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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Dogs Have Souls?

Read an exclusive extract from Mailer's final book that begins with his thoughts on the creator’s place in history

The first problem with this “uncommon” conversation is that its main elements are so commonplace. The last time I spoke to Norman Mailer on the telephone he was bawling at me in the carrying tones of the hard-of-hearing about his 1997 novel The Gospel According to the Son. “Jesus, Christopher,” he yelled, “you have no idea what a real revolutionary this guy from Nazareth really was.”

One has been hearing this sort of thing for years, originally from the now-defunct “liberation theology” school and most recently in a dense pamphlet from Terry Eagleton. And now here comes a load more of it, elicited by the patient Mailer scholar Michael Lennon:

“Q: You said that dogs have souls.

A: Yes.

Q: Then I assume that both sides have enlisted them. What about the other animals? Are you ready to say that some are on God’s side? Are the eagles and the doves? The vultures and the snakes.

A: To enter these matters is equal to philosophical free fall.”

I’ll say it is. (One is tempted to say that it’s equivalent to barking.) But more interesting is what Mailer goes on to add: “For instance, my belief in God and the Devil comes, to a good extent, from the fact that the majority of people, through all of recorded time, have believed in both evil spirits and good ones and, finally, in a god and a devil accompanied by angels and demons. If the majority has such beliefs, one does well to keep some respect for such notions.”

Here the absorbing question — apart from that odd shift from the upper to the lower case — is: did it take religion to get Mailer, of all people, to yearn to blend in with the vast majority? (Lennon’s next question, however, occurs as if nothing had happened. “Do you relate any of your ideas to modern concepts of disease?” he blandly inquires.)

When people exclaim “My God”, it is, in fact, often a highly personal deity (personal to them, I mean) that they are evoking. Individuals create gods in their own image. Mailer, of course, would not be behindhand in the business of confecting idiosyncratic gods to suit his own requirements. He is in character in taking the chance to point this out early on, and in a highly Mailerish way, too: “I can hear the obvious rejoinder: ‘There’s Norman Mailer, an artist of dubious high rank looking to give himself honour, 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.”

Oh, come on Norman, who is going to believe a thing like that? (Actually, the word around certain parts of Brooklyn and Provincetown had been that Mailer had finally succumbed this time, and really did think he was God after all.)

He is best on, of all subjects, the matter of heaven and hell. As he usefully points out, moments of ecstasy or perfection in our lives are almost by definition brief and transitory, “whereas we can be in hell for months, even years; we can live in towering depression. Hell, therefore, is much more available to human beings as a set of stages”.

Occasionally, there are glimpses of the ramifications of this subject in Mailer’s other work. He tells us that he set the stage version of The Deer Park in hell for the above reason. Lennon takes him up on religious echoes in two of his novels — Ancient Evenings and An American Dream. The author muses at some length on the question of suicide, alludes to The Executioner’s Song and says that he believes the murderer Gary Gilmore desired to die because he didn’t want his physical body to outlive his soul, and was convinced that if he remained in prison his soul would indeed expire. And he never misses a chance to work one of his favorite literary tropes — the hatred of technology — into this cosmic discussion, referring to it quite unironically as “the most advanced, extreme, and brilliant creation of the Devil”.

It comes as no surprise to find Mailer embracing a form of Manicheanism, pitting the forces of light and darkness against each other in a permanent stand-off, with humanity as the battlefield. (When asked if Jesus is part of this battle, he responds rather loftily that he thinks it is a distinct possibility.) But it is at points like this that he talks as if all the late-night undergraduate talk sessions on the question of theism had become rolled into one. “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.”

Mailer says that questions such as this have bedevilled “theologians”, whereas it would be more accurate to say that such questions, posed by philosophers, have attempted to put theologians out of business. A long exchange on the probability of reincarnation (known to Mailer sometimes as “karmic reassignment”) manages to fall slightly below the level of those undergraduate talk sessions.The Manichean stand-off leads Mailer, in closing, to speculate on what God might desire politically and to say: “ In different times, the heavens may have been partial to monarchy, to communism, and certainly the Lord was interested in democracy, in capitalism. (As was the Devil!)”

I think it was at this point that I decided I would rather remember Mailer as the author of Harlot’s Ghost and The Armies of the Night.

Game theory

Who but the sports-mad Mailer would liken the battle between God and the Devil to a game of American football? The contest, for sure, has with own laws (so that after God and the Devil “tackle a guy, they don’t kick him in the head”), but each side is not above cheating — with God breaking the rules occasionally by throwing in “a miracle”. Strangely, Mailer doesn’t mention Jesus in this agonising analogy, but then the notion of the “super-sub” may be an image too far even for him.

Posted by Ajay :: 6:19 PM :: 0 comments

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