Thursday, October 18, 2007

"On God" by Norman Mailer and J.Michael Lennon

On God: An Uncommon Conversation
Norman Mailer, J.Michael Lennon
(Random House)

Norman Mailer has spent a good deal of his fifty plus year career as a writer wrestling with the issue of God and the nature of His being, speculations that have helped make his books rich texts for advancing limitless sets of dualisms about the condition of America 
and the growing complexity in the issue of good vs. evil. He has now brought us his new book,"On God:An Uncommon Conversation", a series of discussions with his literary archivist, professor J.Michael Lennon. It is a fascinating discussion, intriguing quite despite Mailer's confessed lack of theological training. The lack of training works to Mailer's advantage; his God is less an all seeing General Manager of the universe than he is an artist trying to fill a page with beautiful words , or a canvas with arresting figures in sublime colors and shades.

Mailer is that rare creature, an actual American religious existentialist, a philosophy that insists that we cannot have a meaningful faith unless we face the circumstances of our life straight on, without reservation, and take a creative action to deal with them, sans the comforting catechisms priests, rabbis or monks might offer us. The point is that we advance toward a solution, create a meaningful context for ourselves in an existence where greater assurances are impossible, and that we take full responsibility for the consequences of the acts we do; we commit acts of faith that God is with us, without guarantees, and that we make mistakes along the way.

Mailer is taken with the notion that we're created in his image, and speculates that he also gave us his temperament and fallibilities as well as his best graces, all without the supernatural abilities. God is more like us, let us say, than we are like him, and it is in this area where religious existentialism finds another nuance. Far from being the silent Kierkegaardian God who is static,cold and despairing, apropos for Northern European weather conditions, Mailer is considering a God of Action, something of a Hemingway in deistic form who must prove himself with creative acts, a deity in the trenches, making mistakes, failing, succeeding, learning from his mistakes, constantly evolving.

The God that interests Mailer is one guided by intuition no less than we, His creations whom we are said to resemble.One might say that it's a pity that Mailer hadn't followed through on his spiritual notions and developed a fully argued theology, but he is a novelist and storyteller, after all, and his long held ideas about God's motive, condition and instincts have served him splendidly as a source of metaphor in his fiction, journalism and essays. Mailer and Lennon go through Mailer's ruminations at length, and there is something of great interest in how his conception of The Lord as literary figure, an artist have informed and enlarged his fiction and nonfiction writings; it is in the books, from "Presidential Papers" through his latest novel "The Castle in the Forest "where one finds the greatest and most provocative application of his religious thinking.

"On God" , always intriguing, quietly quirky, lacks the energy and , one may say, the conviction of older writings.Lacking a novel or a major essay to reinvigorate his metaphors and thus surprise himself and the reader with the limitless ambiguities involved in reconciling Higher Powers with the flux of actual experience, he sounds weary,as if he's explaining himself yet again one time too many . Mailer's spiritual thinking is best witnessed elsewhere, in his novels " An American Dream","Ancient Evenings and "Castle in the Forest", and his journalism, especially in "Armies of the Night".

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