A Mocking and Unfathomable Mystery
I've known Paul Auster for many years, and I have to admit that for a long time I was sorry that he was so unwilling to talk about his personal relationship with religion. I realize that it's a delicate subject, and that each sensibility experiences it in a different way, and yet I somehow felt that he owed me that sort of confidence. Obviously, I was wrong, but then, especially after September 11, 2001, our relationship gained a certain intimacy, nourished by long conversations about politics (his positions are definitely more radical than mine), about cinema (I admire the humility he has demonstrated as a writer learning about film), and about Brooklyn, where he lives, and which in his latest novel he calls "the ancient kingdom."
Paul is a great storyteller, and his inability to contain his laughter when he is telling a funny story is irresistible. Some of his favorite stories are about Billy Wilder, a director we both love, and among the many anecdotes he has recounted, my favorite is one that I think explains his conception of life. Wilder, on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, was to receive an important prize intended as a tribute to his entire career. All Hollywood had gathered to honor him, and at least three generations of producers, directors, actors, and other film people gave the master a standing ovation as soon as he appeared in the theater. Wilder made his way to the stage with some difficulty, accepted the award, and then headed toward the microphone that had been set up for his thank-you speech. This rhetorical moment has enormous importance in Hollywood, and the excitement in the theater was palpable. Finally reaching the microphone, Wilder began to speak, in his unmistakable Austrian accent: "A man goes to the doctor and says anxiously, 'Doctor, I can't pee anymore!' The doctor, perplexed, looks at the man and asks him, 'How old are you?' And the man says, 'Ninety.' 'Well,' the doctor replies, 'you've peed enough.'" Without another word Wilder put the microphone back in its place and leftthe stage, leaving the audience in a state of mingled dismay and amusement. A few burst into applause, but the director had already reached the limousine that was to take him home.
Every time he tells this story, Auster laughs heartily, and it has never been entirely clear to me whether he is primarily amused or moved. "I don't know myself," he tells me, in his handsome brownstone near Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, "but I know that that's the only way Wilder could have ended his career."
You don't think it reveals a cynical attitude?
Perhaps. But I admire people who are able to make fun of themselves. Only a confident person is capable of doing that. And Wilder was certainly confident.
I wanted to mention the Wilder story in order to talk about religion.
Why do you keep wanting to talk about that?
Because it's the most important subject there is. If there is a God, how does he speak to us? And how do we speak to him?
I understand, but I'm sure that you can talk about God and religion even if you're not talking about them directly.
I'm sure of that, too, provided it's not a way of avoiding the problem or of making oneself a god in one's own image and likeness. So let me start our conversation by referring to what you've created in your books and films. Don't tell me there is no spiritual yearning in Smoke.
I would speak of a possibility of redemption, but not necessarily of religion.
I was very struck also by the elegiac tone of your most recent book, The Brooklyn Follies, a novel in which there is a lot of suffering, and yet what prevails is a humanity marked equally by grace and by piety. The protagonist, the sixty-year-old Nathan Glass, decides to return to the neighborhood of his childhood with the intention of "finding a quiet place to die," after a terrible illness and the failure of his marriage, but he rediscovers the mysterious joy of existence.
I have no problem calling The Brooklyn Follies a story of regeneration and redemption, even though I'm well aware of the recent abuse of these terms. I felt the need to tell a bittersweet story, a comedy with dark aspects that, I hope, offers a picture of contemporary existence that even those who don't know Brooklyn can identify with.
Can we call it a human comedy?
Yes, of course.
What is your definition of comedy?
A story in which the characters are in a better place at the end than they were at the beginning. Think of Shakespeare: The conflicts in the tragedies and comedies are nearly identical, but their resolutions are entirely different. In the tragedies, everyone winds up dead on the stage. In the comedies, everyone gets married.
That's also the path of the Commedia of Dante, which starts in the Inferno and ends in Paradise.
Yes, but I still don't see a mystical or spiritual end point. At least in my own case.
Let's get to the basic question: do you think God exists?
No. I don't believe in him. But that doesn't mean that I don't consider religion a fundamental element of existence.
Were you brought up in a religious environment?
My parents were not particularly observant Jews, but until the age of fourteen I went to synagogue, and I remember my bar mitzvah with a kind of tenderness.
Then what happened?
I went through a crisis typical for people of that age.
How did you react?
I decided to confront the situation head on, and I went to talk to the rabbi. We met every week for several months. I found him very sympathetic, a man of integrity. He understood my state of mind and didn't condemn me for my rejection. Even now, I feel enormous respect for him.
How did your parents react?
With similar respect for my choices. But, I repeat, they were never real believers. My family belonged to that generation of Jews who came to religion after the war with an attitude that displayed above all a paradoxical sense of guilt. After the terrible sufferings of the Holocaust, many felt the need to draw closer to their roots.
Do you miss something of that reality?
There are things we miss in every choice we make. But I can't say I have regrets, and I'm sure I did the right thing.
Why did you call religion a fundamental element of existence?
Because only an ignorant person would say the opposite. Look at history, and what other conclusion can you come to?
In The Brooklyn Follies there is a moment when the protagonist declares, "Give me a wily rascal over a pious sap any day of the week," using as an example the victory of Jacob over Esau.
It's one of the passages of the Bible that most distressed me. It's not a principle I share, but it makes a certain sense. I think God wants to reward Jacob's courage.
What is it that, starting when you were fourteen, no longer seemed convincing to you?
The fact that there existed an omnipotent being responsible for all of creation. Obviously men didn't create the universe. But whatever force did, it's quite a leap to assume it was the work of a conscious being. But I also hadand continue to havemany problems with organized religion.
Do you think there is something negative about it?
Not in itself. Yet I believe that religions are stained, all religions. Think of how many times the name of God has been invoked to conquer or kill. Think of the Inquisition, of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, or of the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. The fundamentalist tendency of religion today frightens me, and I see around me a world filled with more and more fanatics. The problem of absolutism is that it leads you to believe that you own the truth. If you start from this assumption, you open the door to every sort of distortion, and you dehumanize whoever doesn't share your beliefs.
This may be true for fanatics; but Christianity, for example, asks us to love our neighbor and even turn the other cheek.
Of course, but abominations have been committed by Christians, too, or at least by people who think they are Christians. I'm not doubting the many positive effects that religion can have, but I can't help being aware of the evil effects as well.
What are the positive effects that you appreciate most?
The comfort it can bring to those who are frightened in the face of suffering or mystery. But this aspect also carries the risk of delusion.
In both Smoke and The Brooklyn Follies the families of the protagonists are, to put it mildly, wrecks: there are drug addicts, a girl who becomes an actress in pornographic films, someone who out of spite cuts himself off from his relatives. And yet the family still has value.
Many families are disasters, but that doesn't mean there aren't genuine lifelong bonds between the members of those families. I would be the last to deny the value of the family.
Do any of your characters follow a path similar to that of the protagonist of a book or film that is explicitly inspired by a religious belief?
Frankly, I had never thought about that. Give me an example.
At the beginning of The Brooklyn Follies, Nathan is searching for "a silent end to my sad and ridiculous life," while at the end he proclaims himself "the happiest man who ever lived." From the point of view of an inner journey, is that any different from what happens to George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life?
Yes. Because Nathan's declaration of happiness comes on the morning of September eleventh, a few minutes before the terrorist attacks.
Capra's film doesn't at all rule out pain or new tragedies.
I know, but he was a Catholic, and he believed in grace and providence. I, on the other hand, see in the coupling of Nathan's declaration of happiness and the imminence of tragedy a mocking and unfathomable mystery.
I Believe in God But I Don't Bug Him
Saul Bellow is curious about the idea of talking about a private matter like religion, but he agreed to do so on condition of reserving the right not to respond to certain questions. "There are subjects it is impossible to talk about," he explains with a deeply ironic severity, "but that doesn't mean discussion is pointless. Some themes require modesty, respect, I would say even fear, and the value of a conversation in which we can't undertake extended reflection or impose absolute sincerity is in danger of being undermined."
Why do you consider sincerity impossible?
Because we are able to be absolutely sincere only with ourselves and, in fact, with God. In an interview, even when there is complete good faith, narcissism, the wish to say something intelligent, and anxiety about how one will appear prevail in the end.
And why do you not consider even extended reflection possible?
Frankly it seems to me a little antithetical to journalism.
So you might as well not speak . . .
I didn't say that. I think that awareness of these dangers and these limits can provide a possible interpretation with respect to a theme as important as the one we are trying to address.
In other words you're saying: "We offer the reader damaged goods, but if he is attentive he will perceive the hidden value."
Isn't it always like that with the press?
I hope not. Why did you agree to discuss your relationship with religion?
Because it's obviously a subject that I feel strongly about and think about. And because I am fascinated by the fact that recently there has been a lot of talk about God, about religion, about spirituality, about the soul. In the last century these ideas seemed destined to disappear. Do you recall everyone saying "God is dead"? Well, the only thing that is dead is those ideas.
Do you believe in God?
And how do you imagine him?
I don't want to talk about that. I'm afraid of banality, and I think it's a subject whose importance is diminished by conversation.
Did you have a religious upbringing?
As you know, I'm Jewish. My mother was extremely religious while my father avoided the subject. I've often wondered if in reality this concealed an unresolved problem, and I'll confess to you that I've never reached a definite conclusion. I would say that he was an extremely skeptical person who fluctuated continually between distress regarding the possible existence of God and the choice of agnosticism. I can tell you in all sincerity that in the end it was my mother who had the greater influence on me.
There are Bible scholars who maintain that atheists don't exist: there are only believers and idolaters.
That's an interesting point, which has enormous potential to be provocative. I wonder how a person who declares himself an atheist might react to a statement of that sort: if the obligatory inference is that his conviction is false, then he has the right to be offended, leaving aside the fact that the principle may be true. The atheist has to be free to be what he wants. I think that's an important religious principle.
The Christian idea of grace is based on just this type of freedom.
I know the principle you mean: No one is beyond the reach of God. And I feel that I share it.
Eliot called himself "a monarchist in politics, Catholic as regards religion, and traditionalist in literature."
I don't much love classifications, especially those having to do with myself. You've reminded me of a journalist who asked me if I thought that I had been awarded the Nobel Prize as an American writer or as a Jewish writer.
What did you say?
That it had been awarded to me as a writer.
A few years ago, Frederick Glaysher wrote that you are the only American writer, along with Isaac Bashevis Singer, who addresses the problem of the modern soul.
That's another subject I prefer not to talk about: what I have to say is written in my books.
In Mr. Sammler's Planet the protagonist declares, "Very often, and almost daily, I have strong impressions of eternity."
There are moments when God shadows existence. And he persists in this manifestation. If you're looking for revelatory fragments in what I've written I can help you: In another passage of the book I write that "the purest human beings, from the beginning of time, have understood that life is sacred," and if I remember correctly I refer more than once to the will of God.
But in Herzog you write, "History is the history of cruelty, not love, as soft men think. . . . If the old God exists he must be a murderer."