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Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon

Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology

On God: An Uncommon Conversation

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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To my wife, my sister, my children,
and to my grandchildren
Norman Mailer

To my sisters, Kathleen Arruda
and Maureen Macedo
Michael Lennon


Michael Lennon

The impetus to ask Norman Mailer if he would engage in discussion of his religious beliefs was a reading of an early draft of his novel
The Castle in the Forest,
sometime in the summer or early fall of 2002. Although his novels and narrative nonfiction back to the 1950s are shot through with his ideas on God and the Devil and the struggle in which they are locked, in those works, this material was there largely as a backdrop, a sort of cosmic context for the journeys and struggles of his characters. Before
The Castle in the Forest,
the direct interventions of angels and demons were surmises. But in that work, Dieter, an assistant to the Devil, changed everything. Now Mailer had invested his characters with his beliefs about the tripartite division of power in our solar system among God, the Devil, and humanity. Dieter, as we now know, narrates the novel and also communicates with the Devil, whom he refers to as the E.O. (Evil One). On a purely functional level, his choice of Dieter, who has powers verging on omniscience, allowed Mailer to retain a first-person voice and still have access to the thoughts of the Hitler family. After a half century of tantalizing his readers with glimpses of his quasi-Gnostic belief in the existential struggle between good and evil, Mailer decided to present a key battle in this war, one that took place in Austria at the end of the nineteenth century.

In the early 1980s, I wrote an essay on Mailer's cosmology, and I remained persistent in my conviction of the importance of his idiosyncratic beliefs to serious readers of his work. So I was excited to read of the demonic and divine machinations surrounding Hitler's birth and early life. Shortly after I read the first hundred pages of the novel in draft form, Mailer asked me to help on a fund-raiser for the Provincetown Theater. He wanted me to play a role in a staged reading of G. B. Shaw's
Don Juan in Hell.
Mailer was to direct the play and take the part of Don Juan. His wife, Norris Church Mailer, was to play Don Juan's wife, Dona Ana, and I was to play her father, the Commodore. Gore Vidal, in a brilliant bit of casting, was to take the part of the Devil. Shaw's play is set in Hell, and the exchanges among the four characters, especially Don Juan and the Devil, gave me another slant on Mailer's ideas. For the week of rehearsal preceding the one-night production, my brain was on fire with speculations about the interplay between the ideas of Mailer and Shaw, not to mention the fascinating interplay between two novelists who had feuded so famously in the 1970s yet were now collaborating.

In the spring of 2003, I visited Mailer's home in Provincetown and proposed that we begin the conversations collected here. He agreed immediately. His only proviso was that my questions remain with me until we met so that his answers would be spontaneous. (He once said that his favorite word was “improvisational.”) The first conversation took place on June 17, 2003, and they continued, sometimes six months apart, until June 14, 2006. All of them took place in the third-floor study of his house, where from the big window one can see the swerve of shore and bend of bay of Provincetown harbor.

The transcripts have been cleaned up a bit, mainly to eliminate redundancies and correct a few names and dates. They are presented in the order in which they took place. The titles given to them are not summative but merely a reflection of my opening questions.


Norman Mailer

In any amateur approach to weighty subjects, the perils are obvious. They need hardly be cited. Yet there is one advantage: You are not obliged to be loyal to the expertise you have studiously acquired, and you do not have to confront the displeasure of one's learned colleagues by forcing them to come face-to-face with a radically new concept.

Of course, amateurs rarely succeed. I offer the interviews that follow as an example. I am obviously ignorant of most of the intellections required of a competent theologian. My colleague in these interviews, Michael Lennon, while not a formal student of the subjects, is at least reasonably well versed in the concepts we discuss. But what will be evident to anyone who has studied such matters is how truly untutored I am. I offer nothing but my own ideas—which is the classic error of the amateur.

How, then, can I defend this venture? The answer may be legitimate: I have spent the last fifty years trying to contemplate the nature of God. If I speak specifically of fifty years, it is because my pride in the initial thirty-odd years of my life was to be an atheist—how much more difficult and honorable I then considered that to be, rather than having a belief in an All-Mighty divinity. I was a novelist, after all (as will be noted frequently in these interviews), so I was intensely, even professionally, aware of the variety, and complexity, of human motivation and its offspring—morality. It took a good number of years to recognize that I did believe in God—that is, believed there is a divine presence in existence. On occasion, I even contemplated the philosophical need to approach what might be the characteristics of such an enigma. Whenever I tried, however, to advance my notions by readings in theology, I was repelled. The works were studies, for the most part, of the unstated but dictatorial injunction to have faith. They were undernourished in their appetite for inquiry, and full of ideological dicta.

To say again, I am a novelist. The best of us spend our lives exploring what might be human reality. In consequence, the conviction grew that I had a right to believe in the God I could visualize: an imperfect, existential God doing the best He (or She) could manage against all the odds of an existence that not even He, our Creator, entirely controlled. Note the possessive:
Creator. God, as I could visualize such a being, was an Artist, not a lawgiver, a mighty source of creative energy, an embattled moralist, a celestial general engaged in a celestial war, but never a divinity who was All-Good and All-Powerful. While I was aware that somewhere on the scholarly horizon a group called “process theologians” were also questioning the perfection of God, my instinct was to continue to work alone in these speculations until Michael Lennon proposed these interviews. Of their shortcomings I am aware and, doubtless, also unaware, but my philosophical reconnaissances are, after all, not so unique. A good part of humanity may also be devoted (usually in deepest privacy) to exploring their intuition of what God and the Devil might be all about. Such people explore all those aspects that no church seems ready to approach.

All apologies now delivered, I invite the reader to these dialogues. I hope (and expect) they will be rewarded with a few new ideas.


On God as the Artist

Scientists believe that the universe is expanding. Is this accelerating nature of the cosmos reflected in your concept of a god who can grow and develop?


I start from another direction. Having been a novelist all my working life, I may know a little about human beings. I should. They have been my study. You might say my theological notions come out of such questions as, Who are we? What are we? How do we develop? Why, indeed, are we in existence? And is there the presence of a Creator in what we do?

So the larger cosmic speculations are of less interest to me. In truth, I would hate to rely on the ever-changing state of advanced physics for my ideas.


In places, you've said that God and the Devil are lesser divinities in liege to larger powers who might be the ultimate creators. Who or what do you feel is the ultimate power in the universe? Who created the universe?

I feel the same way about the ultimate Creator as I feel about the expanding universe: All that is too large for my speculations. But I don't see any inherent logical contradiction in saying that I do believe our God created the world we live in and is in constant conflict with the Devil.


St. George and the Godfather,
you say, “The world's more coherent if God exists, and twice coherent if He exists like us.” I'm afraid this logic smacks of wish fulfillment. God need not exist merely to satisfy your desire for order. Perhaps the world is incoherent; perhaps the cosmos is disordered.

Where does my desire for order come from? Not only do we humans have a fundamental desire for order, we have an obvious tendency as well toward disorder—a true conflict between order and disorder. So I say it may be worth the attempt to search into such questions.


That may require hearing your thoughts on the relationship between the nature of the deity and codes for human living.

Oh, Christ, Mike, I don't think in these formulae. I want to get to something more basic to my thought, which is that much of the world's present-day cosmology is based on such works of revelation as the Old and New Testament, or the Koran, yet for me Revelation is itself the question mark. Revelation, after all, is not God's words but ours, words debated back then, if you will, in committee and assembled by working theologians with varying agendas. After all, why would God bother to speak in such a fashion? There's no need. God could have imparted such thoughts directly to us. Revelation has always struck me as a power trip for high priests who were looking to create a product that would enable them to lead their flock more securely, more emphatically. Their modern-day practitioners quote constantly from Scripture on TV, use it as their guide rail, and run into intolerable contradictions that are guaranteed to cripple their power to reason. I will go so far as to say that to be a Fundamentalist is to exist as a human whose reasoning powers have been degraded into inanition before any question for which a Fundamentalist does not already have an answer.

I confess, then, that I feel no attachment whatsoever to organized religion. I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist. I see human beings as His most developed artworks. I also see animals as His artworks. When I think of evolution, what stands out most is the drama that went on in God as an artist. Successes were also marred by failures. I think of all the errors He made in evolution as well as of the successes. In marine life, for example, some fish have hideous eyes—they protrude from the head in tubes many inches long. Think of all those animals of the past with their peculiar ugliness, their misshapen bodies, worm life, frog life, vermin life, that myriad of insects—so many unsuccessful experiments. These were also modes the Artist was trying—this great artist, this divine artist—to express something incredible, and it was not, for certain, an easy process. Indeed, it went on forever! I would guess that evolution was tampered with, if not actually blindsided on occasion, by the Devil. I think there were false trips that God engaged in because the Devil deluded Him—or Her. Forgive me if I keep speaking of God as “Him,” that's a habit that's come down to me from Revelation. Obviously, to speak of God as “Her” is off-putting, but to speak of “Him/Her” or “It” is worse.

In any event, it makes sense to me that this strife between God and the Devil has been a factor in evolution. Whether God had a free hand or the Devil was meddling in it from the commencement—either way, some species were badly conceived. Sometimes a young artist has to make large errors before he or she can go farther.

I can hear the obvious rejoinder: “There's Norman Mailer, an artist of dubious high rank looking to give himself honor, nobility, and importance by speaking of God as an artist.” I'm perfectly aware that that accusation is there to be brought in. All I say here may indeed be no more than a projection of my own egotistical preferences.


Well, you have spoken of God as a novelist….

No, I haven't. What I have said upon occasion is that God is a better novelist than the novelists—that's not the same thing.

Whether my motive is pure or impure, I do believe in God as the Artist, the Creator. That makes the most sense to me. Whether I have a private agenda, or whether I am being an objective philosopher (to the extent one can propose the existence of what may be an oxymoron
philosopher!)—so be it. Whether guilty or innocent, this will be the argument I advance: God is an artist. And like an artist, God has successes, God has failures.


Evil, you've said more than once, is growing in power—especially in the last hundred years.



Do you think there was ever a time in the past, a golden age, when good was in the ascendancy?

Let's say that in my lifetime, certain things have gotten better and other things have grown
so much so that latter-day events would stagger the imagination of the nineteenth century. If, for example, the flush toilet is an improvement in existence—and you can advance arguments against it, which I won't get into—but if it is an improvement, if the automobile is an improvement, again, huge arguments, if technological progress is an improvement, then look at the price that was paid. It's not too hard to argue that the gulags, the concentration camps, the atom bomb, came out of technological improvement. For the average person in the average developed country, life, if seen in terms of comfort, is better than it was in the middle of the nineteenth century, but by the measure of our human development as ethical, spiritual, responsible, and creative human beings, it may be worse.

I can't speak for other languages, but I do know the English language has hardly been improved in the last half century. Young, bright children no longer speak well; the literary artists of fifty and one hundred years ago are, on balance, superior to the literary artists of today. The philosophers have virtually disappeared—at least, those philosophers who make a difference.


I take it that, in your view of history, the Enlightenment and the rise of science were not steps forward.

Mixed steps forward. Forward and retrograde. It all depends on what God intended. I could give you a speculation—a rank speculation: Perhaps God intended that human beings would get to the point where they could communicate telepathically. To the degree that a man or woman wished to reach others in small or large numbers, he or she could transmit thoughts to them. One could create operas in one's mind, if one were musically talented, and beam them out to all who were willing to listen. All the means and modes we have of modern communication may be substitutes, ugly technological substitutes, for what was potentially there.

If you ask the average person, myself certainly included, “How do we see the image on television? How does it work?”—it's a blurred mystery. Indeed, the best engineers in the world can't tell you how it happens, why waves of sound striking the auditory nerve produce specific items of hearing. No one, for instance, can tell you what light is—they're still arguing over whether it's a wave or a particle or both. My ongoing question is whether the Enlightenment was for good or for ill. To assume automatically that the Enlightenment was good means you automatically have to say, Yes, it created marvelous freedom for many people. It also created the worst abuses of communism and fascism—so much worse than the Divine Right of Kings. It also helped to foster the subtle, insidious abuses of technology.

I've said before that technology represents less pleasure and more power. It may be that we are supposed to arrive at our deepest achievements through pleasure and pain, rather than through interruption, static, mood disruption, and traffic jams.


I can see communism as an unhappy fruit of the Enlightenment, but isn't fascism a reaction against it? The fact that it cites the blood, the blood-consciousness, all that?

One of the cheats of the Nazis was their implicit claim that they were going back to the blood when in fact they were abusing human instinct. The extermination camps were an absolute violation of any notion of blood. The Nazis were cheating people of their deaths. They informed the camp inmates they were going to have a shower. Into the chamber they all marched, took off their clothes, happy to have a shower what with all those lice inhabiting them, hoping the shower would be hot. In they went and were gassed. Their last reaction in life had to be, “You cheated me!” They died in rage and panic. That's not going back to the blood, to instinct, to preparing oneself to enter the next world. They were obliterated by their own excess of reason. They were ready to assume that even their vile guards were capable of sanitary concerns for them, the imprisoned. How wrong they were!

Reason, ultimately, looks to strip us of the notion that there is a Creator. The moment you have a society built on reason alone, then individual power begins to substitute for the concept of a Creator. What has characterized just about every social revolution is that sooner or later revolutionary leaders go to war with each other and turn cannibalistic. Only one leader is left, an absolute dictator. Once you accept the notion that there is no God, then the ultimate direction for the Left, the Right, or the corporate Center is totalitarianism.


Are you saying that the Enlightenment was a time of victory for the Devil?

I think that first we have to ask whether the relation of God, the Devil, and the human to one another is not a warring relationship among three forces who are separate yet intertwined.

Let me assume there's a Devil always present in human affairs, very much present. Why? Because the Devil is another god and wishes to preempt the god who exists. The Devil has other notions of what existence could be. I'd go so far as to assume that technology is the Devil's invention. Like God, the Devil wants to have power in the universe, whereas God wants that power to satisfy His vision of what the universe could be.


Do you ignore the presence of Christ?

Christ may well be God's son, a physical and spiritual entity whom God decided was necessary for humanity. So, yes, Jesus may have been real. If I wish to argue against revealed dogma, that doesn't mean all of it seems invalid to me. Jesus does make a kind of sense. Jesus as a principle of love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy is something we can all comprehend. We feel it in ourselves. We feel it as the best part of ourselves, the gentlest, richest, most generous part. But organized religions repel me because of the philosophical inconsistency of their God before whom they prostrate themselves, God the Almighty, God the All-Powerful. I think that's where the philosophical trouble begins: the idea that God is All-Good and All-Powerful. The history of the twentieth century demonstrated the contradiction in those terms, and most dramatically. How can we not face up to the fact that if God is All-Powerful, He cannot be All-Good? Or She cannot be All-Good. If God is All-Good, then God is not All-Powerful. To answer this contradiction, theologians have been tying themselves into philosophical knots for the last ten centuries.


Much of your thinking seems to be premised on the event of the Holocaust. I wonder if there had never been Hitler, would your notion of a limited, embattled God have been conceived? Is Hitler the final thing that pushed you into that belief?

Since I'm Jewish, the fair answer to that is probably yes. But there still would have been the gulags. And the failure of Bolshevism. The noblest social idea to come along, the most intense and advanced form of socialism, proved to be a monstrosity. That alone would be enough. Then came a capitalist contribution—the atom bomb, the fact that one hundred thousand people could be wiped out at a stroke. And this in the early stages of nuclear development. So if you eliminate all three of those, Hitler, gulags, atom bombs, then maybe I couldn't have come to these ideas. But historically speaking, you can't perform such an excision. Those three horrors dominate the twentieth century—not to mention the trench warfare of the First World War, which, indeed, accelerated the growth of communism.

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