During the International Literature Festival in Bucharest (5-8 December 2012), we spoke with one of the special guests, Will Self about religion, democracy, capitalism, literary conventions. Will Self is best known for novels such as The Book of Dave, Great Apes, Cock and Bull, Umbrella (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2012).
In your novels you render a quite unusual perspective of the world, it is often grotesque, dystopian. Why this view?
Well, the world is tricky, isn’t it? I think I’m actually a pessimistic person. I was just talking with Bogdan [Alexandru Stănescu] about health care in Romania. If you go to go hospital, you have to pay the doctor… Isn’t that quite dystopian? Isn’t that a quite difficult society to live in, where you have to hope you don’t get seriously ill? I think the world can be a very frightening place to live and a lot of people feel they don’t have control over their lives. So I don’t think my fiction is that unreal or strange. My extreme dark worlds are just a way to draw attention to what’s really around.
When we think about the future, we tend to imagine a very hi-tech world. In The Book of Dave, it was actually something that resembled the Middle Ages.
I think history is circular, civilizations coming and going. It’s an illusion the idea that we will go on getting more technologically advanced. It’s impossible. Either this civilization will end altogether or will get into another cycle of decline and rebuild again.
What frightened me most in your book is the perspective of totalitarianism. Reason, thought, logic, they all collapsed. Do you envision a world in which this kind of totalitarianism in possible?
Well, you had it here, communism was a religion. It was exactly like a religion, because its priests didn’t believe in it, they were hypocrites, they were corrupt. And isn’t this true for many theocracies?
Mary Douglas, who is a very famous anthropologist, said that money is an extreme form of ritual, because rituals mediate situations and bring people together. And when we buy things, we decide to believe that a piece of plastic or paper means something. So that’s a kind of religion too. And capitalism now is actually very totalitarian. You’re not allowed to think outside money. All arguments about what we do, what’s good, what’s bad, are in terms of money. Marx was right about it, he understood it very well, that’s why people are still excited about Marxism, because its critique of capitalism is so good.
At some point in the book, it was mentioned the fact that if it weren’t for Dave, people would have anyway found another God, another cruel principle.
Morality is a social phenomenon. And the kind of morality you have is determined by the size and the complexity of the social organization. And, on some form on another, you always have religion, and you always have hypocrisy, and you always have attempts to create totalitarianism. It’s kind of inevitable. It’s written in the human nature.
This book also made me think about the way we people perceive the so called holy books during time. What if what we think of as holy texts were, in fact, written by …
… cab drivers. That’s the reason I wrote it. There’s a good book by two Israeli archeologists, The Bible Unearthed. They took all the Bible stories, like the exodus of the Jews in Egypt and they looked for evidence. There is no evidence, because these stories were invented. And now we can analyze the Bible, the Old Testament quite acutely, we know when they were written and why they were even written. They were written in the court of King David in the 8th century BC, with a specific purpose. So they are like Book of Dave. Christians, Muslims, Jews believe in the truth of The Old Testament, because all the monotheistic faiths come from there. They believe in a book written for political purposes only. So it is the Book of Dave.
A lot of people read that book as critique of God, but that’s not true, actually, I’m quite keen on God. But I’m not keen on religion, on sacred books. I don’t know whether God exists or not. I wish somebody would tell me.
Did this book stir fanatic reactions?
No, it’s quite a subtle book, the language it’s quite difficult. To become controversial, I think you have to write easy, like Salman Rushdie, in Satanic Verses. It has to be something people can very easily get offended by. And I didn’t intend to offend people.
In another book of yours, Great Apes, you tackle a very sensitive theme, that of the image and self image. What would be the consequences of this obsession for the image?
What I was trying to draw attention to in Great Apes was a kind of species narcissism. I wanted people to look around and see others as apes, because we are apes, we really, really are animals. You could take a blood transfusion from a chimpanzee. Many people believed that Soviet scientists mated humans with chimpanzees. And I asked one of the top primatologists and he told me he thinks it’s true. But when we speak about ourselves, it’s like another order of being. It’s so easy to see around how people play a role, they can’t be true to what they really are, which is animals.
You speak a lot about insanity. Do you think insanity is one of our modern world’s characteristics?
Is a very interesting question, as I’m about to write a novel on this subject. The idea of my first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, was that in any group of people, if they lived together – you know, like women, if they lived together, they’d get their period in the same time –, there is a fixed amount of insanity (or sanity). I think insanity is a collective phenomenon, it’s not to do necessarily with the individual, it’s part of our social existence. I don’t know about Romania, but in England, in the past 15-20 years, there’s an obsession with autism, everybody talks about it. Why? Why now? What does it represent? Autism is a disease of inability to recognize emotions, to read emotions. It’s a bit like the problems we have in our society. The reason why we notice people with autism is because of our own collective problems. Twenty, thirty years ago it was anorexia. Young women starving themselves to death. It comes back occasionally, but it’s not top of the hit parade anymore. There are still anorexic persons. It’s the social perception of what anorexia means that changes.
You stated that you write because you like to shock people. What are the preconceptions that you want to destroy?
Not exactly shock, more like astonish. The idea that people are either innately good or bad or evil – I don’t think either is true; the idea that civilization is progressing – I don’t think this theory is true. The idea that some forms of cultures are superior to others in the way they think they are. When you read a work of fiction, you suspend the belief, you decide to believe it is real. A lot of our society is about suspending belief. All the time we are believing in all sorts of fictions, particularly in hierarchies, for example the idea that one man is more important than another. That’s not true.
You once said that you feel alienated from the conventions of English fiction. What are these conventions and how do you distance yourself from them?
I think literary modernism had very little impact in England, so most books in England are still written in the simple past. Something like: „She got up that morning and went to interview Will Self, at the Golden Tulip Hotel in Bucharest”. And it’s always in the third person. From that third person perspective, I can see inside your mind. „She was thinking, as he explained to her about the third person, how stupid and banal his ideas were, but she continued to smile.” Who can do that? This third person is essentially a religious idea, because the narrator, just like God, is omnipotent, all powerful, omniscient, sees everything. So that kind of constructions seems very false to me, it’s not real.