is embodied in fictional portrayals of the ethnic Other.” In the excesses of his language, his wide swipes at broad subjects, and his personal digressions, Fiedler proudly expresses his own sense of “outsiderness” from the tyrannical normal.  Unfortunately or not, this liberating stance frequently leads him to overstep the boundaries of what his type of criticism can comfortably accomplish.