“I see God,” wrote Norman Mailer, “as a Creator, as the greatest artist. I see human beings as His most developed artworks.” In these moving, amusing, and probing dialogues conducted in the years before his death, Mailer establishes his own system of belief, rejecting both organized religion and atheism. He avows that sensual pleasures were bestowed on us by God; he finds fault with the Ten Commandments; and he holds that technology was the Devil’s most brilliant creation. In short, Mailer is original and unpredictable in this inspiring journey, in which “God needs us as much as we need God.”
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
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About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Hometown:Provincetown, Massachusetts, and New York, New York
Date of Birth:January 31, 1923
Date of Death:November 10, 2007
Place of Birth:Long Branch, New Jersey
Education:B.S., Harvard University, 1943; Sorbonne, Paris, 1947-48
Read an Excerpt
On GodAn Uncommon Conversation
By Norman Mailer
Random HouseCopyright © 2007 Norman Mailer
All right reserved.
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 theDevil.
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.
Excerpted from On God by Norman Mailer Copyright © 2007 by Norman Mailer. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"By now, philosophically speaking, atheism is more incomprehensible to me than the notion that there's a creator." (N.M.) In an era dichotomously characterized by a drive toward secularism and a reluctance to completely abandon the concept of God, Norman Mailer's last book effectively outlines his life's effort to "work out his own salvation" and to understand his place in the world. Presented in an interview format with Michael Lennon, this relaxed work offers Mailer's personal insights into the natures of God, the Devil and humankind, and the roles of each in the universal sense. In fewer than three-hundred pages, the author concisely visits topics as diverse as free will, life after death, and political philosophy. He even speculates that "good" may not ultimately triumph over "evil," and suggests that neither God nor the Devil are all-powerful or all-knowing. Perhaps, Mailer says, God isn't even all good--he may be 80% good, while the Devil is 80% evil. As human beings, Mailer suggests, we place a burden too great on God with our expectations that he will always help us, or even that he is always able to answer our most pressing needs. God's power is limited according to Mailer and, often, God fails to understand his own creation. Obviously, just entertaining these notions meets fundamentalist criteria for pure blasphemy-100%. But it gives us something to think about, because it's only blasphemous if we believe in that external, personal God. On the other hand, if we believe God is what we make him, then Mailer's hypothesis seems somewhat ineffectual as an explanation. Specifically, isn't God supposed to represent the ideal? Shouldn't the concept of God embody and encourage human aspiration? And if the ideal is less than perfect, how can it be ideal? If I'm inventing my own God, I'm not sure I want anything less than ideal. Who would aspire to 80% of anything? By Mailer's approximation though, God is an artist above all else. As an artist, he expresses himself through his creation, but his creation is never complete and, since he has endowed us with free will, we sometimes surprise him. As God learns about us, then, he learns about himself; and as we learn about God, we learn about ourselves. "On God"--in an approach bold, but not offensive to the more open minded among us--nudges the reader toward curiosity, reflection and introspection. In the end, Mailer even offers his vision of the perfect society: a synthesis of the social, political, economic and religious ideals he suggests would most greatly benefit the human race. A surprising exit for a former atheist.
This book brings a new light of thought, interesting, outstanding book!