Self-Dissection: a conversation with satirical English author Will Self
Will Self suffers from “everythingitis.” Why aren’t we surprised?
Booker prize finalist, blaster and bombardier of British journalism, psycho-geographer, Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University in West London, holder of a degree in philosophy from Oxford, famously a near-suicidal addict to dangerous drugs (he’s stone-cold sober, now, and has been for 14 years), a curmudgeonly but cuttingly funny presence on British TV—grousing irascibly on Grumpy Old Men, handing some weaseling politician his head on Question Time: the 53-year-old writer contains multitudes, but is, in his deepest Self, a gonzo polymath who stuffs his “compendious” avant-pop novels with “a plethora of detail.”
His latest, Shark, is no exception: written in a stream-of-consciousness style that’s somewhere between Joycean modernism and case studies of schizophrenia, it’s set in an R.D. Laing-inspired experiment in communal treatment where the patients are indistinguishable from the doctors and one of the residents is a PTSD’d survivor of the Indianapolis, the U.S. Navy cruiser that lost nearly 600 of its 900-man crew to sharks when a Japanese sub sank it in 1945. Imagine the LSD-soaked anti-psychiatry movement of the ‘60s, with the man-eater from Jaws standing in for the shadows circling in society’s unconscious.
Which is where the everything-itis comes in: “You have this tendency to think, ‘Well the book has to be in some way a kind of synecdoche of the entire world,” he says. “You get this creeping feeling that everything has to be in it, so you’re wandering around the streets and you see a plastic comb lying in the gutter and you think, ‘Have I got plastic combs in the book?’ ... and then you hear somebody refer to President Mobuto of Zaire and you think, ‘Is President Mobuto in the book?’ and eventually it becomes this affliction called everything-itis.’”
Oddly, but then again not oddly at all, any literary sketch of Self, to be true to life, must itself succumb to everything-it is. An accurate portrait of the artist, in this case, can only result from a dérive—the Situationists’ term for a serendipitous, de-familiarizing stroll—through the hedge maze of his mind and work and life, taking in everything, missing nothing, free-associating as we go. The man demands it.
Where to start?
Self is six-feet, five-inches tall, a derricklike height that must make for situation comedy when he walks his little Jack Russell terrier, Manglorian. He wears a perpetually morose expression that somehow suits his long face, which always makes me think of an Easter Island idol, if the Easter Islanders had worshipped Pete Townshend. He once had the unbeatable cheek to snort heroin—we might as well get this out of the way—on Prime Minister John Major’s plane, while covering Major’s re-election campaign for the Observer newspaper. He claims to become sexually aroused in libraries, and attributes “the library/lust phenomenon” to the awareness that “making love in the stacks is such a beautiful inversion of the intended use of these niches: instead of filling them with dead words, surely they should writhe with living bodies?”
Speaking of which, he is an inescapably embodied thinker, drawn, again and again, to the world, the flesh, and the devil; the corporeal metaphor is always within reach: “Paradoxically, what drove me to write was my fear that I couldn’t; it became so extreme that I had to lance it,” he says, in the South Bank episode devoted to him. One of his short story collections is titled Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes. Both of his parents died of liver cancer. Asked by a chipper interviewer to “tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising,” he offered, “I have a vestigial third buttock (although I don’t, as many people imagine, have two anuses).” His novel Cock and Bull is about a rugby player with a sensitive side who sprouts a vagina on the back of his leg. His mother had two boys, Self and his brother Jonathan, but “didn’t want sons and always had a very uneasy relationship with our masculinity,” he says. Cocteau’s quote “that all artists are hermaphrodites” occurs to him. He can’t help thinking cannibalism gets a bad rap, a Swiftian sentiment inspired by a pig’s head he once ate, whose “glistening, lifelike appearance and crisped eyes” reminded him of “ government ministers being interviewed on the television news.” His mother was “a wiseacre Jewish girl from Queens,” and he seems to take great pride in the American half of his Anglo-American identity.
That said, his speech is a macaronic hybrid of Latinate jawbreakers and “sarf London” slang (“chipped up,” “off his chum,” “It just coshed me”), delivered with the Eeyore lugubriousness of that stock type, the English miserablist (though one gets the irresistible impression that he, like Morrissey, is playing that character with tongue half in cheek, sending up a beloved national stereotype). He writes, in order to avoid the distractions of the Web, on a Groma Kolibri manual typewriter, made in the German Democratic Republic in the early ‘60s, in an attic room whose walls are squamous with yellow Post-Its, notes for works-in-progress.
According to The Guardian, “Every spare inch is covered with Blu-Tacked scraps: drawings by Self’s children, images of unknown Edwardians taken from Ancestry.com, and— in one easily overlooked corner— an advertisement for sanitary towels from a turn-of-the-century magazine.” In years past, he wrote in a friend’s house on one of the craggily beautiful, sea-lashed islands of Orkney, off the coast of Scotland. He believes that “the imagination responds, especially in sleep, to the presence of tidal movements and currents of water,” hauling up abyssal dreams “that fade so slowly after waking that you’re left feeling ontologically queasy for a long time...not sure what’s dream and what’s reality.” He “just wants to be misunderstood” is his patented way of saying he doesn’t write for readers, he writes for himself. Readers of England’s daily papers are reliably scandalized by what they perceive as the shameless Self-absorption or, worse yet, elitism of this pronouncement; comment threads swell with indignation.
“That’s probably some kind of insane egotism,” he allows, but “I write desperately trying to keep myself amused or engaged in what I’m doing and in the world. And if people like it, great, and if they don’t like it, well, that’s that – what can you do?”
The following interview was conducted by phone, over the course of two days, and was extensively edited, and in a few instances rewritten, for clarity and concision. —M.D.
Mark Dery — In the South Bank Show profile of you, you visit the island of Orkney, where you sometimes stay in a friend’s house to write. Prowling around an ancient burial chamber, you tell the camera, “It carries quite a charge, this place. The bodies would have been excarnated, perhaps even by sea eagles; it was a sort of ossuary. It has almost a feel, as you look down it, of some sort of strange thanatological spaceship, heading off into another dimension.” It’s beautifully put, and captures perfectly the brooding uncanniness of the subterranean network of tombs.
But, watching the show, I couldn’t help thinking that a phrase like “thanatological spaceship,” which just rolled off your tongue, is so un-American; it’s simply not the way we speak, these days, in the States, where the use of the polysyllabic is a hanging offense ( excarnated?! thanatological?!). In the States, there’s this terribly tyranny of the insistently limpid New Yorker style, which is not so much Orwell’s “prose like a windowpane” but rather a kind of mental Olestra that passes through your intellectual digestive tract and doesn’t leave a trace. Writers shrink from the “writerly” voice—by which I mean: literary allusions, wordplay, poetic tropes—and strive for the chatty, disposable style of the Twitterati. So when someone like you makes the case for stretching peoples’ brains, sending them to the O.E.D., it’s like literary crack rock for some of us! I gather from things you’ve said that there isn’t that literary monoculture in England, where everybody is held to the standard of this utterly characterless Malcolm Gladwellian style?
Will Self — No, I don’t think there is. And yes, I agree with you about those kind of New Yorker stories that start, “It was only later, after the Wentworths had left the county, that they realized why they had decorated the small holly tree with baby booties.” I know exactly what you’re talking about, and that does seem to exist in some sort of unprofitable synergy with MFA writing programs in the States and the whole pseudoprofessionalization of producing fiction; there’s not quite the same machine in place here yet. I think it’s probably coming. I don’t think that what diversity there is among English fiction writers is a function of some kind of concerted effort to resist a kulturkampf, but on the other hand, from what I read (and I don’t read a great deal of fiction), there do seem to be some honorable modernists working in England today who are reasonably well-known. But the vast majority of what’s treated as literature seems to me syntactically, lexically, imagistically pretty fucking dull, yeah.
M.D. — J.G. Ballard, whom you admire and have written about, was a great one for taking a stick to the sort of ingrown, parochial naturalism you’re describing—novels minutely concerned with the neurotic egos and interpersonal psychology of middle-class suburbanites. I’m thinking of his mini-manifesto for a new novel (in his introduction to the French edition of Crash), where he exhorts novelists writing to create fiction that reflects the psychopathologies of everyday life in the Society of the Spectacle rather an obsolete literature that clings doggedly to “the techniques and perspectives of the traditional 19th century novel, with its linear narrative, its measured chronology,” its Freudian fixation on “the sources of character and personality sunk deep in the past,” the bourgeois domesticity of its “examination of the most subtle nuances of social behavior and personal relationships.” Does Ballard’s model of the postmodern self, and his argument that we need a new fiction for the affectless, decentered psychology of our times—“an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudoevents”—get any traction with you?
W.S. — Well, I’m sure I’m on record in numerous places as having said just that, and that’s exactly the piece I would cite, not so much the novel itself but that introduction, which was like a kind of tocsin alerting me when I [first] read it at 26 to actualize my latent enormous desire to write fiction. At that point, I construed my own blockage, such as it was, in various ways, but one of the main blockages was that I wasn’t reading anybody still writing in England who I felt that intense sympathy for, or who I felt was performing that thing that we want writers to do, the great kind of idea of what writing is for emotionally. It wasn’t expressing the way I felt but had always been unable to articulate.
So, yeah, [Ballard’s introduction] was hugely influential and I think I still am, in many ways—form, content, affect, lack of affect, critique of the established social and cultural forms—reverently my master’s pupil. But, that being noted, there are equally considerable differences.
M.D. — What are some of those differences?
W.S. — Well, I think I’m much funnier than Jim ever was. I think there is humor there but it’s beyond tinder-dry; it’s kind of freeze-dried.
M.D. — I find the opening line of High Rise if not funny at least droll: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
W.S. — It’s droll, but in a very languid way. Of course, the reality is that he was far more radical a writer than I could ever be. I’m much more traditional; as far as I’m concerned, the last couple of novels I’ve written are still doing the job of relating the individual psyche to social change that the 19th-century novelists saw as their project. I think that Jim was a genuine Surrealist; he was prepared to download his own virtually unmediated unconscious content onto the page (or, more chillingly, material that had the semblance of being unmediated) and seeing how it fell. Also, [he was] using prose fiction like a kind of ECG of the entire collective unconscious to register its bizarre landscapes and surges of enthusiasm and mania.
M.D. — But aren’t both of you doing a kind of postmodern analysis of the mass psyche? Ballard is always called to account for writing flat characters, but you and I realize that is of course the whole point: he’s simply doing a psychoanalysis of the psyche as it becomes different in a world of multistory car parks and freeway flyovers and ubiquitous advertising, where the self is experienced as a kind of mash-up of media fictions. You talk in your lecture “Naturalism and Sanity: Is the Mind Really as it’s Portrayed?” about failed literary attempts to capture the turbulent slipstream of human consciousness. In Shark, aren’t you going back, strangely, to a kind of Joycean riverrun of free association, revisiting early modernist experiments with freeze-framing consciousness?
W.S. — Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that clearly there is an attempt to adapt prose to more nearly evoke what consciousness is like than can be achieved using the third-person narrator and the simple past, so, yes, I can put my hand up to that and yes, it’s clearly indebted to the modernists. But I think philosophically what my underlying beliefs about the world and language are probably quite different. I would resist the ascription “postmodern,” which I don’t really think exists; I think it’s a marketing term. It belongs in architecture, clearly, but I’m not sure it really belongs in literature, which is obviously not so concrete.
And I think that I remain as ambivalent about character (and by “character” you can take it that I mean people) as I ever have. It’s simply that I’ve found a way of writing about people that isn’t really writing about people, actually. And the clue is in the abrupt transitions between the phenomenology of one character and another, because that’s where my real belief lies, which is that individuals—and again I sort of collapse back into Jim’s thinking—are not of any significance at all and, simultaneously, the only thing there is.
So how do you manage to express this? And how do you manage to express the incommensurable gap that every person who possesses reflective self-consciousness feels to exist between himself and the world? So these are the kind of techniques that I’ve used to deal with that. But I think it’s a universal and timeless condition, not something that is uniquely present in the modern era.
M.D. — Just to push back slightly, maybe a better term is “posthumanist.” Isn’t that what Ballard is talking about in the Crash introduction, where he consigns to the dustbin of history the inward-turning humanism of conventional literary fiction in much the same way that critical theorists and continental philosophers have critiqued the Enlightenment notion of the closed, bounded self? Isn’t Ballard’s position posthumanist in that sense? And based on what you’ve just said, aren’t you his comrade-in-arms?
W.S. — Yeah, but I’m in the paradox. As I say, I think [the individual] is simultaneously of no significance and all there is. In other words, not even of no significance and of great significance, but of no significance and it constitutes the world, so the question of whether or not it’s significant becomes otiose, in the latter case. And, you know, if there’s any truth to be discovered through prose fiction, then it seems to me just experimentally that probably a good place to start is by at least articulating that particular phenomenology in some way and seeing where it leads. But, you know, I’m guilty as charged. I mean, I did agree with him on most things, and can you blame me? He was a stone cold fucking genius. I read him first in my teens, then again in my early-to-mid-twenties, then I met and knew him when I was in my ‘30s and ‘40s. You could feel with him that sense of inexhaustible traction between mind and world. I think he had, when I knew him, long since resiled from any idea of human society as commonly understood.
M.D. — Tell me what you mean by that.
W.S. — I don’t think he any longer viewed social relationships as constitutive of any kind of reality that he owed any particular allegiance to. And that’s not like most people!
M.D. — You told Melvin Bragg in the South Bank Show devoted to you that your parents valued rhetorical prowess, that they gave you high marks for your ability to juggle words. What effect did this have on you as a child? Did you feel, as some people who have a facility with language do, that you were talking the world into being, so to speak? We’ve just been talking about the self’s role in constituting reality, but drilling down an ontological layer it seems to me that for writers, language constitutes reality; it’s language that weaves the warp and woof of how we see the world and ourselves.
W.S. — I don’t think the world is made of language. But I am a transcendental idealist, and I certainly think that the world, for us, is mediated—by which I mean not just consumed but understood and acted upon—through language, or other very closely allied semiotic systems. Certainly, most of what we can say about reality is what we can say about it in language.
M.D. — It’s a very interesting answer, but it dodges the bullet, namely, the personal aspect of the question.
W.S. — Oh, I think I was very precocious, and I think that they encouraged that precocity. I have to say I don’t think I got into too much trouble for it; I only got beaten up a couple times. I don’t think it’s the worst thing that parents could encourage in a child; it’s just another kind of nerdy thing, isn’t it? My dad had wanted a career in politics, he was a lecturer, he was an academic; my mother was a wiseacre Jewish girl from Queens who had the sharpest, fastest tongue you could imagine. So it was a very different style of rhetoric coming from either side, but it was kind of stimulating.
M.D. — You mention your Jewish mother’s “wiseacre” attitude and quick, pointed wit. Does your relationship to language—your love of jawbreakingly polysyllabic or obscure words, your delight in wordplay—owe anything to Jewish culture’s love of language and literature, would you say?
W.S. — No, not really. The kids who I was at school with, who were English Jews, were all bar mitzvahed, whether they were liberal or orthodox; nouveau-riche kids who’d have the bar mitzvah party at the Dorchester in Park Lane and there’d be Cocktail Sobranies in the glasses—cigarettes with pastel-colored papers—and we’d sneak off and smoke them, in our sports jackets, in the toilet. But I was christened, and my father, while not devout, was at times in his life a regular church-attender, although he was not religiose. My mother was a Jew in flight from her Jewishness. She’d already been married to another Gentile and had a kid; she didn’t want to be Jewish.
So Jewishness was around and there were strong ambivalent crosscurrents, both in the family and in the wider society, but it was not a direct part of my cultural heritage at all. When in my ‘20s and ‘30s, I kind of self-identified as a Jew, but there was really something bogus about it, I now think. What was I laying claim to—the fact that I kind of liked Woody Allen? Or that I was clever? I just reviewed this book by Shlomo Sand, How I Stopped Being a Jew, and I think he’s nailed a lot of this stuff. I do think that an awful lot of secular Jewish identity, for people of Jewish heritage like me, there’s nothing to it, really; what it amounts to is that we’re the sort of people the Nazis would kill first, that’s all. I resigned as a Jew, anyway, in 2006, handed in my resignation; I’d had enough, really.
M.D. — I want to double back to your transcendental idealism, and how it harmonizes—or doesn’t—with the thoroughgoing corporeality of your work. I was fascinated by your review of The Sick Rose, a history of medical illustration whose images of diseased or dissected flesh had, for you, a “grotesque beauty.” Can you talk about the importance of corporeality in your writing and, more broadly, your worldview? I’m thinking of your almost Ballardian use of metaphors drawn from pathology and anatomy.
W.S. — Of course, Ballard studied as a medical student at Cambridge and one of the most beautiful passages in his autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women is the scene where he discusses what his dissecting class was like. I studied the intellect rather than the body, at university, and am not actually a terrific medical voyeur whether in formaldehyde or on the operating table. I’m not exactly squeamish but I have no more appetite for either, I would imagine, than the average person.
I think my preoccupation with imagery drawn from physical pathology is really autobiographical. The experience of long-term drug addiction is one of discorporation being played out over months and years; of contemplation of the wasting flesh. I think it mostly comes from that.
M.D. — I suppose the locus classicus for drug-induced alienation from one’s own body is Burroughs’s description, in “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness,” of not having “taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction,” existing in a state of such disembodiment he could stare, mesmerized, at the tip of his shoe for eight hours. So there is this sense in which consciousness comes unmoored from the body. But isn’t what Burroughs is talking about, and what you’re talking about, not so much the alienation of mind from body as the reduction of our sense of ourselves to gross anatomy, in both senses of the word?
W.S. — I think that’s very well put. I think it’s simultaneously the opening up of a gulf in the pseudo-objectivity of the mind in relation to the body and a collapsing of the distinction into (to quote Burroughs again) the “algebra of need”; the body dependent on these substances becomes a kind of totalizing capability. And the seesaw between the two states is of course dramatic and exalted, painful, pitiful, bathetic. It contains within its subtleties and extravagances of torque everything that you could wish or not wish to feel about the body.
M.D. — Listening to you anatomize the “algebra of need,” it occurs to me that Burroughs’s heroin gothic is partly about the triumph of matter over mind, the body conceived of as dead meat or alien Other, as in the “Talking Asshole” routine from Naked Lunch, a kind of Wittgensteinian horror story—language, which is usually in the service of the mind, overmastered by the ravening orality of the anus, itself a kind of inverted mouth. I don’t see your work as fraught with body loathing or body horror, in a Burroughsian or Cronenbergian way, but I do see it as profoundly corporeal.
W.S. — If Wittgenstein were reading Naked Lunch, he might say, “Well, if an asshole could talk, we would be able to understand what it said, by definition, since it’s a part of us. And I think that kind of gives me the ‘in’ for my particular approach. I see my corporeality in my work as only really just redressing a balance. The majority of literary considerations of the human subject are curiously disembodied. In fiction, I tend to see one of the major flaws at literary naturalism being a disregard for what I call “the indigestion factor”—the fact that having an upset stomach can completely affect your attitude toward everything. Far too many characters in novels are almost willfully disconnected from that, and I can’t help but think it’s a reflection of the residual absorption of Judeo-Christian problematics that creates the omniscient and impersonal narrator in fictional texts because it’s a worldview that privileges the psyche above the body, sees the psyche as connected to God in a way that the body isn’t; the body is sinful by definition because it’s born, and I think that carries on in fiction to this day.
M.D. — I love it: the omniscient, disembodied narrator as a lineal descendant, philosophically speaking, from Saint Paul, with his contempt for the world and the flesh.
W.S. — Yes, and look at the literature that is highly valorized, even in the modern period—you know, the subtle velleities of Henry James or Proust. These are not embodied characters in any meaningful sense; only with Joyce do you have any real attempt to render the state of being embodied that we all enjoy.
M.D. — What about Beckett?
W.S. — Yessss, but funnily enough, surely Beckett’s work, particularly toward the end, is exactly the extent to which we can understand the talking asshole. If you think of the mouth in Not I, what is it but a talking asshole, in a way?
M.D. — Is corporeality quantifiable? Arguably, you’ve lived a more embodied life than most, whether it’s being diagnosed with the dreadful, Surrealist blood disease, polycythemia vera, or your long and gothic history of drug abuse, or being on suicide watch during your institutionalization as an adolescent, or on a lighter note the more mundane fact of your astonishing height. We all have bodies, but it seems to me that you’ve fully owned your embodiment, for good and ill.
W.S. — I think that when we’re content, it’s not exactly that we’re disembodied, it’s that our embodiment is frictionless in some sense, and I suppose that what has given birth to an exaggerated sense of corporeality, on my part, is that I’ve seldom been content, for all of those reasons. But I still would argue that that easeful state of embodiment is much less common than literary fiction would suggest. It privileges that state because it means that the body can be put to one side and we can get on with the troublesome business of considering ideas and interpersonal relationships—largely interpersonal relationships—and if the bodily is to be brought back in, it’s only often in preordained and aestheticized images of interpersonal contact. So I would still make the case that though I may be somebody who’s been more bodily aware than most, that sensibility is still a timely corrective.
M.D. — In this light, isn’t the act of writing, and for that matter the act of reading, the devil’s handmaiden? Isn’t language the original technology of disembodiment? And the book pretty nearly finishes the job, doesn’t it? It’s a commonplace that fiction is at its best when the author immerses us so thoroughly in an imagined world that we forget our bodies, or rather feel that they’re not here but there, in the world of the text.
W.S. — That’s a very good point. I think books are just one of the many ways culturally in which humans abandon their physicality in search of other forms of enjoyment. So no change there: instead of identifying with what are effectively avatars in narratives that are transmitted to us through paper, we’re abandoning ourselves to pixelated avatars onscreen. Same difference.
M.D. — So you’re not one of those writers who fetishizes books or, rather, The Book, in the Gutenbergian sense?
W.S. — I’m not a conservative by nature; I absolutely accept that the codex is over, as a technology and, frankly, anybody who can’t see that is purblind. They ask me to join these campaigns, here, to save libraries and save bookshops and save the book and I’m afraid I’m not really minded to get involved because I think it’s pointless, it’s just not gonna work, and what would it be like anyway, to preserve this otiose technology? I think that the cloud and the Web will bring with them new literary forms, I’m perfectly confident of that, but it’s not me who’s going to be creating them.
M.D. — Returning to your review of The Sick Rose, I was struck by the parallels between what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. called “the pathological sublime”—the terrors and raptures of seeing beauty in the diseased and the deformed—and your thoughts on the depiction, in medical illustration, of pathological conditions, and how such illustrations are affected by the aesthetics of their age. I’m thinking of passages like this one: “These are ‘the beauty of the coats of the stomach laid bare’ and they seem to anticipate the computer-generated fractals and pixel-painted inscapes of our own futurological imaginings. One illustration of a diseased kidney calls to mind the fig Rupert Birkin bites into in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, and which causes him to rhapsodize the female genitals; another carbuncle, prized out from a diseased heart, resembles a huge red effulgent pearl.” I wonder if that’s a sensibility that you’ve migrated into your fiction—casting an aesthetic eye onto things that are commonly seen as repellent and seeing in them if not beauty at least fascinations.
W.S. — Yes, and I think where it’s gone most markedly in my work is into considerations of the urban environment, to which I often apply pathological metaphors drawn from the human body. I think that a lot of my descriptive writing is aimed at not simply valorizing but in some sense retrieving a lot of the environment we live in from a kind of gray area where we don’t consider it as capable of being an aesthetic object. I worry sometimes that that’s perceived as a kind of nostalgie de la boue, which I don’t think it is; I think it’s something rather more sophisticated than that and rather more radical than that. Nor do I think it’s simply “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” I think it’s a rejection of the paradigms of the picturesque, the sublime, and the romantic in favor of an actualization of the human subject in the context that he or she really does occupy. You know, Be Here Now, and if you’re gonna be here now, look at what’s around you, and look at it as both familiar and defamiliarized.
M.D. — And that’s where you’ve appropriated psychogeography from the Situationists, isn’t it? You’re a man of the Left, so you don’t shrink from their critique of capitalism, but you do have fun with the Situationists’ starry eyed visions of the radically destabilizing effects of the psychogeographic drift, or dérive, through the city, fondly mocking the notion that by “buying a few bottles of red wine and tottering pissed from the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont down to the Ile de la Cité [you can make] capitalist society…magically disintegrate.” I do think you’ve done something with psychogeography that both extends Debord’s vision, perhaps crosses it with the Ballardian aesthetic, and makes it wholly your own. Not to harp on Ballard’s influence, but it does seem that Ballard has pointed the way for your version of psychogeography with his ruminations on the psychosocial effects of concrete islands, freeway flyovers, multistory parking garages, office parks, high rises, and exurban communities, not to mention urban ruins and edgelands—environments most writers had previously dismissed as beneath comment, if they noticed them at all.
W.S. — Very much so, and the problem for psychogeographers is that they’re a distinctly fissiparous group; most of the prominent ones in England don’t even like to be called psychogeographers; they feel that it’s been appropriated by disheveled pseudo-creative types, they don’t want to be associated with people who navigate their way around Florence using a map of Toronto. I think a writer like Iain Sinclair feels that psychogeography has become a kind of anorak-ish pursuit, as we would say in England. Somebody like Patrick Keiller, who I think is probably the most significant person working in this field at the moment, rejects it because he feels it is impossible to use psychogeographic techniques to enact the kind of paradigmatic Debordian revolution that I think Patrick would quite like to see; he worries that his own work is futile in terms of being an engine for social and political change.
So those are some of the reasons they reject the ascription. I think they’re wrong to. One of the things we can do is to hang onto and try to understand what it is and explain a better version of it. And I also think that, while I’m not a Marxist myself, there’s great truth in the adage that history is made by the great mass of individuals. If you’ve got a lot of individuals who are psychogeographically attuned, then by definition you will have a changed society. So I think there’s no cause for pessimism on that score. And I also think that the English tradition, which is founded much more in utopian socialism than Marxism, is decoupled from concepts of historical determinism and that makes it a much, much more free-floating ideology for people in England to latch onto.
As to Ballard, yes, you’re absolutely right; Ballard was far more influential than Debord, who I was scarcely aware of at that time, in terms of my psychogeographic thinking in the mid-1980s, when I was mostly driving but walking as well around the periphery of London and seeking out those kinds of locales and interrogating them as to what they could tell me and how they could affect me. Ballard was undoubtedly the presiding spirit.
M.D. — Not to grind the subject into the ground, but doesn’t this lead us back to the politics of embodiment? Neurocognitively, psychologically, somatically, the experience of moving about on two feet is so profoundly different from driving; it affects us on all sorts of levels, only some of which we’re aware of. I remember you saying, in one of your lectures, that looking through your windshield, as you drive, amounted to viewing the world as moving images on a screen. “Windscreen-based virtuality,” I think you called it.
W.S. — That’s right, and of course there are different cognitive effects; Rousseau said, “We think at walking pace.” That’s all well and good, and I think people can be recalibrated through the act of walking—I think they can learn to be much more credulous about questioning the way the man-machine matrix orders their experience of topos—but they need to be guided. Interestingly, I now teach this as, if not a subject, a practice for young people, and it’s amazing how liberating they find it. I mean, they really do change. We give them a 14-week course of dérives and this kind of thinking and they come out of it significantly changed.
M.D. — At the opposite end of the political spectrum from the radically defamiliarizing dérive is the English country walk. Chesterton’s ramble in “A Piece of Chalk” is a prime specimen.
W.S. — The problem with the English conception of the country walk is that it’s readily turned into a consumable artifact. So it’s a right, tight little island and the way since the interwar period in which the walk has been conceived in terms of English culture is as something that you can purchase—a network of national parks, waymarked walks, the Ramblers Association, the activities of the National Trust and English Heritage. All of them are designed to make of that [the walk] something that is part of The Spectacle, in the Debordian sense, not divorced from it and certainly not attacking it.
The distinctive character of English psychogeography comes from the fact that people who are heavily educated in the Romantic tradition then apply that kind of thinking, apply the idea of the solitary walker (again, Rousseau is probably the key thinker on this, in his “Reveries of a Solitary Walker”) to the reality of England, which is a patchwork of brownfield development, a kind of gallimaufry of exurban dormitory settlements, edgelands, strip malls, et cetera.
M.D. — Does your psychogeographic practice seep into the pages of your fiction?
W.S. — Well, it’s not as obvious as something like Walser’s The Walk, I suppose, but the last few novels have all had walking quite central to them, really, going back over a decade; there is always a long walk in the books. In The Book of Dave, the cabbie abandons his life in London and walks out of the city; that’s the epiphanic moment for him, the beginning of sanity. In Umbrella, one of the key scenes is when Audrey, the protagonist, walks across central London with her father and discovers this kind of strange awareness of the inchoate city. And in Shark, there’s the character Kins who takes this very long night walk over successive nights from rural Lincolnshire down into London, which is quite important. And then in the writing I’ve done about my own walking, it [psychogeography] came most strongly into Walking to Hollywood, where I did this eight-day circumambulation of the Los Angeles basin and in the same book I kind of fictionalized this strange walk I took down the east coast of Yorkshire. So, yeah, it’s there.
M.D. — I’m guessing you’ve read the Ray Bradbury story “The Pedestrian,” in which a resident of the Los Angeles of 2053 is arrested for the crime of strolling? As a former Los Angelino, I’m astonished, first of all, that you survived, and secondly, that you weren’t arrested.
W.S. — Well, you say that but my half-brother’s father Robert Adams, a professor of English at UCLA and a noted critic, once said of Los Angeles, “Everything they say about it is true.” And I think that evocation of the polymorphous perversity of L.A. should give the lie to [Bradbury’s] perception because the truth of the matter is that if anybody does anything weird in this world, it’s been done in Los Angeles. I mean, when I did walk for eight days around L.A., I decided to treat my sojourn as if it were a conventional visit to L.A., so, you know, I went to Sony Pictures and took a meeting with Michael Linton, the head of Sony. And he wasn’t in the least surprised when I chipped up having walked there, because, you know, it’s a city where people do wacky things. In fact, people were much more surprised in London than in Los Angeles because in London of course they have the stereotypic perception of L.A.
M.D. — Ballard again, I’m afraid: Ballard rightly understood that it’s L.A. that’s the capital of the future, not New York; the centrifugal city, as opposed to the centripetal one.
W.S. — Jim really didn’t know the States at all, though; he’d barely been there.
M.D. — Which is what made his writing about it so marvelous, I think; it’s like Kafka’s America. Ballard’s America isn’t findable on any map; it probably owed a greater debt to Baudrillard’s America than to his impressions of coming here.
W.S. — Jim’s partner, Claire Walsh, told me that one of the books that most influenced [Ballard’s novel] Hello America and a lot of his other writing on America was one that she sourced for Jim, Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. The thing about Banham’s conception of Los Angeles and why it chimed so strongly with Ballard and perhaps with me as well is that he proposes Los Angeles as a sort of test bed for the collective psyche in which these kinds of experiments in the built environment can be conducted. It is a romanticized vision and I think its appeal for Americans rests in defamiliarizing. Defamiliarizing can be very exciting: instead of being stuck on the Santa Monica freeway, thinking, “This is just shit and I’m becoming like Michael Douglas in Falling Down; instead, you can look around you, see an example of googie architecture, or meditate on the way the freeway creates its own Interzones – in a nutshell (or a carshell), you can have this epiphany: I may be condemned to look at all this through a screen, but my mind is still free.
Of course, the irony of Falling Down is that it’s just more evidence of the way in which film distorts our perception of topographical reality because he starts in just near downtown and then the next scene he’s suddenly way to the west in Pasadena and then he kind of leaps over that and he’s in Venice but of course it’s depicting a continuous walk in a city but with no reference to the real topography. The enactment of it as a film is exactly the syndrome that’s driving the man insane in the first place.
M.D. — What’s in a name? Do we become the names we’re given? What does being a Self do for, or to, your self?
W.S. — I think it’s very difficult to avoid issues around nominative determinism because in the realm of the emotions, contiguity is always causal; you’d have to be a very strange person if you didn’t respond in some way to having my name, if only to disavow its effects. And particularly since I read philosophy at university, it’s always been kind of an issue to some extent and when I started publishing many people said it was a nom de plume, other people said that I’d been invented Martin Amis because he had John Self in Money, so, yeah, I’ve thought about it and I am fairly egotistic, as many people are, so I’ve got plenty of opportunities to think to myself, “Oh, you’re just like that ‘cause that’s your name!”
M.D. — To me, you don’t seem egotistical so much as pitilessly clinical about anatomizing the self, and not just your self but the self as an object of knowledge, which I guess is the philosopher in you.
W.S. — I think one of the advantages that writers of my generation have is that there’s a really epistemic break in our understanding of what writers are. My suspicion is that writers of my generation do not receive the same kind of reverence as even the half-generation before us—you know, the Rushdies, the Amises, Thomas Pynchon, DeLillo. The thing about those guys is that they were in a paper world and people perceived their quiddity—not just people who read them but the wider culture—as being to do with writing. And the advent of the Web means that writers now are viewed in the same form as the codex itself; we’re viewed as frayed and subject to breaking up into different forms of mediatization and I think that means that writers of my generation don’t tend to suffer from the delusion of posterity, which afflicted the generation immediately before us. For writers now in their mid-‘60s, there’s a point in their careers at which they’re on syllabuses, and they think that they’ve made it, and you see it happen to them—you see the delusion of posterity, and it normally takes the form of narcissism, and I think that’s just a kind of occupational disease of that generation of writers, although there were those of course who were in some ways immune from it, like Ballard. But on the whole I think younger writers, now, we know we’re kind of fucked.
M.D. — Are you saying you’re utterly disinvested in self-mythologization?
W.S. — Yeah, pretty much; it doesn’t interest me, and since the culture that supported it is undergoing radical change, it’s difficult to see whether there’s any space to squeeze oneself into the pantheon; the pantheon is now encapsulated in time, it’s full up, the club isn’t taking any more members, and I think that’s kind of liberating, actually.
M.D. — How is it liberating?
W.S. — Well, it just sort of frees you to accept the real terms of one’s existence, which is that literary immortality isn’t the same as psychic immortality, whatever people pretend; your books aren’t gonna give you a cuddle when you’re dying.
M.D. — If posterity doesn’t matter, what matters? What confers meaning on the act of writing, writing you obviously put great care into, and are clearly invested in, presumably because you want to reach out to a reader who reads deeply? What if not the sense that it may live on after your consciousness, the you you call you, is gone?
W.S. — It’s a form of praxis, for me. The act of writing is the way I understand the world; I mix my labor with it. It exists now, for me. Not even the idea of people reading me is of particular importance to me, I’m afraid. It’s not really about that. Obviously, I like to be read and I love it when people get something from my work but I have to say it’s not really what animates me.
M.D. — What does animate you?
W.S. — Just trying to create something that I think is just, that does justice to the conundrum that every writer wrestles with, which is how can I use unwieldy language to express these very, very evanescent intimations and apprehensions about the world?
M.D. — So it’s all just an attempt to shake off a Wittgensteinian migraine, so to speak? You’ve read philosophy, so you’re far better briefed on this than I am, but aren’t you talking about the linguistic, epistemic, and ontological conundrum of stepping outside language, into unmediated communication—effing the ineffable, so to speak?
W.S. — Yes, or at any rate, so skillfully applying language as if it were some sort of papier-mâché that by molding it around the shape of the world you can create a simulacrum that reflects this fundamental paradox that all we know is phenomenology and yet phenomenology seems completely irrelevant to the thing in itself.
I increasingly think that even things like perceiving the individual subject as having a unique location in spacetime is a kind of delusion or at any rate it’s part of the virtuality of consciousness because in fact consciousness is eager to be transcendent, it seems; it’s constantly essaying forms of transcendence or relaying apprehensions of transcendence. If you were to say to your consciousness, “Now, hang on a minute, consciousness; you know you are tied to a body, you are in one space and time,” a lot of our intimations would suggest that a much apter image for who we are, in a way, is that we’re a kind of energy field rather than something that’s imprisoned in a small bone globe.
You look at the great writers of the 20th century who really ran up against this problem, Joyce and Beckett, Beckett threw his hands up and said I’ve reached the limits of language, so I’m going to deconstruct human phenomenology by fraying and distressing language, so you have one approach, which is to take stuff away, and then you have the Joycean one of superfluity, of overplenitude, throw in the bathroom sink, try to convey this strange conundrum through a kind of superabdundance of the itemized. It’s like Stalin, you know: “Quantity has a quality of its own.” If I can just get enough quantity in, then I can somehow express this ineffable inexpressibility of language.
I think my approach lies somewhere between the two and I’m kind of getting there, which is to somehow convey the idea that language is a two-way mirror between phenomenology and the thing in itself and to make it finally wrought enough that that sensation we have of a kind of semi-permeable membrane between psyche and world is rendered on the page.
M.D. — You’ve set yourself a tough task because you so clearly love language. It would be one thing if you wanted to pare it down to this Giacometti-like anorexic figure, like Beckett does, where every line, although beautifully shaped, proclaims its profound distrust and exhaustion and dispiritedness with language. By contrast, you have a clear love of language, specifically of vocabulary; a ludic delight in words. Isn’t your own logophilia going to be a high hurdle to clear in addressing the philosophical conundrum you’ve just articulated?
W.S. — No, because I am actually powerfully ambivalent towards language. The formal properties of declarative sentences really upset me a lot.
M.D. — What do you mean by that?
W.S. — Michael Hoffman has a brilliant essay on Kafka in which he says, you know, in Prague German, it isn’t the big words that matter, it’s the little ones, and actually there aren’t many of them in Kafka because of the unforgiving nature of German syntax itself. It’s the little words that bother me a lot and the way in which they articulate and provide the tensioning for sentences. I can reach a point in writing a book and usually do nowadays where, not necessarily conjunctions, it can be adverbial forms, it can even be prepositions, start to appall me. When I was finishing Shark, the word “that” started to really bother me; I started to feel nauseated by the word “that.”
M.D. — It sounds like the literary equivalent of excoriation disorder, that pathological condition caused by obsessive, neurotic scratching or picking at your skin. Something that’s normally invisible to us, once we notice it, is magnified by our maddening consciousness of it into a neurotic fixation.
W.S. — Yeah, it’s like a kind of linguistic psoriasis, and I want to pick away at it. But I understand that if I pick at the “that” too heavily, the whole dermis of language is going to start to tear and disintegrate, so even in my pathological fugue I’m still consciously struggling back to some form of health by concentrating on “that.” I remember when I was writing Walking to Hollywood, it was the word “even”; in fact, I—even—wrote a passage in the book about my hatred for the word “even.” The last month or so it’s been the word “valorize”; I’m absolutely fucking stricken with “valorize”! So there is an ambivalence there, a Beckettian mistrust of language’s claims to do anything, very much.
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