The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Michael Frayn
There's no getting away from it, Michael Frayn is a hard worker. Look at his list, ten novels, fourteen plays, seven translations, three films, a big clutch of TV documentaries and an opera libretto, and we're not just talking about volume, there's international acclaim, award and recognition for plays such as "Noises Off" and " Copenhagen ", novels such as "Headlong" and "Spies", and that's where it gets interesting. What is Michael Frayn about? He's very clever, no one who wasn't would bother to write a play about what might have happened when two of the last century's greatest physicists met to talk about the development of the atomic bomb during the War, or they wouldn't write a novel, "Headlong", about the scholarly intricacies of validating a lost masterpiece by Bruegel.
Frayn is curious, ingenious too, his plays are intricately plotted not least because they often involve complex pieces of equipment as in "Make or Break", about a salesman of building materials, and he restlessly switches his perspective of events and people. Do you think you know what happened? Well now look at it or think about it from another point of view. Did I say funny? Well I hardly need to, this is the writer whose portrayal of heaven involves the do-gooding middle classes helping God to design the Alps . But in all this restlessness intellectual curiosity are there some unifying principles that bind Michael Frayn 's work together?
I'm going to start at the beginning, or near enough to the beginning. Was the biggest shock of your life when your mother died of a heart attack when you were just twelve?
Yes I suppose it was, it certainly, I'd had a reasonably happy childhood, very happy childhood up to then, and it cast a very dark shadow for a very long time, but it did mean that emerging from that shadow in late adolescence was a great revelation in itself.
In, in, in what sense?
I suppose it coincided with intense friendship, with discovering literature and music for the first time, and it was like the sun coming out from behind a very black cloud.
But the years between twelve and of that discovery, how did you begin to come to terms with it? I mean nowadays you'd be counselled which is probably a bad thing, but I take it you didn't have anything like that?
No nothing like that and quite to the contrary, my sister and I were not even allowed to go to my mother's funeral. It was thought something would upset us, and because we couldn't think of a, a name for her, how, how to name her to each other we never mentioned her again. So that was, that was the way people came to terms with things in those days, and of course it is rather different now.
You ought to be totally mixed up.
I am totally mixed up, yes, yes.
Well you keep it very well concealed. But absolutely seriously of course, given that your father was deaf did that also make the business of coming to terms with loss more difficult?
I don't think that affected the grief I felt for my mother and I'd always just taken it for granted that my father was deaf. That, that's the funny thing about being a child you take everything for granted, whatever is happening around you that's the way the world is, and it never occurred to me to think how my father coped with his life. He got into this great tangle of wires every day to go off to work, I mean in those days a hearing aid was, was like the, the entire BBC transmission system. You had a, huge batteries in waistcoat pockets and microphones sticking out, you know wires all over the place, and off he went to work and he came back in the evening and slowly disentangled himself for it, from it, and what happened in the between those two events I never thought about, and it's only with hindsight that I realise what an extraordinary life he must have lead and what an extraordinary man he must have been. He was a salesman, sold asbestos, and he found it very difficult to hear what other people were saying to him even with the, even with the hearing aid, and he coped with this by humour, he told a lot of jokes and kept the conversational initiative so that all the other people had to do was smile, laugh, etcetera. Maybe that helped him as a salesman, maybe he couldn't hear when they were saying no we don't want the asbestos roofing, he just went right on selling it to them.
Yes that's probably rule number one of good salesmanship nowadays, ignore the retractions.
Was your creation of a series of mothers, at least two, maybe more, in your novel "Spies", was that a way of writing about the mother you only had for such a short time?
That's an extremely ingenious question. There are really two mothers in "Spies", the mother of the character who tells the story, Stephen, is a bit like me as a boy, but his mother's not very much like my mother, but the, the friend, Keith, is very much like the friend I did have at the time and his parents are very much like the parents that my friend actually had.
But was there any sense of kind of trying to recreate something which you didn't have?
I certainly didn't see it like that though I certainly was interested in going back to my childhood and trying to think what it had been like at that age, and since I was writing about an age before my mother had died, the question of her death didn't really come into the, into the novel, and I suppose looking back on it, I mean a lot of people have said what a melancholy book it is and what a terrible time the children were having. I think even in a happy childhood children do have to put up with quite a lot. They do have a lot of fears and a lot of very contradictory demands are made upon them. All, all children know they've got, unless they're completely psychotic know that they've got obligations to their parents and their school and so forth, but they also know they've got a lot of obligations to their fellows, like not sneaking, never, never sneaking, never betraying them, which are often at odds with the first set of obligations, and resolving those, those contradictions is sometimes very painful.
You said of yourself as a child that you had no imagination. What do you mean by that?
I mean I had no imagination. I never invented anything, never thought of anything. All the imagination was provided by this great friend of mine on whom the Keith character in my novel is based. He had a very lively imagination. He thought of the games we played and we also kept up a, a running saga to each other of imaginary characters. I mean all these characters in this saga were supplied by him, the whole plot was supplied by him, in fact he told his saga and I told my saga in parallel and I had pathetically imitative characters and imitative situations which were just aping his.
Yes, I mean it strikes me that the phrase, I don't have the imagination, could be said to apply to you, but it hardly matters because, and it doesn't matter, because you create and construct situations, but how you create them is a different process from imagining something totally different. I mean would you recognise that as a description of, of what you do?
Yes, I'm not sure it feels like that, although I do a lot of careful construction, I do a lot of thinking about what I'm writing, most of that thinking is trying to imagine exactly what things will be like for this particular character in this particular situation, and also trying to imagine how things actually work, what will actually make someone do something, why would they do this rather than that. I, whether that's thinking or whether that's imagination I don't know, somewhere on the borders of the two perhaps.
Mm, yeah, but because in, in "Sweet Dreams", your novel about heaven, heaven is just the middle class world of NW1, give or take a bit, so you might say that that is the lack of imagination, it certainly doesn't matter because the idea that heaven might be like NW1 with the middle class behaving as they do is actually much funnier and in the end much more imaginative.
Yes well, well the, the basis of "Sweet Dreams" was kind of debunking the idea that you could have any absolute happiness, any, any continuous piece of paradise, because to make it work you have to actually remove all the logical connectives and in that world of heaven in the book as you say it's like middle class life in London or whatever, except that all the logical connectives have been taken out so people can do, simultaneously do things that are contrary to each other.
And they can do anything they like and in the end doing anything they like is boring?
Absolutely, they have to, they have to have some opposition to what, they have to be trying to do something, that's what makes people happy, trying to do something.
I say that with "Sweet Dreams" you are looking at middle class life and I think I'd like to talk about your role as a social commentator which also gets us back to your first jobs on the Manchester Guardian, as it then was, and your Miscellany column where you created this cast of regular characters all of whom were very shrewdly observed observations on the current social world. What was your stance towards your characters, I mean you were critical of them but you weren't just satirically savage about them?
I don't think I've ever managed much savagery, it was a rather difficult time from that point of view, it was, there was a lot of satire going on and a lot of it got very savage and I didn't really feel I was part of that ethos at all. All those characters in the column were very, very two dimensional. When I first began to write novels with "The Tin Men" it was a kind of interim form with a lot of two dimensional characters, as if in a lot of newspaper columns, it's like end wise. But the, the nice thing about characters, even if they're just two dimensional characters in a newspaper column is they, they do a lot of work, you subcontract a lot of the work to them, they do begin to think of things to say and situations they get involved in.
Because you were writing about in the end your world weren't they, I mean they, they were the, the NW1 world with which rightly or wrongly you will always be associated, you and Mark Boxer, and characters like Christopher and Lavinia Crumble though somebody said I think that's a Mark Boxer character rather than a Frayn character, but it's yours aren't they, Christopher and Lavinia Crumble?
They were absolutely yes yes yes...
Yeah and, and I mean they, they, they entertained you and, and, and you, you entertained them, so you were writing about your own world weren't you?
Well the, the system with the Crumbles is that there was a hierarchy, Christopher and Lavinia Crumble were cleverer than me and my wife in the column and they patronised us, they always knew what was smart and what wasn't smart and so forth and we, made us feel very stupid, but then there was another couple called Horace and Doris Morris who were stupider than we were and we patronised them or I patronised them in my turn. A very simple idea.
If you were writing about now, that sort of column, who are the types who you would be writing about in, I mean there were the PR men and there were the socially knowing everything, who are the people who ought to be exposed like that?
I don't know, I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but I suppose I'd be tempted to have a go at the, the world of sort of negative criticism. It seems to me that anything that anyone attempts to do in the world is comprehensively rubbished by commentators who know far more about it than the people who are trying to do it, and there is something so automatic about this negative response that it induces nothing but counter-feelings in me and I can't help sympathising with people who try to do things whether they're politicians or architects or anybody else, and I can't help feeling antagonistic to their, their critics.
And you think this occurs particularly in the field of politics?
Well certainly in the field of politics, no one can do anything in political life and get any credit for it of any sort whatsoever, everything is just comprehensively dismissed whether done by either, either party, I'm not talking about one party in particular.
And that's even worse or different from what it was thirty years ago?
Well it's a change, I think then we were just beginning to change from an atmosphere of, of general respect where people in authority were accorded too much respect to the, the present, absolutely legalistic attitude where no one can do anything without being, without regarded as either a fool or a knave.
Or an interferer, because you know one, one of the themes which I think does come up in, in, in your writing is middle class do-gooders and despite what you've said, I mean a play like "Benefactors" about housing developments, and certainly in, in "Sweet Dreams" this puzzle of how God's planner, the hero Howard, can create the world in such a perfect way that it balances risks and opportunities for, for humanity, you know desperately wanting to create a risk free world but not so risk free that, that, that it's boring and that is the, the ultimate do-gooding fantasy isn't it?
Well it's the ultimate problem of do-gooding, yes I suppose so. I am by no means trying to dismiss people who do good, I admire, intensely admire people who try to do good, but you, you have to balance all the time the intention to do good and to plan against the anarchy and independence and autonomy of the, of people in the world.
Well and I suppose that really is getting very close to what a lot of you is, is, is about is that the unfortunate inconvenient a tension between intentions and, and outcomes which a lot of the time you produce in farce that the inconvenient outcomes are funny rather than tragic?
Yes so that no human intention ever carries through into precisely the results that people expect, always something gets in the way and it's usually just the sheer complexity of the world. Everything is much more complex than we imagine when we're setting out to plan something. That's really what a play running at the moment called "Democracy", which is really about the sheer difficulty of ever getting anything done in the world when more than one person's involved, because everyone's got a different viewpoint and a different interest. Of course somehow we have to find ways of reconciling people's different interests, but it's always extremely difficult, and I think that each of us is very complex within himself or herself, that each of us has many different possibilities, many different ways they could go, and to get those differences reconciled into some workable course of action is often extraordinarily difficult.
And not to end up feeling disillusioned when the gap between what you dreamed you could do and what you end up doing is of course quite large, very large, sometimes total.
Yes I suppose that is the, the secret that every politician should have. First of all to recognise that whatever he hopes he's going to do he's, he's going to fail to do, and in the second place to be philosophical about it.
Thirty years ago again, and I'm not going to be totally stuck in your past, but there's so many key things you said, you divided the world into herbivores, the gentle idealists, and the carnivores, the red in tooth and claw results merchants. Where do you think we are now, what would the division between two great social archetypes be?
Oh carnivores have been in control for a long time with a few natural herbivores who are trying to disguise themselves as carnivores to have some, some limiting effect on their, on their fellow carnivores. I'm just thinking of the, of the present Government trying to pass themselves off as being rather carnivorous when they're naturally herbivorous.
Why do you think it's necessary for not just the Government probably most people in public life to adopt the colouring and the trappings of the carnivore?
I suppose the Left was always associated with the idea that you could see, you could actually use reason to determine human fate rather than just fight it out, and I suppose the whole idea of reasoning or reasoned social development was very severely discredited by the collapse of communism, and I think also we have, looking at it in a more positive way, we have actually recognised the vitality and force of individual human initiative, and I certainly recognise that very strongly. The difficulty is of course that some human beings have more vitality, more skill than other people, and if you allow unrestricted competition between people you end up with grotesque injustice, and somehow there has to be some kind of, of balancing out, some, somehow that the fortunate have to be restrained a little, made to give up a little of their, of their natural advantages.
But in saying all this you've never been overtly political say as a Harold Pinter has been, as a John le Carre has been. Any idea why, why you, you never got more involved in politics in an overt way?
I think it's a good thing if somebody tries to describe the way things actually are, rather than the way things ought to be. All in favour of people trying to change things and trying to improve things, but it's not a bad idea if somebody starts by attempting to give an impression of the way things are at the moment, which is always much more complicated than anyone thinks, and that complexity needs to be respected.
Now you've switched in a way that I can't from the outside see any pattern to, there doesn't have to be, between writing novels and writing plays. Give me an idea of what the interplay, I mean you're very lucky to be able to have two major forms in, in which to work. How does that, that work with you deciding which it's going to be?
Well the great difference between novels and plays is a very simple one. In novels it's very natural for the writer to have access to the heads of his characters, doesn't have to but if you think of all the novels you've read where people, where the writer says things like he decided to do so and so, she felt bitter resentment, he was overcome by a wave of happiness, all this seems absolutely perfectly natural in a novel and what it implies is the writer knows everything about the thoughts and feelings of the character he's talking about. Well that is not possible in a play. In a play all we have is characters talking and doing things, and of course they can tell us how they feel, they can tell us why they did something.
I see that's a description of the difference, but how do you find yourself saying this is going to be a play or this is going to be a novel?
Well some stories you need to be inside the heads of the characters and some you don't. With "Spies" you really do need to know what that little boy is thinking about, what he sees, that is the story about how he interprets what's in front of his eyes. With "Copenhagen" the, the story is why did Werner Heisenberg go to Copenhagen in, in 1941 to meet Niels Bohr, and if I'd had absolute knowledge of Heisenberg's intentions it would have been a very short novel, I would have said Werner Heisenberg went to Copenhagen in order to talk to Niels Bohr about such and such, the end of the book, and I naturally wanted to spin it out for a lot more than that, and since none of us does have access to Heisenberg's intentions, people have endlessly speculated on them, this seems to me worth trying to reproduce in a play. I have to say that Heisenberg seems to me didn't have absolute access to his intentions and none of us does, I mean we, we can, we all have to make estimates of what our intentions are just like anybody else does and, and often they're worse ones because we want to give a better impression of ourselves, or we want to, we want to think well of ourselves, or we, or sometimes we want to think ill of ourselves, and if I tell you I've done something for some noble motive you looking at me from the outside may well say that's not so, you're just doing it for the money, or to make yourself popular or whatever.
Are you equally happy in writing both forms, once you've decided which form it's going to be?
Yes I, I find writing quite hard work I must say and I've had difficulties with, with both. I suppose the things that I've had most difficulties with have been plays, "Noises Off", " Copenhagen " and "Democracy" I, I had a great struggle with each of them and had to write many, many drafts. It's very compact, the plays, the plays are very short, I mean even the longest play is very short compared with a novel, you can't hang around, you have to get going.
I'm always struck by when I read the text of a play that I often find them very different, difficult to read because what is put into the mouths of the characters is so short, so terse, so telegraph, it's a completely different style even of writing dialogue isn't it?
It is, it's, dialogue's in, dialogue in plays is different. It took me, I started writing plays long after I started, I wrote novels, and it took me quite a long time to appreciate how different dialogue is for the stage.
There's an interesting case in a novel you wrote called "Now You Know", about a rambunctious political dirt dealer and exposer, and the novel's told from about six different viewpoints, it wasn't judged to work as a novel but then you tried to turn it into a play. Was that because you thought there's so much dialogue and so many people it's got to work on the stage?
This is the only time I've been really radically uncertain as to whether something was a novel or a play and I first tried to write it as a play and I wrote a draft of it as a play and just couldn't make it work, and I thought what's the problem, what's the problem, it's that I do need to know and be able to explain what each of those characters is thinking, how they interpret the situation. So I then wrote it as a novel and as you say had access to each of the characters in turn, so each of them takes a turn, a turn at telling the story and they tell us what they're thinking. Then after I'd done that some time went by and I thought well now I've done that why don't I go back to the situation we're in in life with most people most of the time, everyone in the world except ourselves of not knowing what the story is from the inside and look at them all from the outside in a play. Now I have private, more knowledge about what's going on, but I have to say neither the novel nor the play was judged to be of much interest.
Oh I think it's, it, it reads very, it reads very well actually the, the novel. Of course one of the things that you are constantly doing is turning things inside out, "Noises Off" I suppose being the most obvious and the best known. Just at this stage let's see whether it works and see if we can play a little game, that is if you were about to do one of your inside out, back to front, how do things really appear tricks on what we're doing now, how do you think you might approach it, what sort of inversion do you think you might introduce?
Well I suppose it's likely that what would catch my imagination is your situation of interviewing some person you've known for many years, who's turned up in the studio and you've done a lot of work reading all his books and whatnot, and now you've got to talk to him for forty five minutes, and I suppose then that's what would turn my imagination on, so I would since I know what the situation is from my own point of view as the interviewee, so I would be tempted to do it as a narrative, a fictitious narrative written from your point of view.
And given that you don't know how I have approached this, but that as a writer you don't know about your characters, how do you think that I would have approached it?
I suppose I would, I would try to think what your feelings were, actually were about the situation, not how they would at first seem, but what they actually would be, but I wouldn't like to speculate how that would turn out because what would happen when I wrote this I would invent some plausible story and some plausible way of looking at it, then I'd start to write it, and if it was going to work at all I standing in your shoes would suddenly become your character and your character would begin to tell the story, begin to speak, begin to find his own words, and I would almost certainly get some surprises, that character would turn out to have depth and oddities and contradictions that I hadn't thought of when I was inventing the story. And I've sometimes thought that writing a story is a bit like industrial management, you, you've got something you want done, there's a plot you want, you want carried out by the characters and the characters have got ideas of their own, just like a workforce, and you have to negotiate with them, persuade them, bully them, bribe them, in order to come to some compromise arrangement where they, their interests are respected and your interests are respected.
Last bit of the, the, the game because this could get out of control, but do you think that so far what you have said has enabled you to be true to what you think you are?
True to what I think I am, I find that very difficult concept. One is what one does and I know what I think I've done and I know that other people looking at it will have different, different viewpoint, different feelings about that. I'm not sure I've got any feeling that I have some, that my identity is some recognisable object which I'm either true to or not true to which I can recognise or, or, or not recognise, and one's feelings about oneself shift and change all the time...
As they do about other people.
Oh absolutely, precisely so, precisely so, and one is to some extent a stranger to oneself.
Let's leave the game there, thank you for, for, for playing it. Let's look at success and, and, and failure because certainly over the last few years with Noises Off, Copenhagen, etcetera, etcetera, your career is, spells success in, in anybody's language. Do you feel successful?
I certainly feel more successful now than I felt a few years ago when I had a, a, a run of failures. I think about five or six enterprises which, and they were, most of them are not total catastrophes, they just didn't catch people's fancy very much, and you can't help feeling pleased if you hear people are reading your book or you see a good review, and it's very gratifying if you sit in an audience and people are laughing at your play. Actually laughter is, is a more, is, is a stronger thing than anything else, it's very difficult to laugh if you're not actually amused by something, whereas you can of course say you like something, pretend to enjoy something just for reasons of politeness, I don't know.
So long as we're, we're laughing that's, that's, that's far enough because that's absolutely right, but how badly do you feel during the years of, what shall we say, disappointment or, or failure, I mean did you feel bad?
I don't think I felt bad, no I felt a bit, what did I feel? I mean I had one total catastrophe which introduced that period, a play called "Look Look" and that was very humiliating, it was a very public failure. I suppose I felt disappointment that I, each of the things I wrote I had great hopes for, I mean I didn't, I never wrote anything which I thought well that you know this is probably going to be a disaster, disaster, let's see if it works or not. Every, everything you write you have to be completely committed to, you can't, you can't get the words down on paper otherwise. And things, one's sense of disappointment is of course softened by the, the, the time gap involved in, in publishing and producing so that by the time you get a play on and by the time the book is publishing you're way down the road into writing something else and you're, you've parted company from the thing, I mean it's the, it's not just, it's sad if people don't like it but what you're really thinking about is the, is the thing you're working on at the moment.
But something like that play "Look Look" which was a sort of companion piece to "Noises Off" about theatre audiences, the reaction to that, did it ever make you doubt as to whether you should write plays again, was the reaction that bad?
It's, it's curious I mean everyone thought when they saw that play in, in script that, that it was very funny and even when it was done in the rehearsal room everyone, including the producer, was very happy with it. It's just when we got it in front of an audience we know we'd got a complete turkey. And it is one of the sobering lessons of being a professional writer, as with so many other things, that you cannot predict public taste at all. You really do not know how other people will, will react to anything until it's happened.
Some people say that your books and plays are ingenious of course, funny very often, but they can be a little heartless because your observation is so detached. Do you recognise that as a fair comment?
Not really I thought the, rather the reverse, they tended towards the, towards the over-indulgent, they tended to be too forgiving of people's weaknesses. I'm very, very reluctant to condemn any of my characters for doing anything, one or two less sympathetic characters I suppose around, but even with them I can hope I can see why they're doing what they do and show why they're doing what they do.
You said that you find writing very difficult often, have you ever had real writer's block?
I've never had it in the intense form that some people get it, I've certainly sometimes found that I just couldn't write something, couldn't write something for several days and it's very difficult to know why it ever gets started again, because once you can't write something you absolutely cannot see any way out of the situation at all, I mean it is blank like standing at a blank wall and there's nothing beyond it. But then so much of what goes on inside one's head, not just as a writer as this goes on in everyone's side, inside everyone's head, is taking place without one's consciousness and without one's conscious participation, that situations like that do resolve themselves. I mean how do we take decisions, how do we know whether to do with this and nothing to do with that, but of course we think about all the reasons for doing that, all the reasons for doing that, we our hearts tells us this way our head does this way, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, but somehow the decision emerges and that's something that absolutely fascinates me, it emerges autonomously in some kind of way from this process, you just know you are going to do this rather than that.
Is it a question of giving yourself time for those autonomous mental subconscious processes to do their work?
Yes I think it is, I mean I think everyone is familiar with the situation of being faced with some difficult decision or some difficult piece of work and you work and you work and you work at it and you can't see your way out of it, you go to bed and you sleep on it and when you wake up in the morning a solution is in your head. I think a lot of this, a lot of what one does both in terms of decisions and invention, and invention really is, is a series of decisions, I mean writing a book is endless series of decisions about this word and that word, I mean you know a series, a hierarchy of decisions, decisions about the nature of the entire book, a series of decisions about each bit of the story and eventually coming right down to decisions about this word rather than that word. And decisions are difficult, but I think they do make themselves in some kind of way after one has done the hard work of putting all the material into one's head, something goes on inside there and resolves, resolves the, the stuff one's put in.
The hard work sometimes, as in the case of "Copenhagen", being a great deal of research about nuclear physics, in the case of "Headlong" a great deal of research about the, the world of art, but there are other books which of course aren't based on research like that, again just to take the case of what would heaven be like, I mean you didn't research that, so what, what was the, the grist, the material that finally turned into the novel, where would that have come from?
Well I don't know, I mean even with "Copenhagen" and "Headlong" as you say a great deal of research in the two, but that's only the beginning of the work, then you've got to think about how to write it and that, that is the real work, that's much, much harder than the research. I don't know you just, you think and you struggle with it and in the end something begins to emerge and if you have characters involved in the story the characters help you out, they do begin to take on their reality and they do begin to tell their story for themselves, but...
You're not going to say that the characters begin to have a character and a voice of their own and you don't know what's going to happen next, which I think you, you have parodied yourself as the way that a writer is supposed to write?
No I certainly, I mean some writers famously don't have any idea when they begin the book, they just pull out the first piece of string to see where it's going to lead. When I was a reporter on the Guardian we all secretly wanted to follow the career of Howard Spring who'd been a, a reporter on the Guardian and then become immensely successful novelist, and he says in his memoirs that when he began his first successful book all he had in his head was the first sentence which was, 'the woman flamed along the road like a macaw', from that flowed the next sentence and so on to the end of the book. Muriel Spark has said that she has nothing in her head, in her head when she begins a book except the title. Well I could, I could not work like that. I, I do have to think I know where the story's going, but then endlessly, endlessly adjust it and change it as it goes along.
I, I, I want to just get back onto the central idea of "Copenhagen", that is this perfect metaphorical fit between the fact that, well the physics the moment you look at a particle then it begins, it changes its behaviour, the act of observation, and that you then match that perfectly to the world of human behaviour, the moment you start to examine somebody's behaviour the same thing happens. Did you know there was going to be that perfect metaphorical fit before you started plotting, or did that emerge in the course of writing the play?
That was the point of departure seeing, the reading a good story of, of Heisenberg 's trip to Copenhagen in nineteen forty one and, and all the various interpretations had been placed on it, the data part and the difficulty of knowing why he went. As soon as I read that story I immediately thought that this suggests a kind of parallel with serum, the indeterminacy that Heisenberg introduced into quantum mechanics when he said that you can never know absolutely everything about the behaviour of a physical object, that it seems to me we can never know absolutely everything about why people do what they do for completely different reasons, the reasons why this is so totally different, I have always been absolutely fascinated by this, the problem of understanding human motivation.
Does that comfort you that there is this deep match between how we behave and how we can understand or not understand how we behave, and the underlying physical laws of the universe?
I don't know that it comforts me but it is an extension of the, the basic dilemma of, of philosophy, of really all philosophy is about is, it's about the relations of the human mind and the world, and there's a central paradox which philosophy moves around and back and forth over and that is that plainly the world exists independently of us, I mean none of us can really doubt that that it, we're just absolutely tiny, tiny little irrelevancy on the, on the history of the Universe, which is huge and vast and has gone on for millions of years before us, could go on for millions of years after the human race has ceased to exist, on the one hand, on the other hand the Universe is only huge and has only existed for this long and will go on existing for that long because we are there to say so. If you try to remove the aspect of human thought in perception and language from the world there's nothing left, there's the, there isn't anything. These two positions are completely contradictory and they're both plainly true. I think it's what philosophers call antinomy, and I suppose the, the parallel between our knowledge of the physical world and our knowledge of ourselves is a kind of interesting extension of this difficulty in our relations with the world.
It sounds as if you accept that not in terms of what the Universe is but that in terms of interpreting and understanding human behaviour, that the indeterminacy is that something that you have come to accept or that something you accepted all along?
Accept is, I mean this is like Florence Foster, whoever it was, who said famously it's in all the quotation books is I accept the Universe, I mean you can't not accept that it just is so.
Now I'm talking about human behaviour, there's...
Behaviour as well, I, I suppose I didn't consciously think about it in the past and I've come to think more and more about it, but it's not that I don't, it isn't, that I have some deterministic view of human behaviour before it's just something I hadn't quite focused on.
In the film that you wrote called "Clockwise", where an ever more harassed John Cleese keeps on missing a deadline and he says, it's not the despair that I hate, I can cope with that, it's the hope that gets you. Is that a line which is very deep from your heart and experience?
Well I suppose it's in everyone's experience when one quotes that line, what's gone is gone, what you've failed on you've failed on and that's in the past and it may be a source of pain and maybe a source of anguish when you think about it but it's behind you, but the trouble is hope relates to the future and it involves you in doing something, if you hope you're going to achieve something you've got to think about how to bring it about, you've, it does involve all the anguish of trying to, of trying to create the future, whereas the past is, is gone.
It would be awful if you didn't hope wouldn't it?
Yes, it would certainly be awful to have no prospects of anything happening. I mean if you think about what we, what we think about in life we, we think, we think all the time about the, about the present but also about the past, but all, all the time remembering things in the recent past and in the distance past, but what I would think probably most of our thinking about is the future because that is what thinking is, it's guiding our behaviour perhaps in completely unconscious way, walking down the street and you have to decide whether you're going on the left hand side of this person coming down the street or to go on the right hand side, do I cross over the street here or do I cross over it there. This is all thought directed towards future behaviour, either in the immediate future like that or long term future behaviour, you know what am I going to be doing for my holiday this, this year, how long have I got to live. It's a great deal of where we live is in the future, and I suppose if you didn't have some hopes that some of this would be positive experience, that some of these things would be good, it would be very painful indeed if you could only see bad outcomes.
Michael Frayn thank you very much.
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