A tsunami of letters–from Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, humanists, existentialists and the unaffiliated (almost all of them men)–denounced Norman Mailer’s “On Sartre’s God Problem,” our June 6 reprint of Mailer’s remarks, in Libération, commemorating the centenary of Jean-Paul Sartre’s birth. A sampling follows.   –The Editors

Fitchburg, Mass.

Sartre had no God problem, but obviously Norman Mailer does. Without a scintilla of evidence, Mailer promotes the notion of a “God who is an artist,” an imperfect God “who suffers the uncertainties of existence.” Of course, Mailer is free to hypothesize about the divine, but even he has no authority to suggest that Sartre somehow fell short by refusing to embrace such speculative religiosity. Mailer criticizes Sartre for being “alien to the possibility that existentialism might thrive” if it would simply “assume that indeed we do have a God,” but he should realize that such “assumptions” were perhaps too “simple” for a thinker of Sartre’s caliber.


North Miami Beach, Fla.

Poor Norman Mailer, who is lost and rudderless in his narcissistic semanticisms and agnosticisms. And poor Nation readers, who deserve to celebrate Sartre’s centenary with greater insights, higher hopes and better existential road maps to the potentials of the present pregnant moment for self and social actualization of our humanity.


New York City

It’s down on our knees, is it, Norman? Of course you’ve always had the inside line on cleanliness, godliness and sexiness, and now you have the special authority that comes with senility. But your basic point is well taken. We wasted too much of our youth heeding the dictates of Sartre. When I’m your age I hope to be able to write much the same dismissal of your inflated reputation. Not, however, on the grounds of atheism. Just windbaggery.



Norman Mailer’s view of the universe seems absurdly anthropocentric and ethically limited. To suggest that the devastation wrought by a tsunami is evidence of a failure in the design of tectonic plates, as if the whole universe ought to be designed for the accommodation of humans, is rather like suggesting that your armpit ought to be designed for the accommodation of the trillion or so bacteria that live there and the unpredictable cataclysms wrought by inundation with soap are evidence of divine neglect.

The body of the earth may be supposed to have its own purposes, independent of those of its residents, though interacting with them. The failure of humans to understand those purposes or seek ways to minimize the adverse interactions is not evidence of divine limitations but of our own. Many of these are chosen, not intrinsic: We know enough that we could do better if we would. Blaming an imperfect God for the results of our own environmentally reckless and personally callous choices is a callow cop-out.



It is wonderful receiving a theology lesson from Norman Mailer. He has re-created God in his image with a bit of help from William James’s finite moral maker of the universe. However, in lambasting the God of religion he forgets the most important quality of the God of the religious tradition he ostensibly comes from. The God of Judaism not only demands mankind’s participation in shaping the world–God demands mankind’s walking in the way of God in compassion, kindness and goodness. This is not a particularly Mailerean theme, but it is the heart of the traditional Jewish vision of the world and provides the guideline to all the ideal and visionary transformative movements that would bring mankind to greater justice and well-being.



Norman Mailer concludes that we have a “real need for a God with whom we can engage our lives.” This reminds me of the title of a book I saw once: If You Can’t Live Without Me, How Come You Aren’t Dead Yet? In theology as in romance, there is no guarantee we’ll get what we need, and yet we struggle along somehow. Both kinds of frustration probably help keep novelists in business.


Longmeadow, Mass.

Norman Bates of Psycho fame would have provided better commentary than Norman Mailer. Given the choice between a flatulent writer of fiction and a fictional character, I’ll go with the man of character! What Mailer lacks in his understanding of philosophy is exceeded only by what he lacks in his understanding of the fields of writing, astronomy, political theory and common sense. He is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. His tales are those of an idiot. He is an idiot! In the future, try to get a thoughtful person to comment on the centenary of a philosopher. Don’t give the job to a celebrity who exists as a legend in his own mind.



Provincetown, Mass.

The letters by David Niose, Ralph Alan Dale, Thomas Disch, John Bergstrom and John Fitzgerald read like blogs from Lower Swamp Hollow. They are as ad hominem as mosquitoes. If I were a good Christian, I might say, “Oh, Lord, they, too, are Your creatures and they need a little blood so much. Let them have mine.”

In contrast, the letter from Jerusalem by Shalom Freedman was good rabbinic boilerplate. As one Jew to another, I would ask Shalom, “What, then, was the Holocaust? Should we look upon it as our punishment? Has Jehovah come back because we Jews do not walk sufficiently ‘in compassion, kindness, and goodness,’ or does the Holocaust reinforce my supposition that God is not All-Powerful?”

Katharine W. Rylaarsdam’s letter is interesting. Does she suggest at the end that our pollution of the earth was related to the tsunami? In the middle, she is certainly forthright when she states that the earth is independent of us. The thought does suggest a schism within our deity; otherwise, it must posit more than one god for world and earthly affairs. This again, opens the real possibility that the Lord is not All-Good and All-Powerful. Too bad! We seem to have a need to cling like leeches to a theological oxymoron.



Washington, DC; Pittsburgh

Describing Britain’s leading union of university faculty’s boycott of Israeli scholars as a “bad idea,” Jon Wiener overlooks the complexities of the conditions of academic freedom in Israel and its occupied territories [“Israeli Boycott: A Mistake,” June 6]. The boycott, which has since been revoked on grounds of its particularly problematic strategy, appears, like all academic boycotts, to be simply a challenge to academic freedom that suppresses voices of dissent within Israeli civil society.

Yet the freedom that Israeli professors and students enjoy is not a right shared by their Palestinian colleagues and students in the occupied territories. Almost 200 Palestinian students have been killed since September 2000, and about 270 schools have been damaged by Israeli artillery fire. Both Bethlehem University and the Open University were bombed in 2001. In 2003 Hebron University and the Palestine Polytechnic University were closed down for months. Twenty-two towns have been virtually cut off from local schools by Israel’s “security fence.” The Israeli wall, a nonidentical reminder of South African apartheid, has blocked 15,740 students from reaching their classrooms. The freedom that Israeli professors and students enjoy begins to appear less like a form of freedom than an arrogant colonial privilege or, at the least, a kind of wry joke.

If British and American universities and colleges want to invite Israeli scholars to visit, lecture, attend conferences or collaborate, they should do so on the condition that the Palestinian faculty are allowed not only to do the same but also to teach their students in an environment free from the devastating consequences of Israel’s ongoing military occupation of Palestine. Yet as D.D. Guttenplan suggests [“After the Boycott… What?” June 20], the boycott campaign is also in desperate need of new ideas. New strategies like trilateral co-sponsorship or even multilateral academic collaboration are just a few endeavors that could supplement a boycott of Israeli education (and the de-education in the occupied territories) with a truthful and positive dimension, much like Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim’s East-West Divan, an orchestra made up of young Palestinians and Israelis. Such orchestration is needed in all fields, not just music.

Academic freedom in a country that treats those it occupies and governs by military force in this way can hardly have real meaning as a principle. The real nature of enlightened reason and knowledge is actually located in the voices of those who have scarcely had an opportunity to speak, write, travel or learn freely at all. If the conditions of a meaningful and interrelated notion of academic freedom in Israel and its occupied territories cannot be realized in new forms, then a boycott of Israeli universities is not necessarily a “bad idea.” It is an imperative and moral one.



Irvine, Calif.

Andrew Rubin, Paul Bové and I agree that Palestinian academics are denied many of the freedoms enjoyed by their Israeli counterparts. We disagree about whether a boycott of faculty members at Israeli universities is a good way to fight the occupation. Rubin and Bové write that it is “imperative and moral” to boycott academics in a country that occupies and governs another by force. The United States has killed many more civilians in its occupation of Iraq than Israel has killed Palestinian civilians. So why don’t Rubin and Bové propose a world boycott of US professors? That would send George W. Bush a message!

The Israeli government is responsible for its occupation policies, not the university faculty. In fact, much of the opposition to the occupation among Israelis comes from the universities. These are precisely the Jews who are speaking out in favor of Palestinian rights and against the occupation’s brutality and lies. The “imperative and moral” strategy is to support and strengthen that opposition, rather than working to weaken, isolate and undermine it.