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Mailers major works have engaged such themes as war, politics, culture, and sex. Now he gives us fresh ways to think about the largest subject of them all.
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Norman Mailer was born in 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. In 1955, he was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He is the author of more than thirty books, including The Naked and the Dead; The Armies of the Night, for which he won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; The Executioner’s Song, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize; Harlot’s Ghost; Oswald’s Tale; The Gospel According to the Son; and The Castle in the Forest. Mr. Mailer passed away Saturday November 10th, 2007.
From the Hardcover edition.
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 ...
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