Dante's Divine Comedy
by Gustave Dore.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
"There's a bit of the later Mark Twain
here, a hint of
Dante, a dab of T.S. Eliot. and a lot of knowledge and sympathy
for the human condition. It's all in a package that will rock
you back in your chair and make you take notice on almost every
"The death of God and resulting
events narrated here provide food for philosophic and theologic
speculation. But its wicked comic riffs on modern faith and
faithlessness make the book crackle and burn ... (Nora
Burkhart's) journey takes her through a surreal
post-apocalyptic American landscape whose vision of catastrophic
survival is, all at once, uproarious, scary, unthinkable, and
San Diego Union
"Any novel that springs from a sparkling
intellect rather than a dreary neurosis is cause for celebration,
and The Eternal Footman, with its load of truth and
laughter, justifies a considerable quantity of
The Baltimore Sun
"Morrow finds a positive vision for his
unhinged world as he brilliantly wraps up one of the wildest
series ever written."
author of Even Cowgirls Get the
"What holds the book together ... is
Morrow's powerful evocation of emotional extremity,
especially the alarm and tenderness felt by a parent for an
The Denver Post
"In all, another gorgeous Morrovian
performance, another paen to the ductility and power of both
satire and speculative fiction in the hands of a virtuoso at the
top of his game."
The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Morrow's insanely ingenious plot,
reminiscent, variously, of B-science fiction movies in the
1950's, Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, and Terry
Southern at his most charmingly deranged, brings together several
characters unwilling to accept evidence of their planet's
(and their own) mortality..."
The New York Review of Science Fiction
"Morrow understands theology like a
theologian and psychology like a psychologist, but he writes like
an angel. The Eternal Footman takes the reader on a
journey through an undiscovered country where everything is at
once utterly strange and wrenchingly familiar."
Richard Elliott Friedman
"The trilogy concluded with The
Footman is one of the finest and most timely literary
products of its day."
author of The Hidden
Book in the Bible
"Morrow leaves aside cutting satire to
achieve something more, at once eloquent, intellectual,
tragicomic, and surprisingly optimistic. The Eternal
Footman may be a deliberately quirky, untidy book, but
there's real greatness here, its virtues unencumbered by a
quest for the ideal."
FAITH JUSTICE INTERVIEWS JAMES
ON "THE ETERNAL FOOTMAN"
This exchange is excerpted from a
that occurred between Faith Justice and James Morrow on
FJ: I've always admired your
complicated characters -- people just on the edge of mainstream,
neighbors with a twist. You did it again in The Eternal
Footman with Nora Burkhart, the ex-English teacher and
flower-delivery person, and Gerard Korty, the reclusive
"modern Michelangelo." Where did they come from?
JM: A common criticism of SF is that it
for far too simplistic an understanding of the human psyche. In
the words of Thomas Disch, the genre lacks "a decent sense
of despair." It's a fair complaint, I feel. There's
certainly no evidence that, as our species becomes increasingly
dependent on technology and our world becomes increasingly
science-fictional, we're losing our psychological complexity.
Indeed, most people would argue that inner turmoil and ineffable
existential dread have increased in the
Nobody in a feudal fantasy like The Lord of the
Rings or Dune experiences anxiety attacks of unknown
has to cope with migraines or hemorrhoids or suicidal depression.
Maybe they shouldn't. Maybe that kind of realism would
destroy the very conventions that permit such novels to delight
us. But I do worry when an author places a caste
the center of a novel and then fails to ask searching questions
about it. To make any sense of the Dune books, you
assume that the average Sardaukar storm-trooper or Bene Gesserit
witch has nothing that we would call an inner life. That's
not a leap I enjoy making.
Having said all this, let me hasten to confess that I've
always found characterization to be the hardest aspect of
novel-writing. I conceive of my stories in terms of themes and
situations first, human psychology second. If I were completely
honest, I'd have to admit that the main reason I
my characters vivid occupations -- Murray Katz processing
snapshots, George Paxton carving tombstones, Nora Burkhart
delivering flowers, Gerard Korty sculpting the Divine Comedy --
is that it simplifies the characterization problem. This strategy
affords me lots of "objective correlatives" for my
character's mental states, including their self-doubts and
neuroses. That's better than the stupid conceit of a
worry-free Sardaukar, but it's certainly not the highest
variety of psychological fiction. I'm not Dostoyevsky.
FJ: You've described Towing
a fantastical Lord Jim and Blameless in
a retelling of the Book of Job. What are the literary roots of The
JM: Its primary touchstone is The
Gilgamesh. I'm not very subtle about this ancestry. My
heroine spends part of the novel traveling with a theatre company
that's producing a more-or-less faithful adaptation of
Gilgamesh in a succession of southern towns.
We hear a lot these days, especially from academic
about the deterministic nature of human language and culture.
There is no such thing as a universal human spirit, the
postmodern intellectuals argue. All realities -- moral,
epistemological, psychological -- are ultimately
"local," conditioned by immediate social and linguistic
norms. Even science, the postmoderns say, can be profitable
scrutinized through this radically relativistic lens.
And yet here's Gilgamesh, the world's
surviving epic, speaking to us with poignancy and immediacy about
the bedrock tragedy of the human condition. The theme is the
inescapability of death, and the poem tells us how utterly human
it is to wish that things were otherwise. If Gilgamesh
essentially "local," then I say the hell with it.
The Eternal Footman also owes a debt to
The Plague and to Peter Barnes's marvelous play about the
Black Death, Red Noses. As I've commented
it's possible to map the whole Godhead Trilogy onto the
Divine Comedy. Towing Jehovah corresponds to the
Purgatorio -- the characters are trapped in a gray domain
defined by their moral limitations. Blameless in Abaddon
is the Inferno in a different key. ("Abaddon" is
a Hebrew word that can be translated as "hell.") And Footman,
with its glimpses of a post-theistic
might be regarded as a kind of Paradiso. But this
rather cerebral. Let's drop it and go on to the next
FJ: You've lamented that, unlike
nineteenth-century writers, modern novels deal primarily with
"quotidian life and its discontents." What are the
grand questions you wrestle with in this trilogy, and did you
come up with any answers?
JM: No, let's not go
on to the next
question. Aaarggh! I'm overwhelmed! This is a great question,
but I could spend the rest of the week trying to answer it!
Let me attempt an end run around the problem. Let me talk
briefly about the gap between the cosmic riddles I
thought I'd be confronting in the Godhead Trilogy and the
riddles I really did confront.
Before I actually wrote Towing Jehovah,
it would be a satire on the common notion that, when a society
loses faith in God, it ceases to be moral. But eventually I took
the theme much more seriously, and I ended up giving theism its
due. Once the crew of the Carpco Valparaiso
nobody is peering down from Heaven, they lose their moral
compass: murders and orgies start becoming the norm.
But only temporarily. By the end of act two, the Kantian
categorical imperative has taken hold, and the crew starts
behaving decently again. So a novel that began life as a kind of
science-fictional joke -- what if God died? -- ended up
addressing other sorts of questions. How do we account for
ethical behavior? What might a non-theistic morality look like?
Do we behave decently merely because we fear divine retribution,
or are we a better species than that?
I went into Blameless in Abaddon knowing
that the plot
would revolve around God's long overdue trial for crimes
against humanity. But until I began investigating theodicy in
depth, I had no idea that the case for the defense could be so
rich and complex. Christian theologians have been explaining
God's ostensible complicity in human suffering for nearly
2,000 years, and they've accomplished a lot -- so much, in
fact, that I decided to have the World Court judges return a
"not guilty" verdict. And here I thought a single case
of childhood cancer would make the prosecution's case!
But there's a problem, of course. Because after you've
hammered together your beautiful little theodicy -- whether
you're Saint Augustine or C. S. Lewis -- you're still
stuck with that suffering child. So while the World Court was
ultimately willing to let God off the hook, you can be sure that
James Morrow was not.
On the drawing board, The Eternal Footman
was supposed to
address the following theme: "No matter what the clerics
tell us, death means nothing but oblivion, and it's also the
primary source from which the world's religions draw their
energy." But during the composition process, I realized that
death is a more ambiguous phenomenon than my original notes
allowed. I still have no use for it in my personal life, but I
can see how -- from the broadest evolutionary and historical
perspective -- the case for death's necessity is probably
even better than the case for God's goodness.
As for the notion that death-denial lies at the heart of
religions, I have one of the characters in Footman
this very explicitly. But I'm no longer prepared to
reduce religion to that formula. Like Towing
Jehovah, The Eternal Footman got me speculating about the
of ethical behavior, and I concluded that religiously-rooted
narratives like the Good Samaritan certainly have their part to
FJ: In The Eternal Footman
you propose two
alternative utopias: Deus Absconditus and Holistica. Which one
would you want to live in and why?
JM: The great challenge I faced in writing The
Eternal Footman was to move beyond my usual anti-religious
satire and offer a few glimpses of a world that has somehow
evolved beyond God. This is Deus Absconditus. It's not
Utopia, but it is a "land of the grown-ups."
Readers who examine my hostility to organized churches
will notice the gravamen of my indictment centers on the idea
that religion infantilizes us. In the West, this infantilization
process is displayed in much of our religious rhetoric. God is a
"father." Jesus wants us to approach him as
"children." Many Christians fancy themselves "born
again." (Let's remember, to be "born" means to
enter a state of infancy, not a state of enlightenment.)
Anybody familiar with my oeuvre knows that I think children
absolutely marvelous beings. But they are not adults. They
aren't obligated to shoulder the same moral responsibilities
as grown-ups. When Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham tells you how
the world works, listen very closely. You will hear a child
Holistica is presented as a kind of New Age alternative to
Absconditus, and I think it's essentially a nightmare. At its
worst, the New Age mentality is no better than the
organized-church mentality. It doesn't just invite us to be
children. It invites us to abandon rationality altogether. It
asks us to be chipmunks.
FJ: In The Eternal Footman,
one of your
protagonists, Nora Burkhart, suffers a terrible punishment for
"loving her child too much." Earlier in the story she
makes a choice which she thinks will save her son, but knows it
means the death of many others. Since God is dead, who punishes
JM: Nora's situation constitutes the most
tragic and ambiguous trap I've ever set for a protagonist.
She's not fundamentally a victim: indeed, she's the
savior of civilization. But she's still trapped.
When one of my death avatars, Quincy the fetch, tells Nora
she loved her child too much, he's not necessarily speaking
the truth. A few pages later, Nora's rescuer tells her,
"Death is a lousy philosopher." But I wanted to raise
the bedeviling and maddening idea that, in our determination to
do right by our loved ones, we may do other people harm.
I won't give away the emotional climax of Footman
I won't say exactly how Nora is punished -- but her downfall
presumably traces to what, throughout the novel, I call God's
"death throes." Yes, the Supreme Being is
"dead," but his dark side still sends out
reverberations, most conspicuously the fetches. Only after the
last fetch vanishes do we truly enter the "post-theistic
FJ: You call yourself a "scientific
humanist." What does that mean?
JM: I like that term -- I first heard it in
connection with Jacob Bronowski -- because there's something
slightly paradoxical and ambiguous about it. And I think that
worthy fiction always partakes of paradox and ambiguity.
C.P. Snow's famous dichotomy between "the
two cultures," scientists versus humanists, goes back to
1962, and I think it's still very much with us. If anything,
the schism has gotten worse in recent years. Snow was concerned
about the failure of academic humanists to comprehend the
insights of science. Today we have hundreds of postmodern
academics who are actually proud of their failure
comprehend the insights of science -- a pride in which they are
so noisy and articulate and persuasive that they make someone
like myself feel slightly ashamed to be caught using a phrase
like "the insights of science."
The astonishing hoax that Alan Sokal perpetrated six years
in the pages of Social Text -- feeding the
postmodernists' catechism back to them in a form so
flattering that they didn't recognize it as a parody --
points up the essential bankruptcy of the contemporary
"science studies" movement. When Swift published
"A Modest Proposal," most educated people understood
that he was being satiric. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said
for Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries" and the
faculty of Duke University, the wellspring of Social
Bronowski liked to point out that science is "a very human
activity." I think he meant that it's a mistake to
regard science as a sterile, passionless, bureaucratic pursuit,
destined to turn us into numbers. But the postmoderns have
distorted Bronowski's idea -- as they have distorted similar
ideas drawn from Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper -- beyond
recognition, casting science as a mere "metaphor" or
"narrative." Bronowski was inviting humanists to join
in the great post-Enlightenment conversation about the
limitations and misuses of scientific knowledge. And the
humanists, to their eternal shame, responded by declaring that
the Enlightenment was dead.
The success of the Sokal hoax makes me especially sad
because we do need a serious critique of science in this
apologists for the technocratic machine must be countered and
contradicted. But this will never happen by filtering science
through the bizarre epistemologies of French intellectuals.
Jacques Derrida didn't discover the threat to the ozone
layer. Scientists did. (Their names, for the record, were F.
Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of
FJ: Your writing has been called everything
"irreverent" to "blasphemous." How would you
characterize your writing and, given Salman Rushdie's fate,
does this vehemence affect your writing or personal behavior?
JM: Obviously a whole book could be written
the Rushdie affair and the differences between Western and
Islamic perceptions of fiction and its power over reality. (In
fact, whole books have been written about these
On most days I don't imagine myself becoming the next Rushdie
-- I don't fear reprisals from Christian militants. At this
point in history, theological satire in the West flies well below
the radar of the religious right. There's no need for me to
put a barbed-wire fence around my house.
Believe it or not, I sometimes wonder if my relentless
against Christianity doesn't go too far. At a certain point,
obviously, any sort of blasphemy can become hurtful, irrelevant,
or puerile. But I keep coming back to this question: who struck
first, the satirist or the sacristan? And the answer is clearly,
We must be angry about Christianity's
complicity in war, slavery, anti-Semitism, and the subjugation of
women. God knows, that's not all we should be angry
about. Secular belief systems also have much to answer for --
maybe they even have more to answer for. I don't
But it's my particular job to keep shouting, "Look where
the theistic-salvationist worldview leads us if we're not