This month, Vintage Books published “Do You Believe? Conversations on God and Religion,” by cultural critic Antonio Monda. In it, Monda offers a collection of dialogues between himself and a host of boldface names — including Martin Scorsese, Paul Auster, Jane Fonda, Spike Lee and Elie Wiesel. Our favorite, though, is Monda’s 2002 conversation with Saul Bellow in Brookline, Mass., excerpted, with permission, below.
Saul Bellow is curious about the idea of talking about a private matter like religion, but he agreed to do so on condition of reserving the right not to respond to certain questions. “There are subjects it is impossible to talk about,” he explains with a deeply ironic severity, “but that doesn’t mean discussion is pointless. Some themes require modesty, respect, I would even say fear, and the value of a conversation in which we can’t undertake extended reflection or impose absolute sincerity is in danger of being undermined.”
*Why do you consider sincerity impossible? *
Because we are able to be absolutely sincere only with ourselves and, in fact, with God. In an interview, even when there is complete good faith, narcissism, the wish to say something intelligent, and anxiety about how one will appear prevail in the end.
And why do you not consider even extended reflection possible?
Frankly, it seems to me a little antithetical to journalism.
So you might as well not speak…
I didn’t say that. I think that awareness of these dangers and these limits can provide a possible interpretation with respect to a theme as important as the one we are trying to address.
In other words you’re saying: “We offer the reader damaged goods, but if he is attentive he will perceive the hidden value.”
Isn’t it always like that with the press?
I hope not. Why did you agree to discuss your relationship with religion?
Because it’s obviously a subject that I feel strongly about and think about. And because I am fascinated by the fact that recently there has been a lot of talk about God, about religion, about spiritually, about the soul. In the last century these ideas seemed destined to disappear. Do you recall everyone saying “God is dead”? Well, the only things that are dead are those ideas.
Do you believe in God?
And how do you imagine him?
I don’t want to talk about that. I’m afraid of banality, and I think it’s a subject whose importance is diminished by conversation.
Did you have a religious upbringing?
As you know, I’m Jewish. My mother was extremely religious while my father avoided the subject. I’ve often wondered if in reality this concealed an unresolved problem, and I’ll confess to you that I’ve never reached a definite conclusion. I would say that he was an extremely skeptical person who fluctuated continually between distress regarding the possible existence of God and the choice of agnosticism. I can tell you in all sincerity that in the end it was my mother who had the greater influence on me.
There are Bible scholars who maintain that atheists don’t exist: There are only believers and idolaters.
That’s an interesting point, which has enormous potential to be provocative. I wonder how a person who declares himself an atheist might react to a statement of that sort: if the obligatory inference is that his conviction is false, then he has the right to be offended, leaving aside the fact that the principle may be true. The atheist has to be free to be what he wants. I think that’s an important religious principle.
The Christian idea of grace is based on just this type of freedom.
I know the principle you mean: No one is beyond the reach of God. And I feel that I share it.
Eliot called himself “a monarchist in politics, Catholic as regards religion, and traditionalist in literature.”
I don’t much love classifications, especially those having to do with myself. You’ve reminded me of a journalist who asked me if I thought that I had been awarded the Nobel Prize as an American writer or as a Jewish writer.
What did you say?
That it has been awarded to me as a writer.
A few years ago, Frederick Glaysher wrote that you are the only American writer, along with Isaac Bashevis Singer, who addresses the problem of the modern soul.
That’s another subject I prefer not to talk about: What I have to say is written in my books.
In “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” the protagonist declares, “But very often, and almost daily, I have strong impressions of eternity.”
There are moments when God shadows existence. And he persists in this manifestation. If you’re looking for revelatory fragments in what I’ve written I can help you: In another passage of the book I write that “the purest human beings, from the beginning of time, have understood that life is sacred,” and if I remember correctly I refer more than once to the will of God.
But in “Herzog” you write, “History is the history of cruelty, not love, as soft men think…. If the old God exists he must be a murderer.”
I could answer that Herzog is a literary character. But I want to tell you I believe that a man’s life is also made of moments of desperation and rage. And it has to include a continuous reflection on this mystery: Herzog reflects on mankind’s constant abominations, but that never interrupts his own relations with God.
The continuous probing of these subjects is a characteristic of many of your books. Do you think that the presence of spiritual themes represents an enrichment or a limitation in art?
It depends on the artist. If the approach is propagandistic, it immediately becomes a problem, whether the intent is to propagandize the existence or the absence of a spiritual reality.
You have always declared your great love for Conrad and Stendhal. Is there a writer in whom religious themes are dominant that you particularly like?
Dostoyevsky, which brings us back to your previous question. His relationship with faith was genuine and unshakable, but it was useful to his art, and the torments of his characters never have the weight of futility or propaganda.
In an interview with the Boston Globe you said, “I pray, but I don’t believe in petition prayers: My requirements are trivial. I don’t bug God.”
That’s still true, but I would like to explain that I consider prayer above all an act of gratitude for existence.
But you don’t believe that if God exists, he is also a father whom we can bug?
Personally I see prayer as an intimate checkup with the headquarters of the universe.
What do you think happens at death?
This I don’t know, but I don’t think everything is resolved with the destruction of the body. What science has to say seems to me insufficient and unsatisfying.