The story so far: Laurie Taylor interviews Michael Frayn
Counting, categorising, complexity. Michael Frayn offers Laurie Taylor his version of the human condition
On my way out of Broadcasting House to interview Michael Frayn, I bump into a researcher who warns me that, "apparently he's rather difficult." I consider her remark on the slow Tube journey out to Richmond. At one level, it's only a statement of the obvious. By any standards Frayn is a difficult writer. In his Telegraph review of Democracy, Frayn's 2003 play about Willy Brandt's attempts to effect reconciliation with his country's former enemies in Eastern Europe, Charles Spencer warned his readers: "You have to work hard at a Frayn play. Ferociously intelligent himself, he expects his audience to keep up." In his even better known work, Copenhagen, that audience is expected to grasp the historical significance of the meeting in Denmark in 1941 between the two renowned physicists, Heisenberg and Bohr, and also, en passant, to develop a relatively sophisticated understanding of quantum mathematics and the principle of indeterminacy.
And if that's not enough literary difficulty to be going on with, there's also the little matter of the new book that is going to be the subject of my interview: a 500-page search for answers to ultimate questions called The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe. It is, one might say in estate agent jargon, deceptively accommodating: written in precise, clear, welcoming prose, but totally dedicated to the resolution of the most profound philosophical arguments of our times, arguments about the nature of cause and free will, the numerical structure of the universe, the relationship between thought and language, and the truth functions of fiction. Definitely 'rather difficult'.
But as I walk in uncertain sunshine along the Thames path that leads to Frayn's home, I also consider the more immediate possibility that Michael might be temperamentally difficult with slack researchers and itinerant interviewers who haven't quite mastered their brief. It's a plausible hypothesis. He has, after all, good grounds for feeling that he's not only been misunderstood over the years but also seriously undervalued. He's certainly been well praised for the satirical brilliance of such early novels as The Tin Men and Towards the End of the Morning, and generally celebrated for the psychological sophistication and narrative impetus of such later fiction as Headlong and Spies. Neither can he really complain about the critical reception accorded to his serious plays or his more farcical endeavours (Noises Off and Donkey's Years).
There is, though, a real sense, particularly among his hardcore fans, that he's been unlucky. His ability to capture the status anxieties and gnawing guilts of the aspirant English middle-class has perhaps been unfairly obscured by Alan Ayckbourn's life-long exploitation of similar territory in much the same manner that his readiness to use the stage as an arena for philosophical debate has been up-staged by Tom Stoppard's somewhat flashier dramatics. Neither does it greatly help that Frayn started his writing career as a funny – seriously funny – columnist for the Guardian. The British still insist on horses for courses. If you begin your literary career as Miles Kington, it's considered extremely bad form, almost a breach of contract, to turn into Checkov when you reach maturity.
I'd been so busy constructing mental allowances for Frayn's possible testiness that I was almost overwhelmed by the friendliness of his welcome. "Come in. Come in. Was your journey all right? Now, where should we do this? Would the garden be fine? I'm afraid it's not so sunny today. Coffee?"
He is taller than I expected. Lean and upright. Good looking in a donnish way. The laughter lines around his face are deeper and more pronounced than in his photographs and the dome of his head looks even more cortically formidable. He reminds me a little of the drawing of Mr Punch's face which, as I remember, used to decorate the masthead of the old magazine. 'Get ready to laugh,' it says. And then adds. 'But watch out. You in the front row. You could easily be the next victim.'
Not that he's now being anything but very amiable. Indeed, as I follow him through the spacious kitchen and elegant living room and out into the large walled garden of his rather grand old house, I even allow myself the thought that he is not only being more welcoming than I expected but if anything appears a trifle hesitant.
"You'll have to excuse me. This is the first interview I've given about the new book and so I'm going to be a bit incoherent. At this stage I can't think of anything to say but with a few more interviews I'll gradually produce a narrative and then eventually get glib."
Well then, perhaps we should start slowly, even pedantically. Why had he chosen this late moment in his career to produce such an elaborate volume of philosophical argument and speculation?
"I've been writing this book on and off for 30 years. In a way it follows on from an earlier much shorter book called Constructions. But it's only in the last couple of years that I've made a serious effort to organise it into some sort of shape."
I'm happy to tell him with complete honesty that all those years of work have paid off. The Human Touch is a beautifully written, brilliantly argued, refreshingly humanistic introduction to – the phrase can't be avoided – the meaning of life. There is, I add, only one other book I know which can rival its sensitivity to the actual operation of human thought and motivation and that is William James' 1890 classic The Principles of Pyschology, a work quoted with great approval in several parts of The Human Touch. There is, though, another major reference point, a slightly stroppy sceptical 'other' who inhabits most of the pages. As Frayn explains, this is a battle of minds that goes back to his time as a philosophy undergraduate at Cambridge.
"In my last year, I had this wonderful supervisor, Jonathan Bennett. He was a great arguer. Such a good arguer that it interfered with his professional career. He argued with his colleagues all the time. But it made him a wonderful teacher because you could never say anything that he would agree with. We have gone on being friends and we argue every time we see each other. He doesn't agree with my book at all, regards its central argument as "anthropocentrism run amok". He was talking once about what made him happiest in life and he thought, with considerable self-knowledge, that it was being in severe intellectual difficulties."
Michael obviously not only relished this definition of true happiness but would have been pleased to apply it to himself. As times, I suggested, his book almost read as though its author was conducting a personal campaign to rescue argument from all those scientists and social scientists who had tried to reduce its clamour by confining it behind their laws and rules and alleged certainties.
"I think the physical sciences have been so successful and so hugely influential that they have rather dazzled people. It's as though we feel that if our thinking is not like the physical sciences, then it's not real thinking. Much in the way that theology was once regarded. Well, it seems to me that not everything can be accommodated by the physical sciences and not everything can be objectively measured. People have a vested interest, a built-in desire to detach human knowledge from human beings. But I think that if you look at sciences – even at abstract forms of thought like logic and mathematics – you can't actively make them work without a human presence".
So how does Frayn go about re-introducing the human? Well, consider his treatment of mathematics. He is happy to allow in a chapter he calls 'Fingerhold: the world as numbers', that the "kingdom of numbers is a strange place entirely abstract and self-contained; and yet the key to the structure of the physical world." But that does not mean that we should throw up our hands in awe at its "dark and mysterious universe". We need to bring human beings back in by asking how we first got to know about numbers. Frayn promptly offers by way of illustration a biblical Abel who wants to know whether all his sheep have been folded for the night. He can hardly tell by looking at them, so one morning he takes a stick in his left hand and a stone in his right and makes a scratch on the stick as each animal passes. In the evening he crosses off one of the marks on the stick for each sheep entering the fold. At this stage, he can hardly be said to have counted the sheep in that in the absence of number he can't readily compare the size of his flock with, say, the quantity of corn being harvested by his brother, Cain. He can't say, 'I have a hundred sheep while you have two hundred stooks of corn'.
It is only when fingers begin to be substituted for marks on a stick and reference can be made to hand-hand-hand-hand-finger of sheep going into the fold that we reach the point where a counterpart – an analogy – has been made that can be taken across to such other elements as stooks of corn or rows of beads. And this capacity to compare sheep with other things is the point of counting. "Number, in short, is not something logically and mysteriously anterior to space and time, or to the human presence in the world. It is like distance and duration, like redness and sheephood, an aspect of the contingent world which is given form just as distance and duration, redness and sheephood are, by becoming part of our purpose and activities – by being drawn into traffic and becoming currency in our dealings with the world."
I tell Michael that passages like that make me think of his work as an exercise in de-reification. He's happy to agree. "The problem is that the origin of scientific laws was within theological laws – God's laws. And that's why we still think in terms of eternal principles which control the shape of the world. But my argument is that these principles are in fact only generalisations."
Frayn isn't merely content to turn principles and laws back into generalisations: he also wants to unpack a great many of our most common generalisations. His great ally in this quest is 'indeterminacy' or 'uncertainty', the concepts introduced into quantum mechanics by Heisenberg to account for the limits upon our ability simultaneously to measure such variables of a particle as position, momentum, energy and time. But what sort of parallel does he want to make between a development that challenges the notion of certainty in the physical sciences and the idea of indeterminacy in human behaviour?
"Well, I think there is a parallel between psychological and physical determinism – between the indeterminacy of physics and the indeterminacy of human thought. That's what I tried to bring out in my play, Copenhagen. I think they spring from completely different roots. Their origins are very different. But in both cases they suggest that there is a barrier to absolute total knowledge of the world or absolute total knowledge of oneself."
Something I said while I was describing his ground zero treatment of mathematics made Michael smile broadly, and I realise with mild alarm that I've been speaking in an awfully po-faced manner to a man who has probably made me laugh out loud more readily than any other English writer. And nothing in The Human Touch seems to prompt this humour so much as the subject to which we've now turned, human indeterminacy and uncertainty, the vexed question of why we do what we do.
Frayn calls his chapter on decision-making, 'Why the Marmalade?' And once again he takes us back to a thoroughly mundane situation. "Marmalade and honey on the breakfast table this morning, and I chose the marmalade. Why? I like them equally well. They were the same distance from my hovering hand I could simply take whichever I wanted. So I did, and there can only be one reason: precisely because, at that particular moment on this particular morning, the marmalade was the one I wanted to take . So how did I know that I wanted the marmalade? Did I have to examine my feelings before my hand moved?" No, I didn't, says Frayn, "I knew that the marmalade was the one I wanted from the fact I took it."
This may be a banal example, but there is nothing simple minded about the manner in which Frayn uses it as a device to show the fallibility and hollowness and general implausibility of accounts of decision making which rely upon a deterministic accumulation of background causes or upon such ubiquitous motivating forces as, say, a genetic evolutionary predisposition to altruism. I wondered if, after writing this chapter, he still felt capable of making decisions?
"Oh yes. I spend my entire professional life making decisions. Writing a story involves endless series of decisions about what one's characters do and think and feel. But it doesn't feel as though I'm making decisions. It feels like the characters are speaking for themselves and inventing their own lives. The logic of the story takes over. I think that's true of a lot of human decision making. The logic of the situation takes over. Of course, all human beings, even indecisive people like me, do make decisions, do contribute to the worlds by those decisions, but you still can't provide a determinist psychological explanation. We create characters for ourselves – characters who can cope with whatever the circumstances of our life might be. Once that character is created it has a logic and personality which takes over the deciding. This character does these sorts of things. It takes off like a fictitious character in a book."
I realise that I've now reached, in a somewhat crab-like fashion, what I regard as the most original part of The Human Touch, the differences between fictional and factual worlds and the ways in which they intersect. As Frayn says in his book, "The subject has never much engaged the attention of philosophers. What they have worried about down the centuries is truth... this leaves fictitious statements which certainly appear to have some meaning and function, but which are by definition not offered as true, in a philosophical junkyard, functionally indistinguishable from one another."
So what is the status of fictional belief? Frayn first of all dispatches a number of popular theories to the long boundary. He is particularly dismissive of Coleridge's notion of 'the willing suspension of disbelief' (do we really start a novel by deciding to disbelieve what follows?) before declaring that what the reader suspends is not disbelief but "any propensity I might have to divide the world into the believed and the disbelieved.... What I accept provisionally is an alternative world that I agree to inhabit for a while." It is an alternative world in the same way that a game is an alternative world. And within these different worlds, "statements are true and false just as factual statements are in the real world."
I'm anxious, almost over-anxious, to let Michael know that I recognise this form of analysis. It reminds me, I say, of Erving Goffman's use of the idea of 'frame'. "Yes, I have read Goffman on framing. Now, my suggestion is that fictitious statements are really a paradigm of factual statements. It's always been assumed by philosophers that you understand the way factual statements work by reference to observation and measurement. The assumption is that there is some simple relationship between a factual statement and what it expresses. Now, plainly, this is not the case with a fictitious statement because there is no way a fictitious statement could have such a one-to-one relationship with the world. It's making a statement about an imagined world. But in doing so it appeals to the experience of the reader it evokes that experience. And it seems to me that this is also true of factual statements. Even the most precise factual ones have to evoke the reader's or listener's experience. Without that, they don't have any content".
It's getting late. I've taken up more than my agreed time already and Michael seems to be crossing and uncrossing his long legs more frequently. Time to cut to the chase. What light, I ask, does the concept of alternative worlds with different modes of intrinsic belief and disbelief throw upon religion. Did he, in common with his hero, William James, appreciate the special nature of religious experience?
"I did have a religious phase when I was about 14 or 15. I took communion in a very high Church of England church and as I felt the wine go down my throat I felt I could feel God entering me, but after a year I thought 'this is nonsense' and stopped." But how did he account for those who claimed to have religious beliefs? They'd get very angry if they were told they were the same as their fictional beliefs in the existence of Madame Bovary or Hamlet.
"Yes, that's true. When religious believers talk about belief they are talking about an absolute certainty, but one which doesn't seem to be based on observation of the world and which doesn't seem to be affected by any observations of the world. There are no circumstances which might turn up in life that might shake their belief. It seems to me that belief in that sense is, in the ordinary sense, an announcement of non-belief. If you are saying you believe something but there is no way that could be affected by any circumstances that might turn up, in a sense you are thereby announcing a fiction."
Not that this is to rule out the significance of religious stories about the world. As Frayn puts it with poetic force in The Human Touch, "Stories that we believe, stories that we don't believe, stories that we half-believe, stories that we believe and don't believe, stories that we say we believe because we don't . As we tell them, and listen to them, and understand them, we bring into their various forms of existence all the receding ontological planes of the world we inhabit."
Over a solitary pint in the pub next door to his house, I check my question list. How many did I manage to ask? Just five out of 22. I'd not got round to questioning his rather benign views on the manner in which language limited our view of the world, and neither had I tried to inject a little more sociology into his individualistic account of motivation. I decide it doesn't matter. At least I tried to talk about the essential elements of his compelling, life-enhancing, treatise. And trying to understand, trying in every way we can, through every type of story, is Frayn's compulsion. How can we ever seize the complexity of the world? He answers with joyous pessimism. "All we can do is what human being have always done since they first had words to think about it: start again and have another try."
Michael Frayn's The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe, is published by Faber & Faber