On God: An Uncommon Conversation

How much more interesting than the cut-and-dried atheist is the generous and freewheeling heretic; even the hardest heads in the current secretariat of nonbelief (Sam Harris, say, or Christopher Hitchens) might have trouble denying that it takes more imagination to invent a deity than to explode one. But real heresies are thin on the ground these days: depending on which magazine you read, the last word on faith belongs either to Pope Benedict XVI or to Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. At this point in the debate, to quote a noted religious authority, “You’re either with us or against us.”

Norman Mailer, bless him, this fall trundled his homemade God onto the field of combat. With his recent passing reverberating through the reading world, there is no better time to charge into these conversations with English professor and veteran Mailerite Michael Lennon, as the late lion lays out his own very personal vision of the divine economy. The destiny of souls, the wages of sin, the potency of saints, the possible immortality of dogs — it’s all here.

How seriously you take it will depend, naturally enough, on your opinion of Norman Mailer: for myself, I prefer to read On God not as a work of amateur theology but as a piece of high-altitude metaphysical clowning in the vein of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday or Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. In one of the book’s best moments, Mailer recalls the only time in his life he felt himself directly addressed by the Almighty. What a scene: after a night of undirected drinking and rambling, at the beginnings of his third divorce, the author is sitting flatly over a cup of coffee and a doughnut in a Brooklyn diner when the Lord speaks to him. His words are: “Leave without paying.” Somewhat thrown by this, Mailer resists. “I said, ‘I can’t do it.’ And the voice — it was most amused — said ‘Go ahead and do it,’ quietly, firmly, laughing at me.” So Mailer, with the fear of God in him, skips out on a 25-cent check. “It seemed to me that I was so locked into petty injunctions on how to behave, that on the one hand I wanted to be a wild man, yet I couldn’t even steal a cup of coffee. To this day, I think it was God’s amusement to say ‘You little prig. Just walk out of there. Don’t pay for the coffee. They’ll survive, and this’ll be good for you.’ ” (This excellent little story has had the bonus side-effect of irritating Leon Wieseltier, who in a recent issue of The New Republic described it — with intense humorlessness — as “perhaps the silliest passage I have ever read in the literature of spiritual autobiography.”)

The God of On God shares certain important characteristics with the Judaeo-Christian version (namely, singularity and an essential goodness) but beyond these he is all Mailer: a large-hearted creator permanently vulnerable to the diabolic forces of mediocrity and spite. He is not omnipotent — no indeed. Bad reviews, as it were, of his Creation cause him acute grief, and may actually weaken him: he hates above all to be misunderstood. The Universe, according to Mailer, “has become a contest among three protagonists. It isn’t that we are passive onlookers while God and the Devil wage a war within us. We are the third force and don’t always know which side we are on in any given moment…”

For longtime Mailer watchers none of this is news: the author tinkered with his one-man religion for half a century, like an auto enthusiast working on his car. In his 1957 essay “The White Negro,” a philosophical plunge into the saxophone-maddened swamp of Hip, he proposed a God who was “trapped, mutilated and nonetheless megalomaniacal.” By 1959, when he was interviewed by Richard G. Stern and Robert F. Lucid for The Western Review, he had concluded that “God is in danger of dying.” It became a matter of sensitizing oneself, via a gamut of confrontations and extremities (orgies, crime, fights — the Mailerian moral arsenal) to God’s fragility; his state, as it were, of cosmic hospitalization. In the invisible triumphs of one’s own better or braver nature, and in the little swats of defeat, could the progress or decline of the divine patient be measured.

These preoccupations were all over Mailer’s great journalism of the ’60s and much of his subsequent fiction. Last year’s The Castle in the Forest was sort of his novelistic summa theologica — an account, written in the voice of a hardworking middle-management demon, of the selection, grooming and miseducation of the young Adolf Hitler by satanic powers. Readers who (like me) were somewhat confounded by the slow-motion pacing and luxuriant, almost stifling, physical atmosphere of that book will find On God a tonic: here is the intellectual synopsis, breezily presented. Michael Lennon writes in his preface that all the talk took place in the third-floor study of Mailer’s house, “where from the big window one can see the swerve of shore and bend of bay of Provincetown harbor.” The sage holds forth; the sea frets at the sand. “I’m not trying to found a religion,” he declares, his eyes upon the dimness of futurity. “I think if these ideas of mine have any value, a great deal of time will go by before there are any adherents.” Now wouldn’t that be a turn-up for the books — if in two centuries On God were to become the core text for some raving tribe of schismatics.

It’s not unthinkable. This is, in its way, an inspiring little work. I would add that it also contains a surprising amount of what I can only call good advice: “To the degree that we can hear our own voice,” reflects Mailer at one point, “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. That’s one of the elements in a decent marriage.” Heresy and horse sense: perhaps not as odd a combination as one might think. Let’s return again to that unpaid 25-cent check, and the clear sense that Mailer had of “God’s amusement” as he sloped out of the Brooklyn diner. The speculations contained in On God are to be relished or refuted in the same spirit — within earshot, at least, of everlasting paternal laughter.