The luxury of doubt: Laurie Taylor interviews Will Self
Satirist, moralist and literary provocateur Will Self lectures Laurie Taylor on addiction, debauchery, banality and the search for serious thought
Q I'd like to start with one of your specialist subjects: addiction. You've written about yourself as an addictive personality and about how you've beaten your various addictions. I was wondering if I could fall back on that personality description myself. I'm currently having terrible trouble kicking the smoking habit.
A I'm sorry, but I think that smoking may be special. There is a strange confluence in smoking between social acceptability and the physiological addictiveness of the nicotine itself. That's why I think there may be a difference in kind between addiction to nicotine and those other forms of addiction where individual psychopathology plays a much greater role. So you find people – possibly yourself – who really have an addiction issue with nicotine but not with any other substances. There are other people – and I am definitely one – who manifest the full blown addictive psychopathology.
Q Is that an inbuilt personality trait – a genetic attribute?
A It's not easy to be precise about the genetic or individual historical or cultural components in that psychopathology. In a way it doesn't matter. You can spend an awful lot of time as an addict, an awful lot of useless time, debating such stuff. My view of addiction is that once you have acknowledged it, once you have seen it within yourself, then such debates become otiose. They actually may obscure the issue of how one recovers from it.
Q You talk about recovering from addiction. Does that recovery have to take the form of complete abstinence? No cocaine at all. No heroin at all. No drink at all. Isn't that attributing too much power to the substance?
A When you have been well-known and typified as a heavy user of intoxicants, as I have, and you stop completely, a lot of people who know you socially say, "Was it really that bad? Did you really need to go that far, to that extreme?" And you can understand that reaction. Because of course the social use of intoxication is endemic in our society and in many instances it is a highly constructive form of social bonding, a type of social cement, and even a source of inspiration. All you can say in reply to such people is that "You weren't actually there. You didn't see what the reality of my relationship with intoxication was like. And you couldn't see it because by definition it was something that only occurred in private or with other people who also had an addictive psychopathology."
Q I can understand what you're saying about the need to stop completely when we're talking about hard drugs. But I'm rather with your questioners when they ask why you needed to stop drinking as well. I've never considered such a big step. It would change my life too much. I mean I wouldn't have half the friends I've got now if I hadn't got drunk with them in the first place. That's how I got to like them.
A But by the same token, you aren't going to like people who you wouldn't know you liked sober, if you don't stop drinking. And while the world of intoxication is pretty large, it's actually not as large as the world of nonintoxication. It just seems that way from within it. It's like a Saul Steinberg cartoon of a New York drinker's view of the world. Manhattan and the giant skyscrapers are entirely made up of bottles and optics and so forth, and the plains of sobriety are tiny.
Q Is there a moral dimension to this? Did you come to dislike yourself as an addict?
A Yes, very much so. I didn't like what I had become in moral terms. I actually found I was doing things that were against my moral will, not just occasionally, but a lot of the time, on a daily basis. I had the distinct sensation that I was a puppet of an addictive manipulator, that there was a kind of sinister hand which was forcing me in directions that I didn't like.
Q A Fat Controller?
Q And the directions in which you were being forced came to seem increasingly mindless, silly, even sordid?
A All of the above. I was ceasing to function as a parent, as a partner, and certainly as a constructive person in wider society. I never missed an opportunity to put someone else down or to make a snide or cynical remark and I displayed a closed rather than an open mind. Somebody who has helped me a lot in recovery from my addictive illness said to me very early on "allow yourself the luxury of doubt". No closed minds. I found that a very, very interesting statement. It was interesting because it was recasting the idea of being an agnostic. Agnosticism is very very seldom correctly treated as a form of conviction in itself. But that phrase, 'the luxury of doubt' points to the idea that clinging fast to doubt is an extremely viable form of conviction.
Q Of course, there must always be the slight background worry that drugs had something to do with your literary inspiration.
A There is ample ammunition to stoke up that particular funeral pyre but even in the course of my heaviest drink and drug using, I knew that wasn't the case. I was extremely well versed in the history of intoxication in relation to creativity. I was always very fond of quoting De Quincy's line: "if a man who keeps oxen should take opium he will dream of oxen."
Q Your indulgences may not have prompted your creativity but they certainly gave you good material. I was reading your book Dorian recently and was relishing your capacity to create an atmosphere of decadence.
A Well, you have got to have been there. I did a reading at the Soho theatre when Dorian first came out. And after the show this woman came out and said to me, "I very much enjoyed your reading" I'd read the whole of the first chapter "But I found your characters absolutely incredible. I can't believe that people like that exist." And I actually lost my temper, which I don't do very often with members of my reading public. I said: "Just how many repressed homosexual upper class drug addicts were you hanging out with in the early 1980s?" "Well, actually, none," she said. And I said, "WELL, I WAS." So you know, I really know what that milieu was like, I was there. It really comes back again to the oxen quote. The reason why I have written so much about decadence and drugs is because that is the way I have lived. It's where I've lived a lot of my adult life. But I like to think that if I had run a donkey sanctuary in Cornwall then I would have written well about that.
Q It's probably because of your addictive notoriety that we don't hear too much about any other parts of your life. I was interested, for example, to discover that your father was Peter Self, a wellknown and highly respected academic
A He was a political scientist, Professor of Public Administration at the LSE and he ended up as Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University. He died in 1999. He emigrated when I was at Oxford at the end of the '70s so I didn't see a great deal of him in the last 20 years of his life. I had a very tricky relationship with him. It has improved dramatically since he died. For various reasons. One of which is that I am able to talk to him in a way that I couldn't do when he was alive. He doesn't answer back. And if he does I can script his replies. The other thing he was a relatively old parent. He was in his midforties when I was born. So it's only now that I've reached the same age that he was when I was a baby. And that allows me to feel a profound physical sympathy with him in a way that I haven't before. That's because of the way one's inheritance appears in mannerisms. I find myself involuntarily caught within the tiny ephemeral prison of his cough, or his sneeze, or his yawn. You get to know your same sex parent at that physiological level.
Q How much did his opinions influence you?
A What I have never denied about Peter, about my father, is that he had some excellent attributes although he came from a kind of odd upper middle class background, public school, Oxford. When I was in my early teens, rather like some strange kind of JB Priestley inspired peregrination, our divorced father-and-son contact time was spent doing these walks around England, walking the Pennine Way, walking the Cornish coast ... and talking. Talking endlessly, endlessly talking about philosophy and politics, and stopping in pubs where my father was always unable to understand the licensing laws so that he was always plying me with forbidden drink. I once got thrown out of a pub in Padstow because he bought me a double brandy. I was 12 at the time. The landlord was absolutely furious. Peter couldn't understand why.
Q What were his politics?
A He was Labour with utopian leanings. A Footite to some extent. In the 70s he was very angry with the Labour Party's failure to adequately negotiate a role for industrial democracy within the emerging economy. And he was learned and perspicacious enough to see that the rigidity which the old Labour party embraced would entail its own reaction. He was not, therefore, surprised by Thatcherism. He saw where we were going. The last book he wrote was called Rolling Back the Market. It was an attack on the new free market libertarianism.
Q Do you share his political views?
A Dad and I were in agreement on most things up until he died. But where I think he had the edge on me, as an academic and as someone who had been an adviser to ministers here and in Australia, as somebody who sat on government commissions, he was more committed and he worked harder. It is very easy for us in the fourth estate and in the media to attitudinise because we have always got the escape hatch of saying, well it is not our job to prescribe.
Q You say that your father predicted something like Thatcherism. I think perhaps that you might be given some credit on the left for having foreseen what New Labour under Blair would be like in power. You were condemning his political style and content long before he was elected.
A That's right. I bow to no man or woman in my Blair hatred. I did one of the Independent's "Heroes and Villains" columns on Blair shortly after he got the Labour party leadership. So yes, early on. I always thought he was vapid, sanctimonious. He represented politics as an absence rather than a presence.
Q When you talk and write in this way about Blair and New Labour in your various journalistic roles, do you see yourself as in the conversion business. Do you want people to change their minds and agree with you?
A No, I don't. Broadly, I think I can be described as a satirist as much as anything else. And I think traditionally satire had a covert agenda of moral reform. If the audience for satire knows you are really convinced of the underlying truth then it becomes merely a form of pontificating. They must have a residue of doubt about where it is you are really coming from. But in the past that kind of satire, satire like that of Swift, operated within a matrix of Judeo-Christian moral precepts. We don't have those any more. So, the new problem that satirists have to face is moral relativism. And in that context, it seems to me that the role of satire that I produce is to make the audience think for themselves. It is to throw the whole burden of moral thought back on to the audience. So I am not trying to convert people to anything but thinking seriously. I'm trying to be a provocateur.
QWhat about your religious attitudes? Was religion around you in your childhood?
A It was around in a profoundly English way. My grandmother's family were clergymen. They were Anglican pastors. And the Bishop of Chichester was a great-great-grandfather of mine and my grandfather was Chairman of the Lay Association of the Church of England.
Q So it was more or less taken for granted that to be C of E was the normal state of affairs?
A More or less, but it was a very broad church. "You're a Devil worshipper? Jolly good. Do come along to the vicarage on Sunday morning". That kind of thing. But of course my mother was Jewish, but Jewish in denial partly because of coming to England in the late '50s and being married to a gentile and partly because of her own psychological makeup. Jewishness was something that was only partly acknowledged in our family. It was either oddly embraced or oddly rejected so much so, for example, that my brother doesn't even think of himself as being that Jewish, whereas I do tend to. Maybe it's all because of family politics.
Q Where are you now? Does anything in that Anglican or Jewish background still speak to you. Is religion real to you? Is it significant? Or can I put you down as a straightforward nonbeliever?
A I have to go back to agnosticism, to the luxury of doubt. If I allow myself the luxury of doubt in this area I am wholly conflicted. All my study of religion leads me to believe that there is a hell of a lot more to religious belief than the notion that it is simply an opiate. There is a hell of a lot more to religious experience than that.
Q You seem to be echoing William James's view of religious experience as special, as distinctive.
A Yes, yes. That's right. I do believe that it is different. Actually that book by William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, had a big impact on me for just that reason. It is a fantastic book and mandatory reading for anyone who wants to deal with that stuff seriously.
Q But does this mean that you want to say that our capacity to have "religious experiences" means that there is some external power from which such experiences spring?
A I don't mean a personified god. I'm far too influenced by Nietzsche for that. I find it impossible not to see that sort of god as the shadow play of the ego itself. I love that line from Schopenhauer about Kant: "Kant is like a man who flirts and dances all evening at a masked ball only to find that when the lady takes the mask off, it is his wife." But I do have the view that a godless existence, an atheist existence, an existence which excludes the possibility of God, which doesn't allow the "luxury of doubt", does usher in all sorts of spiritual malaise. I really feel that a lot of contemporary society is venal and prostituted, debauched on pornography, and subject to a banalisation of feeling, and what JG Ballard has called "the death of affect". I really find all that abhorrent and amoral. What my recovery programme forced upon me was the need to seriously consider the existence of some kind of higher power and its imminence in the world, some sort of transcendence. It asked me to seriously consider the limitations of ego, the old Socratic formulation that "reason is that that knows its own limit".
Q I understand that you're writing a book about religion at the moment, a book about the manner in which the orthodoxy of fundamentalist religions depends upon the existence of a sacred text?
A Yes that's right. What started me off on this were conversations with the Muslim fundamentalists who run my local curry house. Around the same time I actually went to see the festival of the whirling dervishes in Anatolia, in central Turkey. I was reading around Islam quite a lot. And there, as with any monistic fundamentalism, you find this idea that the text is a book of words for the world that exists independently from its own rubric. It abolishes time and stands outside of time. It can tell you what to think about everything, about genetic engineering and nuclear weapons. Well, the best way to satirise and undermine that timeless view of the sacred text would be to reveal the wholly contingent and arbitrary nature of a particular revolutionary text. That is what I am intending to do in the next novel. Basically, it is about a contemporary Londoner who buries a kind of rant against modern society in a time capsule for his own strange twisted reasons, not for prosperity or anything, but for his child, in fact, and it remains buried for 500 years and then becomes the sacred book for the future of society. Now that device enables me to unlock all of these questions I hope in an absurdist and funny way.
Q Will, I don't want to make you too selfconscious, but I can't help noticing that you've taken a pipe out of your pocket, and that you're even now lighting it. Will Self, pipe smoker. A bit like catching Jack Kerouac pulling on his slippers. Where did the pipe come from? Let me guess. Your father? Another inherited mannerism? Did Peter smoke a pipe?
A Of course he did. Absolutely. I've been smoking it now for about seven months. I felt it creeping up on me. Ah, I thought, time for the pipe. That's why I gave up cigarettes altogether for a year because I felt the pipe coming on. The tweed jacket comes next.
[Will Self declined to be photographed with his pipe]