Even critics will have to recognize that The Stillborn God is a stunning book. (It is also a handsome book, just the sort of thing one expects from Knopf: stout, creamy, a pleasure to hold. Only deckled pages would have been an improvement.) Lilla’s erudition informs a sweeping narrative of the early modern liberation from “political theology” effected by Hobbes, giving rise to the “Great Separation” between private claims to revelation and the public arbitration of politics by appeals to reason alone. But the remainder of the story tracks all the ways that “political theology” came back to haunt the modern West—particularly in German contexts. The core problem of the book is that it buys into the simplistic myth of religious violence and secular peace, resting on the unsubstantiated empirical claim that “religion” (whatever that is) breeds violence whereas institutions of liberal democracy foster peace (current world conflicts not withstanding). Lilla also continues to cling to the myth of a “secular” political philosophy. In both of these respects, he is culpably ignorant of contemporary scholarship (particularly the work of William Cavanaugh, John Milbank, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Jeffrey Stout). And Lilla can’t simply plead that he’s doing history; what’s at stake is his historiography. Despite these fundamental problems, it remains an important book that can’t be ignored.
The recent passing of Norman Mailer has been an occasion for the literati to reflect on both his genius and craziness (Christopher Hitchens' reminiscence is a treat). But perhaps the most voyeuristically captivating is Dick Cavett's recollection of the infamous episode of his late night TV talk show on ABC in 1971 wherein the talk show couch became an impromptu boxing ring as Norman Mailer squared off with Gore Vidal. The antics are ludicrous; and yet they stem from a sense that literature and criticism mattered (after all, the thrown-down-gauntlet that occassioned the fray was a claim Vidal made about Mailer in the New York Review of Books.)
But don't miss the really significant and depressing point: apparently in 1971, late night talk television was home to literary figures like Mailer, Vidal, and others. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates on Letterman? Or Alice Munro and Tom Wolfe making an appearance on Leno? Sadly, if this was ever going to happen on late night TV, I'd expect to see it on Comedy Central's Daily Show or Colbert Report.