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The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion
The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion
Herman Wouk
Little, Brown and Company, 2010
183 pp., $23.99

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David Michael


The Language God Talks

As understood by Herman Wouk.

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But The Language God Talks is ultimately about Wouk. It is a spiritual autobiography and also, Wouk knows, potentially his swan song: "I embark here on a tour of … this child's garden of God, at a pause in my storytelling, anticipating a sure farewell at an uncertain time." Wouk has already given readers his tour of Feynman's Stage; now he must discuss the Drama and answer how he, a self-proclaimed "humanist to the bone," can maintain his deep Jewish faith and identity. Wouk spends the second half of the book giving an account of how he integrates the New (humanist) Drama with the Old (Mosaic) drama: "I gradually integrated the New Drama and the Old in my mind and spirit, as well as I ever will; not through reasoning about faith and science but by creating pictures." Wouk then presents the readers with eleven of these "pictures," or vignettes. Ten of these tell the story of Wouk's writing of War and Remembrance, a novel that focuses on the fate of the European Jews in World War II. Wouk writes that the book's main character, Aaron Jastrow, a Jewish American scholar who finds himself in Auschwitz, "is the nearest I have come or am ever likely to come to setting down in words what I believe." Jastrow's camp sermon, a meditation on Job, is included in The Language God Talks as a coda.

The final picture is an imagined encounter between Feynman and Wouk as the two men find themselves walking together to Georgetown's medical center where Feynman is presumably being treated for the cancer that would kill him in 1988 (in real life, the two never met again after Aspen). When they first got acquainted at Caltech, Feynman once interrupted Wouk and said, "You know, while you're talking, you're not learning anything." Now, in Wouk's imagined conversation, it is Feynman who listens. Feynman "asks" Wouk about his faith, which allows the latter to "speak (write) freely," briefly summing up his earlier two books on Judaism as he explains why he is Orthodox and what Feynman has missed out on by not practicing Judaism. Finally, Feynman asks Wouk about the apparent disconnect between faith and science. Feynman has chosen one; how can Wouk straddle both?

Throughout the book, Wouk wants to say there is still a place for faith. The perennial question Why am I here? can't be answered by science: "With all the stunning modern discoveries in cosmology and the biosciences, you really don't know the answer. Nobody does. Not the unbeliever, not the believer. Faith is hope, not fact." He closes the book with something of a detente between science and religion—or at least a stalemate. As their imaginary conversation draws to a close and Wouk leaves Feynman at the entrance to the medical center, The Language God Talks leaves the question unsettled.

The problem with Wouk's book is that he isn't the best tour guide of Feynman's Stage: "About science I know less than the science editors of your favorite newspaper or website." Wouk tried repeatedly to learn calculus after Feynman told him it was "the language God talks," even auditing a high school course and hiring an Israeli tutor to better his own Hebrew while learning calculus. Now he spends an inordinate number of words blaming his lack of scientific authority on his failure to learn calculus. He might have stolen a page from Frank O'Hara's playbook and called the book Why I Am Not a Scientist. Wouk is actually quite well-read in certain areas of science, but his constant claims to being underqualified serve as a distraction.

To discuss science, Wouk relies on his friendships with various scientists for credibility, and he is at pains to establish the authority of his conversation partners. Thus every scientist Wouk has lunch with is "distinguished" or a "Nobel Laureate." The name-dropping that results rivals Dale Carnegie. I counted seventeen appearances of the word "Nobel."

And because Wouk is trying to do too much with the book, it becomes extremely digressive and scattered. When he moves from chronicling Feynman's Big Stage to the Drama, Wouk jumps from a conversation with his nephew, to Confucius, to his travels in China, to his time in the navy and the writing of The Caine Mutiny. Though the anecdotes are almost always interesting, their placement and reason for inclusion are not always clear. Any creative writing teacher hoping to confound her students would ask them to diagram the structure of the book's middle chapters; one wonders if the book wouldn't have benefited from some heavier editing.

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