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I’ll Take Manhattan

City of God

by E.L. Doctorow
Random House, 272 pp., $25.00

Henry Adams in “A Law of Acceleration” nearly one hundred years ago eloquently brooded upon the increasing split between the mind of the scientist and the mind of the historian-humanist. In this prescient essay, to become the penultimate chapter of The Education of Henry Adams, Adams speaks without the defensive shield of his customary irony; there’s an urgency to his prose, a sense of foreboding, and an air even of prophecy, as he contemplates the romantic concept of the nineteenth century’s “law of progress” (to Adams a “chasing of force into hiding-places where nature herself had never known it”) in terms of the alarming acceleration in the increase of a certain kind of knowledge he has witnessed in his lifetime. Adams’s conviction is that the civilization he has known is being transformed in ways that he and the (non-scientifically educated) class for whom he presumes to speak can’t comprehend. As science doubles, or quadruples, its complexities every ten years, says Adams, even the astute student of history will soon be left behind. Scientific minds are in the process of reducing the universe to a series of mere relations:

They had reduced themselves to Motion in a universe of Motions, with an acceleration…of vertiginous violence. With the correctness of…science, history had no right to meddle, since their science now lay in a plane where scarcely one or two hundred minds in the world could follow its mathematical processes…. If any analogy whatever existed between the hu-man mind, on one side, and the laws of motion, on the other, the mind had already entered a field of attraction so violent that it must immediately pass beyond, into new equilibrium, like the Comet of Newton, or suffer dissipation altogether, like meteoroids in the earth’s atmosphere.

A Law of Acceleration” is a feat of remarkable intellectual abstraction and bravura; it resonates with us at the start of the twenty-first century as the work of few other of Adams’s contemporaries (excepting always William James) does. Where we have become accustomed, or resigned, to the abyss separating the knowledge of “hard” (mathematically based) science from the “soft” sciences and the humanities, Henry Adams despaired as one for whom the abyss, and the separation, were immediate and real. If Adams had been able to foresee the chaos of human suffering initiated by scientific “progress,” he would have recoiled in horror, yet without having been essentially surprised.

E.L. Doctorow’s ebullient and knottily structured City of God would seem more temperamentally akin to Henry Adams’s engaged agnosticism than to the Christian certainties of Augustine, whose fifth-century City of God defines history as the intersection between divine purpose and humankind, but whose presumption is that a narrowly defined Christianity controlled by Church doctrine is the one true philosophy. (“But City of God, that’s a good title. I like the image, don’t you?” one of Doctorow’s characters, a writer, observes.) Doctorow’s contemporary city is New York, at least the external, cinematically vivid city of the streets; this is a setting, we understand from previous works of his fiction, notably The Waterworks (1994), Billy Bathgate (1989), World’s Fair (1985), and parts of the dazzling Ragtime (1974), that has exerted a powerful spell upon the novelist, presenting itself as a dynamic riddle, a phenomenon of the “unnatural” world.

Doctorow’s City of God unfolds as an urban cacophony/symphony of voices that take up, in their differing ways, those questions that so impassioned Henry Adams, locating them in the time of metaphysical anxiety our recent fin de siècle represented in some quarters. (The novel is set in autumn 1999; it’s atypical of Doctorow to have been composing a work of fiction set, not in the past, but in what would have been for the author a future time.) Not so plangently as Adams but with a similar urgency, Doctorow’s anonymous New Yorkers speculate, query, reminisce, expound, lament, grieve, excoriate, prophesy, and sermonize. They rant, they chant; they break out startlingly in free verse, memorializing the Bronx (“…in the early part of the century/when the streets were wide and new and the trees were young in the parks”). In the guise of the aptly named Midrash Jazz Quartet they improvise extended riffs upon the “standards”—American popular song classics. One of them, the most speculative, is a writer identified only as “Everett” who provides us with commentary throughout City of God, spinning tentative fictions, commenting upon his characters as if they were autonomous (“Though they have not said anything to me, I am anticipating that [Thomas Pemberton and Sarah Blumenthal] will soon marry”), and drawing analogies between human and animal behavior in the aggregate (“We know of the Earthly City and the City of God, but there is a third city, the City of Birds, at Valdeminogomez, an enormous garbage dump north of Madrid”).

A virtuoso ventriloquist, Doctorow throws his voice into these seemingly random New Yorkers, the first of whom, unidentified, broods upon the latest discoveries and theories of cosmology: What does it mean, this person demands to know, that the universe has “expanded exponentially from a point, a singular space/time point, a moment/thing, some original particulate event…”? What does it mean that “the universe did not blast into being through space but that space, itself a property of the universe, is what blasted out along with everything in it”? Above all, what can it mean that

…the expanding expands futilely into itself, an infinitely convoluting dark matter of ghastly insensate endlessness, with no properties, no volume, no transformative elemental energies of light or force or pulsing quanta, all these being inventions of our own consciousness, lacking volume and physical quality in itself, a project as finally mindless, cold, and inhu-man as the universe of our illusion.

We leap then to the heart of the paradox, for one who wishes to believe in God:

In fact if God is involved in this matter, these elemental facts, these apparent concepts, He is so fearsome as to be beyond any human entreaty for our solace, or comfort, or the redemption that would come of our being brought into His secret.

One has to wonder, this interlocutor says, whether scientists possess the “moral gravity” to comprehend such knowledge; why, for instance, cosmologists and astronomers are given to “cute” names for their universe. We have the initial Big Bang, we may one day have the ultimate Big Crunch. If the universe continues to expand, there will come the Big Chill. The “inexplicable dark matter of the universe”?—WIMPs (“weakly interacting massive particles”). The “dark-mattered halos around the galaxies”?—MACHOs (“massive compact halo objects”). Through his disapproving narrator, Doctorow suggests that the scientific personality isn’t just childlike in curiosity but childish: these people are “jerks.”

Since City of God is that rarity in American fiction, a novel of ideas, it might have been fruitful if one of these “jerks” had been allotted a voice. For it may be that cosmologists, astronomers, and astrophysicists speak in metaphors like these so that laymen can understand, or almost understand, what they are saying, in grossly simplified terms. The sciences of the universe are disciplines whose primary language is mathematics, not conventional speech, and it’s inaccessible to even the reasonably educated non-mathematician. If the metaphors have a childish, callow ring it may be out of a communal bemusement, or resentment, that metaphors must be used at all in the effort to communicate, or “popularize.”

When Albert Einstein, at the age of seventy-three, speaks in City of God, he is presented as a grandfatherly mensch quick to dispel notions of being a genius: he is the purveyor of a few “simple” physical laws, and nothing he has discovered is revolutionary “because I am seeing only what has always been as it is now and…always will be.” Yet this too is misleading. Whatever Einstein’s calculated public persona, the man of science was other, charged with revolutionary genius; his mode of expression was mathematics, not ordinary language, and it’s quite possible that when genius addresses us in ordinary language, we are not in the presence of “genius” but of an ordinary person not much more qualified to speak of his or her achievements than anyone else. That Einstein can be said to have believed in God—“the Old One”—is not very meaningful when one understands that this metaphor is simply a way of speaking of the principle of physical laws of the universe, which Einstein believed was singular and immutable.1

City of God is on firmer ground once we are introduced to its questing hero, the Reverend Thomas Pemberton, rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in the East Village. Tom Pemberton, “Pem,” is talky, articulate, embattled; when we first meet him, he’s stricken with a crisis of faith, having difficulty believing his own “bullshit” (as he calls the Episcopal theology he’s supposed to spout to suffering members of his congregation); he’s painfully aware of the disparity between the cosmos of the scientists and the fairy-tale cosmos concocted by Christian theologians, and obsessed with the question “Must faith be blind?” In a novel whose plot will wed the seemingly unweddable, a middle-aged Episcopal minister and a progressive young rabbi-widow, in a union reminiscent of the movie-style wedding at the end of Ragtime, the crucial question Pemberton asks has gotten him into serious trouble with Episcopal authorities:

I merely asked the congregation what they thought the engineered slaughter of the Jews in Europe had done to Christianity. To our story of Christ Jesus. I mean, given the meager response of our guys, is the Holocaust a problem only for Jewish theologians?

I merely asked!

This is Doctorow’s abiding theme, memorably explored in his early, brilliant The Book of Daniel (1971), in which cold war persecution and the execution of alleged “atomic spies” become a metaphor indicting historic Christian-American distrust of all that seems subversive (“Jewish”). So too in City of God, Doctorow’s Einstein recalls his Munich boyhood among anti-Semites, noting “the pious brainwork of Christian priests and kings that had demonized and radicalized the Jewish people in Europe” and hypothesizing the inevitable implosion of such beliefs into the Holocaust—“the accelerating disaster of human history.”

City of God is Doctorow’s most disjointed, variegated, playful novel, its episodes held together, to a degree, by an expeditious plot. It’s part mystery (unsolved), part situation comedy: an eight-foot brass cross is stolen from St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in lower Manhattan and left on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism on the Upper West Side with the terse anonymous phone message for the young married rabbis, “Your roof is burning.” Is this message a “Jewish thing to say,” as Rabbi Joshua speculates, or is the theft the work of a “raging anti-Semite”? Symbolically, the bulky, corroded Christian cross delivered to the progressive synagogue points toward Pemberton’s revelation that God is “Something Evolving, as civilization has evolved” and—heresy of heresies!—“Judaism is Christianity without Christ.” This encounter of Episcopal minister and rabbis, of burnt-out Christian and energetic young Jews, sets into motion a lively narrative that involves numerous New York voices as well as those of Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and moves finally to a romantic ending in the union of Pemberton and Rabbi Joshua’s widow, Sarah. As the omniscient narrator concludes, in the novel’s final paragraph, “At this point we are introduced to the hero and heroine of the movie, a vitally religious couple who run a small progressive synagogue on the Upper West Side.”

Like John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (1997), a similarly millennium- minded, fabulist work of fiction by a novelist of the American generation born in the early Depression (Doctorow was born in 1931, Updike in 1932), City of God is an inventive and sometimes confusing admixture of moral earnestness and postmodernist irony; conventional storytelling and characterizations, and sudden self-referential implosions of implausibility; agnosticism, cynicism, and traditional piety; the disarming contours of old-fashioned realism and the fantastic leaps and riffs of metafiction. Updike’s novel is set in the near future, after a world catastrophe, a time not very different from the present; it exudes more the air of parable-fantasy than of admonitory science fiction. Doctorow’s novel, though ostensibly future-minded, is emotionally rooted in the tragic European past of the Holocaust. (The most moving passages in City of God are recollections of Sarah Blumenthal’s father of his boyhood as a Jew in Nazi Germany; it’s eventually revealed that the narrator Everett “relied heavily” upon the Abraham Tory diary of the Kovno ghetto, an authentic text.)

The sixty-six-year-old retired protagonist of Toward the End of Time finds himself caught up in “counter-worlds” (by the grace of the principle of indeterminacy of quantum theory), like a hapless Woody Allen figure spun about in a lunatic film; Doctorow’s writer-protagonist takes on the identity of a fictional Wittgenstein pondering the “multitudinous selves who are mere phantom presumptions of language [that] nevertheless contain all the experience of the world.” Is this clear? Is it confusing? Purposefully, or not so purposefully? The uses of paradox in fiction are perhaps limited. Doctorow/Everett/Wittgenstein acknowledges the most appropriate image for this predicament: “the mirrors of a giant fun house from which there is no exit.” Yet for both Doctorow and Updike there is an exit of sorts, or at the very least a way of bringing their metafictions to seemingly tender, domestic-scale conclusions: Updike’s beleaguered couple of 2020 take solace in their grandchildren and in the lyric turn of the seasons; Doctorow’s ecumenical couple will devote themselves to a Judaic expression of the anthropic principle—“Whatever the universe is composed of seems to have made us possible.”

Or is this a very minimal comfort, layered in irony?

Virtually all of Doctorow’s novels make use of cinematic techniques and jazzlike improvisations and riffs, and City of God is no exception. Throughout, we are entertained by the Midrash Jazz Quartet’s renditions of such old standards2 as “Dancing in the Dark,” “Good Night, Sweetheart,” “The Song Is You.” We are confronted with wildly inventive riffs:

We are instructed that whatever condition God provides, some sort of creature will invent itself to live in it. There is no fixed morphology for living things. No necessary condition for life. Thousands of unknown plant and animal beings are living in the deepest canyons of the black, cold water and they have their own movies…. There is one fish, the hatchet, which skulks about in the deep darkness with protuberant eyes on the top of its horned head and the ability to electrically light its anus to blind predators sneaking up behind it. The electric anus, however, is not an innate feature. It comes from a colony of luminescent bacteria that house themselves symbiotically in the fish’s asshole. And there is a Purpose in this as well which we haven’t yet ascertained. But if you believe in God’s divine judgment and you countenance reincarnation, then it may be reasonably assumed that a certain bacterium living in the anus of a particularly ancient hatchet-fish…is the recycled and fully sentient soul of Adolf Hitler glimmering miserably through the cloacal muck in which he is periodically bathed and nourished.

A prevailing conceit of City of God is that it’s a film on an enormous reel with frequent interruptions, flashbacks and flash-forwards, quick cuts, dissolves. Early on in City of God the mysterious Everett allows the reader to know that his character Tom Pemberton (surely a relative of the questing Martin Pemberton of The Waterworks) is based upon an actual man with whom Everett has lunch at the Knickerbocker Restaurant, but whom he has disguised; before beginning his novel, he’d drifted about Manhattan selecting locations, “like the art director of a movie,” choosing to place St. Timothy’s in the East Village off Second Avenue, and changing the name of the church. Metafictional mirrors reflecting mirrors! We’re led to believe that somewhere beyond the tissue of words of City of God there is a palpable reality, for the purposes of fiction disguised.

Do you turn the truths of your faith…into a kind of edifying poetry?” is a core question of City of God, and the implied answer might be, Why not? An aesthetic vision is simultaneously a moral vision. The development of civilizations, Doctorow suggests in “False Documents,” a statement of the writer’s first principles collected in Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977- 1992, is essentially a “progression of metaphors.” Fiction and nonfiction are false categories: only narrative prevails, gripping the collective imagination. The modestly visionary ending of City of God with its marriage of Jew and Christian-converted-to-Jew recalls the hopeful end of Doctorow’s preface to his essay collection: after the “social and cultural pathology” of the prior fifty years of cold war there is at last a sense that the era is over “and another, still to be defined, has begun.”

Admirers of those exuberant Doctorow novels Billy Bathgate, Loon Lake, Ragtime will miss the more energetic narrative voices and the Dickensian portraits of larger-than-life mythic Americans that gave these novels their special power. But by degrees, out of the discontinuities of City of God, a richly ambivalent choral voice emerges and prevails. The City is not one we would have chosen, Doctorow suggests, but it has been given us. It is ours.

  1. 1

    For a radically different portrait of Einstein, see Alan Lightman’s prose-poem novella Einstein’s Dreams (Pantheon, 1993). This enthralling little book, stylistically derived from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, obliquely represents the mind of Einstein as preoccupied with imaginative problems and paradoxes centering upon time.

  2. 2

    See Doctorow’s essay on American popular music, “Standards,” in Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution (Random House, 1993). These are to Doctorow the texts “of our cheapened dreams, our culture of popular song, the standards, as we call them, that sing in our heads generation after generation as a sort of urtext of the collective unconscious.”

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