Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley

My interview with Simon Critchley appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 3 December 2014:

Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley


3:AM: Do you agree that much of your back catalogue can now be read as a preemptive commentary on Memory Theatre, as though the latter had been written in the stars all along (which would be in keeping with the book’s uncanny astrological theme)?

SC: Sure. Why not? Look, what I really learned from Paul De Man years and years ago was that writers are structurally self-deceived about what they do, what they write and the intentions that might or might not lie behind their writing. Namely, to write is to be blind to one’s insight, if such insight exists. I understand this structurally: namely, that writing is an adventure in self-deception. I simply do not know what I am doing and you — as a reader, and a very good reader, moreover — can tell me what I am doing much more accurately than I can. Therefore, I should be interviewing you. In fact, let’s consider that we have reversed roles.

3:AM: The late Michel Haar, who haunts the book, is said to have been fascinated by the “poetic dimension” of Nietzsche’s style, which he saw as “that which might escape philosophy” — a fascination you also share. In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing (1997), you argued that “Writing outside philosophy means ceasing to be fascinated with the circular figure of the Book, the en-cyclo-paedia of philosophical science, itself dominated by the figures of unity and totality, which would attempt to master death and complete meaning by letting nothing fall outside of its closure”. Did you need to exorcise your fascination with this totalising tradition — by dramatising its failure — in order to write “outside philosophy”?

SC: Wow, thanks for reminding me of that passage from Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, which was written in 1992 or 93, as I recall, right towards the beginning of what became that odd book. I have two contradictory reactions to your question: on the one hand, many of the authors I have been obsessed with over the years have endeavoured to take a step outside philosophy, by which is usually meant the circle and circuit of Hegel’s system or Heidegger’s understanding of history as the history of being. I respect and love that gesture, that can be found in Bataille, Levinas, Blanchot and others. But, on the other hand, what I learned from Derrida very early on — my master’s thesis was on the question of whether we could overcome metaphysics — is that the step outside philosophy always falls back within the orbit of that which it tries to exceed. Not to philosophize is still to philosophize. Similarly, any text or philosophy that simply asserts the value of metaphysics is internally dislocated against itself, undermining its own founding gesture. This leaves us writing on the margin between the inside and the ouside of philosophy, which is where I’d like to place Memory Theatre. Also note that although Michel Haar existed and was real, as it were, he didn’t say much or anything that I say that he said. He is a kind of vehicle that I try and drive and steer.


3:AM: At one time, you entertained the idea of writing a book entitled “Paraphilosophy”, devoted to philosophically-impossible objects. A memory theatre strikes me as an impossible object of a different kind: one that can be conceived of, yet never conceived. Is your work a critique of what you call elsewhere the “aestheticization of existence” — the avant-garde project of turning life into art?

SC: Another way of answering your previous question would be to say that I am committed to a form of paraphilosophy, organized around what I call ‘impossible objects’ (a version of the scraps of that abandomed project will be published next year, I think). On the question of the aestheticization of existence, I sometimes really don’t know where I stand. On the one hand, we have known since Benjamin, that fascism aestheticizes politics, but on the other hand, much of what I do is committed to the idea of the aesthetic particularly as art practice as it was embodied in various avant-garde groups. Does that make me a fascist? Lord, I hope not. I think at that point we need to make a distinction between aestheticization in the tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk and totality, the architecture of fascism, and that writing that unpicks, unravels and mocks that tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the name of another practice of art, what Blanchot called the infinite conversation. It is in the spirit of the latter that I have tried to work.

3:AM: Memory Theatre includes a series of photographs — by British artist Liam Gillick — of a skyscraper in construction. Their appearance in reverse order (which reminded me of Robert Smithson’s notion of “ruins in reverse”) mirrors the deconstruction of the narrator’s attempt to build a real-life memory theatre. I wonder, however, if these pictures do not also refer to his surrogate grand narrative: a “perfect work of art” that would eventually “become life itself” by merging with it. One of the recurring themes in the book is that of the quest for a prelapsarian universal language which, although mocked by Swift, was once very fashionable: you write, for instance, of Leibniz’s “attempted recovery of the language of Adam against the Babel of the world”. Does Gillick’s dismantling of this Tower (block) of Babel gradually lead us towards an immanent conception of art that could express the world as it is in itself, free from human perception?

SC: Yes, but this is another fantasy: that of the artwork having an autonomy independent of its creator. A kind of machine or a puppet, or the fantasy of a non-human artwork, which is currently doing the rounds. All of this is in play in Memory Theatre for sure. What do Liam’s pictures suggest? To me, they exhibit a process of dismantling, or decomposition, that is ultimately the dismantling of philosophy and the decomposition of the heroic figure of the philosopher that has plagued us since Socrates. Memory Theatre is a critique of philosophy and, of course, a self-critique of my position as a ‘philosopher’. And yes Swift’s mocking of the science of his day, in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels has always been very important to me.

3:AM: Would you agree that the memory theatre and the “perfect work of art” envisioned at the end of the book correspond, respectively, to the two poles between which literature oscillates according to Maurice Blanchot? On the one hand, what you have called the “Hegelian-Sadistic” tradition, driven by the work of negation of human consciousness, and on the other, a striving after “that point of unconsciousness, where [literature] can somehow merge with the reality of things” (Very Little . . . Almost Nothing). Both poles, of course, are unattainable, but I suspect you have more sympathy for the latter, which is on the side of “The Plain Sense of Things” (Wallace Stevens) — “the near, the low, the common” (Thoreau) — and “lets us see particulars being various” (Memory Theatre) . . .

SC: That’s very interesting and I stole the “particulars being various” from Louis MacNiece, who is underrated and underread in my view. I remember reading Blanchot’s account of the two slopes of literature and it making a huge impact that continues to reverberate, particularly in relation to the INS [International Necronautical Society] work that I do with Tom McCarthy. On the one hand, literature is a conceptual machine that comprehends all that is, digests it and shits it out. That transforms matter into form. On the other hand, there is a kind of writing — poetry usually (Ponge, Stevens, late Hölderlin) — that attempts to let matter be matter without controlling or comprehending it. I am more sympathetic to the second slope, but the attempt to let matter be matter without form is also an unachievable fantasy. We can say with Stevens, we don’t need ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. But we are still stuck with ideas about the thing itself, with the materiality of matter. Form, even the form of the formless, is irreducible.

3:AM: Reviewers have remarked on the hybrid nature of Memory Theatre — a mixture of essay, memoir, and fiction. Why did you choose to call the narrator “Simon Critchley” — who is both you and not you — instead of creating a fictive character based on yourself? I’m guessing that you relished the ambiguity of inhabiting that gap between you and yourself (to paraphrase Pessoa) . . .

SC: The figure ‘Simon Critchley’ is a quasi-heteronym in Pessoa’s sense. You are absolutely right. I did have a lot of fun working in the gap between myself and myself, trying to create a kind of crack in myself, a decomposition as I said just now. ‘Simon Critchley’ is not me, but is still more than a little bit me. As for the hybrid nature of the text, all I can say is that this is how it came out. I wrote the first draft really quickly in about three weeks, largely against my will. It just came pouring out like that after I’d finished writing The Hamlet Doctrine with Jamieson Webster. Then I looked at Memory Theatre when it was done and was perplexed. What is that thing? I didn’t want to publish it. But other people liked it and I am stupidly vain.

3:AM: At one point your narrator believes he is about to discover his deathday, and feels “strangely exhilarated rather than afraid”: this episode echoes what Blanchot (or his protagonist) experiences, in The Instant of My Death, when he seems to be on the verge of being executed. The opposition between death and dying also derives from Blanchot (and Levinas), as does the example of suicide by hanging:

Even if I hanged myself I would not experience a nihilating leap into the abyss, but just the rope tying me tight, ever tighter, to the existence I wanted to leave (Memory Theatre).
Just as the man who is hanging himself, after kicking away the stool on which he stood, heading for the final shore, rather than feeling the leap which he is making into the void feels only the rope which holds him, held to the end, held more than ever, bound as he had never been before to the existence he would like to leave (Thomas the Obscure).

The image of the dredging machine is a clear reference to Derrida (referencing Genet). “The void has destroyed itself. Creation is its wound” is lifted verbatim from Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death. “The blank, expressionless eyes of forty-nine papier mâché statues stared back at me” is possibly a nod to Hoffmannstahl’s “I felt like someone who had been locked into a garden full of eyeless statues” (The Lord Chandos Letter). I am sure that there are many other examples of references to, or quotations from, other people’s works that I missed or did not even recognise. Do you consider intertextuality — another aspect of the book’s hybrid nature — as a memory theatre?

SC: You are too good, Andrew, too good. Yes, I used all these quotations, usually from memory, in the text and there are many, many others. Memory Theatre is a kind of composite and composition drawn from everything that I have ever read and remembered. I then seek to decompose them, pull them apart, by setting them to work in some different way. Palimpsest-like. I have always been suspicious of ‘intertextuality’ as it sounds like a post-structuralist version of ‘tradition’. We are composed of networks of citations and references. At least I am. It’s the way I think about things most of the time.

3:AM: There are many instances of internal intertextuality (sorry!) in Memory Theatre, but most seem to come from your earlier works. Is this purely coincidental, or does a regressive theme run through the whole book? I’m thinking, for instance, of the narrator’s contention that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit “can only be read in reverse” or his tentative description of his youthful memory loss as “a kind of reverse dementia”, not to mention Gillick’s pictures . . .

SC: Yes, there is a kind of inhabitation of all my earlier work in Memory Theatre. That was deliberate. It felt like a taking stock, a settling of accounts with myself. A look back into the rear-view mirror as I press harder on the gas. Also, to make matters worse, my first idea for a PhD thesis in 1987 was on Hegel’s conception of memory in relation to the tradition of the art of memory. So, Memory Theatre is also an attempt to write (and unwrite or undo) that original dissertation plan.

Simon Critchley

3:AM: When the memory theatre is built, ‘Simon Critchley’ surveys his work: “Like crazy Crusoe in his island cave out of his mind for fear of cannibals, I would sit onstage and inspect my artificial kingdom, my realm, my shrunken reál”. This reminded me of what Barthes writes about Jules Verne’s “self-sufficient cosmogony” — symbolised by The Nautilus (“the most desirable of caves”) — that he likens to “children’s passion for huts and tents”:

The archetype of this dream is this almost perfect novel: L’Ile mystérieuse, in which the manchild re-invents the world, fills it, closes it, shuts himself up in it, and crowns this encyclopaedic effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe and fireside, while outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain (Mythologies).

One might also think of Georges Perec, who often circumscribed a small fragment of the world and then set about exhausting it. This dream of a total artwork in which one might poetically dwell often ends up being a womb with a view, right?

SC: Absolutely right. It is a kind of male, maternal fantasy. Except the child is always stillborn. It is also a meditation on obsessional neurosis and the masculine sexual tendency to collect, to collate and to kill. Memory Theatre describes a solitary and dead world devoid of love. I do not want to live in that world, though I have often found myself oddly at home in it. I hate myself. That much should be obvious.

3:AM: There seems to be a crisis of fiction today, highlighted by authors like David Shields or Knausgaard. Is Memory Theatre’s genre-bending a reflection of this crisis? Have we — writers and readers alike — lost that capacity to lose ourselves, which fiction, I feel, is premised on? Can disbelief no longer be suspended?

SC: Maybe we have lost the capacity to suspend disbelief because the world seems such a strange, malevolent fictional edifice. But I am against the heroic authenticity of memoir, the laying bare of oneself in what purports to be reality. I read a chunk of Knausgaard recently. It’s great, but it’s not for me. I’ve been to Norway too much for that. Memory Theatre is a kind of anti-memoir, perhaps even a kind of pastiche. I mean, someone wrote to me recently because they believed that everything I had said in Memory Theatre was true and they were truly worried about me. This was heartfelt and nice, but strange. I do not want to be the ‘Simon Critchley’ of Memory Theatre.

3:AM: Recently, Rachel Cusk claimed that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” — and she may well have a point. This put me in mind of what you wrote, quoting Blanchot, in Very Little: “In the journal, the writer desires to remember himself as the person he is when he is not writing, ‘when he is alive and real, and not dying and without truth'”. Does this account for the autobiographical turn in literature and the arts?

SC: I don’t know, in the sense that I don’t have an opinion. I am always suspicious of ‘turns’ to anything. Literature is always autobiographical and it always isn’t just that. It requires research and reading. We have to simply face up to that contradiction. Literature is one long song of myself even when that self is something I really don’t want to be. In fiction, we step out of our skin, but we still remain in our skin as we read it.

3:AM: Has psychogeography partly inherited this tradition of the memory theatre (as the narrator seems to imply at one stage)?

SC: Yes, that was definitely on my mind at an early stage of thinking about the project. The idea of psychogeography as the construction of alternative maps for cities and places is what is at stake in Memory Theatre. I got that from Stewart Home. When the narrator wakes from the dream/nightmare of the Gothic cathedral in the middle of Memory Theatre, the entire landscape is psychogeograpized, legible through some arcane, occult grid.

3:AM: I’m pretty sure you must also have been thinking about the web — today’s version of the memory theatre — while writing the book. We live in an age of total recall and rampant dementia. It would be absurd to establish a connection between the two phenomena, but are we not increasingly relying on Google or Wikipedia to remember facts we would have memorised ourselves in earlier times? In other words, are we not using the web in order to forget?

SC: Yes, absolutely. Today’s memory theatre is the internet. I deliberately avoid broaching the question of the internet in Memory Theatre, but it’s what the whole thing is about. The difference — and it is crucial — between the internet and the memory theatre is the difference between Gedächtnis and Erinnerung, between an external, mechanized memory and an internal, living recollection. What has happened — largely without anyone noticing it — is that we have outsourced memory onto the internet. Everything is there, googleable, but not in our heads. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. It is certainly an odd thing, given that for several thousand years all education has ever meant has been the cultivation of a trained memory. We have somehow abandoned that in the name of forgetfulness. So, yes, we have chosen to drink the waters of Lethe and enter our private Hades. Literature can at the least remind us of that choice.

3:AM: Even though we are constantly (unwittingly) rewriting our own pasts, isn’t the right to be forgotten — which has arisen in the face of total digital recall — a rather dangerous concept? Are we really the sole owners of our pasts?

SC: No, we are not sole owners of our pasts. The drama of Memory Theatre is showing how our existence can be pre-remembered, as it were, by someone else, pre-destined. The fantasy of total recall, which is one way of approaching Hegel, is often met by the fantasy of active forgetting, in Nietzsche’s sense. Both these fantasies are delusional. We are flayed alive by memory, but not in possession of it.

3:AM: I was thinking of Proust’s notion of involuntary memory, and how In Search of Lost Time could be construed as a memory theatre, but what of the unconscious?

SC: Like I said earlier, Memory Theatre can be read as a case study in obsessional neurosis, as an attempt to collate, collect, control, and kill all that is and all that is close to you. I see the ‘moral’ of Memory Theatre in negative terms: do not build your memory theatre! That means trying to access unconscious material in other ways, in relation to other forms of sexuality than masculine obsessionality, and in relation to a different range of affects and transferential relations. This is a project I tried to begin with Jamieson Webster in The Hamlet Doctrine, a book of which I am really proud, mostly because I only-co-wrote it.

3:AM: Did Giulio Camillo Delminio’s memory theatre remind you, like me, of a similar contraption in 60s TV series Joe 90?

SC: Oh Lord, I used to love that show. I’d forgotten about it, as it were.

3:AM: The memory theatre tradition and dream of total recall find an echo in ‘Simon Critchley’ because (like you) he lost much of his memory following an accident (“My self felt like a theatre with no memory”). Accident-induced memory loss also happens to be the premise of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. The quest for the “now of nows” — that moment of “absolute coincidence” with oneself and one’s fate at the point of extinction — is precisely what McCarthy’s anti-hero strives to achieve through his increasingly elaborate reenactments. As for the following sentence, it could come straight out of C: “My body is a buzzing antenna into which radio waves flooded from the entire cosmos. I was the living switchboard of the universe” . . . In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, you pointed out that there is so much overlapping between Blanchot and Levinas that it is sometimes difficult to tell if an idea originated with the former or the latter. The very same comment could be made about you and McCarthy. Are you — especially through the International Necronautical Society — trying to escape the confines of the self by merging your two voices in a collaborative, polyphonic project? Is it two people, one artist, like Gilbert & George?

SC: Matters become even worse when you think of the first sentence of Remainder, which refers to Very Little . . . Almost Nothing. My relation with Tom is very precious to me and I have loved working together with him so much over the years. There is no doubt that meeting and working with Tom loosened my tongue and enabled me to say things I would never have previously imagined. We have a disinhibiting effect on each other, where the usual super-ego bullshit gets shut down and we are able to just burn it up and let it rip. As Levinas was fond of saying, on est mieux à deux. Writing with four hands is better than two. It is fair to say that Memory Theatre wouldn’t have existed without Remainder and elements of C are all over it.

3:AM: Memory Theatre opens with the following three sentences: “I was dying. That much was certain. The rest is fiction” — well, is it?

SC: Yes, it is. Oh, there is tinnitus too.

Irreducible Form

My interview with Simon Critchley appeared in 3:AM Magazine today:

Simon Critchley

“On the one hand, literature is a conceptual machine that comprehends all that is, digests it and shits it out. That transforms matter into form. On the other hand, there is a kind of writing — poetry usually (Ponge, Stevens, late Hölderlin) — that attempts to let matter be matter witout controlling or comprehending it. I am more sympathetic to the second slope, but the attempt to let matter be matter without form is also an unachievable fantasy. We can say with Stevens, we don’t need ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. But we are still stuck with ideas about the thing itself, with the materiality of matter. Form, even the form of the formless, is irreducible.”

Reading the Unreadable

This appeared on The New York Times‘s Opinionator blog on 27 February 2013. It featured in The Stone, a column devoted to philosophy moderated by Simon Critchley:

Reading the Unreadable
So many books, so little time. Who doesn’t feel the anxiety of it all? In a post at The Guardian’s Books blog, Andrew Gallix moves from a meditation on the phenomenon of the “failed or forgotten” writer, to the deliberate unreadability of the “conceptual writing” championed by the poet Kenneth Goldsmith, to the inevitability of the “blank book” prophesied by Kierkegaard. Gallix wonders whether this kind of literary elusivity isn’t ultimately a gift; he claims, following Hegel, that “words give us the world by taking it away.”

Dead Philosophers Society


Here is my interview with philosopher Simon Critchley, published in 3:AM Magazine on 26 June 2008:

Dead Philosophers Society: An Interview With Simon Critchley

3:AM: Did the idea for The Book of Dead Philosophers come from the Montaigne quote you use as an epigraph? Was that the first spark?

SC: It was one of the first sparks. As so often happens in writing, it was a coincidence: a close friend sent me that quotation from Montaigne just as I was rereading the latter’s “To philosophie is to learne how to die” in Florio’s florid translation. Montaigne is really the hero of the book and I love his suspicion of suspicion, his skepticism and the deeply personal quality of his prose, which is never narcissistic. It is ourselves that we find in Montaigne, not him. But I suppose that’s a narcissistic thing to say.

3:AM: Commenting on another passage from Montaigne, you state that “The denial of death is self-hatred”. This reminded me of Dostoevsky’s Kirilov who attempts to defeat God by committing suicide. His rationale is that, in order to negate transcendence, Man must learn to love himself for what he is and must therefore embrace his own finitude — desire his own death. (One could wonder if the espousal of death isn’t a form of self-love?) Your own conclusion — “Accepting one’s mortality…means accepting one’s limitation” — isn’t that far removed from Kirilov’s way of thinking, is it?

SC: It is very similar to Kirilov and you are right to point that out. I think I wrote about Kirilov somewhere, maybe in Very Little…Almost Nothing. If the denial of death is self-hatred, as it is to deny our freedom and live in fear of death (which is to say, to live in a form of bondage), then the acceptance and affirmation of death is indeed a form of self-love. But I’d want to make a distinction between a form of self-love which is essential to what it means to be human, and a narcissism of self-regard, like Rousseau’s distinction between amour de soi and amour propre, self-love and pride.


3:AM: You remind us that Socrates’ last words “articulate the view that death is the cure for life”. This idea that life is a kind of disease to be cured through extinction is key to the likes of Schopenhauer, Leopardi, Beckett and Cioran. Do you agree that there’s a kind of lineage here?

SC: I am hugely attracted to the idea of life as a mistake, as a kind of natural error for which we try and find some metaphysical assurance or consolation. This is the core of Schopenhauer’s dark comic genius. It attracts me because it is based on the idea of life as rooted in an experience of contingency, physical contingency, which we forget and convert into various forms of necessity. I do see a lineage from forms of ancient skepticism and cynicism through Schopenhauer and into figures like Beckett and Cioran. One of the peculiar features of The Book of Dead Philosophers is that I simultaneously play on a number of different and contradictory tendencies in the history of the last few thousand years: cynicism, skepticism, Epicureanism, primitive Christianity, occasionalism, rationalism. The fragmentary form of the book allows me to move across and through a number of different philosophical registers. It is so ridiculous to limit oneself to one version of the truth.


3:AM: I’ve always felt that the rise of the writer/artist as alter deus that accompanied the secularisation of many European countries led to the spread of a kind of death wish in literature and the arts (culminating with people like Arthur Cravan and Jacques Rigaut). My theory is that many writers/artists believed the hype and were so frustrated when they realised that godlike, ex nihilo creation eluded them that they turned to destruction. Is (to paraphrase Bakunin) the urge to destroy also a creative one (or, as Larkin put it: “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs”)?

SC: I completely agree: one of the outcomes of Romanticism for me is the idea of the writer as imago dei without a deus where art becomes a Promethean creation ex nihilo. I think this tradition also inspired a related Promethean tendency in politics, from the ‘nihilism’ of Nechaev, through to Lenin’s Bolshevism and Marinetti’s futurism. It’s the tradition of what I call “active nihilism“. I criticize this tradition heavily in a number of places, but only because it is so compelling.

3:AM: Wouldn’t you agree that the “fantasies of infantile omnipotence” you hope will disappear through an acceptance of our “limitedness” are often at the root of great art and literature?

SC: Sure. Much of literature in what we might call its rigorously Hegeliano-Sadist development is about the dream of infantile omnipotence which is rooted in the idea that the artist is like Adam in the Garden of Eden, baptizing things into existence through nomination. I don’t think that this tradition can simply be eliminated or overcome, but it should be contrasted with what Blanchot calls “the second slope” of literature, which is concerned with allowing things to be in their irreducible materiality. This is what I think of as the Levinasiano-Stevensian (if that’s an adjective) succession. This is the sort of materialism that Tom McCarthy and I have experimented with in the writing we have done together on Joyce, Shakespeare and others.

3:AM: Some think that art and literature are predicated on what Eluard called “le dur désir de durer” (the painful desire to last) — a desire you don’t seem too keen on…

SC: No, I am perfectly happy with the idea of literature as le dur désir de durer and would want to put the virtue of endurance at the core of much that I think about. But that is not the same as denying one’s mortality. On the contrary, I think.


3:AM: The Book of Dead Philosophers has lofty ambitions. You set out to write “a history of philosophers” as opposed to “a history of philosophy” in the teleological mould. In effect, you are defending a specific conception of philosophy against another…

SC: Yes, I am against the idea of the history of philosophy as a history of systems that can be arranged in a certain logical and historical order, such as one finds in Hegel or Heidegger. It is one of the many aspects of being deluded by the idea of progress (Hegel) or even the idea of regress (Heidegger). I am opposing it with an idea of the history of philosophy as a history of philosophers, that is, a history of mortal, fragile and limited creatures like you and I. I am against the idea of clean, clearly distinct epochs in the history of philosophy or indeed in anything else. I think that history is always messy, contingent, plural and material. I am against the constant revenge of idealism in how we think about history.

3:AM: You praise the “ideal of the philosophical death”: what exactly do you mean by that?

SC: The idea of the philosophical death is the core teaching of philosophy in antiquity from Socrates and Epicurus onwards: we can go to our death freely and without fear having given up the consolation of any belief in an afterlife. As Wittgenstein says, is some problem solved by the idea of my living forever? Of course not. It is, however, difficult to fully and completely renounce any idea of the afterlife.


3:AM: You write that “Death is the last great taboo” and question the unthinking belief in ever-increasing longevity: are we turning into a race of Struldbruggs?

SC: Absolutely. I think we are turning into a world of Struldbruggs. That is all I saw last year in Los Angeles last year when writing the book: bloody botoxed suntanned Struldbruggs. To that extent, I completely agree with Swift. The flip-side of his seeming misanthropy is an affirmation of virtue.

3:AM: Your book also has a self-help quality (to “begin to enable us to face the reality of our death”) — aren’t you afraid of being accused of having done an Alain de Botton?

SC: No comment. My problem with self-help is that I don’t think there is a self to help. The self is something that we become through a series of acts.

3:AM: Don’t you think your attempt to bring philosophers closer to us (“It is in the odd details of a philosopher’s life that they become accessible to us”) runs the risk of being seen as a little reactionary — the equivalent of basing an interpretation of a novel on its author’s life?

SC: It is profoundly reactionary. Absolutely. I’ve turned into some sort of dreadful cultural conservative. No, but seriously, I am not engaging in some sort of biographical reductionism and I loathe such tendencies in relation to literature. I am reacting – and perhaps over-reacting – to an allergy to biography in relation to philosophy and philosophers. Also, much of the biographical information in the book is highly dubious and all the more interesting for that reason.

3:AM: In The Guardian you were recently described as having “found a vocation in teaching philosophy, although [your] passions still lie in music, poetry and politics”. Are you less passionate about philosophy? And how did you end up at university by “complete accident”?

SC: Yes, I don’t know where The Guardian found that stuff, but maybe I said something similar in another interview. The truth is actually much worse and would have to include sob stories about years at catering college, working in factories, a series of industrial accidents and even a year and a half as a lifeguard. I did not mean to suggest that I am less passionate about philosophy than I was. On the contrary, I have an immense childish enthusiasm for the history of philosophy and for what is going on right now and remain stupidly optimistic. The thing is that after leaving school with one ‘O’ level, I played in bands for some years, then became a poet before going to an FE college in Stevenage where someone said that I should apply to university. The thought had never previously crossed my mind. Something to do with social class, no doubt.

3:AM: On the subject of music, please tell us about the “large number of punk bands” you played in. Does that period still resonate as it does with so many of us?

SC: Punk was the crucible out of which my paltry subjectivity was formed. My years watching bands and performing in bands allowed me the imaginative space to try and conceive of a life a little different from what I was meant to do. It was a relentlessly affirmative nihilism. Of course, this was sheer luck. I was born in 1960, and so I was 16 when punk began to happen just down the road in London. Suddenly I found myself at the edge of the world’s centre. And it was because of punk that I began reading Burroughs, Bataille and the Situationists. It was also the time when I became politicized through Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. My bands had silly names: The Social Class Five, Panic, The Fur Coughs (who became The Bleach Boys*, I thought of that name) and The Good Blokes. I still mess around with music and have done a lot of work with my oldest friend, John Simmons. I think it is somewhere on YouTube.

[* See their current website]

All the Latest

My interview with philosopher Simon Critchley appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 26 June 2008:

“The idea of the philosophical death is the core teaching of philosophy in antiquity from Socrates and Epicurus onwards: we can go to our death freely and without fear having given up the consolation of any belief in an afterlife. As Wittgenstein says, is some problem solved by the idea of my living forever? Of course not. It is, however, difficult to fully and completely renounce any idea of the afterlife.” More here.