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Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon

Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology

On God: An Uncommon Conversation (5 page)

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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These notions of what the Devil might be are not nearly so comfortable as assuming that God is an imperfect creator. That makes sense to me. But the Devil could be this, that, anything—I don't know. One guess: Technology is an arm of the Devil, which I think is probably true. Still, technology could be a third force, ready to destroy both God and the Devil—man's assertion against God and the Devil.

The questions are wide-open. No way to propose answers yet, but perhaps the question will become somewhat more focused as the new century goes on. As of now, for example, I would assume technology is indeed the Devil's force. Why? I feel it viscerally. That's the best I can offer. I think of all the things I've detested for all these years, starting with plastic. It seems to me plastic is a perfect weapon in the Devil's armory, for it desensitizes human beings. Living in and with plastic, we are subtly sickened. And the Devil looks to destroy God's hope in us. Whether this effort looks to attain a world that can be taken over, or whether the Devil, to the contrary, aims to acquire a ruined world or works toward a world transferable to some other god are, I repeat, questions that obviously remain far beyond our reach right now.

         

So you're not sure whether the Devil is ambitious or nihilistic?

Why must you see that as contradictory? As a novelist, I would say some characters in Dostoyevsky are both nihilistic and immensely ambitious. The two go together. Frustrated ambition can turn quickly to nihilism. A rotten fruit can grow poisonous.

         

You seem to be in agreement with some of the other religions of the world on the role of saints.

Saints?

         

Do you see them as intermediaries, or do they play a larger role, a prophetic role? Do they actually see themselves as instruments of God, paralleling demons on the other side? I wonder if you could say something about saints and monsters.

Hagiography is not my strong point. I would guess, given my general hypotheses, that very few of the saints were wholly bona fide—by that I mean vastly more good than bad. I would think some of them had incredible powers. I believe many saints were perfectly capable of small miracles—that doesn't bother me a bit. I would take that for granted. There are such things as psychic powers, and they can be raised to a very high degree in certain humans.

But the idea that saints are as good as the hagiographers have made them out to be does give great pause because, finally, the Catholic Church may be the most complex and powerful and manipulative and intricate power system in history. But from what we have learned about history, we also know that most powerful people rewrite history to their own specifications. Many a saint may have been built up into much more than that saint deserved—the Church needed him or her at the moment. Nonetheless, I also subscribe to the notion that some people do represent the best and most magical elements in God. That is not a concept I would scorn. I believe there were, and are, saints. I would just approach them more critically than might a devout Catholic.

         

I guess I agree with you. In each period, the Church has to create saints of a certain stripe. But one thing that struck me about your scheme is your declaration that most of us don't know most of the time whether our actions are ultimately for good or for ill—or, indeed, which side we're helping, which hindering. But saints struck me as those who might have greater premonitions, greater knowledge of what was to come and what certain human actions could do to advance the cause of good. And I can see a similar faction on the side of the Devil—those who asked, “What can I do to bring down, hurt, or destroy some strength of the Lord?” In that sense, human demons would also be more aware of their mission.

Yes, saints are imbued with the fundamental belief that what they're doing is absolutely right—when it may not be. There's many a saint who might prove to be a devil on closer examination. And many a devil may have been working perversely to undermine the Devil.

         

I want to challenge your idea about things getting worse—with a couple of brief statistics. I chose these carefully. In 1900, the average American lived to be forty-six years old. Six percent of Americans graduated from high school. Only 14 percent of homes had a bathtub. Six percent had a telephone—the flush toilet was a rarity in 1900. And so on. Perhaps, as you have said, the level of language was higher among the intelligentsia. But the vast majority had hardly any books in their homes. Today, a thousand books, I believe, are published every day, worldwide.

So technology with all its drawbacks has changed everything in our lives. I take it you would argue these are just local effects, short-term gains, and that in the long run, despite any of these specific advances, technology is yet going to overwhelm us, even destroy us.

All the modern assumptions about progress are present in what you just defended. But progressivism has yet to prove itself. Of course, all those things you cited have made life easier. I don't want to be a bore about this, but nuclear warfare also came along. And we live in a more diffuse state of general anxiety than people did in 1900. People were locked up then in all sorts of terrors, intimations, obsessions, and paralyzing anxieties, but it was all sort of local and particular. Now you have general anxiety, of a very large and pervasive sort.

The argument: Did we really improve anything spiritually? For instance, were people better off when they had to squat over a hole in the ground and so could smell their own product? Maybe they were a little closer to themselves than they are now. It's analogous to my argument about contraception. That always gets me into trouble. It's interesting that women did not seem to conceive as often or as easily in the Middle Ages. And, in that time, many of the babies died in their first year. But the ones who survived may have been hardier than the mass of us now. If we proceed further, we have to get into all the complex arguments over whether modern medicine is a blessing or a vitiator of human potentiality. Because today, it is not only the strongest who survive. Nobody will go near this argument because it's so Hitlerian. It may be that Hitler was not only the Devil's greatest achievement but also destroyed any possibility of thinking along the lines he laid out. People shrink the moment you say courage is important. They think, “Believe in that, and you'll end up a Nazi.” Hitler did more than anyone to spoil the possibility of exploring our time—the world was left with no more than conservatism and progressivism. The more interesting human philosophies, like existentialism, were cut off.

To this day, people don't like existentialism. They hate the notion that their philosophical feet cannot always be placed on a familiar floor. Well, keep living in the familiar contexts, and it can prove stultifying. Liberals can be most stultifying. That dreadful remark—“It's a human life you're talking about”—as if all human lives are equal, as if no human life should ever be extinguished, this is a staple of political correctness, the fierce, unruly, and manic child of progressivism. So when you present these things, I would prefer to come back with a gentle, broad answer, to say, Yes, life is certainly more comfortable than it used to be, and there are more opportunities for most than there ever were, although, of course, they may be used in more mediocre fashion than similar opportunities a hundred years ago. But lives may also be more drenched in anxiety of a sort we can't locate, an anxiety that lives in us in such a way that we don't even have nightmares any longer—what we have are various stretches of poor sleep and uneasiness. I think we're weaker and more confused. I think we wander all over the place. We're also louder and more loutish.

You can ask yourself: Is this society better when it has every creature comfort that's been developed up to now and has a president like George W. Bush, as, say, opposed to Abraham Lincoln 140 years ago? Perhaps. Or perhaps we have less progress than we supposed.

         

Do you agree that many, if not most, humans have an inherent, or an imprinted or intuitive belief in God as All-Powerful? They can't think of God in any other way. Lots of people will say, “My intuitions are as good as Norman Mailer's, and I can't imagine a God who isn't All-Powerful.”

Their intuitions may be more powerful than mine. Let me, however, go through my beliefs, sketchily. When I was a child, I believed in an All-Powerful God, of course. Most children do. Then there was a period when I was a fierce atheist. For many years! By now, philosophically speaking, atheism is more incomprehensible to me than the notion that there's a Creator. And to this day, if I were arguing with an atheist, I would suggest: “The burden of proof is on you. You have much more to explain about how we're here if you insist that there's nothing behind our existence.”

But I would certainly never argue that Fundamentalists don't have intense feelings. They're immensely intense—too intense. I think this intensity reflects how terrifying the whole thing is to them. The horror for all too many would come down to this: If it all ends badly, we humans are also responsible. You see, the message of the All-Powerful God is, finally: “You're not responsible. Just keep your nose clean, observe ritual, and you'll be taken care of after you die.” I think Fundamentalism is a reflection of the deepest fears people have about dying. They feel that if they follow
all
the rules, they won't go to something worse. They take to Fundamentalism because it restricts the extent of their responsibility.

I remember in my play,
The Deer Park,
at the end, its hero, who is dying, says, “Where I go, I do not know. It may be for worse.” And that is the secret terror that supports Fundamentalism. Police systems are built on it. The policeman's phrase “Keep your nose clean” is one more aspect of Fundamentalism. And the true believers' dependence on Revelation is also immense but for just that reason. I would go so far as to argue that Fundamentalism is one of the Devil's strongest tools: The Devil adores Fundamentalism because it keeps people from thinking. So long as people are incapable of pursuing a thought to where it leads, they can't begin to carry out God's notions. The irony is that by subscribing (they think) to God's will, they become desensitized to the sensitivities of divine will. They wall themselves out. They cannot work with God's will even if they long to.

         

Do you feel as negative about the revelations of other religions—Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism—as you do about the revelations of Judaism and Christianity?

I'm less familiar with them, so I feel less negative. But I still feel suspicious. If I were a serious theologian, I would devote my years right now to studying the Koran and reading up on Buddhism, but I don't, because there are other things I wish to do with the remaining years. Still, my suspicion is great that I would find the Koran as difficult to live with as the Old and New Testaments.

With Buddhism, it's another matter entirely. That's the opposite of Fundamentalism. It's a trackless universe, which I don't pretend to understand. I get irritated sometimes by Buddhists saying, “Well, you're very much a Buddhist, whether you know it or not.” And I don't know what they're talking about.

         

I think you're really a Gnostic.

That has no meaning for me either. But let's get into it, at least in passing. I've been called a Manichaean, a Gnostic. I am certainly not a Manichaean, because I don't believe there's necessarily a happy ending built into the endgame.

         

It's the Zoroastrians who really believe that. The Manichaeans believe good will win, but it won't be a total victory. They believe that evil will have stolen some of the light.

I can go along with that. I can't believe in a total victory.

         

Well, what happens if God does win? Suppose the Devil is totally vanquished.

God, at that point, after such a war, has been seriously wounded. And whatever happens, whatever goes on, it's not going to be God, fully resplendent, awaiting us in Heaven.

         

That makes you close to Manichaeanism. Evil loses, but evil takes a considerable amount of good with it as it goes under.

I can believe that. Once again, I will say, I'm a novelist. We tend to think that way. Nothing is 100 percent. The point of writing novels is to show what the costs are in human activities. If I may quote myself again, at the end of
The Deer Park,
Charles Eitel is asked by a former wife, “Do you know you have real dignity now?” “It was a decent compliment,” Eitel thought, “for what was dignity, real dignity, but the knowledge written on one's face of the cost of every human desire.” I've always liked that line because for me it's the essence of the novel, the frightful cost of human desire.

So why not extend that to the frightful cost of divine desire, where the loss is greater? God might have had an earlier conception of human existence more beautiful, much more beautiful than the one He's left with now.

         

Let me give you another model. A friend of mine has been sending me stuff on Simone Weil. I don't know if you—

I know her work slightly. Dwight Macdonald used to write about her with adoration in the years right after World War II.

         

Well, she's not afraid to think in bold terms—but I don't know if you'll agree. Here's one of her ideas: She believes that God became limited in the course of creating the universe. She saw the act of creating the universe as an act of renunciation, one of power sharing with humans.

I accept the power sharing; that's implicit in everything I've said.

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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