A Mashup of Don King and Montaigne


An Uncommon Conversation
By Norman Mailer with Michael Lennon
240 pages. Random House. $26.95.

For a man who insisted on clear talk and bold opinions, the late Norman Mailer was an ambiguous figure in his 84 years. To call him “complicated,” “controversial,” or even “confounding” would be to understate the role he made for himself in American life and literature. Quick to irritate, enrage, and offend, he was also curious, sympathetic, and maddeningly versatile. He couldn’t be knocked down by opponents because he delivered his most crushing blows to himself. He couldn’t be categorized because he rejected almost all standards and models. Though he never hid his allegiances, his prejudices, or his origins, Mailer was also fiercely independent, a self-made man in that he created a view of himself and enacted it to the best of his ability. No matter what his topic was, his topic was himself, and he always had something new to say on the subject.

Almost all of this is evident in his final completed book, On God. The book is a transcript of interviews with Mailer, conducted by his friend and literary executor, Michael Lennon. Over six conversations, Mailer and Lennon discuss the novelist’s religious views, an original cosmology founded in his criticisms of organized religion and his observations about human nature.

There is much to question in the book, but pointing out holes in Mailer’s theological arguments isn’t worthwhile; he and Lennon do a more than sufficient job of it. The author expects readers to see the blank spots and contradictions, even embraces them. Uncertainty is a feature of life, and Mailer sees peace with that uncertainty as a virtue, and a step away from fundamentalism to something progressive. Mailer’s theology is existential, open-ended. He leaves no ground for fundamentalism. In his thinking, God is an artist, and the world is a work in progress, a project endangered by man’s weakness, the Devil’s opposition, and God’s own limitations. God is neither infinite nor all-powerful; while he knows more than we do, he is still learning and experimenting right alongside us, and man’s role is to help perfect his Creation.

As Mailer constantly reminds us, he isn’t a theologian or a philosopher, but a novelist. So we shouldn’t be surprised that his religious beliefs are grounded in a narrative, one driven by characters. His ideas about the Devil are a bit more confused and incomplete than his claims about God, but then, God is simply more real in his story, and the protagonist is usually a bit more complete a creation than the villain.

Despite the narrative aspect of his theology, Mailer is at his best in On God when he’s critical, rather than constructive. His challenges to organized religion and theodicy are formidable; he’s speaking from certainty and reflection. The same solidity doesn’t underlie his created cosmos. He injects a speculative air which is face-saving and reasonable, but which reduces any responsibility on the reader’s part to engage with his views on God and the Devil. A reader is left with them by elimination, as if Mailer isn’t so much saying, “What I say is true,” as “It might as well be that…”. Once again, as throughout his career, Mailer is building on a grand scale, but what’s most lasting isn’t the edifice, but the change to the neighborhood.

If any single notion in On God is going to reverberate, it is his belief that technology is the greatest tool of the Devil in his campaign against God. If God’s creation and project requires a deepening of human feeling and capability, a broadening of minds and hearts, then there is something, at the gut level, about plastic and microchips that Mailer was horrified by. Technology can do great good, and has. But as an end, and as a daily experience, the notion of technology as detriment (even without the religious element) rings true. It squares with the soullessness of much Internet communication, and with the ability of television and radio to propagate messages of war on a grand scale. There is a dullness of spirit and hardening of barriers that comes with data, speed, and instant consumption, an ironic impermeability in an open network. A million streams of information, a million online personas bidding for attention, and nowhere to engage. A person could die of loneliness in such company.

Perhaps I read to much into his aversion to technology, his equation of electricity with demonic presence, but I can’t help but imagine that, like so many of his opinions about the world, that aversion was grounded in a personal need of his own. The online world could well have been a nightmare scenario for Mailer, a man who needed to stand out, who preferred an argument with fists curled and spit flying, for whom passion was as intrinsically physical as psychological. How does a man pound a podium online, make a spectacle of himself? In his actions and writings, Mailer was a mashup of Don King and Montaigne, a gadfly, a hustler, and an intellectual force whose greatest subject was himself. There was no place in his world for the sterility of silicon.

Much of On God is given over to Mailer’s views on reincarnation. He believed that reincarnation awaited those who had the will to do it all again. A soul with energy left to make a better go of it would be granted a chance to improve on its potential. If he’s right, than there’s no doubt that Mailer will back among us soon, with energy and will aplenty, brawling with nurses in the maternity ward, making sure they know he’s one to keep an eye on.