Read On God: An Uncommon Conversation Online

Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon

Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology

On God: An Uncommon Conversation (10 page)

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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So people don't ordinarily die in moments of clarity, like Eddie Bonetti. Often they don't even know who they are.

I can't answer that. You can die spiritually an hour, a day, a month, or five years before your death. I think the more your soul can remain intact up to the extinction of your body, the finer candidate you are for reincarnation. But that's just my notion.


So risky…. You mean someone who really wants to be reborn but goes into a coma loses his or her shot?

Look, the soul can fight the body right down to the very end. The soul can say, “All right, I don't feel anything in my legs anymore. Nothing in my fingers. I can't find my thoughts, but I know what I want. That way is more life. I want to be reborn.” Or, to the contrary, the soul can feel it isn't worth it. “Let the body have its day. I've abused this body all my life, it's now demanding a cruel payment and—let me tell the truth to myself—I'm bankrupt.”

But I do think that the soul—taking this intelligence from your lady at the hospice—if it leaves a week or two before the body, I think, speaking in terms of the transmigration of souls, it could make for a few complexities. So many talk about death as a vision: There's this wonderful white light, and long-expired relatives come out to meet you. I'm a touch dubious about that. For some people, yes—they were close to their relatives, and their kin do come forth.

But there's an awful lot of spirit travel involved. Think of the logistics of such a Hereafter. God's energies, as I see them, are immense but, to repeat, not infinite. So there are all sorts of procedures to be followed after you die. Economic procedures, if you will, involving the energies available to the Hereafter. It may be much more complex and less adaptable than we assume. The more flaming, fiery, flamboyant sects, the ones who promise everything in the Hereafter, bring out my cynicism (which, after all, is my shield against wishful thinking). Often, I expect, in the immediate hours or days after our deaths there can be pauses, long waits in a vast hall—somewhat like the first day in the army, when nobody knew what to do with you, and you were not yet assigned to some sort of temporary training platoon. We can talk about Limbo a little later if you wish. Limbo may be an absolutely realistic station for most people when they die. They hang around for quite a while.


Limbo can be for years.

Well, I don't know. I think it could also be a matter of divine bureaucratic—dare I say it?—mismanagement. Because bureaucratic mismanagement on earth—I don't know that we necessarily have to assume all this changes in the Hereafter. I don't think angels are perfect any more than I believe demons are totally evil. I think the rarest condition in existence is absolute purity of any variety.

If God is a Creator, then God cannot be absolutely pure because Creation consists in part of improving upon one's errors and offering less purchase to one's vices.


What about people—we've all heard about people who die after living lives of greed and misery, rotten people, detestable in every way, but at the last minute, the last few weeks, they call in the priest, they get seraphic smiles on their faces, they have money, perhaps, they're surrounded by servants, and they go off into the Hereafter feeling very good about themselves—deluded, perhaps, about their ultimate worth, but nonetheless smiling, saying their prayers. They haven't gone to a church or done anything decent—

Well, you're creating an improbable person.


There are people like that who die happy after living a miserable life.

Who says they died happy? They could be acting right until the end.


That's the moment you said you don't act.

No. No. I said people who are serious about their deaths don't act. They may be acting for others, but not before eternity.

I'll give you an explanation why a truly rotten person can die happy, which is that they were so rotten in their previous existence, the life before this one, that this life, bad as it was, proved to be a spiritual improvement over the previous one. They die happy because they feel, everything considered—considering how bad were their beginnings and how absolutely loathsome the initial impulses they were born with—that they have, under the circumstances, gotten better than they were before. We all know people who were total pricks their entire lives who mellow a little bit at the end. That's another human quality.


But you said all the good and evil in one's life is summed up in death. I'm thinking of those who are miserable people for the first 95 percent of their lives and then they're sweet old people at the end—doesn't seem very just that they should have a happy death. You'd think somehow they should have a miserable death. Where's the fairness in things?

I think you're speaking too hypothetically. This person you're talking about—as a novelist I find him impossible to draw for a book. People who are rotten all their lives rarely end up sweet at the end. If they do—there is such a thing as truly evil and ugly impulses wearing out, burning out. Just as good people can sour, ugly people may sometimes die in a more benign state. They've used up the ugliness in themselves. They've been rotten, but maybe they feel a bit of contrition at the end. Catholicism is based on that.



Between the stirrup and the ground. I've always found it excessively sentimental and too easy: Be evil all your life and as you're falling from the horse, before your head is knocked off your body—


Say a perfect Act of Contrition!

Yes! I've always found that extreme—and a little convenient. The Catholic Church is a study not only in immense human wisdom but of applied skill at maneuvering our thoughts around the most nonnavigable corners.


It's thought of almost everything. It has an answer for almost everything, every issue.

You spoke a little bit about Limbo, but I don't recall that you said much about Purgatory—as an idea, as a place, as a metaphor. Of course, it's a wonderful metaphor, we all use it. What is your idea of Purgatory as a metaphor?

Well, as a metaphor—tell me, Purgatory is a temporary station?


It may last for a millennium, but it's temporary.

I confess I don't know these concepts past a few superficial notions. Does Limbo have any relation to Purgatory?


No. Limbo is the place for those people on whom God can't make a judgment. They died before they were baptized.

Absolutely meaningless. Silly.


I agree. The Church doesn't even talk about Limbo anymore. They've almost dropped it as a concept. But Purgatory…

Now, Purgatory…yes.


Purgatory is not endless. There is an end to your suffering. The amount of time you're there and what kind of suffering you have, according to the Catholic Church, depends on what your crimes were.

I see Purgatory in different terms. In place of the notion that if you suffer long enough you'll purge yourself, I would suggest that being reborn takes care of Purgatory. For some people, life is Purgatory, all-but-endless suffering. And for a few people, life is Heaven—they're happy much of the time. For most people, life can be an intermittent Hell. I don't think we need other structures. I think our debts are paid by way of our reincarnations. That makes more sense to me than supporting those immensely wasteful estates called Heaven and Hell, where nobody does anything, where nothing's brought back into the divine economy, and people just mark time.

I see God as Faustian, as aiming to go farther. God is not satisfied with His or Her Creation. God wants the Creation to become better. Therefore, wasteful procedures are anathemas to God. And so, I do see Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell as wasteful institutions. Who can speak interestingly of Heaven, after all? Shaw made the best single attempt and decided Heaven was boring. And there is always the uneasy little feeling that people have that it could be like Club Med, a gated little tropical island. Whereas on earth, in life, we do experience Heaven. We experience it two, three, or four times in a long life, maybe for a minute, no more, but we know what Heaven is. There's a kind of luminousness to the joy. Most of us, unfortunately, come closest to Heaven through drugs. But, all right—we know what it is.

We certainly know what Hell is. Hell can be as simple as having a bad case of gout. Or a screamer of a drug trip. Or a nerve gone crazy in a tooth.


There's conscience….

Yes, indeed. There's also dread. When we feel dread, we may not be that far from Purgatory. Something important could be taking place in our soul, but we don't know what. We are full of fear at taking the next step, which we now believe is demanded of us. Most men encounter dread in terms of their personal courage. If they're afraid—if they're afraid of playing football—putting on the pads and going out to play can be Purgatory. Boxing can be Purgatory. Skiing, if the trail is steep and narrow and the moguls are formidable, can certainly reduce you. I've never done it, but I would suppose bungee jumping can be Purgatory—brief but intense. Men and women are beginning to search for such living ventures into Purgatory. It used to be that women's Purgatory was related to the terrors of childbirth. After all, in the Middle Ages, there was one chance in ten a woman would die in childbirth. That was a true terror. One had to face ultimates to have a child.


If you've been bad but not so bad that you should be condemned to eternal hellfire—you've only been
of bad—the Church said, “You're right, we have a place for those people where they have modest suffering.” Then people said, “What about people outside the Church? We've been told they're condemned, but what if they haven't done anything evil? They died at three years old—a wonderful little child but never baptized.” The Church said, “We have a place for them, too.” So the Church was trying to create—I'm sure they would have created another place if they'd had to. But ultimately, the Church began to see the folly of Limbo—what a ridiculous idea for people to live in a big, empty space forever and feel no positive pain but no positive joy, although the Baltimore Catechism decided to offer these innocents “perfect natural happiness.” No beatific vision would be available but no unseemly suffering either, just Limbo.

We talked about saints, but I never got to my question about demons. I remember you told me some time ago you had an encounter with a demon—or a succubus or whatever you want to call it—right here in a room you rented for a week one winter on Commercial Street in Provincetown. Would it be worthwhile to say anything about that experience?

I won't get into it, Mike, because it takes too long to tell, and there's no real point. I can certainly speak of succubi and incubi in the abstract sense. I think they would be useful instruments of the Devil. I felt such a presence only once in my life, and it seemed to come out of nowhere, which is why I don't rush to talk about it because I don't understand why it was there. But I really felt as if there were some intangible creature fastened to my chest even as I was trying to sleep. It suggests a story that may be worth telling about a poetess named Mina Loy. Something like seventy or seventy-five years ago, she was staying in a small hotel on the Left Bank in Paris, and one night in her room, she felt this hideous oppression, this monstrous, intangible creature, which seemed nonetheless most alive and had fastened itself to her chest. She lived in horror through the night and felt abominably wretched in the morning. To recover a bit, she went downstairs to take a coffee on the terrace of the little hotel she was staying at, just across the street from the Seine. Aleister Crowley, the famous and notorious magician, was there, a table or two away, and was talking about a man he detested who was also staying at the hotel. And Crowley said, “You know, last night I sent an incubus to invade him, yet when I saw him this morning, he looked perfectly all right. I don't understand it.” Mina Loy's comment was, “Let no one say Aleister Crowley is without powers. It is just that they are misdirected.”


Let me shift to wealth and poverty. In the last interview we did, you never addressed this. Are wealth and poverty predetermined by what God gives you when you're born? And how much would you say comes from the accidents of the economic jungle?

The poor often believe they are going to be rewarded in the next life. The wealthy also believe—a good many of them at any rate—that they, too, are going to be rewarded. The Egyptians, for example, believed you had no chance whatsoever in the Hereafter unless you were truly wealthy. You had to be buried in such a way that all preparations had been made by your family to enable you to travel safely through the underworld long enough to reach their heaven, the Elysian fields. For that, you needed varieties of protection. Priests had to pray for you, amulets were sewn onto your burial garments, you were in need of prayers recited by your relatives, and, most of all, you needed a tomb to protect you from evil spirits whenever you needed rest—you would go out and explore the underworld and then come back to your tomb, where your spirit would enter again into your embalmed mummy, which rested, of course, in your highly decorated and protective casket. After some rest, you would again go out into the underworld for another reconnaissance. Finally, you might make it through. Sometimes you didn't. Rich Egyptians used to have a prayer: “Oh, Amon, do not let me die a second time in the Land of the Dead.” The Egyptians believed that the second death was final. The first was provisional, but if you were able to find a way through the underworld into the Elysian fields, you could live forever. So, for them, wealth was crucial. A poor man without the protection of priests, amulets, and a tomb had no chance at all—which may be why we still have that long-lived phenomenon of an early civilization: to wit, most people live at a subsistence level, but there is fabulous wealth at the top, and the rich certainly know how to protect it.

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
10.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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