Fiction: Liars, An Interview With Harold Burroughs Black

Nov 9, 2017

Harold Burroughs Black was born July 16, 1945. He is an essayist, poet, literary critic, literary theorist, novelist, translator, historian, moralist, biographer, editor, lexicographer, philosopher, cultural commentator and, if his own critics are to be believed, a theologian, as well.  At the age of sixty-six, he is the author of nearly two hundred books, including An Elegant Birth, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1962, The Lively God of Children, for which he won the National Book Award in 1971, An Anxious Beauty, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1979, and A Natural History of Civil War, for which he won the Wolfson History Prize in 1989. In 1991, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the rationale provided by the Nobel Foundation, Black was praised for the manner in which his fiction “recognized and elucidated the omnipresence of myth in an increasingly disenchanted world, while endowing readers with a trenchant rubric for mythmaking.” He is a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacArthur Fellow, and until 1994, held the history chair at Harvard University. In 1994, Black retired and moved back to his native New York, where he cared for his wife Mary, who suffered from brain cancer.

Between 1994 and Mary’s death in 1997, Black published a single poem in The New Yorker entitled “For New Life,” a 1200 line amendment to the Biblical account of the curse against Adam. Although Black was no stranger to controversy, the poem was immaculately reviewed and sold 80,000 copies when reprinted and sold as a book. Between 1997, when Mary died and Black delivered a brief oration, and 2006, Black was neither seen nor heard from. Twice, rumors of his death circulated. A parkway in Brooklyn was named in his honor. A lengthy biography was published. A stylish movie was made about his earliest years in college; no one saw the movie and the young man who portrayed Black won an Academy Award. In 2006, with no more than a few weeks prior word, Simon and Schuster published Death, Harold Burroughs Black’s first work in nearly a decade.

No advance copies of Death were sent out for review and the book arrived in stores with a white dust jacket and no description on the inside cover or blurbs on the back. The title and author’s name are printed on the dust jacket in a paler shade of white, in a tiny font, in the front right corner. Death is more than eight hundred pages long, contains no table of contents, no bibliography, no footnotes, no citations and no reference index. Black gave no interviews on the book. He had groceries delivered to his house at the foot of Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks, was photographed beyond his front door only twice, each time tending to a small cabbage patch. Prior to Death, Black was well known in American letters and within the broad, name-dropping world of Academia. After Death, Harold Burroughs Black was a recognized and divisive name among any and all Western people who owned televisions. In the five years since its debut, Death has become the most discussed, loved, hated, worshipped and burned book published in nearly two hundred years, perhaps because the intent of the book remains a great mystery. 

All that I’ve described to you of Black’s book, you likely already know. In fact, you’ve likely read Death, or portions or abridgements of Death, which is now taught in nearly every philosophy and theology classroom the world over.

My name is Grant Garner. I am a columnist for the New York Times. Earlier this year, I received a phone call from Harold Burroughs Black, much to my surprise, and was asked to sit down with the author of Death for a conversation. Mr. Black requested I bring a single tape recorder, no paper, and nothing to write with. At the conclusion of this conversation, Mr. Black will become the sole custodian of the tape and he has not disclosed to me what he plans to do with the tape. He has invited me to share whatever I like of the conversation with the world, however, when I leave this hotel room, I have only my memory of the conversation to take with me. We are now sitting in a room at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo. Aside from Mr. Black and myself, we are alone. Mr. Black, thank you for the invitation. It’s an honor to speak with you.

BLACK: Thank you.

GARNER: How have you been?

BLACK: Very well.

GARNER: I don’t know why we’re recording this conversation, but may I describe you for the tape?

BLACK: Grant, you may say and ask whatever you like. Think of me as an old and dear friend.

GARNER: Thank you, Mr. Black.

BLACK: Harold.

GARNER: Harold is looking quite well, quite young. Since I saw a photograph of him last, he has trimmed down to only a hundred and forty pounds, perhaps. This is perhaps half his former weight. His hair is pure white and uncombed. He wears an old, crumpled blue pin-striped suit, a vest, trousers mended with a white patch over one knee and tattered canvas slippers.

BLACK: I’m not as fashionable as I once was.

GARNER: You look like a man who’s been somewhere.

BLACK: Yes. I have.

GARNER: Harold, I mentioned a moment ago that Death is now taught as a work of philosophy and theology, although it is taught as a novel, as well as a poem. It is sometimes referred to as the first primary religious text since the Book of Mormon. What kind of book do you consider Death to be?

BLACK: I’ve written a history book. It contains some conjecture, some speculation, but all history books do this. Of course, you can’t write history without writing science and poetry and fiction— but fiction is not lie. You cannot write history without writing philosophy, too. Everything penetrates and permeates through everything else, though. I’ve sometimes said that soup is the only sacred food because only soup, or a good soup anyhow, perfectly mirrors the whole cosmos. Contra Christianity, the cosmos is nothing like bread and wine.

GARNER: Have you read much criticism of the book?

BLACK: Only a little, although I’m aware of the many discussions that have grown up around the book.

GARNER: In claiming that Death was meant as a history book, you might put to bed a number of theories which are currently bandied around about the central claim you make. I have to admit my surprise at hearing you describe the book as “history.” Perhaps I’ve never understood what is at the heart of the book.

BLACK: I’m sure you have. The claim of the book is summarized quite simply. What few reviews of the book I’ve read have always aptly narrowed the book down to its thesis, often within the first few sentences. The entire book is in service of the proposition that death does not exist.

GARNER: And when you say that death does not exist, what do you mean?

BLACK: I mean that I do not believe in death. A growing number of people do not believe God exists. Some Christians do not believe hell exists. Some Germans do not believe the Holocaust ever took place. Many atheists do not believe the soul exists. So, too, I do not believe death exists. When I say, “I do not believe in death,” I am not saying, “I do not believe death is best,” in the way someone might say, “I do not believe in capital punishment.” I am not saying I believe death is morally wrong or aesthetically inferior to life. Rather, I mean I do not believe that death is real. Death is not possible.

(pause)

GARNER: Would you say you have scientific evidence which supports this claim?

BLACK: A little, maybe. No more scientific evidence than an atheist has for the claim that God does not exist, and no more scientific evidence than a Christian who claims that Zeus does not exist. But you see science is not a perfect rule with which to measure all things in all ways. Neither is theology. Neither is the eye, aesthetics. The whole mind is needed and the whole body, as well.

GARNER: Death has been read as a Christian text by more than a few who have suggested the book is a remarkable elucidation of atonement theology and a Christian notion of time, as well. Of course, the book has also been called a sacrilege for denying the doctrine of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

BLACK: The book is not a Christian text. Obviously. The book denies the whole sacred order of the universe preached by Christianity. I deny that death is the means by which the finite is drawn into an infinite order and a divine logic. Of course, I deny that death accomplishes anything, in that I deny the very existence of death. The book is better understood as a sacrilege against Christianity than as a theological poem about the atonement wrought by Jesus, although I am sure minds far more brilliant than mine composed such an interpretation.

GARNER: At the same time, you’re not an atheist. Death is chalked full of references to the divine. In the course of your career, you’ve been notoriously hard to pin down. Philosophically speaking, I mean. Augustine was a Christian. Nietzsche was a nihilist. Mill was a utilitarian. No one knows what to call Harold Burroughs Black.

BLACK: I don’t believe that anything in Death is hostile to the existence of God. I’m certainly no materialist. Although, I appreciate many materialist approaches to truth. The materialist cannot accept the existence of the soul because science has yet to reduce the soul to a paradigm which can be explored with theory, experimentation and so forth. This is small-minded, though. Science can only ever answer the questions it thinks to ask. Science is bound by the imagination. Every generation is profoundly impressed with their own scientists because scientists answer all the big questions, solve all the riddles. But, as I said, scientists can only solve the riddles they can find. The scientists of the next generation are rarely impressed with the questions asked a hundred years previously. We feel great pride in believing that, were we to send a college graduate in biology back a thousand years, that student would be regarded as a god. I very much doubt it. This is pure hubris and ignorance of history. The college graduate would be regarded as a fool, a madman, or a mediocre magician. All of his claims would bore Medievals. I think there’s a greater likelihood that a young scientist of the Medieval period would be regarded as a god today. The science of the Medieval period is the black magic of today and we don’t kill magicians. We pay them or capture them and turn them into weapons. This is always the way of it. The science of one generation is only magic or alchemy for the next, the magic of the next is newly understood a hundred years later and redefined as science. In 1600, electroshock therapy would have been magic. Fifty years ago, it was science. Today it is hocus-pocus. The same is true of the soul. For the Medievals, the soul was a theological matter, but Medieval theology is nothing more than science by a different name. Today, no one in science has respect for theology, but I don’t think science has accomplished much good since becoming so insulated from the living, common man. Science of today isn’t much like a good soup. It’s the inviolable, absolute, impermeable Christian Eucharist.

(pause)

GARNER: You seem entirely comfortable with the Medieval conception of the soul.

BLACK: Of course. I was researching the Medievals when I lost confidence in the existence of death itself. The Medievals conceived of three different kinds of soul. The vegetable soul, the animal soul and the rationale soul. Men and angels posses the rationale soul, but nothing else does. The rationale soul is Deathless, according to the Medievals, although the body dies. To put it crassly, I think they got it only half right.

GARNER: How did you move from the Medieval notion of a deathless soul to your own claim?

BLACK: I said I was studying the Medievals when my doubt in the existence of death first arose. Christian theology is something of a fountainhead for much of the book.

GARNER: And yet the book is a sacrilege against Christianity?

BLACK: If the book is taken as a doctrinal claim jostling for the same space that papal encyclicals or ecumenical councils hold, then yes. Although everyone borrows from the Christians. Where did the French revolutionaries learn to exclude women from politics? The Romantic spirit, which is wholly contrary to Christian humility and morality, grew out of the cult of John Milton.

GARNER: So where else in Medieval Christianity were you reading?

BLACK: Saint Augustine. Gregory of Nyssa and Origen, although they were hardly Medieval. All of these— the greatest Christian theologians who ever lived— all struggled with the existence of sin and death on a metaphysical level. Today, we struggle with the existence of sin and death on a moral level. How can a good God allow evil things to take place? This is an immature question of the first order, though. How can the omnipresent God and death share the same cosmos? This is the question which matters. Death and sin are great mysteries for Christians and Jews alike because death and sin are ultimately and totally unnatural. But the word “unnatural” is nearly meaningless to us today. It must be rescued. Death and sin are unnatural in that they run metaphysically and ontologically against all that exists in God and man, who are both blessed. Death and sin impossibilities. For a Christian like Augustine or Gregory of Nyssa, time was nothing more than the finite experience of the infinite. Gregory says finite man is being stretched out in, into, through and towards the infinite. Time carries on and on because human beings, who are finite, are being drawn into the being of God, who is infinite. We can never come to the end of God and so time will never end. All that we experience is God’s being. God is an eternal record and we are the needle which produces the music of God, the human experience. The question arises, then, in what way do we experience sin? Where on that record, which is God, do we encounter sin and death? If God is in all places and fills all things, where is sin experienced? Augustine declared sin and death to be nothingness, a privation of goodness. A privation of existence. For Gregory and Origin, death was nearly an optical illusion created by time. Of course, from the divine perspective— from a perspective outside of time, transcending time— the final and moral fulfilling of all things has already taken place. It was maddening to read Gregory and Origen when they did not take the final step and declare death an impossibility. The truth was so plainly before them.

GARNER: What was holding them back? What holds all of us back from declaring death an impossibility? Is the knowledge that death is impossible a kind of higher knowledge? Did God have to reveal this to you?

BLACK: What holds the atheist back from admitting there is a god? What holds the Christian back from admitting there is no god? It is absolutely vital to remember that the debate about god’s existence is not merely a philosophical or moral debate. Christians, pagans, Muslims and so forth have not merely argued for different ways of interpreting history, as though the events of history were all agreed upon and semiotics was the last battleground. There was a time when every ancient Roman would have sworn to you that Jove saved their empire. The Romans weren’t arguing for a particular reading of history, they were describing an historical fact. Christians were torn limb from limb, sawn in half, mutilated, some watched their love ones consumed, all for the belief that the resurrection of Jesus was an historical fact— something that might have been videotaped. Muslims believe Muhammad rode a winged horse from Mecca to Jerusalem. The Jews crossed the Red Sea just as the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic. While Jews, Muslims and so forth would not have understood contemporary notions of “literal truth,” I think they believed their stories all the more fiercely. These were not fanciful stories they told themselves to feel better about their suffering. Christian suffering arose from such stories and the insistence they were sublimely and transcendentally true— they would have turned up their noses at our claims of literal truth as though it were abject, meaningless nihilism.

I say all this, at the same time respecting the fact that the Christians story and the Muslim story cannot be simultaneously true. Persons far more invested in the truth of these stories have died over them and I’ll not dishonor real human passion by watering it down with the false peace of pleasant contemporary platitudes. So which story is true? For eight thousand years of human history, the cosmos proceeded from a divine principle. Then, at the Enlightenment, this changed. It is not as though humanity is alien to radical revision. For three thousand years, everyone knew the Earth was at the center of the universe. For the last three hundred years, everyone has known the Earth is not. Some of this is a new interpretation of the facts, although I suspect all new knowledge also calls us to admit to the lies we’ve told ourselves for a long, long time. Human beings innately know truth when it presents itself, even while they might have believed lies while living in a state of ignorance. Of course, it often takes a long time to admit that the old way of doing things was actually painful. Pride sometimes prohibits what the body and mind ardently desire. I suspect the same is true of death. Pride holds us back.

GARNER: I want to go back to something you said a minute ago about sin and death. You borrowed from the metaphysics of Gregory of Nyssa to show that Death was not real. What about sin? Is sin real?

BLACK: I would be lying to say it doesn’t feel real. Who hasn’t felt wronged at some point?

GARNER: So the issue of sin and death bifurcates at some point? What’s true of death isn’t necessarily true of sin?

BLACK: Sin is a word which acknowledges the presence of a living and good, albeit judgmental God. A court of law isn’t going to send you to jail for committing a sin, but a crime. I am obviously willing to admit the existence of crime.

GARNER: But doesn’t the notion of crime come out of some notion of sin? Do Christian or Muslim or pagan societies acknowledge the possibility of a sinless crime? With an established religion, crime is always a violation of some sacred law or principle.

BLACK: I don’t believe that sin is possible for the same reason I don’t believe death is possible. Both involve a violation of the divine which is metaphysically impossible. That said, the goodness of God is certainly not something we understand. We have a faint, pale notion of the goodness of God. The goodness of God is revealed all around us, in all things. In suffering and in joy. Christians have acknowledged this for centuries. They thank God for their suffering. Suffering leads the Christian and the Jew into a greater knowledge of God. Suffering can’t be abject. The Augustinian notion of sin as a privation of good is sound, I believe, but it also reveals sin as an impossibility.

GARNER: All that happens is the revelation of God, then? Even horrific things? Rape, murder, mutilation? These things are good?

BLACK: The claim is not so radical as it sounds. “Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I say rejoice,” as St. Paul once said. Glory to God for all things.

GARNER: Why do people cry?

BLACK: Because they suffer.

GARNER: Should we try to end suffering?

BLACK: If you want to, then yes. If not, then no. Both responses are an experience of the divine. To suffer is not more or less divine than not suffering. This is only my claim. Christians would say it is better to suffer, even while praying that God would deliver them from suffering. Christians are very strange, although strangeness is part of the divine nature, as well.

GARNER: Are you a nihilist?

BLACK: No. I simply believe that all things are good. All things have meaning. Is this not the opposite of nihilism?

GARNER: How can anything have meaning if nothing is better or worse than anything else?

BLACK: Is God’s mercy greater than His justice?

GARNER: I don’t know.

BLACK: Christians say no one attribute of God’s being is greater than another. God cannot be more just than merciful. Neither is he more full of hate than full of love. And yet this doesn’t mean that mercy and justice are meaningless terms. They are simply different expressions of God’s infinitude which the human being is slowly being pulled through. The experience of being beaten is not metaphysically more significant to a human being than the experience of drinking a glass of wine, just as God’s justice is not greater than his mercy.

GARNER: I don’t know what you plan to do with this tape, Harold. Perhaps you’ll send it a newspaper. Perhaps you’ll have the transcript printed. I want to speak on behalf of everyone who hasn’t been educated in the fine points of Christian metaphysics. May I ask you a painful question?

BLACK: Of course.

GARNER: Where is your wife?

BLACK: I don’t know where she is, although I know she is alive somewhere.

GARNER: And there is nothing you could be shown, nothing you could see that would convince you otherwise?

BLACK: Send the lions in to tear me apart, but I cannot confess otherwise. She is alive.

GARNER: You spoke at her funeral.

BLACK: I spoke at her memorial. She’s gone now, just like anyone can be gone. But she is not dead.

GARNER: Did you see her corpse?

BLACK: I saw something that looked very much like her. Perhaps it was her they put in the ground, but she was alive.

GARNER: Why didn’t you prevent them from putting her in the ground if she was alive?

BLACK: I wrote Death after her memorial, Grant.

GARNER: You believe that, were we to exhume her body, we would find… what?

BLACK: Of course, we would find something that looked like those things we’ve been told to call “rotting corpses.” It might even bear some similarity to Mary, but it would not be Mary, my wife.

GARNER: How did the thing which we have been told to call “a rotting corpse” get there?

BLACK: I couldn’t say for sure. In the book, I fool around with a few speculations, although I don’t come down on anything specific.

GARNER: Your speculations— secret organizations, sleepwalking— these are suggestions that should be taken as historical? Factual?

BLACK: I think so. Because a belief in death is so ingrained in our minds, I think it likely that we’ve pushed out of our minds all that we see which challenges this belief. Again, ego and pride. We’re willing to do an awful lot to ignore what we don’t want to see. The mind is capable of some rather remarkable things. Misdirection, outright fabrication, lies. The inner workings of the body fascinate me in that regard, especially the way that the mind is constantly involved in a sleight of hand with the nervous system in order to get a man to stand upright and walk, or even to be able to hear properly.

GARNER: So we’re blocking a lot out? Willingly?

BLACK: Perhaps, although it’s nearly impossible to tell. There might very well be an organization of more than a billion people on earth who is involved in nothing more than perpetuating the myth of death. Persons from this organization might be present at the alleged death of every human being, walking around in dark black suits and staging scenes wherein our loved ones take their last breaths. Dummies or puppets might be used. Animatronics. While I was holding the hand of my wife as she lay on her alleged death bed, it might be the organization came into my house, removed by living wife and replaced her with a dummy crafted in her exact likeness. I might have seen the whole thing, the whole episode. In fact, I may have seen the same thing take place hundreds, even thousands of times in my life. Car wrecks, bombings, war, botched bank robberies, persons who jump from high places and bridges. We all might have seen this kind of thing take place. Men in black enter unannounced, lead our loved ones out peacefully, only to have an effigy of them fall over motionless in the kitchen of a heart attack two minutes later.  I’m suggesting that the kind of self-imposed delusion which goes along with believing death is real could not possibly rule out such an organization existing, even while all of humanity denies the existence of such an organization because it’s simply too painful to admit the old beliefs about death have always been wrong. Of course, we all scoff at such suggestions while in the presence of others, although Christians suggest that atheists do the same— that atheists secretly know God exists within the privacy of their hearts even while they feign doubt with their lips.

GARNER: This sounds like pure fantasy.

BLACK: Atheists believe god to be an even greater fantasy.  Christians could sooner admit such an organization was possible than they could admit that Jove saved Rome. Such an organization is within the realm of possibility for the Christian. Such human delusion is possible for the Christian and the atheist. However, for the atheist, god is not possible. I’m not suggesting anything more strange than god himself.

GARNER: Is there any precedent for this at all? This sounds absolutely legendary. Would there not be some trace of it in myths? Would we not tell cryptic stories about—

BLACK: Obviously we do. The entire concept of such a thing arose in my mind from the myth of the psychopomp. English speaking people have told stories of a black-cloaked man leading away our loved ones for almost six hundred years. The myth of the Grim Reaper helps us veil and unveil at the same time the painful truth that something very much like the organization I just described surely exists.

GARNER: I recall the chapters in Death where you lay out these claims. It is shocking to hear you present them with this kind of candor and confidence. Even faith.

BLACK: Religious faith has absolutely nothing to do with it. Science has always involved faith of a certain kind, though, especially faith in what is yet to be proven. No theory is exhaustively tested. Scientists cling to theories while they wait for proof. I’m nothing more than a scientist waiting for the proof of such things, although the scientists Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine and Origen have laid much of the groundwork for us.

GARNER: There are a number of theories which have emerged on Death, although few of the literalists get much time at the University level. There’s a divide, I think… Well, some have said that the only way to get anyone to take a book like Death seriously is to write it— to make these claims— as though they were literally true, but to expect people to deal with them on their own terms, allegorical terms.

BLACK: And to whisk away the meaning into something more comfortable. I know that isn’t what you said, but that’s what it always behind that kind of language. Naturally, poetry has to be read as poetry and fiction has to be read as fiction. However, we all hope for doctors that took Grey’s Anatomy as an historical, literal account of the body. Nobody wants a New Age philosopher for a heart surgeon.

GARNER: Death contains passages that are written in verse, though.

BLACK: And many passages that are not written in verse. I’ve laid out my claims in poetry, in narrative, in philosophy, in terms of scientific speculation, and in terms of historical accounts. I always thought that presenting the same ideas, the same claims, in so many ways would prevent anyone from allowing the central thesis to become a wax nose.

GARNER: Do you expect to see your wife again? Should we hold out hope of seeing our dead loved ones again?

BLACK: People have expected to see their loved ones again for a very long time. Some do. The number of people who claim to have spoken to the dead is astronomical. That number is even higher in countries which are less distracted by the pursuit of pleasure than we are in America. America is perhaps the least astute, the least tuned in to subtle truths. We have an endless supply of baubles and new sweet tastes on the tongue to pull us away from pain, or even from great love. We emotionally and physically devastate one another. We dull our senses on new things. The great crisis of America’s history is always that we’re not buying enough. America is always most herself, always thriving, when Americans are leaving their homes to pay money for trinkets and sensual gratification. When Americans stop buying, our leaders bemoan the forthcoming collapse of everything. We do all that we can to get people buying again, earning wages again so they can buy new things. The greatest form of treachery known to Americans is asceticism. Someday, any remaining monks in America will be hung as enemies of the state. We believe that making things and buying things and earning money are the great pylons of civilization and we regard other nations that make less and buy less as unsophisticated. Meanwhile, third world countries have experiences with the so-called dead all the time.

You want to know if we will we see our disappeared love ones again? We run into them all the time. They are always around us. Many of them are probably involved in the business of escorting away the so-called dead and in perpetuating the myth of death. Everyday, we’re likely passing them on the street as they go to take someone else away, although we don’t recognize them because we’ve been taught to look away, to not think it a possibility. We are slaves to death.

GARNER: Do the dead not try to make themselves known to us?

BLACK: I am quite sure they do. Sometime they succeed, although Enlightened Westerners have been taught to regard any such accounts as pure fiction, as madness and delusion. More of us would admit to seeing the dead were it not for the remarkable stigma placed on persons who make such claims. If someone at a dinner party were to tell you that their dead mother was ten feet away, dressed in black robes, and gesturing for them to come near, you would have that person committed to an asylum.

GARNER: You’ve made yourself open to this possibility, though. Since making yourself open to this possibility, have you met the dead?

(pause)

BLACK No, I have not. Or, I have not recognized the dead.

GARNER: Why not?

BLACK: I couldn’t say for sure, although I suspect that I have a long way to go, as well.

(pause)

GARNER: Are you willing to address a few very simple logical problems most people would have with this possibly being true?

BLACK: Of course.

GARNER: If no one ever dies, wouldn’t the population of the earth rise so quickly that there would be no room for anyone to live?

BLACK: Have we not become terribly concerned with an overpopulated planet in the last twenty years? How is it that in the 1970s, everyone knew the population of the earth was four billion, and now we’re approaching seven billion?

GARNER: Where do the dead live?

BLACK: Anywhere they please. Our own homes. Unrented or rented hotel rooms. Beneath bridges and park benches.

GARNER: If I were to pull out a gun right now and aim it at you, would I be able to pull the trigger?

BLACK: I’m eager to not be misunderstood. You could pull the gun out, you could pull the trigger and the bullet could enter my skull and burst my brain. A terrific explosion of blood would cloud the wall behind me. Although I would not be dead. The so-called dead would come here later and take away my body and I would recover somewhere. Perhaps surgery would be needed, or perhaps I would simply lay perfectly still as time restored me to health.

GARNER: How long do you think that would take?

BLACK: I would think no more than a few days.

GARNER: Are you willing to take a neurological exam and a psychological evaluation and satisfy a few experts that you are sane?

BLACK: I’m sure I’ve said enough already to be pronounced insane. We all know what becomes of people who say the kinds of things I say.

GARNER: Are you insane?

BLACK: No.

GARNER: Is everyone else insane?

BLACK: No. Of course not.

GARNER: Should what you’re saying give people hope or is the entire cosmos tragic?

BLACK: Grant that’s the best question you’ve asked me all afternoon. What do you think?

GARNER: I would think it entirely depends on what kind of beliefs a person has outside of the claims of your book. An atheist—

BLACK: An atheist could never accept the claims of Death. The book is manifestly theistic. Theism is the groundwork of the entire book. Any atheist who believed that Beath was a hoax would cease to be an atheist.

GARNER: Is it possible to both be an atheist and accept the notion that death is a hoax?

BLACK: I misspoke. An atheist who understood that death is a hoax would, at very least, not be a consistent atheist. Although very few atheists are— although very few people as a whole are, I should say.

GARNER: So would an atheist who inconsistently accepted the claim of Death be happier?

BLACK: I tend to think not. Atheists are comfortable believing that the only judgment which exists is meted out by human beings in this life, although when an atheist thinks of this life, he or she only thinks of a period of about sixty or seventy years. I tend to think that an atheist who knew he was going to never die would cease to be an atheist. Atheism is soothing for those who fear the judgment of God. Once the possibility of eternal death is lifted from an atheist’s conscience, I don’t think there’s much left in atheism which is lucrative.

GARNER: So an atheist becomes a theist once he recognizes death is a hoax. Is he happier?

BLACK: It depends on what a theist or a Christian took to be the great comfort of Christianity. Some people are Christians because they fear hell. Others are Christians because they hate someone who is not a Christian and need the solace of knowing that person will be eternally tormented. For this kind of Christian, upon recognizing death was a hoax, I think there would be a very, very long period in which religion was spurned. Christianity would cease to provide that person with the benefits which had kept him faithful. I would be hopeful that in the infinitude of time, they would come back to something loving, something blessed which joined their heart to God.

For the Christian who was a Christian because the goodness of God was perfectly attractive and seductive, I think the knowledge that death was a hoax would affect them very little. For the person who believes that all will someday be saved, the knowledge that death is a hoax merely cuts out an unneeded middle man.

GARNER: And yet Christians believe that the resurrection is their great hope. Saint Paul once claimed that if the Resurrection were not true, then all of Christianity would be vain.

BLACK: The Resurrection which Saint Paul speaks of is a notoriously inscrutable word. The Resurrection has come to refer to what the Church has declared to be the Resurrection, although there has certainly been debate about it. Jesus Christ claims to be the Resurrection and so we can’t speak of the Resurrection as though it were some future event. The Resurrection is a man, at least according to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is also the Truth, or so He claims to be. So the Resurrection and the Truth are the same. Could the Resurrection simply be the Truth that death is powerless because death is entirely false? Christians have claimed for millennia that death was conquered by Christ, although they’ve also held that the event of the Cross entirely transcends time. The Cross is not a fixed moment in history. The Cross is the whole of human history. The work of the Cross was the power behind efficacious sacrifice in the age of the Hebrews. Death was conquered before Christ and after Christ. When and where can the Christian claim that death ever had power? And how can an entirely powerless thing be said to exist at all?

GARNER: What do you see in mankind’s future? Good things? Evil things?

BLACK: The Christian claims that all suffering will someday be finished because death and suffering are bound up together and death will be finally overcome. I recognize that suffering exists, although I do not recognize that death exists, and so it might be that suffering is an eternal human condition. As I said earlier, the experience of evil is an experience of God because all things are the experience of God. As such, people will continue to experience God into all of eternity, and some of that experience will entail suffering, just as it does now. I’m not certain of this, though. That’s all very, very hypothetical, despite the definite terms I present it in. The course of human history seems to contain many patterns, although sudden newness also bursts through sometimes. It’s not inconceivable that human beings might, at some point, enjoy billions and billions of years without pain and suffering, but then it might come crashing down on us again. We might forget what pain is and then be suddenly reminded. Because the infinite God is not circumscribable by the finite mind, there’s simply no way of knowing too much of what’s in the future.

GARNER: Will the so-called dead and the living ever reconcile?

BLACK: Given an infinite future, I’m sure they will at some point. Death might not always remain the dividing myth between one group of persons and another. Something might conceivably take the place of death. The notion of heaven and hell certainly entered human consciousness at a certain point and have, for the last two thousand years, been a great way of dividing all of humanity up into neat and tidy groups, just like living and dead have also been used. The world isn’t too small for other myths, perhaps even more destructive myths than that of death.

GARNER: Where did the myth of death come from?

BLACK: Religious people. Some historians like to say that a fear of death gave rise to belief in God and religion. It’s a slight chronological misstep.

GARNER: So…

BLACK: I say religion gave rise to a belief in death as a way of controlling people. Death was something to be afraid of. God ought never be feared because such fear is senseless. You cannot change God by worrying about him. The myth of death was the means religious people, especially Christians, have used to control people for thousands of years.

GARNER: But that control is an experience of God, right?

BLACK: Yes.

GARNER: Is that bad?

BLACK: It leads to suffering, but I don’t believe in sin.

GARNER: Are you an anarchist?

BLACK: No.

GARNER: What’s the difference between a good book and a bad book?

BLACK: The quality of the writing, the story arc, the complexity of characters and themes.

GARNER: But if the writing of a good book and the writing of a bad book are both the experience of an infinitely simple God, how can one be preferred over another?

BLACK: Sometimes people just want to read a junk novel. Sometimes they want to read Faust.

GARNER: Is the difference between a good book and a bad book an illusion?

BLACK: Only inasmuch as the difference between God’s mercy and His justice are an illusion. It’s helpful to speak of them as different, because we’re finite and slow to comprehend the infinite, but they’re not different in an ultimate metaphysical sense. Neither is a good book and a bad book.

GARNER: Are you a Republican?

BLACK: No.

GARNER: Democrat?

BLACK: No.

GARNER: Anything at all, politically speaking?

BLACK: No.

GARNER: Is politics not an experience of the divine? How can it bore you, then?

BLACK: I suppose I’m just very, very immature.

GARNER: And that immaturity is an experience of the divine?

BLACK: I certainly don’t feel bad about being bored by politics.

(pause)

GARNER: Harold, I don’t know if I have anything more to ask you.

BLACK: Thank you, Grant.

GARNER: And the tape?

BLACK: I am sorry, Grant, but I must keep this tape. I hope you recall our conversation clearly. Say what you like about me.  

Grant Garner’s post script (June 19th, 2007): I have tried as accurately as possible to replicate the conversation between Mr. Black and myself. The tape of the conversation which Mr. Black and I made was never recovered after I left the hotel room in the evening. Several days after this interview was conducted, Harold Burroughs Black was found dead in the same hotel room where this interview was conducted. He died, if such a thing is possible, by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the right temple.

Gibbs post script: I wrote this for my theology students years ago and have handed it out regularly since then, asking students to defeat Black's thesis. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs.