From the Publisher
Praise for On God
“[Norman Mailer’s] theology is not theoretical to him. After eight decades, it is what he believes. He expects no adherents, and does not profess to be a prophet, but he has worked to forge his beliefs into a coherent catechism.”—New York
“The glory of an original mind in full provocation.”—USA Today
“At once illuminating and exciting . . . a chance to see Mailer’s intellect as well as his lively conversational style of speech.”—American Jewish Life
“Remarkable . . . [Mailer’s] a believer—in his own fashion. . . . He has made [God] into a complex character.”—The Globe and Mail
Praise for Norman Mailer
“[Norman Mailer] loomed over American letters longer and larger than any other writer of his generation.”—The New York Times
“A writer of the greatest and most reckless talent.”—The New Yorker
“Mailer is indispensable, an American treasure.”—The Washington Post
“A devastatingly alive and original creative mind.”—Life
“Mailer is fierce, courageous, and reckless and nearly everything he writes has sections of headlong brilliance.”—The New York Review of Books
“The largest mind and imagination [in modern] American literature . . . Unlike just about every American writer since Henry James, Mailer has managed to grow and become richer in wisdom with each new book.”—Chicago Tribune
“Mailer is a master of his craft. His language carries you through the story like a leaf on a stream.”—The Cincinnati Post
Famed novelist and playwright Mailer here embarks on a journey into all aspects of God and religion with Lennon, president of the Norman Mailer Society. Written shortly before Mailer's death in 2007 and done in a Q&A format, the narrative focuses on an eclectic variety of subjects that revolve around Mailer's assertion that God is an artist. Mailer believed in the existence of God but argued that he (or she) is like an artist because God is not perfect. He created the dinosaurs and then realized that they were too large to survive, so they had to become extinct. The authors leave no stones unturned, covering reincarnation, the state of world religions, fundamentalism, the Holocaust, poverty, intelligent design, and prayer. Their conversations make reference to numerous disciplines, including literature, art, philosophy, and theology. As with his life and all his writings, Mailer took no prisoners with this work. He was unapologetic in his criticism of all of the major religions for stifling creative thought in both their leaders and their followers. This audiobook is not leisurely material for the car or the beach; it is scholarly and a tough go at times. However, readers Kent Bateman (Mailer) and Malcolm Hillgartner (Lennon) do an admirable job of trying to keep the listener engaged in the often dense and meandering thoughts of this brilliant and controversial writer. Recommended for large academic libraries.
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 Judeo-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. The Castle in the Forest (2006) 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. --James Parker
James Parker is the author of Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins (Cooper Square Press). He is a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix.
Read an Excerpt
On God as the Artist
michael lennon: Scientists believe that the universe is expanding. Is this accelerating nature of the cosmos reflected in your concept of a god who can grow and develop?
norman mailer: I start from another direction. Having been a novelist all my working life, I may know a little about human beings. I should. They have been my study. You might say my theological notions come out of such questions as, Who are we? What are we? How do we develop? Why, indeed, are we in existence? And is there the presence of a Creator in what we do?
So the larger cosmic speculations are of less interest to me. In truth, I would hate to rely on the ever-changing state of advanced physics for my ideas.
In places, you've said that God and the Devil are lesser divinities in liege to larger powers who might be the ultimate creators. Who or what do you feel is the ultimate power in the universe? Who created the universe?
I feel the same way about the ultimate Creator as I feel about the expanding universe: All that is too large for my speculations. But I don't see any inherent logical contradiction in saying that I do believe our God created the world we live in and is in constant conflict with the Devil.
In St. George and the Godfather, you say, "The world's more coherent if God exists, and twice coherent if He exists like us." I'm afraid this logic smacks of wish fulfillment. God need not exist merely to satisfy your desire for order. Perhaps the world is incoherent; perhaps the cosmos is disordered.
Where does my desire for order come from? Not only do we humans have a fundamental desire for order, we have an obvious tendency as well toward disorder-a true conflict between order and disorder. So I say it may be worth the attempt to search into such questions.
That may require hearing your thoughts on the relationship between the nature of the deity and codes for human living.
Oh, Christ, Mike, I don't think in these formulae. I want to get to something more basic to my thought, which is that much of the world's present-day cosmology is based on such works of revelation as the Old and New Testament, or the Koran, yet for me Revelation is itself the question mark. Revelation, after all, is not God's words but ours, words debated back then, if you will, in committee and assembled by working theologians with varying agendas. After all, why would God bother to speak in such a fashion? There's no need. God could have imparted such thoughts directly to us. Revelation has always struck me as a power trip for high priests who were looking to create a product that would enable them to lead their flock more securely, more emphatically. Their modern-day practitioners quote constantly from Scripture on TV, use it as their guide rail, and run into intolerable contradictions that are guaranteed to cripple their power to reason. I will go so far as to say that to be a Fundamentalist is to exist as a human whose reasoning powers have been degraded into inanition before any question for which a Fundamentalist does not already have an answer.
I confess, then, that I feel no attachment whatsoever to organized religion. I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist. I see human beings as His most developed artworks. I also see animals as His artworks. When I think of evolution, what stands out most is the drama that went on in God as an artist. Successes were also marred by failures. I think of all the errors He made in evolution as well as of the successes. In marine life, for example, some fish have hideous eyes-they protrude from the head in tubes many inches long. Think of all those animals of the past with their peculiar ugliness, their misshapen bodies, worm life, frog life, vermin life, that myriad of insects-so many unsuccessful experiments. These were also modes the Artist was trying-this great artist, this divine artist-to express something incredible, and it was not, for certain, an easy process. Indeed, it went on forever! I would guess that evolution was tampered with, if not actually blindsided on occasion, by the Devil. I think there were false trips that God engaged in because the Devil deluded Him-or Her. Forgive me if I keep speaking of God as "Him," that's a habit that's come down to me from Revelation. Obviously, to speak of God as "Her" is off-putting, but to speak of "Him/Her" or "It" is worse.
In any event, it makes sense to me that this strife between God and the Devil has been a factor in evolution. Whether God had a free hand or the Devil was meddling in it from the commencement-either way, some species were badly conceived. Sometimes a young artist has to make large errors before he or she can go farther.
I can hear the obvious rejoinder: "There's Norman Mailer, an artist of dubious high rank looking to give himself honor, nobility, and importance by speaking of God as an artist." I'm perfectly aware that that accusation is there to be brought in. All I say here may indeed be no more than a projection of my own egotistical preferences.
Well, you have spoken of God as a novelist. . . .
No, I haven't. What I have said upon occasion is that God is a better novelist than the novelists-that's not the same thing.
Whether my motive is pure or impure, I do believe in God as the Artist, the Creator. That makes the most sense to me. Whether I have a private agenda, or whether I am being an objective philosopher (to the extent one can propose the existence of what may be an oxymoron- objective philosopher!)-so be it. Whether guilty or innocent, this will be the argument I advance: God is an artist. And like an artist, God has successes, God has failures.
Evil, you've said more than once, is growing in power-especially in the last hundred years.
Do you think there was ever a time in the past, a golden age, when good was in the ascendancy?
Let's say that in my lifetime, certain things have gotten better and other things have grown worse, so much so that latter-day events would stagger the imagination of the nineteenth century. If, for example, the flush toilet is an improvement in existence-and you can advance arguments against it, which I won't get into-but if it is an improvement, if the automobile is an improvement-again, huge arguments-if technological progress is an improvement, then look at the price that was paid. It's not too hard to argue that the gulags, the concentration camps, the atom bomb came out of technological improvement. For the average person in the average developed country, life, if seen in terms of comfort, is better than it was in the middle of the nineteenth century, but by the measure of our human development as ethical, spiritual, responsible, and creative human beings, it may be worse.
I can't speak for other languages, but I do know the English language has hardly been improved in the last half century. Young, bright children no longer speak well; the literary artists of fifty and one hundred years ago are, on balance, superior to the literary artists of today. The philosophers have virtually disappeared-at least, those philosophers who make a difference.
I take it that, in your view of history, the Enlightenment and the rise of science were not steps forward.
Mixed steps forward. Forward and retrograde. It all depends on what God intended. I could give you a speculation-a rank speculation: Perhaps God intended that human beings would get to the point where they could communicate telepathically. To the degree that a man or woman wished to reach others in small or large numbers, he or she could transmit thoughts to them. One could create operas in one's mind, if one were musically talented, and beam them out to all who were willing to listen. All the means and modes we have of modern communication may be substitutes, ugly technological substitutes, for what was potentially there.
If you ask the average person, myself certainly included, "How do we see the image on television? How does it work?"-it's a blurred mystery. Indeed, the best engineers in the world can't tell you how it happens, why waves of sound striking the auditory nerve produce specific items of hearing. No one, for instance, can tell you what light is-they're still arguing over whether it's a wave or a particle or both. My ongoing question is whether the Enlightenment was for good or for ill. To assume automatically that the Enlightenment was good means you automatically have to say, Yes, it created marvelous freedom for many people. It also created the worst abuses of communism and fascism-so much worse than the Divine Right of Kings. It also helped to foster the subtle, insidious abuses of technology.
I've said before that technology represents less pleasure and more power. It may be that we are supposed to arrive at our deepest achievements through pleasure and pain, rather than through interruption, static, mood disruption, and traffic jams.
I can see communism as an unhappy fruit of the Enlightenment, but isn't fascism a reaction against it? The fact that it cites the blood, the blood-consciousness, all that?
One of the cheats of the Nazis was their implicit claim that they were going back to the blood when in fact they were abusing human instinct. The extermination camps were an absolute violation of any notion of blood. The Nazis were cheating people of their deaths. They informed the camp inmates they were going to have a shower. Into the chamber they all marched, took off their clothes, happy to have a shower what with all those lice inhabiting them, hoping the shower would be hot. In they went and were gassed. Their last reaction in life had to be, "You cheated me!" They died in rage and panic. That's not going back to the blood, to instinct, to preparing oneself to enter the next world. They were obliterated by their own excess of reason. They were ready to assume that even their vile guards were capable of sanitary concerns for them, the imprisoned. How wrong they were!
Reason, ultimately, looks to strip us of the notion that there is a Creator. The moment you have a society built on reason alone, then individual power begins to substitute for the concept of a Creator. What has characterized just about every social revolution is that sooner or later revolutionary leaders go to war with each other and turn cannibalistic. Only one leader is left, an absolute dictator. Once you accept the notion that there is no God, then the ultimate direction for the Left, the Right, or the corporate Center is totalitarianism.
Are you saying that the Enlightenment was a time of victory for the Devil?
I think that first we have to ask whether the relation of God, the Devil, and the human to one another is not a warring relationship among three forces who are separate yet intertwined.
Let me assume there's a Devil always present in human affairs, very much present. Why? Because the Devil is another god and wishes to preempt the god who exists. The Devil has other notions of what existence could be. I'd go so far as to assume that technology is the Devil's invention. Like God, the Devil wants to have power in the universe, whereas God wants that power to satisfy His vision of what the universe could be.
Do you ignore the presence of Christ?
Christ may well be God's son, a physical and spiritual entity whom God decided was necessary for humanity. So, yes, Jesus may have been real. If I wish to argue against revealed dogma, that doesn't mean all of it seems invalid to me. Jesus does make a kind of sense. Jesus as a principle of love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy is something we can all comprehend. We feel it in ourselves. We feel it as the best part of ourselves, the gentlest, richest, most generous part. But organized religions repel me because of the philosophical inconsistency of their God before whom they prostrate themselves, God the Almighty, God the All-Powerful. I think that's where the philosophical trouble begins: the idea that God is All-Good and All- Powerful. The history of the twentieth century demonstrated the contradiction in those terms, and most dramatically. How can we not face up to the fact that if God is All-Powerful, He cannot be All- Good? Or She cannot be All-Good. If God is All-Good, then God is not All-Powerful. To answer this contradiction, theologians have been tying themselves into philosophical knots for the last ten centuries.
Much of your thinking seems to be premised on the event of the Holocaust. I wonder if there had never been Hitler, would your notion of a limited, embattled God have been conceived? Is Hitler the final thing that pushed you into that belief?
Being Jewish, the fair answer to that is probably yes. But there still would have been the gulags. And the failure of Bolshevism. The noblest social idea to come along, the most intense and advanced form of socialism, proved to be a monstrosity. That alone would be enough. Then came a capitalist contribution-the atom bomb, the fact that one hundred thousand people could be wiped out at a stroke. And this in the early stages of nuclear development. So if you eliminate all three of those, Hitler, gulags, atom bombs, then maybe I couldn't have come to these ideas. But historically speaking, you can't perform such an excision. Those three horrors dominate the twentieth century-not to mention the trench warfare of the First World War, which, indeed, accelerated the growth of communism.
The whole problem of evil-Voltaire heard about the earthquakes in Lisbon in 1755 and said the destruction proved there was no God. Throughout our history, humans have questioned God whenever there was a disaster-of course, many of these were natural disasters. That was bad enough. But, of course, why would God allow a natural disaster? You can't blame any of that on humans. That was Voltaire's point. At least we can blame the Holocaust on human evil or the Devil-in part, at least. We can't blame an earthquake in Lisbon in which one hundred thousand people were killed-we can't blame that on human beings.
So that forced many philosophical thinkers of the Enlightenment into declaring, "That's it. God can't possibly exist." But if you take a step back, you can say, Maybe we're looking at too small a scale. Yes, in the concentration camps, six million people were exterminated with untold suffering. The suffering was so great it's impossible for us to conceive of it. To anyone who's ever looked at the photographs or read the accounts, it's horrifying to an extreme degree. But maybe, in the larger scheme of things, God was allowing this to happen to send a message to humanity on how far we have slipped, and He was even willing to sacrifice his Chosen People, or a great number of them, in order to send a message to humanity that it was time to embrace love, compassion, justice, whatever had to be done. Strong medicine, I'm saying.