Memoir tackles science, faith
The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk’s career-making novel for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, was published more than a half-century ago, but Wouk is not merely gathering more laurels for a lifetime of distinguished work. Remarkably, at the age of 94, he recently made a rare trek from his self-described “lair” in Palm Springs to talk about his latest book, The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion (Little, Brown, $23.99).
Although Wouk is best known for the thrilling war novels that have been made into movies, including not only Mutiny but also The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, he has also been one of the great explainers and defenders of the Jewish faith. This Is My God, first published in 1959, remains as a good introduction to the kind of Jewish observance called Modern Orthodoxy.
“Herman Wouk is still standing against what has been called the modern sensibility,” wrote his biographer, Arnold Beichman, a few years ago, “loss of faith, spiritual bewilderment, and the arrogant claim of man’s absurdity in the eyes of his non-Creator.”
His latest book is another confession of faith, but it is fully engaged with the world in which we live now. The title of The Language God Talks, a phrase he borrowed from the late physicist Richard Feynman, refers to calculus and it represents Wouk’s entry into a debate between religion and science that has never been livelier than it is today. But Wouk insists that we ought not forget “God’s other language,” the language of the Bible and the Talmud.
Wouk takes on not only Feynman — “my kind of agnostic,” he jokes — but also a couple of other Jewish physicists and Nobel laureates, Murray Gell-Mann (“a Nobel-class tackler of problems, but for him the existence of God is not one of them”) and Steven Weinberg (“a quarreler with God in the vein of Job”). He offers a deft survey of the scientific enterprise that characterizes our recent history, ranging from the Manhattan Project to the Hubble Telescope, before turning his attention to the ancient and enduring questions that have always vexed the human mind: Where do we come from? Where are we going? How do we make sense of the lives we lead in between?
“The curtain rises on the Mosaic drama, and LIGHT floods the stage; on the humanist drama, a BANG shakes the theater,” Wouk writes. “Beyond those two mighty metaphors, calculated to shock our primal human senses, the scenarios diverge.”
To his credit, and appropriately enough, Wouk never quite explains how he reconciles religion and science. It’s as if he were fully embracing the uncertainty principle of modern physics, but there’s something of the talmudic pilpul at work here, too. When all is said and done, Wouk sums up his credo in an imaginary conversation with Richard Feynman.
“In the Talmud, when the logic is evenly balanced on both sides, the Talmud can stop the dispute with one abrupt Aramaic word: ‘TEIKU!,’” Wouk tells Feynman. “Meaning ‘the question stands!’ Draw, tie, no decision.”
To put it another way, Wouk quotes Ecclesiastes: “He has made all things beautiful in their time, and has put eternity in men’s hearts, except that no man will find out the work of the Lord from beginning to end.”
So Wouk’s book is hardly a religious tract. Rather, it is more nearly a memoir, much enlivened by the author’s vivid recollections of his family history, his wartime exploits, his writing life, his wide-ranging travels, his experiences in Hollywood and on Broadway, and much else besides.
In that sense, The Language God Talks is a kind of compact philosophical autobiography and a unique opportunity for readers to glimpse the innermost musings and intimate experiences that prepared Wouk for the many books that he has bestowed upon us, including this one.