Laurie Taylor's interviews: Permanent Uncertainty: Laurie Taylor interviews Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry tells Laurie Taylor about his search for a soul
LAURIE TAYLOR (LT): In your very funny and honest autobiography Moab is my Washpot you talk about the volatility of your views on God and religion. You say that you change them as often as you change your socks. So, where are you today? How would you describe yourself? A non-believer? A humanist?
STEPHEN FRY (SF): It may disappoint many of your readers but I don't think humanism and atheism are the least bit connected. After all, Peter Abelard and Erasmus were in many ways the first humanists and they were both god-fearing men. But that's not how I would describe myself. I'm not a god-fearing man but I do at times incline towards the highest doctrines of the church. I do have a great relish for sacrament. I do like the bells and the smells. I suppose it is the poetry of it. That great phrase in the Eucharist – "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace". I like the idea of the invisible and the spiritual although spiritual is a horrible word to use these days. It so often encompasses the things I usually save my spleen for, horrible new age-y things.
LT: That suggests to me that you want to retain what might be called a religious sense because you are anxious to find room in life for some concept of the transcendent, for heightened states of feeling or sensibility.
SF: That is absolutely right. And that feeling lies behind my passion for Wagner and Strauss and Mahler. I think of the transcendent as extremely important and redemptive. But this is a transcendent that you work towards through the mind. It is an intellectual process. I think of the intellect as an emotion or at least as a passion. The intellect is not removed from experience and from feeling. The enemies of this way of thinking are those who espouse revealed truth. That is the way the world now seems to be divided. Between those who favour revealed truth and those who insist on experienced truth. My argument has always been with evangelical text-based religion where the truth is revealed through a scripture or a political ideology, or any other sort of ideology.
LT: You talk about the transcendent as being something that you have to work towards through mental effort, as something that is not easily given. Can you expand on that?
SF: Yes. The metaphor I would use would be gold. Gold is the symbol of everything shiny and beautiful and it does actually exist on this earth and the way to discover it is firstly get a degree in geology and understand that it can be discovered in lodes. Then you do surveys of the ground and then you go into the ground with machines. You blister your skin and it's agony and you get out this rock and you go into a foundry and into the heat and you blister your skin again and out comes this thing and it's gold. It's unbelievably hard work, and it takes knowledge and understanding, but there it really truly is. But one thing that will never happen is that you close your eyes and wish for gold and some angel leans out from heaven and presents you with a bar. No one will transform tin into gold and no one will make gold from nothing. And that is true of any equivalent of gold. Beauty, truth, poetry and art do not come from anything other than a foundry of similar proportions, from similar experiences of work and effort. What upsets me are the people who lay claim to a short cut. It sounds rather dreary and Calvinistic but I think that work leads to great things like beauty and extraordinary truth, things that shine and are transcendent. I don't know any other way of getting there.
LT: So the gods don't come into it?
SF: I think that the myth that best explains what I am talking about is the myth of Prometheus. It doesn't really matter if there is a name for the divine fire that Prometheus stole from the heavens even if the literal Greek for it is enthusiasm. The point is that if there are Gods then they are capricious and selfish and unpleasant and they don't like us having what they have. And it's that Greek idea of the spark, the divine fire, not original sin, that we have from the Gods. They don't like us having it and they are angry that we have stolen it and they punish the man who gave it us by chaining him up on the mountainside and having his liver eaten every day by an eagle. It's a very healthy thing not to give a name. I remember recently reading DH Lawrence. He said "we all know there are two things that go together to make water, hydrogen and oxygen. But we all know that there is a third thing. It is that thing that makes hydrogen and oxygen when they go together become water." And the trouble comes when you try and name that thing.
LT: I want to come back to your fascination, if I may call it that, with the capricious Olympian gods. In your autobiography you talk about the Christianity which pervades the sort of public schools you attended and about how these schools simultaneously sowed the seeds of the destruction of Christian belief because of their insistence upon teaching classical antiquity.
SF: Actually it is quite hilarious. In the school I went to there were three literary old boys who were minor camp icons: Firbank, Norman Douglas and James Elroy Flecker. All of them had experienced this eminently Victorian fustian world of black musty cloaks and public school hymn books and the smell of the chapel and its wooden pews, and the talk of sin and Jerusalem. And they all without exception were drawn to the light of the Mediterranean and the Arabic world. Their response was to leap into the classical world.
LT: How much is your fondness for the Olympians, for the classical world, to do with what one might call the domestication of God in Christian religion, with the fact that it now seems to generate only banal and mundane icons and souvenirs?
SF: Absolutely. Once a Christian god could call upon an army of the greatest sculptures, architects, painters and poets that the world had to offer. Now he has to rely upon little people with sideburns and tinted spectacles with a diploma from Kings in a sort of liberation theology which they don't fully understand and who come up with phrases like a kind of sharing and fellowship and an awful grin. Theology should be hard work. You can't get a degree in theology without knowing. You are required to read the same sort of people you'd read for a degree in philosophy. I mean you read Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Socrates and Kant. Good theologians are not bound by doctrine. They are in that sense, Greek.
LT: That sounds like an admirable eclecticism, but isn't it also a recipe for a permanent uncertainty?
SF: That's right. The burden that is laid upon a humanist or an atheist or someone who is not bound by any ideology or creed is that you believe in nothing but you believe in anything. There is a double bind in humans. On the one hand we want to be free of the authority of our parents and the other symbolic parents like gods, and governments and great mentors, On the other hand part of us yearns to be under the protective cloak of their intellect and moral wisdom. Therefore what the humanist has to do is to find an authority in themselves. You have to say: "I have this awful duty. I have to be the judge of myself." I can't let God be the judge. I can't let Marx or Blair or any other figure do it for me. You have to create your own moral standards, but also be open to the moral standards of poets and writers, and preachers. You can cherry pick if you like. There is absolutely nothing inconsistent in that. You can take the best of Christ and the best of Marx. For me the person who said, "let him who is without sin cast the first stone," is automatically a very interesting person. I think it is one of the most splendid things anyone has ever said.
LT: I have to remind you of the time in your adolescence when you rather fancied being a Christian minister. You actually went to see a bishop about it. But, as I remember, he was somewhat discouraging.
SF: Yes. And he was absolutely right to be so. I think it was a vanity. At the time I was reading Mansfield Park. You remember that wonderful character, Henry Crawford. He says at one point, and you can hear Jane Austen's disapprobation, he was discussing someone who was living in a particular parish and he says what a good parson he would have made, because he is sure he could have written really good sermons. And I just suddenly thought: "God that is me." I know I could be up there in the pulpit and God, I could really wow them and show them a few showbiz tricks. And then you think well it's not really about that.
LT: But wasn't your desire to enter the church, however fleeting, part of the desire to expiate for your youthful misdemeanours, for the almost obsessive thieving that eventually landed you in court. One could easily see this desire for some sort of expiation as lying behind your long and much publicised period of celibacy.
SF: It's a very interesting thought. Sometimes, I think I protested too much. There was this great sense of shame itself. But what I think it was to do with was the belief that I had to make up for all the wickedness in my childhood by work, and that rather like a Chekhov hero, by work and work I would expiate the various guilts and shames that I had.
LT: On the subject of guilt and shame, I remember you saying somewhere that you preferred the old idea of guilt rather than the type of new guilts that have been visited upon us by the Freudians.
SF: Yes, in a sense I do. I think that's right. I suppose I think of the old idea of guilt as shame and that is something I can deal with. I know about shame. I know about how terrible it is to stand naked in the showers. When I was about twelve I used to believe that the moment when my grandfather was dead, he would be able to see everything I did. So when things like masturbation began I thought that my grandfather was watching me. I began to think that is all that God is. He is the person who watches you and gives a name to your shame. And that is much more interesting than modern guilt which is a more intellectual process about psychological and socio-political responsibility. Shame is a much more honest feeling.
LT: Staying on the subject of guilt and shame. Your autobiography has a profoundly moral subtext. It seems in many parts like a literary act of expiation.
SF: Yes, it's like being a warthog really. Luxuriating in the mud of one's own life and claiming credit for it as well. And one's very fortunate to be able to do that. Literary confession is a very handy device that one would wish would be open for more people. Maybe through the information age, everyone will be able to have their own web page that does the equivalent thing. But I suppose what I really feel is that I find myself happier and more balanced as a result of having written that book and as a result of having been able to talk about things and that is the price I am perfectly willing to pay. Any price to be able to arrive at that. A lot of people have said to me there is something else behind these so-called revelatory books. I want to get to the real you. There are endless journalists who say that. And then there other people who say, "Well, you seem to be sorted. It is okay for you." In fact Stephen's rule is that any phrase that is prefaced with "it's easy for other people dot-dot-dot," is automatically untrue.
LT: There is certainly a real sense at the end of your autobiography that you have found out something about yourself. You have discovered that you have a voice of your own rather than a rich miscellany of other people's voices. It's something of an epiphany.
SF: Epiphany is such a good word, and of course it was a word that was only recently liberated from religion. It was the feast of the epiphany until writers of Joyce's generation used it and then it went back to its original meaning of showing forth. It became one of the great features of the transcendent movements in the nineteenth century. It was no accident Joyce quotes so much Wagner in Ulysses. This is why Joyce is one of my great heroes. He had a huge sense of sacrament. His knowledge of sacrament is infinitely more profound than mine will ever be. But also he understood that truth lay in an old man wanking on a bridge, and it lay in a man having a crap in a lavatory. It lay in the fundamental detail of human life. This low-down dirty stuff is where angels fly. And that is the thing I adore about him. It is the painstaking detail of Ulysses. It is the literary construction of a religion for our generation. It is in that old man who seems to be nothing, who has no axe to grind, the wandering Jew. When I read it again it suddenly just struck me. Here's this book whose last word is 'yes'. Talking of which I have just been rereading that old bastard Larkin – a poem of his that I had always ignored on the jazz player, Sidney Bechet. It has this line in it: "On me your sound falls as they say love should. Like an enormous 'yes'.
'Yes' should be our last word, shouldn't it?