Q&A: WILL SELF
Highlights from Issue 29: Photography
Photograph By Michael Wildsmith
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
ABUSE OF SELF
The Stop Smiling Interview with Will Self
By Sally Vincent
The first time I laid eyes on Will Self, he was monologuing about flying buttresses to a startled and ever-increasing audience of slack-jawed strangers, seemingly dumbstruck by his magniloquence. It was as though he couldn’t help himself. As though all this passion about architecture had been building up in his brain, to be unleashed at this moment simply because someone (I can’t remember who) was having their book launch in this vaulted, elegant old building and the sheer grandeur of it all had broken a dam in his corpus callosum. It was, I have to say, an entirely beguiling experience. Later that evening, my best friend introduced me to this loomingly tall bloke with a face like the Turin Shroud, and I knew instantly she was going to marry Will Self and I’d have to find a new best friend. I must have been a bit standoffish because he asked her, most intently, if my accent was posher than his, and she replied instantly, “Yes. No contest.”
I know when I’m beaten. The last decade would have rolled by anyway, and even in the backseats I’ve not missed Will Self’s roller-coaster: His ubiquitous, swallowed-a-dictionary word-smithery, his laconic, throwaway, television personality, his lapsed-reformed-junkie-and-boozer notorieties, his uncompromised, best-self radio voice, his willfully allegorical hardbacks and, sometimes, privately, his extraordinary dedication to hands-on fatherhood. And then last summer he dropped the big one: The Book of Dave, a post-apocalyptic cock-snook of the first order that tells you all you couldn’t bear to know about contemporary life and has triumphantly elbowed Philip Roth and Jilly Cooper (the current alpha and omega of English literature) off the British bestseller lists. There was nothing for it but to confidently expect the Booker Prize. Which is why Will Self is padlocking his bicycle to my railings on the morning he has not even been longlisted for the bloody thing. Nor does he want a drink. He hasn’t had a drink for seven years. He will, however, drink coffee, eat cakes and smoke fat cigars. And chew a bunch of sour grapes.
Stop Smiling: Somewhere in The Book of Dave you lament something to the effect that nurture has drop-kicked nature into the long grass. Can you expand on that?
Will Self: What’s to say? We are denatured. A lot of people feel denatured as well as disenfranchised. That’s how it is. I was talking the other day about the current teenage passion for piercing and tattooing and the epidemic of self-harming among young people. It’s like they are feeling literally disembodied, so they get themselves punctured and needled as though they are trying to staple themselves back in the world. Years ago when I was hack-writing, I wrote the text for a book of photographs called Modern Primitives, which was about the primitivism of street cultures. It became quite celebrated at the time. But it’s all so bogus, isn’t it? I mean, why don’t they wear a penis sheath or a lip-plate or live in a hogan in the backyard? I knew a bloke who had enormous bones stuck through his ears. When he took them out his lobes were like strips of bacon rind. Then we had all those culty things about reconnecting people to their nature, which was just horseshit because, you know, all we are is the totality of facts. I mean, we live in a denatured world. If the Freudian project is going to work, and Freud believed we are incredibly aggressive, drug-abusing, killing and fucking machines, and if the purpose of Freudian analysis is to recognize those things, what could be the possible outcome? I don’t think that is the reality of what people are. I think we are denatured, but that’s just tough titty. I’m much more in accord with Schopenhauer, who pointed out the root of the word “personality” is persona, which is Greek for mask. We are masks. I don’t think there is any way back to any kind of authenticity. A lot of psychotherapeutic movements establish themselves with the aim of connecting you to your authenticity. Like the whole business is to connect you to your own sympathetic character. Oh, are you unhappy? Well, pop along and see Dr. Fuckrag and he’ll turn you into a sympathetic character and you’ll be all authentic. Because your problem is you’re unsympathetic and nobody likes you.
Who says you ought to be happy, anyway? The old family pattern of mum, dad and 2.4 kids might have sucked, but in a different way from what we have now — childlike parents and a divorce rate which is the highest in Europe. A whole cohort of kids is growing up in a way that is now sort of intergenerational, an inchoate mess with a soup of disparate people in charge of children, and people in their 50s going to Rolling Stones concerts. At least in the Sixties, the generations were demarcated. Adult men wore suits and ties and were married and went to work, and it was all to do with who was allowed to be an adult and who was allowed to be a child. Since the Sixties all this has changed. I’m not saying one’s good and one’s bad, I’m just saying this is the change. You could connect that to the death of political idealism, because now kids in their teens and 20s think their relationships will be like those of their parents, while at the same time they don’t believe the political system will be different.
I was very romantic as a teenager. I thought the great blight of my life was that I would die before I had sexual intercourse. And the other thing I thought was that, by and large, feminism was a contrived political ideology designed to stop me getting any pussy. My mother was banging off about it the whole time with her consciousness-raising groups. It was most worrying. I think Freud was on the money when he said that love was every man’s psychosis. There’s a point where generalized sexual yearning and the intensity with which it is focused on one person becomes psychotic, like all this energy is being funneled onto one person and you really think you’re in love with them and then that connects with a whole social and political ideology. If you’re a sociobiologist, you’d say that was all jolly useful. Otherwise, you might say that nature is perfectly and cruelly devised.
SS: What do you tell your children?
WS: I answer their questions to the best of my ability. They start asking why and what and how when they’re about two and they’re not dumbed into submission by society until they’re about 10. So with bright kids you can have anything up to nine years of it. Maybe they’re just doing it in order to continually re-expose themselves to the fact that I’m not exactly impoverished in my ability to answer them. When they ask why am I here, I tell them what I believe, though I might say perhaps they might ask themselves why they need to ask it. Then I’d give a tutorial on the last 100 years of metaphysics. I think the only ways you shouldn’t talk to children as though they are adults is in emotional ways. That’s the only demarcation. But I think you can treat even very small children like adults and just instruct them as best you can. So if a kid asks me what is the purpose of his life, or words to that effect, I will eventually tell him I don’t believe there is one. Then I’ll point out that he may choose to believe otherwise, just as at various moments in my life I have chosen to change mine.
SS: I was thinking of the big one. What do you tell your children about God?
WS: The same applies. They go to school and hear about the God stuff and of course they bring it up. What I told my kids was to ask themselves, “Does God wear pants?” They said, “What do you mean, does God wear pants?” I said, “It’s a crucial theological question; you have to think about it.” One of them came back weeks later and said, “No, God doesn’t actually wear pants, but he does wear a robe.” So that was a start. Time enough for The Book of Dave, where God is a theorization of bad-ass patriarchy, up there in the sky making all the rules and taboos, the Great Sky God. How primitive can you get? But a need for a belief in God, particularly as in revealed religion, which is what The Book of Dave is a satire of — the idea that a text is revealed that tells you the truth, that describes a historical reality and also the future and instruction on how to proceed, as in all fundamentalist religions: that’s what we’re up against, the word of God. And I think giving any quarter to that is giving too much.
The Old Testament, for instance. There’s not a shred of evidence for the historical chronicles in that. The captivity of the Israelites in Egypt, the exile in Babylon, no evidence, none whatsoever. It’s all made up. The myth of Origins. It is the conceit of The Book of Dave to attack that. I was just interested in the idea that any old bollocks can buy a holy book and there will always be a time and a place for it. All it says is what goes around comes around. And an awful lot of human societies take this form where nasty, brutal little patriarchal systems turn into nasty, brutal quite big patriarchal systems. That’s what religion is for, so that any old nasty, brutal patriarchal system can be cooked up and justified on behalf of a lot of men with little cocks and big sticks.
Believers who have read my book say rather huffily that I am having a go at Christianity, as if it needed having a go at. But I’m having a go at fundamentalisms of all kinds. Modern English Christianity is a religion I’ve got a lot of time for, though it doesn’t seem to have a lot of time for itself. I think the Archbishop of Canterbury should shave his stupid beard and fuck off. He’s such a senseless irrelevance. Along with the defender of the faith who wants to be a Tampax shoved up Camilla Parker Bowles’s jacksie. And the Archbishop of York, what’s that all about? Some African geezer living in a tent inside his church playing his drums? What? Some bongo-bongo blackamoor in the archbishopric. It’s so laughable. You want to know about Christianity, go and see The Passion of the Christ. Now, that is hardcore. The whole Golden Bough root of Christianity, hours of watching a man have his skin flayed off his back in full color.
The complete Stop Smiling Interview with Will Self appears in Issue 29: The Photography Issue