In a six-decade career, Norman Mailer has written thirteen novels, nineteen works of nonfiction, two poetry collections, and one play. He’s directed four movies. He ran for mayor of New York, and in the living room of his Brooklyn Heights home, he built, in three weeks, with two friends, a vast Lego city, incorporating some 15,000 pieces, known as the city of the future, seeming to take as much pride in it as in any of his other creations. But even at 84, he has a vast ambition. And now he has created something like a religion. In a new book, On God, a dialogue with one of his literary executors, Michael Lennon, he lays out his highly personal vision of what the universe’s higher truths might look like, if we were in a position to know them. But his theology is not theoretical to him. After eight decades, it is what he believes to be true. He expects no adherents, and does not profess to be a prophet, but he has worked to forge his beliefs into a coherent catechism.
Mailer’s deity is much like Mailer. He or she is an artist—with the stipulation that God is the greatest artist—concerned most particularly with the human soul, but with much else besides. God takes great pleasure in his creations. God is constantly experimenting, and highly fallible. God is far from all-powerful, but is learning along with us. God is in constant struggle with his own fallibility, and also with evil—with the devil—and is not certain whether good will triumph in the end. We are God’s creations, but we are not at all times part of his plan—God may not even be cognizant of all that we do. And if God needs our love, the question Mailer insists has to be answered is, Why?
Like Emerson, Mailer borrows from countless other traditions, discarding their husks, or rewrites them. (Mailer allows that Jesus may very well have been the son of God, but thinks that his crucifixion and resurrection must have been a mistake and the mistake’s crude fix.) In place of heaven (his hell seems like a celestial DMV), Mailer posits a system of reincarnation retooled from the Indian religions. Karmic factors certainly play a role, but God’s creative interests, as well as his needs in his struggle with the devil, are more important. Not only bodies, but souls, too, can be eliminated for various reasons—sometimes they’re tired, sometimes simply because they’re no longer interesting to God. Evolution is God’s studio. Some of his creations work, and some need improvement—Mailer believes in a highly modified version of Intelligent Design.
Mailer’s devil is borrowed partly from Milton—very possibly a fallen angel who, Mailer posits, may find God incompetent. The devil’s principal weapon is technology, which was of course a driving force of the twentieth century—Mailer’s century. Mailer believes that the devil aspires to create a mechanized world, where souls are increasingly interchangeable. Mailer even questions the value of quotidian inventions, like plastic or the flush toilet, believing that they may have insulated people from the truth of their existence.
In another sense, On God is Mailer’s own non serviam, his disavowal of organized religion. He allows that the Ten Commandments are useful in most cases, but views any slavish following of God’s rules as an abdication of personal responsibility. His own ethic consists of divining right action amid the confusion of the world—obviously, many mistakes are made. Courage amid uncertainty is, as always, Mailer’s highest virtue.
The tragedy of the twentieth century is embedded in Mailer’s new theology. The Holocaust—enabled as it was by technology—along with the nuclear bomb were for Mailer obviously the work of the devil. They fouled up the mechanics of reincarnation, confusing God, devaluing all souls.
Mailer understands the vanity many will see in this project—God the novelist, the Universe as mirror of self. But he’s lived with critics his entire career.
As he writes in his introduction, “the conviction grew that I had a right to believe in the God I could visualize.”
MICHAEL LENNON: Let’s start at the beginning, with your views on God.
MAILER: Much of the world’s present-day cosmology is based on such works of revelation as the Old and New Testament, or the Koran, but for me, revelation is itself the question mark—not God’s word, but ours. I confess that I have no attachment 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. Sometimes a young artist has to make large errors before he or she can go further.