October 20, 2013

"Mailer thought that God exists but is not completely in control of his creation. He needs us to help him in his struggle with the Devil."

"How can we help? By acting instinctively and taking risks, on the understanding, as Mailer liked to say, that the best move lies close to the worst. It’s no good choosing a middle path. We have to risk being damned if we hope to save God, preserve our souls for reincarnation, and avoid cancer. The guiding power in all this business is the unconscious, which Mailer thought had 'an enormous teleological sense,' and which he named 'the navigator.'"

Another extract from that subscribers-only New Yorker article by Louis Menand about Norman Mailer. That jumped out at me in part because of the recent excitement over Justice Scalia's revelation that he believes in the Devil.

20 comments:

KenK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LarsPorsena said...

Mailer was good friends with one of the Devil's minions ,Jack Abbott, and helped him unleash his evil on the world.

EDH said...

"Mailer thought that God exists but is not completely in control of his creation. He needs us to help him in his struggle with the Devil."

Free will, it's a bitch. If God isn't in complete control of his creation -- us -- whose struggle is it? Are we the battlefield or a combatant?

Isn't it our struggle with the Devil that we need God's help with?

Ann Althouse said...

"Mailer was good friends with one of the Devil's minions ,Jack Abbott, and helped him unleash his evil on the world."

Yeah, that is discussed in the excellent article I've linked to.

Ann Althouse said...

"Isn't it our struggle with the Devil that we need God's help with?"

Well, obviously, that's the conventional thing to say. What Mailer said was interestingly different.

It's like: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Get to synthesis. Don't retreat to the thesis when I've given you the antithesis.

Do something with this or it will be a boring conversation.

Now, you may think the Devil lures us into interesting conversations and you're following God by not taking the bait.

If so, I get it, but it's boring!

somefeller said...

What, no "lightweight religion" tag?

n.n said...

Religion is a philosophy of morality. The religions informed by God are designed to navigate the orders of this universe: natural and human. Both orders are chaotic. The Devil is a source or driver of dysfunction.

Paddy O said...

Sounds a little bit like an adapted process theology. It's one way of coming to terms with the problem of evil, dodging the issue of God's omnipotence, suggesting that he's in the mix as well, more than us to be sure, able to influence and persuade.
I like how one blog sums up the process approach (and helps it sound even more similar to Mailer):

"...it is important for us to understand that Process Theology sees the essence of reality as being made up of the potential for destructiveness and the potential for good. These two concepts are intricately connected, like the dark and light side of a mirror, and are essential in making the world a place where freedom of choice is exercised and where spiritual and moral growth is possible.

God works within and through this context, feeling it and experiencing it in its pain and joy, not with a dominant and all powerful power that will simply change it with a stroke, but with a persuasive power drawing us through love in to those paths God has prepared and provided for us, even using our own destructiveness to this end."


Mailer mixes this with just the right blend of pop 70s buffet religiosity to be palatable for Hollywood consumption.

Ann Althouse said...

@Paddy O

Thanks for the "process theology" concept.

Seems to relate to "Screwtape Letters."

Beth said...

Anne Rice's Memnoch the Devil is a fantastic work of fiction about the Devil trying to enlist the Vampire Lestat in his war against God, and how although he knows himself to be damned, Lestat can't bring himself to be on the Devil's side.

KenK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paddy O said...

It does seem to relate, though Lewis himself was not a process theology guy.

God's inability to save is different than God's ability but choice to allow relative freedom. Lewis seems to point to the latter in his works. There's choice in participation, but no question that God is going to win at the end.

Screwtape, in contrast to his other works, is intentionally presented from the perspective of the demons, who are fully committed to their own hope for God's weakness.

Mitch H. said...

Do something with this or it will be a boring conversation.

But professor, it already, inherently *is* a boring conversation, because cheap Manicheans like Mailer are unimaginative fools at best. No fragment I've ever seen of Mailer's work or thought has ever risen above poorly-phrased boorish tripe, including what you've excerpted today. Mailer was everything that was worthless and boring in Boomer New Journalism. At least Wolfe and Thompson had original view-points and ideas - Mailer was the very essence of early Bohemian Bourgeois bushwalla, give or take a few misogynistic quirks here and there.

If you want an *interesting* Manichean, go to Phillip K. Dick. He may have been intermittently mad and a drug addict, but at least he wasn't *spiritual*. He took his religion seriously.

Ann Althouse said...

"It’s no good choosing a middle path. We have to risk being damned if we hope to save God..."

I thought that had potential for discussion.

I've posted on PKD occasionally, but if you think something he's written fits in this discussion, quote it or paraphrase it. Just saying you like him better gets us nowhere.

Paddy O said...

"We have to risk being damned if we hope to save God..."

I agree that is an interesting quote.

Indeed, that is a good way of summing up the crucifixion. I'm teaching through the Apostle's Creed in a couple of my classes and this last week we got to the line, "Descended to the dead." Which some versions have "descended to Hell." Meaning the work of Christ quite literally involved being damned so as to save.

Damned is such absolute language though. And so religiously defined. I like "forsaken." As that is an experience that can carry different degrees, many of which we can experience even in the present life.

The cross is usually pointing towards human salvation, though, not God's. But there's a number of theologians who do say that God's identity itself is at risk. By committing to save humanity, offering salvation, God puts God's own self on the line.

A humanity that is destined to damnation is a loss for God. For God to lose defies his divinity. Thus, God's own salvation is, in a way, at stake. His promise puts his identity at risk.

If the demons win, God does not, thus is not truly divine. Which can be resolved as a kindly but not quite almighty divinity, or as a real ontological battle that goes well beyond eternal human destination.

Paddy O said...

To "take up your cross" (Matthew 16:24)then isn't simply saying that you need to put up with difficult stuff. It's closer to that quote. Take up the risk in being damned, being cursed, being unclean, being rejected by authorities. Take up the things that the cross represents, which was rejection by Rome, rejection by religious leaders, rejection by zealots. Risk being damned--foolishness! scandal!!--and you will be saved.

The challenge is not to see that as an opportunity to do evil or let loose all moral boundaries, but to risk being damned for the sake of others who are already damned. To be included among the lost, one must risk lostness, being called lost. There one will see Christ, among the damned, a salvation for God and humanity.

Or something like that.

Illuninati said...


Mailer thought that God exists but is not completely in control of his creation. He needs us to help him in his struggle with the Devil...How can we help? By acting instinctively and taking risks, on the understanding, as Mailer liked to say, that the best move lies close to the worst. It’s no good choosing a middle path."

Obviously it is impossible for finite beings to understand an infinite God completely, so a perfect theodicy is impossible.

Theodicy is important as a tool to evaluate our own human opinions about God which are obviously not on the same plane as God. It is my understanding that the original doctrine about a battle between good and evil was Zoroastrian in Persia. They taught that there were two competing Gods - one good one bad who were equally matched. It would seem that their doctrine was very close to Mailer's viewpoint. I don't know how much the Hebrews were influenced by this doctrine, but they did spend time in Persia, so the Christian doctrine of the Devil may be a modified form of the original Zoroastrian doctrine.

If there is a connection, the Zoroastrians' evil God, renamed Satan, appears in the Bible without much introduction as a secondary being. People have speculated about his identity but the bible gives us few clues. Some scholars like Rene Gerard question whether the Biblical Devil is a real being or is a metaphor for the mimetic process which guides pagan beliefs. It is possible that there is a fallen angel whose character closely resembles the pagan mimetic beliefs, so they are not mutually exclusive.

If you accept that the Devil is the pagan mimetic process incarnate, then obviously Mailer is correct. Since the Devil is a metaphor for the evil and ignorance which lives in the heart of man, God does indeed need our help in combating the works of the Devil. God's struggle is for the hearts and minds of men and women whom he has created with freedom of will.

William said...

Give it up for Tom and Daisy Buchanan. They damaged people and made messes and then moved on. They didn't develop a whole theology to justify their self indulgence.

The Godfather said...

The first 4 chapters of Genesis teach us that God demands that human beings participate in the continuing creation of the world that God intended. If that were what Mailer meant by God not completely controlling His creation, it would be neither original nor interesting.

The business about having to risk damnation, though, doesn't fit. Micah says: "He has told you, O Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

If one wants to argue that we ought to do something different from that to satisfy God, then one needs to find an authority other than God (that is, the God revealed in Jewish and Christian scripture) to support the argument.

Mitch H. said...

The only Dick novel I can find on my disordered shelves right now is fairly minor - Radio Free Albemuth, one of his making-sense-of-his-madness books:

Nicholas, I decided, had begun to part company with reality, out of necessity. Being a record clerk in a city of educated intellectuals was too much for him to endure. This was a classic example of how the human mind, lacking real solutions, managed its miseries.

As you can see, Dick didn't have time or inclination for clever Fitzgerald or Mailer prosification. He was a writer in the Campbell or Analog transparent style.

Cancer... the process of creation gone wild, I thought.

The creator, standing before the creation, his creation, had absolute power, but from my James-James dream I could see that in a very real sense he lacked a kind of knowledge, a certain vital foresight. This was supplied by his weak but absolutely wise counterplayer at the far end; together they performed in tandem, a god, perhaps, divided into two portions, split off from himself, so as to set up the dynamics of a kind of two-person game.

And so forth. PKD was many things - disordered, a drug abuser, mad, a hack with weird obsessions - but he was above all things sincere in his purposes. Most of his books are deliberate, determined explorations of some idea - usually drawn from the intellectual discount-bins - in a sci-fi pulp patois. Radio Free Albemuth, for instance, is a fictionalized exploration of his Nixon-era breakdown, and conventional-left-libertarian conflict with the Nixonian massif, that great black Roman prison of his visions.

Nothing will instruct us, nothing exists in our sky to cheer us when we are down, to lift us up and keep us alive, to heal our wounds. In Washington and Moscow they are saying "Man has finally come of age; he doesn't need paternalistic help." Which is another way of saying, "we have abolished that help, and in its place we will rule," offering no help at all; taking but not giving, ruling but not obeying, telling but not listening, taking life and not giving it. The slayers govern now, without interference, the dreams of mankind have become empty.