Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon
Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology
Fundamentalism is comfortable.
It's comfortable, but it is limiting. I keep going back to Kierkegaard, who, for my money, was probably the most profound Christian. He searched into the complexity of our relation not only to divinity but to diabolism as well. He knew that we must take nothing for granted in the moral firmament. We cannot kneel forever before the neon sign that purports to be God's mystery: “Don't ask, just obey!”
We can, of course, for the sake of this argument, pay another visit to the subject of Fundamentalism. After all, a good many Fundamentalists do function with vigor. Their lives have been simplified. They don't worry over questions that are debilitating. They function very wellâat their medium level. No great writer ever came out of Fundamentalism, nor any great scientist. To my knowledge, very few talented actors came out of Fundamentalismâor stayed with it for long. Never a genius of any kind, not since Augustine and Aquinas.
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So perhaps Fundamentalism is for the less daring, the less bold, the less gifted? But aren't you living on an ethical razor's edge, listening to inner voices to find the right word? That's not something everyone can emulate.
Yes, people want to live in such a way that they will feel secure. But there may be no such security available. Right now, parenthetically, we are living in a time where we have to wonder if we will even see the end of the twenty-first century. Or will we destroy ourselves? In that sense, directly, there is no spiritual security.
So the Fundamentalists, beneath everything else, feel the same fears that existential thinkers sufferâthat the whole thing can come to an end. Fundamentalists look to alleviate that fear by way of what I would call their desperate belief that it's “God's will” and at the end they will be transported to Heaven. Well, once again, this supposes that God is All-Good and All-Powerful and will carry the righteous right up there. Of course, that offers nothing to the idiocies of human history, particularly that the more we develop as humans, the worse we are able to treat one another. Why? Because we now have the power to destroy one another at higher, more unfeeling levels. This can be epitomized again and again by repeating the familiar example I take from the concentration campsâtelling poor wretches that they're going to have a shower to get rid of lice, and instead they die with a curse in their hearts. That's more hideous, in a certain sense, than dropping a bomb on one hundred thousand peopleâon people you know nothing about. And yet you have Fundamentalists carrying on about abortion, speaking of it as thwarting God's will. What does it have to do with God's will if you kill a thousand people in one minute with gas? Or destroy hundreds of thousands in an instant of atomic manmade lightning from the sky? What does that do to God's will?
We might assume that God, like us, is doing the best that can be done under the circumstances. God is our Creator. God put us here. We are God's artistic vision, we are God's children, if you will, and it's not a good parent who looks always to control the child. The mark of a good parent is that he or she can take joy in the moment when a developing child begins to outstrip the parent. God is immensely powerful but is
All-Powerful. God is powerful enough to give us lightning and thunder and extraordinary sunsets, incredible moments where we appreciate God's sense of beauty. But if God is All-Powerful, then how can you begin to explain the monstrosities of modern history? There are theological arguments by great theologians that these horrors are to test us. But this reduces our concept of God to a stage director who says, “Let the actors follow the script. Do not give them access to the playwright.”
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In one of our earlier conversations, you said humans were created by someone or something not unlike ourselves. So we are then, in some way, created in the image of God?
Yes. I believe that.
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Doesn't that suggest we are more good than evil?
Potentially more good. When a good man and a good woman have a child, there's every reason to believe that child will be a good person. But it's not guaranteed. Good parents can have evil children.
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If we're created in God's image and we're potentially good but then choose evil, perhaps we were evil all along.
Look at your phraseâ“evil all along.” If, at Creation, the Devil was present and entered us as well, then what we speak of as original sin can be seen as God's obligatory collaboration with the Devil. We were born good and evil.
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The point is, whether it's fifty-fifty, sixty-forty, seventy-thirty, the odds change in each of us because there's an intense war that goes on forever, not only between God and the Devil butâI've said this beforeâGod and the Devil as they war within us. We make our own bargains with Them. God and the Devil do not have the resources to be in complete control of us all the time. It isn't as if we walk through a normal day, and there's God on one shoulder and the Devil on the otherânot at all. They come to us when we attract their attention, because it affects Their interest as well as ours. What I use as the notion behind these assumptions that divine energy is analogous to human energyâit is not inexhaustible. God and the Devil are each obliged to manage their own economies of energy, which is to say that they will give more attention to certain elements of human behavior than to others. Very often, they withdraw from certain people. Too much is being given, too little is coming back.
Given this supposition, I feel more ready to make an approach to the question of ethics. It must be obvious in all I've said so far that I not only am an existentialist but would go so far as to say that we do not know our nature. We only find out about ourselves as we proceed through life. And as we do, we open more questions.
Jean Malaquais once made a splendid remarkâat least for meâduring the course of a lecture. He was a brilliant lecturer, and in the middle of a verbal flightâthis was at the New Schoolâsome kid said bitterly, “You never give us answers. You only pose questions.” And Jean stopped in the full flight of his rhetoric and replied, “There are no answers. There are only questions.”
The point is that the purpose of life may be to find higher and better questions. Why? Because what I believeâthis is wholly speculative but important to meâis that we are here as God's work, here to influence His future as well as ours. We are God's expression, and not all artworks are successful. But we are here because God has a vision of existence that is at odds with other visions of existence in the universe. There we get into the real question of cosmic hegemonies. There may be a majordomo at the core, maybe not. There may be godsâthe heavens may be analogous to pagan times. These gods are fighting for dominance over one another.
So we come back once more to “Where is the ethic?” And again I return to trusting the authority of our senses. What now do I mean by that? Isn't it true that as we free ourselves of false conceptions of what life might be, as we free ourselves of the maxims and injunctions other people have put into us from childhood, as we come to have a better sense of “whatever I am, I am beginning to have my own ideas,” you can also develop some instinct that one is doing the right thing or one is not. Or, all too often, one is not doing much. As we get older, “Not much at all” can take over most of our lives. If I am doing a crossword puzzle, there is no high motive necessarily involved. Instead, the activity might be to some most modest degree on the side of evilâI'm consuming time that could be spent in better ways. Or, to the contrary, I might be preparing my system to get ready for something worthwhile. It's not a large question: I do the crossword puzzle, and I don't think about it as good or evil. And I don't think of myself as good or evil so much as probably leaning slightly in the right direction or the wrong one when it comes down to how I am exercising my time.
So if you ask where the ethic is at any moment, it can be no more than that one is the resultant of all the forces that are in you as that vector confronts all the forces supporting you and opposing you. It's as if we live in a triangular relationship with God and the Devil, trying to sense the best thing to do at a given moment, be it a good thing or a bad thing. Let me go back to what might have been my lone visitation from the Lord. What God might have been trying to tell me was, “Get over this notion of good, right, proper. Because very often when you're moving in a direction you think improper, you might be helping Me more than when you're trying to be proper. Because when you're trying to be proper, you could be poisoning yourself with frustrated annoyance that makes you a colder person and of less use to Me.”
What I'm offering to people as an ethic is to have the honor to live with confusion. Live in the depths of confusion with the knowledge back of that, the certainty back of thatâor the belief, the hope, the faith, whatever you wish to call itâthat there is a purpose to it all, that it is not absurd, that we are all engaged in a vast cosmic war and God needs us. That doesn't mean we can help God by establishing a set of principles to live by. We can't. Why not? Because the principles vary. The cruelest obstacle to creating one's own ethic is that no principle is incorruptible. Indeed, to cleave to a principle is to corrupt oneself. To shift from one principle to another can, however, be promiscuous. Life is not simple. Ethics are almost incomprehensible, but they exist. There is a substratum of moderate, quiet, good feeling. Generally, if I'm doing things in such a way that the sum of all my actions at the moment seems to be feasible and responsible and decent, that certainly gives me a better feeling than if I am uneasy, dissatisfied with myself, and not liking myself.
Now, obviously, there is room for error. We all know about vanity. There are people who, when they like themselves, are dangerous. When they think they are extraordinary and fabulous, they can be awful.
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So it isn't so much that you have no ethical system but one that cannot be abstracted nor carved on tablets for people to carry around and consult whenever they have to make a decision. Life is always more complicated than any rule that can be laid down.
What I'm asking forâ¦. This is an odd analogy, but not entirely. There are certain people who worship sex, good sex. I might be one of them. What I've noticed about good sex, when it's really good, is the extreme sensitivity with which you proceed. At a given moment, it's a creative dance. There is such a thing as a pure act of love when every moment is distinctive and lovely and fine. That does happen. For most people, it happens so rarely that they remember itâand then remember it and remember it. A sense of perfection does live in our concept of sex.
In the same way, sometimes, for short periods in our lives, I think there's an analogous sense of perfection to all sorts of basic emotionsâin love, in nurture, in caring for people, in grieving, in mourning. It's very hard to mourn, mourn openly and honestly. Mourning is an element in people's lives that can be duplicitous, even ugly. Take a wife who's been married to a man for forty yearsâand in her mourning, what if she detects a secret spot of glee? “That selfish bastard is finally gone.” So mourning can be shocking for people because they discover sides of themselves they never knew existedâor the reverse. Sometimes people die whom you thought you didn't care that much about, and you discover you have lost something or someone valuable to you. So there is the constant element of discovering yourselfânot in the time-consuming way people do in psychoanalysis, where every little act has to be analyzed and reanalyzed until the air in the room is stale. Rather, just like making love, it's a matter of being sensitive to the moment, reflecting the moment as best you can. And that is not an easy matter. You want a few general ethical principles from me? Remarks I'd even offer to a stranger? Well, then, if possible, I would say to the stranger, “Give up smoking.” Because that tends to block a good deal of sensitivity in yourself. It serves the will. I used to smoke two packs a dayâwhy? Because it served my will, particularly when it came to writing. Took me a year to learn how to begin writing again once I did give it up. Perhaps I became a better writer. My point is, anything that will enable you to get closer to yourself, good or badâ¦in other words, being close to oneself can be much more unpleasant than being at a distance from oneself. That is why most people do choose, indeed, to be a bit removed from themselves. And so oftenâhere's the dirty little secretâthat's why they smoke.
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But you know, I remember something else you said about getting close to yourself. It's stuck with me. I don't even remember where you said itâyou might have brought it up in conversationâbut you declared: “If you dig deep enough into yourself, you're going to come out your asshole.”
In other words, yes, there are doors, and you must open many of those doors, and the ensuing doors within doors, but every once in a while you want to be careful about what you open.
Well, of course, you have to be careful about certain doors. Anyone who flings everything ajar at once would be blown away. A mighty change could rage through all the rooms in your psyche. One of the most jealously self-protective elements in human nature may be to protect oneself from one's own dark and barricaded corners.
So I don't think it's a real problem that we're going to open, by mistake,
the doors at onceâwe don't. We can't. What I meant by the closer you get to yourself, the closer you are to coming out of your own asshole has to do with something I'd like to attach to this discussion concerning the nature of defecation, shit, and waste. It may be worth getting into. As a small premise, think of people who are terribly prudish about evacuation. They don't want to think about it, don't talk about it, it's beneath them, they hope it is terribly far away from them. I'd say, ethically speaking, that's not a comfortable way to be. Far better that when you're sitting on the throneâparenthetically, it's interesting that we have that metaphor, “the throne,” precisely for the toiletâwhen you're sitting on the throne, you do well to be regal about it and enjoy the sniffs of your own waste. Smell your own shit and decide for yourself if you're a little more healthy or a little more unhealthy than you thought you were the last time you sat down. That's part of being close to yourself. You take this notion that what comes out of you may be unpleasant, but it is certainly real. It can be the nearest we come to a fact. It's like hearing your own voice unexpectedlyâso often it's too shrill, too arrogant, too peremptory, too spoiled, or harsh. To the degree we can hear our own voice, we improve our relations with other people. Because if we find our own voice unpleasant at times, then if the other person starts shrieking at us, we don't have to think, “How unstable is the other.” Not if we can recognize that our own voice was ugly enough to incite the response.