- God’s Grace by Bernard Malamud
Chatto, 223 pp, £6.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7011 2647 7
In Genesis 6 God said: ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth.’ He was behaving like a certain kind of satirist, and an untutored reader might even suppose that a satirical author was speaking through Him. The Houyhnhnm Assembly in Gulliver’s Travels was similarly given to debating ‘Whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the Face of the Earth’ (a type of proposition Swift entertained in his own name from time to time), or whether they should merely be castrated, a more humanely gradualist project that would achieve the same result in a generation. The gist of these texts is that mankind deserves extermination, and they are wholesale extensions of what may once have been the satirist’s principal urge and perhaps his magical power: to kill his enemies or, in the sublimated version, to punish the world’s malefactors.
There is a de- (or pre-) sublimated version, in which extermination proceeds at the mere whim of the gods, or the tyrant-satirist. So the Mesopotamian gods of the Gilgamesh epic bring down the Flood because men are so noisy that the gods can’t sleep, and a Kurtzian character in Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit wishes to exterminate all the niggers because they too keep him awake, adding that he would do so if he weren’t so tired.
In God’s Grace, Bernard Malamud’s post-nuclear fabulation, there is a Second Flood, the one which God promised Noah there wouldn’t be. It supervenes on the second or terminal Big Bang of nuclear destruction, and it mops up those who escaped that event, on some variation of the principle that he who was born to be drowned shall never be banged. But Malamud’s Noah, a paleologist called Calvin Cohn (he changed his first name from Seymour, to the disapproval of his rabbi father), escapes both fates, having ‘of all men ... miraculously survived in a battered oceanography vessel’. The book opens with God patiently explaining that this was a minor error, which He proposes to rectify. For Cohn’s survival is not, like Noah’s, a reprieve for the virtuous: it ‘has nothing to do with your once having studied for the rabbinate, or for that matter, having given it up’. But nor, in intending his elimination, does God have a wish to torment him: it’s a question of keeping the system in order, taken as a whole. The Supreme Bureaucrat of this modern theodicy retains something of Jehovah the righteous exterminator, though the offences for which he arranges retribution are less against the old moral law than against the zealous pieties of our post-Romantic, post-Freudian, ecological era. Man is faulted for ‘failing to use to a sufficient purpose his possibilities’, for ‘self-betrayal’ and inauthenticity, for his death-wish, and for sins against the environment (‘They tore apart my ozone, carbonised my oxygen, acidified my refreshing rain’). God is not unmoved by ‘violence, corruption, blasphemy, beastliness, sin beyond belief’, but wants them greened out of existence (almost literally – like John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Cohn’s island’s vegetation has vivid accesses of post-nuclear lushness). The old Thunderer has turned ecologist and technocrat, and his vendetta against man retains some of that insouciance which impels some deities old and new to regard a good night’s sleep, or tidy book-keeping, as more important than life.
He knows Himself to be the non-personal God of the new theologians (‘Don’t presume on Me a visible face ... I am not that kind’), and the fact is cunningly adapted to highlight the suggestion of impersonality or unfeelingness. He is the pointed opposite of Crusoe’s God, a source of perpetual discomfort rather than reassurance. There is a Big Brotherish side to him, and Cohn feels he’d ‘better stay out of his ESP and/or Knowing Eye’. There is a certain aestheticism about him of the sort that goes with tyrannical fantasy or totalitarian rule, the sort which has sometimes given rise among authors of the last two centuries to intellectual cults of the more depraved Roman emperors, or which animates the Célinian pamphlets of the Bagatelles pour un massacre group: Cohn’s God ‘enjoys performance, spectacle ... He loves sad stories, with casts of thousands.’ There is a link between Céline’s Kurtzian exterminator in the Voyage and the crazed (and autobiographical) aesthete of the ‘pamphlets’, just as there is a link between Kurtz’s ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ and the fact that he (like Hitler after him) was a failed artist. Cohn’s God is a Being of that kidney, though undercut and made cosy, as much in Malamud is undercut and made cosy, by His creator’s irony.