Interview with Will Self, writer
Conducted by: Tom McCarthy (General Secretary, INS)
Venue: Office of Anti-Matter, Austrian Cultural Institute, London
Present: Tom McCarthy, Will Self, Anna Soucek, Margarita Gluzberg, Jim Flint, Stewart Home, Isabel Vasseur, Melissa McCarthy, Christopher McCarthy, Others
Tom McCarthy: Let's start by talking about an early work of yours, and the blueprint for your latest novel: the short story The North London Book of the Dead. Now, death in that piece is very closely linked to travel. The opening image is an Emily Dickinson-esque one of death travelling to a meeting; then in the next paragraph we get the bereaved protagonist driving around; then he sees his mother strap-hanging in a bus; then we go straight to the realm of space travel when she's imagined as having journeyed to a distant planet in a fifties sci-fi movie. These tropes come one after the other, boom-boom-boom, in the space of two paragraphs. A more conventional or rational image of death would be of stasis, as this is, after all, what it induces at a material level. Why do you use movement, speed and distance when dealing with death?
Will Self: It's to do with seeing things as processes rather than reifications, seeing death as a departure rather than an end state, and having an inherently mystical and transcendental view of the relationship between life and death rather than a Western, or materialistic, view.
TMcC: There's an image quite early on in that work of the Grim Reaper standing behind a bus shelter in such a way that the upper half of his body is hidden by a route map. That made me think of another work of yours, Scale, which is also about movement and mapping. That later work wears one of its influences on its sleeve: Swift's Gulliver's Travels. What draws you to Swift?
WS: I don't think I've ever really left Swift, far from being brought to him. The critic Harold Bloom says that Western personality is the way it is because of Shakespeare, and I think that Western satire is very much the way it is because of Swift. Swift's notion of using the very large and very small as conceptual can-openers to open up the conundrums of the world is something that I think is inherent in our vision: that kind of scale vision. Scale is a piece intended to open up those pathways and ways of looking at things. When you make things very large or very small you sacrifice the intelligible to liberate what is discoverable about things at that point. That's what I was trying to do in that story. Actually, I wasn't: I was just writing a story, but there you go.
TMcC: When you use the word 'discoverable', it stresses for me how Swift's work is very much about speculative mapping. Would you say that's important in your work, the spatial thing?
WS: I suppose so. I suppose I belong loosely to that group of writers who might be termed 'psychogeographers' to some extent, but the topographies I'm investigating are wholly mutated out of the ones that we really occupy. They're not a different overlay on the map of the city; they're an overlay of another place that is recognisably still part of our world and yet not. There's a queasiness about it.
TMcC: In The North London Book of the Dead the place where the dead go is the suburbs of North London. Why did you choose that over Elysian Fields or celestial cities?
WS: I wrote it a few years ago. Since then Crouch End has become a very desirable area full of delicatessens and media operatives who work from home and get extremely healthy salaries. Nowadays it would be desirable for even the living to move there, so my story is a very cruel slur on the integrity of Crouch End. But back in the early eighties, when there was something of an economic depression in this country, Crouch End was fairly run down, there were no delicatessens and people were as yet unable to work from home on their computers, so it represented to me a particular type of North London suburb that is somehow illimitable. You have this late nineteenth century shopping parade that's been layered over in the interwar period. It could be anywhere. I only used to go there as a child to take the cat to the vet, and eventually of course the cat was put down at the vet's in Crouch End, so I associated Crouch End with death, with the death of cats and, by extension, with Egypt.
TMcC: One of the last places that the protagonist of that piece sees his dead mother is beside a filing cabinet in his office. I know it's just a passing detail, but it seems very significant, because both in that piece and in your latest novel, How the Dead Live, death is a place of endless bureaucracy: files and papers, committees, sub-committees, sub-sub committees. Why did you make it that way?
WS: In The North London Book of the Dead, the trope is that death is like this for everybody: when you die, you move to another suburb of London, and in due course you are relocated to the provinces, somewhere in the south-east of England that's very calm and quiet where you can be dead without bothering anybody. It's a satirical but wistful story about a young man's experience of bereavement. So the role that the bureaucracy of death occupies there is somewhat different to the role it has in How the Dead Live. In the earlier story the deathocracy (for want of a better coinage) is a kind of self-help group run by the dead themselves. It's relatively benign, once you get over the horror of the fact that the afterlife is so intolerably prosaic. But when you move to How the Dead Live the deathocracy is a sinister, minatory, Kafkaesque set-up that's purposelessly paper-shuffling. All of the 'deathocrats', as they're called, are preoccupied by gizmos and crazes and gadgets that range over the centuries. This is actually because the phenomenology of the novel is quite different to that of the earlier story. How the Dead Live is very closely modelled on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It's about the disintegration of one individual psyche on the Bardot plane, the after-death plane. It's not really about what happens to everybody after they die; it's just about what happens to this one woman when she dies. So the deathocracy as conceived in How the Dead Live is really that aspect of her own preoccupation in life with faceless, purposeless, minatory, horrific bureaucracy then transposed into this disintegrating after-death experience.
TMcC: You mention Kafka; another bell that rang when I read that was Melville's Bartleby, this minor functionary who used to work in the office of dead information, dead letters. Was he on the radar when you wrote it?
WS: No. I must have read Bartleby twenty years ago lying underneath somebody's bed in a squat. I can barely remember it. Doubtless these things are all there and get called on to some extent.
TMcC: Another person you must have read at some point in your life - and I bring him up because his name keeps cropping up in these interviews I'm doing here - is Ovid. His work is all about transformation, mutation, and of course the ground zero of all mutation is death. Now, your 'diptych' Cock and Bull is very Ovidian, very much about mutating bodies. Carol grows a penis and a vagina sprouts on the back of Paul's leg. But it's not just the people who mutate: as the newly-vaginated Paul drives around London he sees the whole city opening up into slits, tunnels, seams…
TMcC: Exactly: vaginas, basically. It's the same in Scale: the junky protagonist, obsessed with his own vein network, reveals London as a huge network of veins and arteries as he drives round and round the M25 and its sub-roads. So it makes me wonder: who's transforming what? What are we talking about when we talk about mutation?
WS: Good question. I can't really give you a good answer to that question, not really being a very evolved critic of my own work. I just write the stuff; I don't really think about it in those terms. It's true that transmogrification, particularly horrible metamorphosis, tends to lie at the core of most of what I write. One explanation that occurs to me, that I've examined in the past, is that I'm very taken by the notion that every time you wake up in the morning you undergo a pretty extreme metamorphosis. I've never been convinced of what the ontological primacy of sleeping and waking is. I'm a mystic; I can't help it. That's the way I view things. So for me metamorphosis is the key condition: we are always in a state of change and flux, and it's really only received constraints in our language that try to block that from us and straight-jacket us into definable states: you are bipedal, you are Tom, you are this kind of person, you are unchanging. Every day seems to me a steady build up of signifiers that are covertly intended to convey the message to you that nothing will ever change, that you're in a state of stasis. But lo and behold, come the end of the day you shut down, you have a kind of seeming death, and in the morning the whole system is booted up again, and that seems to me far more primary than this sort of con-trick that we try to perpetrate on ourselves during the day. I think the same goes for our perception of our bodies: we're labouring to fight death, whether you think of it in Freud's sense, a kind of death instinct, a death-drive, or whether you perceive it as a kind of unconscious acknowledgement of the cellular disintegration, the apocoposis we're suffering all the time, the fact of the matter is that we struggle every day to say 'I'm okay, I'm not dying, and therefore by implication I'm in a state of stasis, I'm denying the running down of this organic alarm clock we seem to be inhabiting.'
TMcC: But in your work you seem to use metamorphosis to look for pathos - this sort of post-romantic pathos between the self and space, be that space the space of death or of the city. Ballard does the same: the diseased imagination of Vaughan in Crash is perfectly mirrored in the diseased, opening-up-into-wounds London; London becomes his body in a way.
WS: I think that those kinds of insights are inevitable once you cast off the shackles of habit. Those are the sort of things that occur to you almost instantaneously, really: those hideous or unsettling or perhaps even oddly productive congruences that you find between psychic states and the external world. I think it's a very fair characterisation to say that there's something post-romantic about that because it's a kind of resurgence of the chthonic, a reapprehension of nature beyond modernism. Modernism is all shiny bright, clean, flat surfaces, cremulators with steel balls in them crushing bone and bodies got rid of, only life, no death, pill for every ill, stem cell technology, live for ever, lager, lager - you know, it's that kind of thing. Whereas the reality of it is that we remain very organic, very linked to nature and very permeable. And the city itself is an encrustation on a scab in that way; it's not actually shiny bright or techno at all.
TMcC: I find it interesting in Cock and Bull that Carol, post-penis, becomes a) a murderer and b) a professor, a don. You seem to be deliberately linking death to knowledge, to the production of formal knowledge and its institutions. I know that as a writer one doesn't say: 'I'm going to link death to formal knowledge'. But when you look back after the fact doesn't that strike you?
WS: I've no idea. I haven't re-read it since I wrote it nine years ago. As far as I recall I was simply trying to tie up a rather preposterous plot. I wrote it very quickly when I was on holiday with my wife in Morocco, which is quite a minatory place. We were staying in places like Fez, and I conceived of it like Scheherazade, as a set of stories to tell her to futilely keep her amused, and that's why it had this rather Conradian structure of stories within stories just to tie it all up at the end. As for Carol becoming a rapist when she grows a cock, that was a very facile or simple-minded enjoinder or endorsement of the early seventies feminist argument that anybody with a penis is a potential rapist: I was just taking that to its logical conclusion.
TMcC: I want to ask you about death and memory. There's a beautiful sequence in How the Dead Live in which Lilly on her death bed recalls the Vermont of her childhood. It's like Beckett's Krapp remembering his past, very pastoral and lyrical. I know that Fitzgerald's been an influence on you, on that story A Lump of Crack as Big as the Ritz…
WS: No: Fitzgerald's title was an influence on that.
TMcC: Okay. But in Fitzgerald the heroes' tragic drive towards death is always a drive towards the past. That's what lies beyond the cycle of death for Gatsby: it's a nostalgic drive. It's not just in Fitzgerald: you get it in Proust and you get it in Burroughs. There's a late piece by him called Where He Was Going about a desperado, a John Dillinger figure, being hunted down by the FBI - and as he's shot, as he's dying, his passage into death is a passage back through his memory to the day of the dead in Mexico, and it hones in on a gardenia behind a boy's ear. It's very beautiful.
WS: Doubtless an attempt to recapture the day that he killed his wife as well. If you recall the preface to Queer, he's very preoccupied with revisiting the memories of the day on which he shot Joan Vollmer, as well he might have been - as a murderer should be.
TMcC: Well, I guess my question is: what do think underlies this type of connection, this big generic connection between death and memory that you can trace across quite a few writers?
WS: I think if anybody comes to consider the end of their own individual reflective self-consciousness, just as ageing itself creates a parallax in which the events that appeared distant in your childhood or your youth are drawn closer together by the long view, so, as Maynard Keynes said, 'in the long term we're all dead', in the very long term you get total parallax, a total sense of the interrelation of events in your life. Therefore the novelist who contemplates from the standpoint of death the nature of life is inextricably drawn back to contemplating it in that way. There's an emotional parallax there as well, because the only possible standpoint to take towards the total and irretrievable loss of your own self-consciousness is nostalgia: 'How I wish I could be that seven year-old examining the moss between the paving stones outside my house.' 'Where are the snows of yesteryear?' It's impossible not to take that view, because it is an enormous loss. It's more important than losing your car keys, for example.
TMcC: Writers seem to manifest this disposition more strongly. I remember interviewing you about Burroughs a few years back and you said that perhaps what he's scoring for is not junk - it's nostalgia, it's memory. He wants to have lost it so that he can get back into that feverishly, sickly missing the leaves rustling in St Louis backyards…
WS: Yes. That's right. That's certainly true of Burroughs. And really that's just a kind of literary embellishment on what I think all addicts are pursuing. The addict's mental processes and habitual physical processes are so regulated by an obsessive and Rubros-like circle of self-consumption, and the aim is to achieve some kind of stasis, but it isn't stasis in the present, it's atemporal. The addict wishes the washing up never to have to be done again. The addict wishes it always to be that autumn evening when they smelt the burning leaves or saw the quickening white limbs of young nude boys running down to the creek or whatever their particular kick is.
TMcC: That issue of death and time. I'm thinking of Quentin Compson trying to get out of time in The Sound and the Fury or Hamm and Clov in Endgame waiting for it to end, for time to finish so that they can get out - and you just know that it won't finish, they won't get out. As I reread The North London Book of the Dead recently it struck me for the first time that this is not in fact a story about the protagonist's mother's death. It's exactly the opposite: it's a story about her refusal to die. So here's a proposition: is immortality a more frightening prospect than death?
WS: Immortality is almost inconceivable. What would it mean, exactly? We forget so much that we become other people anyway in the process of life, so to be immortal is some kind of idealised total remembering rather than simply living for ever. Once again, you see that death and memory are completely interlinked. But no: I think people really are attracted to immortality: people who live in the reified world, the objectified world, which many people do appear to do as far as I can see, look upon immortality as a product without built-in obsolescence. It's like buying a car and it's still running in several centuries time. I think it's appealing to them - but then you've got to bear in mind that they're living in this very reified world, this very modernist world.
TMcC: So immortality is like the eternal lightbulb General Electric got paranoid someone would produce.
WS: That's right. You could dismiss it as a kind of millennial tendency, but certainly in the last couple of years there's been a tremendous focus in the kind of popular science articles you see in the press on living for ever. Our life span is going to be increased to one hundred and thirty years, two hundred, potentially indefinitely, whatever it is. So it is something that grips people's imagination. I think we live, in the West, here in London for example, in a very strongly anti-religious period, or certainly an anti-spiritual one, in which people are attracted to these ideas that would be almost inconceivable to people from an earlier time. Or you could also argue that they're simply the recasting of the promises of Christianity in a different form.
TMcC: At the end of How the Dead Live Lilly gets reincarnated, but it's a pretty awful reincarnation. She comes back as the abandoned baby of her heroin-addicted daughter - as her own granddaughter in effect.
WS: Yes, her mother - i.e. her daughter - then dies of a heroin overdose, leaving her to bump around in an unheated flat off the Mile End Road. It could be worse, though, couldn't it? I don't want to unlock the Guignol portion of my imagination, but I'm sure I could come up with something worse than that. But no: it's an invocation of the idea that if you did wish for personal immortality, of which that form of reincarnation is conceivably an example, then it could be a pretty terrible thing to experience. The novel is an unashamedly and openly Buddhist allegory, and that's just bad karma. Bad shit happens to you whether in this life time or the next if you do bad shit and have bad attitudes. So poor old Lilly gets hers.
TMcC: Did you use the Tibetan Book of the Dead because you felt that Burroughs and Mailer had already got a monopoly on the Egyptian one, or was there something innate about its schema that lent itself better to your purposes?
WS: It's just what I was familiar with personally. My works all arrive in a fairly evolutionary fashion; they don't arrive problematically at all. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was something I'd been familiar with since my teens. It was a theme in my work as well. In My Idea of Fun, the title The North London Book of the Dead occurs as a chapter heading, and there's an underground cult of heroin addicts in London who have a bastardised form of the ceremonials associated with death by Tibetan Buddhists, whereby the text is read to the corpse after it's died in order to act as a guide for the soul of the departed on the after-death plane. But the junkies have turned this into a kind of counter-reincarnation, a materialist ceremony where they incant and recite the names of products in order to ensure that the soul of the departed is not reincarnated. In other words it's a kind of mantra of built-in obsolescence, to remind the dead soul that it's not capable of reincarnation, that Western personality, so-conceived, is a redundant and reified thing. So each book is an inspecation of what's gone before; it tends to just thicken up some of the ideas from another angle.
TMcC: It's like that for all writers.
WS: I suppose that's right. I don't know; I haven't asked them - but you presumably have during your residency!
TMcC: I've had them all here, yes! But we were talking about this hypermnesia, this Tiresian vision, and memory and death being essentially linked, and perspectives and viewpoints and so on. But a really interesting thing about How the Dead Live is it's not just memory that's accessible and omnipresent after death: it's matter as well. As Lilly walks down the street she drags the half-formed foetus she was carrying when she was twenty, and her dead son whose face got smashed up in a car crash. They're spluttering and bleeding around her as she walks along. It's a very interesting take on matter as well as just signifiers.
WS: Well, I don't think it's matter.
TMcC: It manifests itself as matter.
WS: Yes, but that's just to her. We don't know, though: this is her disintegrating psyche. I'm afraid to say that probably the most accurate model for How the Dead Live is a horror movie like Jacob's Ladder, which is all the death-reverie of a soldier in Vietnam who's brought up in a My Lai-style massacre. His death-reverie is marvellously complex; on a phenomenological level it actually projects an alternative future during his death in which he goes on living, and then inconsistencies appear within it. That's really what's going on with Lilly: this is all her psyche, all of the London she sees, all of the different layers of reality she's party to after the moment of death, all of them are produced from the furniture of her own mind and her own recollection.
TMcC: And there's a kind of slippage: instead of living in Dalston she lives in Dulston, which is a kind of not-quite-Dalston. It's as though her focusing apparatus had gone unaligned.
WS: That's right. She doesn't remember everything particularly accurately - as we don't. The lithopaedion, incidentally, is a real phenomenon. It's a calcified foetus that remains inside the body of a woman but has failed to lodge itself in the womb and often ends up somewhere like the perineal folds, so after death if you perform an autopsy, quite a lot of women will be found to have these calcified cadavers lodged inside them. There are women carrying lithopaedions even as we speak. They're very tiny, of course, so I made Lilly's slightly bigger, the size of this styrofoam cup. But what that's about really is that Lilly's an Everywoman and an archetypal Western materialist with very little belief in any kind of transcendence beyond the physical, so of course she's cursed in the afterlife plane by being revisited by her own preoccupations with the fleshly, in the form of the lithopaedion and her dead nine year-old child and even by her own fat, as she was preoccupied by dieting for a lot of her life. So these creatures called 'The Fats' persecute her as well, these fleshy golems. This, again, is an emanation of her own psyche. Within the schema of the novel, the extent to which you take this as a physical or a psychic reality, within a Buddhist metaphysic it doesn't really matter.
TMcC: I find it interesting that you made her death guide an indigenous Australian, an aboriginal called Phar Lapp. Where's that coming from?
WS: He's a real person. He's not called that, but there is a significant aboriginal wizard with whom I'm familiar who lies behind that character. But it could have been any traditional person, particularly a spiritually enlightened one.
TMcC: I thought there was a thesis to be teased out there about the West's appropriation of the third world: we look to them for reincarnation while we work them to death in Nike factories or whatever.
WS: Oh yes. That's there, up to a point. But he's an emblematic figure, there to represent the alternative view of death. It would have been too obvious and prosaic to make him a Buddhist Llama, so I put him a bit off-kilter and made him another type of traditional person who views death and life as entirely coterminous, who doesn't take this Western view that there's Barking and then Dagenham and then Death, that it's out on the tube line.
Melissa McCarthy: In relation to your novel Great Apes, I wonder if you think that what the artist Paul Perry does in producing living gene sequences that are half him and half mouse has any value, or would you see it as pointless?
WS: Does he make a living from it?
WS: Then clearly it's not pointless. It sounds like quite a nice conceit, in fact. As a novelist, you could write that. That's one of the main gags of Great Apes, that as a writer you can just summon up and invent all of these conceptual artists and deal with them on the page. Ballard said of Damian Hirst that he's a good novelist who writes very short books. But I don't know if Paul Perry just doing it is interesting; there should be something to look at.
TMcC: Oh, there is: the cells are mounted in a canoe in a gallery, in their bioreactor, with a mirror.
WS: Why a canoe?
TMcC: Local imagery: he's Canadian. Also as a metaphor: the journey, the 'Long Voyage' of that work's title.
WS: That all sounds really quite jolly. It's also a clear warning of the way genetic research is leading us.
Jim Flint: Yes: the canoe means that we're up shit creek without a paddle.
WS: For all we know, there might be a whole bunch of half-mouse-half-artists running around already.
TMcC: And London's galleries are full of their work…
Margarita Gluzberg: When Tom was asking about matter, you were saying it didn't matter whether it was actual, what Lilly saw, whether it was real or not. But I don't see why it isn't important. It's the difference between actuality and metaphor. It seems like it doesn't function like a metaphor but, as you said before, a kind of reality that's mapped onto the actual reality that is this world. So surely it is important that it's physical stuff that she's dragging around.
WS: It depends what you think the status of this world is. Personally, I don't think that this world is any more important than any other possible world.
MG: But it's material, to some degree.
WS: But I'm not a materialist at all. I'm an idealist. I don't know what you're talking about. That's not how I conceive of things.
TMcC: Margarita's an artist, and in her discipline there's a classical distinction between the image and matter. And in Western philosophy too, through Hegel and all those people. You seem to be wanting to deny that duality.
WS: Yes, I'd like to deny that duality.
WS: Because I don't think it's true. I think that your view of what death really is changes according to what kind of status you afford that kind of duality. Arguments about immortality and the existence of mind without matter or matter without mind become dissolved once you retract that kind of dualism into a psycho-physical monism, as two aspects of the same thing. And certainly in the schema of How the Dead Live that's what's going on, which explains some of the things Tom was pointing out about the kind of slippage that occurs. It's like Johnson kicking the stone to refute Bishop Berkley; I don't wander around in an idealist world; I find it difficult to put my pants on in the morning. But that certainly may be what the reality of things is.
MG: But what I meant is that if the world is all matter, and it's happening to her, it is real. It can't be just all in the mind.
TMcC: So that book would be what you, Margarita, were describing this morning, pace Deleuze, as a 'plane of consistency'.
WS: That's right. You could conceive of it in wholly material terms. You'd have to develop a strange sort of topology in order to fit everything in.
MG: Like David Cronenberg's vision in Videodrome, where you slot the video tape into the stomach and the image becomes physiological.
Stewart Home: Or like the Tellytubbies.
TMcC: Although the Tellytubbies are receiving a signal from somewhere else.
WS: But the signal comes from our world.
TMcC: It comes from that shower thing.
WS: It comes from our world, but they could all have our world in a tiny version in their tummies.
WS: Yes. Or that shower thing could just happen to occur concurrently with the signal; it might not in fact be causally related to it. I wrote an article in 'Radical Philosophy' on the Tellytubbies. I think it's a plane of consistency, definitely. And also a crypto-fascist plot.
TMcC: Well, it's about control. 'Time for bed. We know who you are.'
WS: Definitely. And I've obtained some Tubby Custard and had it analysed at Pfizer, the commercial laboratories, and it's heroin.
TMcC: So their home is Hassan-i-Sabban's Rumpus Room, and they're sucking the penises of Mugwumps for the black liquid they secrete, only it's yellow so we won't know?
WS: It's a lot more sinister even than that.
JF: I'm interested in this matter thing which is going on. I mean, matter-energy, energy-matter, it's the same thing. Reduced from a solid, unfractal form, matter will just dissolve into energy. To put a 'bottom' to matter is not possible.
MG: No, it's not possible. But I think it's more to do with metaphor: the difference is between matter and metaphor, and it seems like Lilly's world is more matter than metaphor.
WS: But metaphors are always very material, aren't they? Things are always compared to other configurations of seeming matter. Metaphor is another trick for making you believe in the externality and objective character of the material world. Metaphor is the advertising of materialism.
TMcC: But there are different types of metaphor. There's the shamanic thing, which is about simulation: it happens on the plane of simulation, and it makes matter do stuff.
WS: But that's not a metaphor. That's the way Western minds conceive of shamanic teaching. It's not what they think is going on at all. Take Australian aborigines: they think that human consciousness is the reverie of the ecology. So it's the other way round: you've got it arse about tit. It's not a metaphor; it's a description of a state of affairs. No, I think metaphor is bound up with what's in the interests of our type of society: to believe in this material world of ashtrays and microphones and cigarette lighters. That's the way it's all set up to work. And it's a world that's very intent on denying death, denying the imminence of death, that death foreshadows and adumbrates everything.
JF: But it's not a denial of death; it's a denial of change. Death is change.
WS: Well, it's a career move, isn't it?
MG: But death is physical. Death is just rotting flesh.
JF: But the physiological plane is completely continuous with the matter-energy plane around it. What's happening is that part of what you come to call your body, which you've held under a Cartesian model to be separate, you've spun off your ideas and put them in a box and said 'this is me' - what's happening with death is that the various components of this machine are starting to change speed and reorientate with the matter-energy flows about it in this cellular breakdown way. Some parts of it are entering the environment and are going to be brought together in new configurations. Even when you're alive, every day you're drinking litres of water and every year you're taking on several times your own bodyweight in food; your body is this nodal point.
TMcC: So you're saying that ontologically there isn't that much difference between life and death?
JF: What you're losing is the bit part you're playing. One of the great things about being alive is that you're part of this great mirage.
WS: But you don't know that you'll lose some form of reflective consciousness once you're dead.
JF: I think that you probably do.
WS: Have you had a bulletin on that?
JF: No, that's just my hunch.
WS: That's the point: you're living on a hunch. It's guesswork. You're at the racetrack.
TMcC: So what are you doing? Hedging your bets? In terms of Pascale's wager you're going either way.
WS: That's right. I want an each-way bet to place on Pascale's wager.
TMcC: And you, Jim, are going for a three-race accumulator.
JF: Well, actually, I don't know if I want to be around for longer than eighty years.
WS: Well, I think that's a ludicrously ambitious forecast. That's the irony of your position, your hunch-materialism. You're staking a claim to a quite outrageous span of continuity. You could be wiped out now.
JF: Obviously I'm aware of that. I've been run over already. I'm just saying that if I get an average lifespan for contemporary Britain, I'd be quite happy for my consciousness to dissolve.
WS: Well, you've been sold very effectively on what's on offer. In the sales department they chalk you up as a convertive prospect; an actuary working for an insurance company would like you; someone manufacturing consumer durables would like you, because you're somebody that thinks that, on the whole, they're going to be around to consume.
JF: That's what I've been programmed to do.
WS: Yes, and that's fine. I'm not going to argue you out of it.
JF: I thought that's what you wrote the books about.
WS: That's right. That's why I've bothered to write all of these books that rather go against those sort of grains. I tend to agree with the Buddhist perception that to have an accurate view of what the human psyche is and what state of affairs we're in you need to live every moment as though it were your last.
JF: But I don't see a contradiction between what I'm saying and that. I'm just not prepared to accept that I can hold on to a holistic identity of me after death - which I accept that before death is completely changing and fluid and also completely informed by my memory of who I am and where I've been. But without the superstructure, the biological processes, 'I', in any kind of identity sense, couldn't really meaningfully continue. When I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and get to the end, all the stuff about the vortex and the self going up, I just don't go with it at that point.
WS: Oh, yes: you won't be 'you'. But you'll still 'be' in some sense.
TMcC: If someone offered me immortality tomorrow I'd turn it down. I think death is what guarantees life's intensity. Like Tony Harrison says, 'Days have nights around them like a rim/ Life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.'
WS: Ah, Tony! What a way with words!
TMcC: One would hope so; he's a writer. And I don't think you're being quite fair in characterising Jim as having been sold on the lie.
WS: I'm not saying it's a lie; it's just a functional system for this kind of society.
TMcC: A system of reincarnation or some kind of persistence in some form or other is a functional system of another type. You can see them both as belief systems, language games, whatever. And then the question is: where do you want to situate yourself in terms of belief? And I myself like the idea that this is all finite. It makes everything so much more poetic - and institutes this beautiful slippage, this impossibility. Impossibility is a great thing. Paradox is a great thing. And lots of that revolves around the paradox of death.
WS: Yes, but I'm not sure that you're quite right about the status of the paradox. If you did live to be two hundred and fifty you might never cross a road because eventually you'd get run over. You don't even know that it's paradoxical; that's your imposition. What always strikes me about this kind of conversation (and I'd like to draw a line under it because I think it's actually quite a waste of time) is that they all revolve around, again, a very Western notion that there is some sort of certainty in these areas. And people, especially intelligent people, seem unwilling these days to allow themselves what I could characterise as the possibility of doubt. Why is it that people find it so hard to exist with uncertainty in these areas? It seems to me that it would be far more comforting not to have to understand things like that. It makes the universe a far more interesting place than imagining that you're somehow going to get handed a gold watch at the age of sixty-five, along with the riddle of mortality inscribed on the inside of the watch case.
TMcC: Isn't your doubt a belief system too?
WS: Now you're just descending to casuistry. At least let's try to understand what the words say. Doubt is just doubt; it's not a belief system. It's a way of existing within the world productively, a willingness to be open to belief systems that are non-rational, which is what people find uncomfortable doing.
TMcC: But none of us are rationalists!
WS: I'm going to go home now.
TMcC: Thank you for coming in.
WS: Thank you for having me.