- 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.
The God of God’s Grace is an Author, as He has often been of old. But in the manner of our time, He is an academic author, who knows His way around Comparative Religion (‘I am not a tribal God; I am Master of the Universe’), who ‘liked beginnings and endings’ and perhaps has read Edward Said and Frank Kermode. And in this He is also in the image of His maker, for Malamud’s book has its own academic accoutrements, including a Preface which (like that of any learned monograph) acknowledges the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences for institutional support and sundry other persons (including authors and typists) for other help. The very ship in which his Noah-Crusoe survives the Flood is a research institution. His second protagonist Buz, an educated chimpanzee roughly corresponding to Crusoe’s Friday, was once a scientist’s research specimen. The hero Cohn is himself an academic who, having left his typewriter on the abandoned ship (thinking only, Crusoe-like, to write up his adventures by hand), lives to regret it because he wants to ‘knock out an article or two’ about the bones and fossils of his island. As further monkeys come to light, adding themselves to Buz-Friday, he founds what is in effect a Simian University, with courses in Scripture, theology, literature and evolution. Cohn’s island, it might be said, is a campused-up version of Crusoe’s.
The plot follows Crusoe closely (uninhabited island, self-reliance in inhospitable surroundings, lesser breeds patiently taught civilised ways), but with all the purposeful optimism finally put into a Gulliverian or Goldingesque reverse. From Gulliver’s Travels, itself sometimes thought of as a Crusoe parody, Malamud borrows a few stylistic flourishes (straightfaced enumerations, a bit of scatological comedy here and there), some Yahoo behaviour, and a number of specific episodes, including one or two which play on man’s kinship to near-resembling brutes. The Brobdingnagian monkey who takes Gulliver for a baby of its own kind, and ‘held me as a Nurse doth a Child she is going to suckle’, is a model for some scenes in which Buz ‘mounted Cohn’s lap and attempted to suckle him’ (as far as I can make out from the tangle of transgeneric intimacy, in which both pairs of participants are male, Malamud differs from Swift in using ‘suckle’ to mean what the child does to the nurse and not vice versa). A second and parallel Gulliverian episode, in which a female Yahoo makes amorous advances to the hero, is elaborated by Malamud into the story of Mary Madelyn the female chimp whose love-affair with her teacher Cohn is a main part of the action.
It all begins when Mary Madelyn, in heat, runs away from pursuing male chimps, putting this unnatural coyness down to the learning of human speech. It might appear that speech confers shame as part of the human inheritance, but she is eager to mate with teacher Cohn, as if aspiring to raise herself from a low racial group. Esau the Alpha Ape thinks of her as a kind of uppity nigger and tells Cohn ‘your stupid schooltree has made her too proud to dip her butt for friends.’ The burgeoning love between professor and student has the lineaments of a college romance. They walk together holding hands amid the campus palm trees. ‘When they rested she groomed his balding head. In turn, he groomed her breasts and belly. They talked as friends.’ Buz complains that she’s not Cohn’s kind, and Cohn of course replies that there’s ‘only one kind’. ‘ “We’re sort of affectionately in love,” he told Buz, “or something close to it.” ’
Connoisseurs of that archetypal figure of modern American fiction known as the WISP (White Intellectual Sublimated Professor) will recognise here a less than wholeheartedly sensuous response. Certainly the idea of actually mounting the lovelorn lady is at first repellent to the Gulliver in him. He responds to her advances by citing Biblical interdictions against cross-breeding of all kinds, and human mating with beasts in particular. But she stumps him by asking whether he thinks of her as a beast, and he is forced, in all consistency, to back down with a pondered ‘not really’.
Meanwhile, it is poor Buz who has to practise sublimation, collecting rare stones and shells and taking up algebra, while the balding professor follows the classic scenario, eventually dipping his phallus into the hot flower of the fair co-ed. It is only right to add, however, that the latter’s female wiles do not seem to have been motivated by any ambition for improved grades, and that she does not subsequently accuse the professor of sexual harassment. Malamud’s universe is more innocent than the modern university by at least a generation.
The mating is done swiftly and without foreplay or afterplay. ‘There was an instant electric connection and Cohn parted with his seed.’ Mary Madelyn ‘waited ... for more to happen, but when nothing more did, she chewed up a fig and fell asleep in his bed’. Human capability has been measured against simian expectation. Later, when the apes have reverted to full apehood, Buz (whose human voice-box has been symbolically disconnected by Cohn a page or two earlier) gratifies Mary Madelyn with multiple penetration, displacing the arrogant Esau as Alpha Ape. Esau, like Cohn, only ‘pumped once’, eating a bruised banana before and after, so it isn’t after all a mere difference of species: both man and monkey come over in a subdued glow of Malamudian feeling for the pathos of the spent phallus.
‘Bananas!’ image-sleuths will exclaim knowingly, as well they might. There are bananas everywhere. When we first meet Esau the Alpha Ape, he devours the basketful of bananas with which Cohn decides to win over (Malamud’s word is ‘woo’) the small gang of chimps to which he belongs. Bananas are Cohn’s chief instrument of persuasion and the first weapon in the armoury of his benevolent despotism. He even serves ‘bananas flambé’ at his seder of Thanksgiving. Everywhere in the book we see apes eating bananas and getting drunk on banana beer. They hunt for them and fight over them. Banana-eating accompanies couplings, and sometimes a chimp like little Saul of Tarsus, faced with a girl-monkey and a banana, ‘felt amorous and ... felt hungry, yet not at all sure which desire grabbed him most’.
But do not jump to conclusions, reader. A bunch of bananas isn’t just an image-cluster, not even of the phallic sort. It is food and drink to most monkeys, though Calvin Cohn and Sigmund Freud have other ideas. When Cohn holds a little tutorial on the subject of metaphor, ‘Like when a banana is conceived to symbolise a man’s phallus’, Buz (who was taught to speak by a German-born scientist) replies: ‘I don’t believe it. I don’t think a phollus is a bonona. I eat bononas, I don’t eat pholluses.’ Cohn might have disabused him with a Gulliverian disclosure that such ‘politer Pleasures’ did indeed exist ‘on our Side of the Globe’, but perhaps he hadn’t read the report of a learned Francophone Freudian symposium on cannibals which recently spoke of ‘cette forme tendre du cannibalisme qu’est la fellation’. But Buz knows what’s for eating and what not, and even Saul of Tarsus knows, though he doesn’t know which to prefer.
After trying to teach Buz all about metaphor, Cohn proceeds to intertextuality and perhaps to some primitive form of the anxiety of influence (‘He wanted to know where stories came from. Cohn said from other stories’). The Talmudic commentators (‘who told stories about stories’) leave Buz cold and, disliking violence, he generally prefers the New Testament to the Old. He ‘liked happy endings’ rather than senses of endings: ‘ “God is love,” he said,’ with half a thought on that ‘intercourse’ which he is told Adam and Eve had together (‘When will I get some of it?’) and no thought at all on the bossy Jehovah whom Cohn has been encountering uneasily throughout. The Thunderer not surprisingly thunders at this point (‘Is thot bod?’ asks Buz). All this time Cohn is explaining Abraham and Isaac to him, and promising to wheel in Kierkegaard and Freud before much longer (‘Do I hov to know everything?’). Cohn keeps on retelling the Abraham-Isaac story ‘though it seemed to get more involved every time he retold it. Buz said he thought it was a pretty simple story.’ Cohn’s reward for this at the end is that Buz will re-enact the story in reverse, leading his ‘dod’ Cohn to what will be his extinction, and that of the human race, without benefit of sacrificial ram, in a final rite that puts God’s books in order.
Cohn’s ambition is to restart civilisation on a more ethical base than the last, and he pins his hopes on an evolutionary development of the island’s chimpanzees. This he expects to help along not only by education but, also, when he comes to mate with Mary Madelyn, by genetic means. The thought fills him with a kind of punning awe: ‘monkey with evolution? That much chutzpah?’ (Malamud’s punning itch is rather furious. Cohn wonders whether to call his island the Chimpan Zee, and when he is treacherously assaulted by his ape-subjects exclaims: ‘Et tu, Buz?’). But he goes ahead with it, and the humanoid product looks as if she might become an effective instrument for the fresh evolutionary start.
But just as Cohn’s programme begins to look hopeful, there is a Goldingesque savage reversion. The chimps led by Esau capture and eat Sara, a girl baboon. The cannibal act is of a gastronomic rather than ritual nature, so some anthropologists will find the book full of improbable lies and won’t believe a word of it. It is also racially aggressive, the baboons being of another racial type: Esau says monkeys should look like monkeys and not have dog faces. Cohn is outraged, because the act is committed by rather advanced apes, unlike ‘the naive chimpanzees of the past, many of whose recent progenitors had performed as comedians in vaudeville, television, zoos’. The words hint winkingly at the recent social evolution of guess who, and we recall that the monkeys on Cohn’s island take the place of the human cannibals on Crusoe’s, with Buz in the role of Friday. No doubt it is awkward for Malamud, as it wasn’t for Defoe, to ascribe cannibalism to humans of other races, but it might occur to some readers that a monkey-allegory was not perhaps the most graceful way out of that particular difficulty.
Crusoe’s Friday is converted from his cannibal ways, while Cohn’s subjects ‘revert’ to them; it is arguable that both processes are the result of the White Man’s educational project. The chimps’ reversion not only occurs at an advanced stage of the programme, but Esau protests that it is a reaction against the unnatural restraints it imposes, including ‘that horseass sublimation you are trying to trick on us’. Buz once told Cohn: ‘I’m on onimol and hov always been a vegetorion’ though he will readily swallow every single fish in a Portuguese sardine-tin. Esau, ‘sick and tired of eating so much goddam fruit’, says that chimps in the old days hunted small baboons: ‘The hunt was stimulating and the flesh delicious.’ So a teasing question-mark hovers over whether the cannibal acts are mainly to be seen as features of their human or their simian nature.
In Golding’s Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors, which the later parts of this novel call to mind, there is no falling back on an animal allegory and therefore no doubt that whatever ‘unspeakable rites’ are perpetrated, they are unequivocally human. Only, in Golding, the ‘unspeakable’ remains unspoken: for all the relentless intimations in both novels, I do not think there is a single phrase actually naming a cannibal act outright. Conrad, who coined the phrase ‘unspeakable rites’, deriving it from the vocabulary of adventure stories like Coral Island (Golding’s main source), applied it to the doings of Kurtz, also presumably cannibal and also never defined: the only outright references to cannibalism in Heart of Darkness involve black Africans who, in the story, actually refrain from any cannibal deed. The irony of that is that the word ‘cannibal’ is used of black men who don’t do it and not of the white man who evidently does.
Such reticences are a common feature of modern fiction in its often obsessive encounters with the cannibal theme. In Genet’s Pompes Funèbres and Monique Wittig’s Le Corps Lesbien cannibal acts of a homosexual character are indeed explicitly and graphically described: what remains uncertain in these books is not the nature of the act but the extent to which it ‘happened’, if at all, as distinct from being a fantasy in the characters’ minds. We know what it is but not whether they did it, whereas in Kurtz’s case we know that he did it but not what it was.
In Malamud’s novel there is another variation on this manoeuvre. We know what was done and we know that it happened, not only with poor Sara but with other baboons and then with baby Rebekah. But it is done by creatures not in every way human, and secondary uncertainties are introduced as to whether or not it is the humanoid or the bestial element in them which is chiefly responsible. If it is the bestial, a large part of the allegory becomes flaccid, but the full harsh truth which would make this allegory as bitter as the one similarly intended by Golding’s novels is, as in Golding, not wholeheartedly proffered. Like much else in Malamud’s book, the result is schmaltzy and fudged, as fudged and more schmaltzy than the books of other modern masters who have flirted with the cannibal theme, not knowing how to deal with it but unable to leave it alone. Crusoe’s old-fashioned directness, which furnishes one of Malamud’s epigraphs, might seem to do it better: ‘I came upon the horrible remains of a cannibal feast.’