Read On God: An Uncommon Conversation Online

Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon

Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology

On God: An Uncommon Conversation (8 page)

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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That's one of the elements in a decent marriage.


This being attuned and listening and paying attention to the self…as you were speaking, I kept thinking, “This is positively Jamesian.” James would sense the tiniest shifts in perception. Now, he probably wasn't interested in smelling shit very much—not at all.

That may have been his one major deficiency.


A while ago, you were hammering on Revelation as something to be rejected by human experience. In your view, is there any merit or value in the holy books of the great religions, or do you think they should be seen as historical artifacts, quaint, useless curiosities?

No, no.


What is their use then?

Well, if they're seen as general principles rather than as absolute dicta, they can be of great use. The Ten Commandments—most of us do react within the framework of those ten injunctions. The point is not to build up an inner sense of self-righteousness—“I obey the Ten Commandments, and therefore I am nearer to God.” No, they are crude guides. “Do not kill.” Well, yes, do not kill. Does that mean you have to piss in your pants if you have a gun in your hand and you're face-to-face with Adolf Hitler in 1941? No, you kill him. At that point, I would not consider “Do not kill” an absolute command.

Let's go through the Ten Commandments: Most of them are so simple they apply to 90 percent of the cases. But you have some…Do not commit adultery.” Well, there it can become more complex. Because when people are engaged in miserable marriages, their lives are foul; their children's lives are poisoned. And at a given moment, there's an impulse to escape, to commit adultery in order to avoid doing worse things, like screaming too much at the kids.

Where the Ten Commandments fall down is that there are times you have to do something deemed worse than what you're supposed to do. Because if you don't do that something worse, you're going to get into actions even more destructive, more evil, more unhappy, more toxic to others.


So you're not interested in jettisoning the great holy books of the world; you just want to qualify them.

Not qualify. I want us to cease looking upon them slavishly. Once one becomes a peon to any part of one's mind, one is then open to the dark side of the moon, which is mass destruction.


Your position is very much like Emerson's. He revered Jesus, he was interested in all the holy books, but he certainly wasn't going to be bound by them. His own quest for his inner self, very much like yours, precluded that.

I've read Emerson but only in passing, and that for a simple reason. One, I think he's a great writer, and two, I did feel close enough to him to think, “If I study him, I could end up trying to write wonderful pieces about Emerson.” My arrogance, my vanity, if you will, is that I am out on my own explorations. I've had that rare experience, probably analogous to Emerson's, of being successful enough at an early age not to worry about making a living the way other people do. In return for that blessing, the least I could do was spend my time thinking. I have had such an advantage, and it's an enormous one, and I'm aware of it. I'm happy I'm aware of it because it keeps me modest rather than vain. There were years when I was much too vain, and I have paid for that. Vanity is corrosive.

There are a few generalities you can count on—vanity is immensely dangerous. But nothing is absolute. Vanity may be terribly important for people who don't have enough of it, even as it's injurious to people who have too much. But then the notion of moderation that comes to us from the Greeks can also be stultifying. If you apply it to dangerous activities, however, it becomes interesting. What is moderation for a top-notch race-car driver? What's moderation to a libertine? Well, you don't have to pursue every last fuck that's open to you. What's the mark of moderation in a womanizer, a groper? He doesn't have to feel every woman's ass he's inclined to explore. He looks to be discriminating. When action is high, the road back to balance is discrimination.


A phrase comes to mind—I'm sure you won't like it—that, crudely speaking, applies to a lot of what you've been saying, and that's “situation ethics.”

You mean: “Do the right thing.” It's a maxim often used by black kids. First, what does “do the right thing” mean? The kids are talking then about situations fewer whites have considered in their full complexity. You're a drug dealer, and you're cutting your stuff, and there's a customer who, on the one hand, is a fool—you can take him completely and give him something close to plain talcum powder. On the other hand, you can see he really needs a drug at that moment. So “do the right thing”—don't cut his stuff to a ridiculous level. Lose a little of the profit.

At every level of human existence, no matter how evil certain activities may seem to others, there is a caution present along with the ugly impulse (except, of course, for those rare occasions when the unholy impulse takes over entirely). But short of such moments, I would say that even very unpleasant people will hold back on certain occasions because we all do have this sense of “do the right thing.”

My basic argument is that ethics is not a system of rules—as you said, not something you can etch in stone. Ethics is a sensitivity to the moment and the thought: “This is probably better to do than that.” It could even come down to calculation: You're bilking someone in a deal. But if you're going to bilk him, better not to do it in too ugly a manner, or you'll increase his desire to take advantage of others. So what's your ethos at that moment? It's to reduce ugliness in the world system—by a little.


In one of our earlier conversations, you spoke of a time in the distant future when, after some “definitive metamorphosis of existence,” human vision would join God's vision—perhaps—and travel across the heavens.

When did I say that?


In one of our earlier conversations.

Was that toward the end of
Ancient Evenings
or in
Of a Fire on the Moon


Elements of that were there. You were looking around the corner, so to speak; you were anticipating, rare for you, how things might possibly turn out. A “definitive metamorphosis of existence” was part of the phrase, as I recall. Human nature would shift into a completely different level; human vision would become married with God's and, I assume, would then split off from the demonic. At that point, something would happen—we would “travel across the heavens.”

Well, that's apocalyptic. I do not see any way we're going to separate drastically or quickly from the Devil as well as from God.


So you would not see—

At present, I am more concerned that we do not destroy ourselves.


What would be the necessary conditions for this metamorphosis of existence to happen? What would human beings have to become?

Some of it may be obvious: more and then even more self-awareness. More freedom from Fundamentalism. More readiness for humans to accept the heroic demand that they stop leaning on God, stop relying on God, and start realizing that God's needs could be greater than ours, God's woes more profound than our own. God's sense of failure may be so deep as to mock our sense of failure. God, I believe, is, at present, far from fulfilling His own vision. He is mired in our corporate promotions all over the globe, our superhighways, our plastic, our threats of nuclear warfare, our heartless, arrogant, ethnic wars, our terrorism, our spread of pollution all over His environment. How can God's sorrow not be immeasurably greater than ours?

Before we can approach any thoughts of apocalypse, we have to become human enough, brave enough, to recognize that we cannot rely on God. Rely too much on God, and we are comparable to a tremendously selfish child who drives a parent into exhaustion, deadens the parent through endless demands. “Save me! God, please, can I have that beautiful dress I want for the high school prom? Thank you, God, deliver it to me, God.”
“If you don't, God, I'll be angry at you,” is the underlying element in so many of the prayers. Or the abject beseechment—“God, have pity on me, I'm a poor worm.”

I think we become a hint more heroic if we recognize that we do have to stand on our own. So I can feel a certain respect for atheists. I have huge disagreements with them—the first might be the absolute refusal of a majority to consider the notion of karma for even a moment. Or any kind of Hereafter—their determined intensity that there will be nothing after life. This creates its own sort of trouble. It fortifies the liberal notions that we have to take care of people we know nothing about and enter strange countries and provide them with democracy, whether they desire it or not. Needless to say, Christians have been doing the same for a long time.

I have a tremendous distrust of what people think is the good. At any given moment, 90 percent of that is fashion. The war in Iraq is a perfect example of fashion—the bright idea that we are there to inject democracy into any country that needs it. That was a political fashion; it had no real basis in political reality. Of course, it can be done, you can always inject some warped form of democracy into a country if you have enough troops and are ready to ignore the cost.


I want to come back one more time to love and courage. Here I'm going to use Henry James—his idea of the greatest human act, one that required both love and courage, is an act of renunciation. At the heart of all his novels is an act of renunciation, and usually it's a quiet act, not even an act you take credit for.

It's suspicious in James, because James's life is a study in renunciation. I distrust authors, especially very good authors, when they lay out a full program for their characters that is covertly supporting their own work. James had too little passion to get near to people he didn't understand. He worked out an immensely elaborate and beautiful art, but it's full of renunciation. And we pay the price. If he had been greater as a writer, Americans would be that much better off. James is not much of a guide to the modern world. He's a marvelous guide when you're younger to understanding some of the subtly disproportionate things that go on in high society. He's a great guide to a very limited mountain pass that few people will ever have to traverse. But renunciation did him in. If James had had a few passionate love affairs and had been able to write about them—


He saw them as antithetical. It's the life/art division. James believed that you can have a life
you can have the art, and I'm going to have the art.

Look, I agree, and that does not surprise me, particularly now that I'm old. Recently, I've been saying that if you want to be a serious novelist, a large element of it is monastic. It's a dull life in the daily sense.


That's very Jamesian.

You don't have a lot of fun. You have to give up the idea of fun.


Renunciation serves art. That was his dictum.

In that sense, I do agree. But there is renunciation as a working sacrifice, a temporary renunciation, and there's visceral renunciation, which can amputate a novelist's taproot.


He should have broken off the reservation once in a while? Gone off on a toot?

Yes. Once you've had a wild time or two, you can often support your imagination for a long time. In the harshest sense, you can say the trouble with Henry James is he never fucked another human.


I have one last question, which I think you've already answered. Your position on Jesus seems to be very similar to the position of the Muslims: They revere him as a teacher, a prophet, a guide—they do not recognize him as anything special beyond one in a long line—

No. I wouldn't say I have that point of view. It's possible, to me, that Jesus is the Son of God. If God wants to inspire humankind, which is after all His Creation, why couldn't He, why wouldn't He, send a part of Himself to humankind? I can accept the miracle—miracles don't bother me. What irks me is the bric-a-brac put up to surround the miracle.


So the incarnation—the Word made Flesh is something—

The Word made Flesh gives me trouble. The Gospel of John makes me uneasy. I think John, more than Matthew, Mark, or Luke, created some of the unhappier aspects of the Church. The notion of the Word made Flesh can be reversed—there's the danger. The Flesh can be turned into the Word, can become injunctions, direct communication, usually from above straight down. What is totalitarianism but the Word being implanted in the Flesh?


But John said you have to believe Revelation, it's all there, there's no other way. Whereas Thomas said you have to look inside yourself, John said, “Forget what's inside yourself, look to the Gospels.” So you'd have a natural animosity to John.

I do—and the Flesh was transmogrified into the Word. Most of us by now live with the Word, not the Flesh.


But don't you find the Gospel of John superior in its writing?

The writing is better, yes, which is why people love John and why, of the four, he's the most important. But he is tethered to the word that he helped to create—those loud-voiced, lying, Bible-thumping exhortation disseminators on TV who are also ready to sweep up your dollars, dear fellow Jesus lovers, fellow servants to the Word and the Book, just send it to me here at blank-blank dot com.

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
6.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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