A Deeper Respect for the Demands of Complexity

Norman Mailer discussing his novel The Castle in the Forest with Michael Silverblatt (KCRW's Bookworm, 5/12/07):

One small example of what I'm trying to do here maybe. I was very struck with Clara, Hitler's mother, because she adores him when he's a little boy. She loves him so much. And she really believes she's created an angel. There he is--outrageously spoiled by her when he's young. And I thought this is one of the disproportions of life that we live with so often which is that good mothers can give birth to children whom they turn into monsters through their love. That's how difficult love is. That's how difficult our existence is. There are perversities at every turn. And it's as if there is no single rule that say to you 'This is the way to live.' That indeed, what we have to do is we have to embark as human beings on a deeper respect for the demands of complexity.

And if I find anything disturbing in American life, and one of the reasons I've despised George Bush from the word go, is he's a simplifier. And in doing that, he's injuring a great democracy, because the virtue of a democracy is that the openness and freedom for thought in the country enables us to enter more and more difficult domains of moral ambiguity. We live in moral ambiguity. It's usually a small person or a rare person who can say I'm a good person or a bad person. Generally we sit there and we say, "Who am I? What do I stand for? Am I moral or am I immoral?" Because for so many of our actions, we have no guides. The churches can't guide us. The scientists can't guide us. The psychoanalysts can't guide us. And my vanity, since I'm a novelist, is occasionally good novels come along that can be a bit of a guide. Because dealing with fancy, not fact, they can create models that sit there as hypotheses...When we read a really good novel, it sits with us afterward as one more human possibility and we keep bringing it up and thinking about it and saying, "Do I believe in this or don't I?"

For instance, we read Kafka. We love his notion of absurdity and frustration and they become models for us in times in our lives when everything seems to be going wrong. We say to ourselves, "My lord, this is Kafkan." And doing so, he's relieved us of incredible tantrums and terrors. And in that sense, you can point to all the great novels and they all give us something that is a model of possible reality. And that is what we need. What we need is an entrance into more and more complexity rather than the assumption that I want to have answers.

One of the most intelligent people I ever knew in my life once said in the middle of a lecture when he was on fire, someone said to him, "You never give us answers, all you ever offer are questions." And he said, 'There are no answers. There are only questions.' And I've used it to live with for the rest of my life.