Big Think Interview With Stephen Fry
Comedian, actor and writer Stephen Fry was born in 1957 in London and brought up in Norfolk. He attended Queen’s College Cambridge from 1979, joining the Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club where he met Hugh Laurie, with whom he forged a highly successful writing partnership. His first play, Latin! or Tobacco and Boys, written for Footlights, won a Fringe First at Edinburgh Festival in 1980. He wrote again for theatre in 1984 when he rewrote Noel Gay’s musical Me and My Girl (1990). This was nominated for a Tony Award in 1987.
He has written for television and screen, and as a newspaper columnist – for the Literary Review, Daily Telegraph and The Listener. Stephen Fry's four novels are The Liar (1991), The Hippopotamus (1994), Making History (1996) and The Stars' Tennis Balls (2000). He has also published a collection of work entitled Paperweight (1992); Moab is My Washpot (1997) - an autobiography; and Rescuing the Spectacled Bear: A Peruvian Journey (2002) – his diary of the making of a documentary on the plight of the spectacled bears of Peru.
His book, Stephen Fry's Incomplete History of Classical Music (2004), written with Tim Lihoreau, is based on his award-winning series on Classic FM and is an irreverent romp through the history of classical music. The Ode Less Travelled - a book about poetry - was published in 2005. His latest book is Stephen Fry in America (Harper Collins 2008).
Question: Who are your main influences?
Stephen Fry: Probably in terms of writing and linguistic awareness there were a combination, firstly of W’s, P.G. Woodhouse, Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh, the British novelist. That’s a male Evelyn by the way. And I would add to that Arthur Chonan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes. When I was between the ages of about seven and twelve I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and I would read and reread and re, re, reread all those, so the rhythms and tones of the English language as exemplified by that kind of grand perfect Victorian manner and then Dickens, but it was really Oscar Wilde who awoke language in my head in a way like nobody else and I think also discovering the kind of man Oscar Wilde was, was an enormous influence as well. The fact that you could be such a towering intellect, such a lord of language and be charming and graceful, kind, good natured, but also unhappy and unlucky was a great discovery for an adolescent because one of the traps of adolescence is the sort of paranoid resentment that somehow you’re never going to match up and that everybody else’s life is going to be better and finer and fuller. That everyone else attended some secret lesson in which how to live was taught and you had a dental appointment that day or you were somehow not invited and the point of great writers like Wilde is that they make that invitation to you. They welcome it. Perhaps the greatest definition I think of character and quality is people who when they’re truly great rather than making you feel that tall they make you feel that tall, that they’re greatness as it were improves you. They used to say of Oscar Wilde that when you got done from a dinner table you felt funnier and wittier and cleverer. Now a lot of Brilliant people make you feel less funny, less clever, less witty because they’re so clever, witty and funny, but he had the opposite effect. A bit like what Shakespeare said about Falstaff, not just a wit, but a cause of wit in others.
Question: What philosophers influenced you?
Stephen Fry: Philosophy is an odd thing. When we use the word in everyday speech you know you sometimes hear it hilariously. They say, “Oh, it’s never good to be late.” “That’s my philosophy.” You think that’s a generous description of that rather dull precept to call it a philosophy, but it’s odd how philosophers generally speaking, at least the ones I’ve read or the ones I you know value, don’t have in that sense a philosophy. There is no particular Socratic or Dimechian or Kantian way to live your life. They don’t offer ethical codes and standards by which to live your life. They don’t offer a philosophy to follow. They just simply raise an enormous number of questions mostly, so in the sense that you put the question is there a philosopher that’s important to me. Well I me I loved really the sort of the Bertrand Russell grand sort of tour of philosophy, the history of philosophy from the pre Socratics as they’re called, Zeno and so on through to Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. I never quite liked Aristotle. I think that’s partly… Although he was obviously a genius and brilliant and he invented logic, so what’s not to like. I think it was his influence on the medieval mind was probably rather pernicious and unfortunate and all those categories and things, but when it opened up with I suppose Spinoza and them, but then Kant and the enlightenment era. Oh and actually Locke. I did like Locke. He was a fine philosopher, but they don’t… I mean what is so great about them is that they just… They’re quite scary when you think of the word philosopher and especially if it’s logic and symbolic logic and it gets onto Hegelian philosophies, incredibly difficult to read I find and you follow it for about… Well it’s like trying to grab a salmon. You know the harder you clutch at it the more it springs, slips out of your hand and whoa, it’s gone and you chase it again and what was that and you feel very stupid, but the… I think the beauty of questioning and simplicity that you get from Kant in particular I think is just amazing because it’s like they say of simple mathematical laws that make fractals, the tiniest little elegant observation about or question about something just spins out these immensely complex things that make you rethink everything. So yes, I think philosophy is a really important dimension, but I think in our age we tend to be rather sloppy about it. We either think Buddhism is philosophy, which you know or some sort of eastern thing about being nice and spiritual and that will do, which it’s fine. I mean you know obviously I believe in kindness and niceness and lots of spiritual things, but the real intellectual rigor and quest of logic is something that I’m afraid takes incredibly hard work and we live in an age in which hard work is if not actively deprecated or denigrated it is run away from or ignored. It’s sort of people frown at you and say, “Well, that’s a bit dull and stupid. Why can’t we just short circuit it and talk about like spirit?” Well yeah, you can say spirit, but if you think that’s philosophy and if you think that’s good enough.
The most important philosophy I think is that even if it isn’t true you must absolutely assume there is no afterlife. You cannot for one second I think, abbragate the responsibility of believing that this is it because if you think you’re going to have an eternity in which you can talk to Mozart and Chopin and Schopenhauer on a cloud and learn stuff and you know really get to grips with knowledge and understanding and so you won’t bother now. I think it’s a terrible, a terrible mistake. It may be that there is an afterlife and I’ll look incredibly stupid, but at least I will have had a crammed pre afterlife, a crammed life, so to me the most important thing is you know as Kipling put it, to fill every 60 seconds with you know what is it? To fill every unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run. You know absolutely, so that’s all I’m saying I suppose. Is that there is no point wasting time being lazy, though of course indolence in a divine way, actually has its advantages. Oh, shut up Steve. Okay, next one.
Question: What do you believe?
Stephen Fry: It’s interesting. Atheism comes into rather a bad press and I suppose I’d rather describe myself as a humanist, who human… I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe there is a God. If I were to believe in a god l would believe in gods. I think monotheism is the really ghastly thing. That is the absolutely staggering to me misapprehension. I can perfectly see why anybody might imagine that each thing, each thing that grows, each phenomenon that we… that accompanies us on our journey through life, the sky, the mountains, spirits of nature. I can imagine why man would wish to endow them with an inner something, an inner animus that they would call the god of that thing. I can see that. It’s a beautiful and charming way of looking at it and I can understand the Greek idea that there are these you know these principles of lightening or of war or of wisdom and to embody them, to personify them into a Athena or Aries or whichever god you want makes enormous sense, but to say that there is one only god who made it all and who is… Yeah, that is just… What? Why? Who said? Where? Come on. And I love how when people watch I don’t know, David Attenborough or Discovery Planet type thing you know where you see the absolute phenomenal majesty and complexity and bewildering beauty of nature and you stare at it and then… and somebody next to you goes, “And how can you say there is no God?” “Look at that.” And then five minutes later you’re looking at the lifecycle of a parasitic worm whose job is to bury itself in the eyeball of a little lamb and eat the eyeball from inside while the lamb dies in horrible agony and then you turn to them and say, “Yeah, where is your God now?” You know I mean you got… You can’t just say there is a God because well, the world I beautiful. You have to account for bone cancer in children. You have to account for the fact that almost all animals in the wild live under stress with not enough to eat and will die violent and bloody deaths. There is not any way that you can just choose the nice bits and say that means there is a God and ignore the true fact of what nature is. The wonder of nature must be taken in its totality and it is a wonderful thing. It is absolutely marvelous and the idea that an atheist or a humanist if you want to put it that way, doesn’t marvel and wonder at reality, at the way things are, is nonsensical. The point is we wonder all the way. We don’t just stop and say that which I cannot understand I will call God, which is what mankind has done historically. That’s to say God was absolutely everything a thousand or two thousand years ago because we understood almost nothing about the natural world, so it could all be God and then as we understood more God receded and receded and receded, so suddenly now he is barely anywhere. He is just in those things we don’t understand, which are important, but I think it just is such an insult to humanity and the Greeks got it right. The Greeks understood perfectly that if there were divine beings they are capricious, unkind, malicious mostly, temperamental, envious and mostly deeply unpleasant because that you can say well yes, all right, if there is going to be god or gods then you have to admit that they’re very at the very least capricious. They’re certainly not consistent. They’re certainly not all loving. I mean really it’s just not good enough.
You know if we empower ourselves with responsibility over our actions, responsibility over our destinies and responsibility for directing and maintaining and creating our own ethical and moral frameworks, which is the most important thing really isn’t it because perhaps the greatest insult to humanism is this idea that mankind needs a god in order to have a moral framework. There is a very clear way of demonstrating logically how absurd that is because the warrant for that logical framework, for that moral framework that comes from God is always tested against man’s own morals and it’s a complicated argument, but I mean that’s you know it’s the standard one which is pretty unanswerable, but the idea that we don’t know right from wrong, but we have to take it from words put down in a book two, three, four, five, six thousand years ago and dictated to rather hotheaded neurotic desert tribes is just insulting. It’s just no, I mean you know if there were a God he would want us to be better spirited than to take his word for everything. Wouldn’t he? If he gave us free will would he really want us to say, “No, I have to abide by everything that’s written in this book, all the laws of circumcision and of eating and of… and what to do with menstruating women?” I mean, “I’m going to obey those written down there. “ “I won’t think for myself because that’s not required of me.” Come on. It’s just not good enough and you know I have no quarrel with individuals who wish… who are devout and who have faith. I don’t want to mock them. I really don’t, but damned if I’m going to be told by them what to do with my body or damned if I’m going to have the extraordinary battles won by enlightenment over the past 400 years, to have those battles abdicated by a new dark ages. It’s you know. The battle lines must be drawn.
Question: What is religion good for?
Stephen Fry: Music in its time, but I mean that’s a function of history you know. The fact is that composers always write for the power because… or power and money and it so happened that in the period when polyphony all the way through to the classical and early romantic era all the power and the money was with the church, so some great masses and some great choir music and some great oratories were written from obviously the Baroque age being the sort of pinnacle of that, but all the way through to Mozart’s final works and his requiem and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and Mendelssohn and so on. There have been some marvelous religious works and in paintings similarly, but that’s because these were princes. They were princes of the church. They were prince arch bishops who employed Mozart. These were not spiritual beings who inculcated these composers with a sense of the divine that makes the music divine. The glory of Verde’s requiem or Mozart’s requiem or Bach’s pieces is that they are fantastic, incredibly human and like all great human’s thing they reach for the infinite. They reach for beauty. A religious person would call that the divine. You could call it the humanist. You could call it anything else, but certainly is that. Religion has been good for that and good for architecture because it is required that enormous… It required enormous buildings for the shepherding of people in, in order to do the services and they spend a lot of money on it and so they are rather glorious buildings. You’ve got to hand them that. Do they make the trains run on time? No, they didn’t do that. That’s about it really. And there are some kind individual people. I mean very kind people who give to the poor and look after the sick and so on, but it’s not necessary and sufficient as a justification for religion because there are plenty of people who are not religious who are also kind to the sick and good to the poor and care about people’s wellbeing.
Question: Are there religious leaders you admire?
Stephen Fry: Yes, very much so. I mean Trevor Huddleston and Arch Bishop Tutu from South Africa are two good examples who were both genuine men of their church or let me see. Huddleston is dead, but Tutu is still alive and who both fought a terrible injustice and used all the authority of their position amongst their believers and but very bravely spoke out and sometimes against the wishes of the church hierarchies. Some liberation rheologist who are from you know some of them mad communists, some of them just decent liberals who fought against the hideous doctrines of the Roman Catholic church for example and there are individual voices who are raised in conscious against the bureaucracy and the dogma and the doctrine of the churches and you know certainly of course individuals in you know Bonheoffer for example in Germany, the Lutheran minister who spoke out against Hitler. There are… Of course there have been good and fine religious people and the Dolly Llama seems rather charming. I don’t know. It’s terrible. I don’t want to come over as some terrible anti ecclesiastical figure, but.
Question: What was your childhood like?
Stephen Fry: I came from what on the surface would have looked like a very typical English family in as much as I say a typical one that an American might regard as typical. It was a country house with gardeners and nice staff and it looked rather grand and I was sent away at the age of seven to a prep school, which in England is from seven to thirteen is prep school, sent away to boarding school two hundred miles from home and that sort of again was very traditional English. What you might call an upper class, upper middle class sort of education and where I received a very classical education. My parents were marvelously educated people. They’re both university educated, both brilliant scholars in Irwin, my father a physicist, my mother historian, but not absolutely typical of the class because my mother’s family’s Jewish. She is European Jewish and she was… She was born in Britain, but her sister was born in the family area, which is now Slovakia, but which was Hungary and indeed for a short time, Czechoslovakia and so there was that sort of mixture, that rather exotic mixture, the mother’s family of people who talked about food, which was a very an un-English thing to do back in the sixties when I was growing up into. We had that kind of exotic accent and all those things, but they weren’t Judaic. They weren’t religiously Jewish. They were just proud to be Jewish Jews and there were plenty of them in Israel. Those who had survived the Holocaust were in Israel or most in America and so in that sense it was a… It was an idyllic childhood looking at the house and looking at how lucky we were it looks fantastic, but of course the childhood is what goes on inside your head, nothing to do with what goes on outside, so it was the usually sticky mess of adolescent Sturm und Drang.
Question: Who were you closest to growing up?
Stephen Fry: Always closest to my mother because my mother is an extraordinarily warm and unbelievably friendly and loveable person. People are genuinely astounded by her, her positivity. She is just the most smiling person people will have met. And so that you know obviously gave you know closest warmth. My father was rather remote. I thought of him… I wrote about this in my autobiography that I thought of him as Sherlock Holmes. He was similarly a deeply rational man and unbelievably brilliant you know because of his physics and his mathematics and also music. As a young boy he was a choral student at St. Paul’s Cathedral and played piano beautifully and his musical understanding was very fine and but very sort of great intellectual rigor. He seemed to us as children, to my brother and my sister and myself as quite cold and quite forbidding, quite frightening. He worked incredibly hard. He worked at home. The stable block of the family house, which was a very large stable block indeed was he converted to his laboratory is where he worked and so he… You know we never had the pleasure of him being out of the house. I mean he was inside the house in his study working you know working and we never quite knew where he was and if we made a noise we felt sort of thunder rumbling, so he was quite a scary man and now of course on very easy fine terms, but it was a difficult, difficult thing.
Question: What makes a good family?
Stephen Fry: What makes a good family? Well, I suppose obviously love. Love lubricated often I think by humor. I think a family that can laugh at each other and tease themselves and who are able to be jolly with each other I think is the key. Humor is you know like a dog’s tongue or dog’s nose rather, which should be cold and faintly wet and a vet will tell you that’s a sign of a healthy dog. I think our equivalent of a cold wet nose is humor. Families where there is not much laughter I think are signs of some sort of dysfunctionality or sickness. Maybe if there is too much laughter it’s dysfunctional too. Who knows? Families are so different. I’ve never met anyone who says they come from… they thought they lived in a normal family. As children everyone thinks their family is weird and they’re upset by the weirdness of their own family. It is a peculiar thing we’re asked to do, but I think GK Chesterton put it that it is an onerous responsibility that having been dropped by the stork down a random chimney and unwrapped we are invited to get on with a set of strangers who peer down at us. You know because although yes, we share the DNA. You know they are physically of our flesh and we are their flesh. Nonetheless they… We didn’t choose them. They are a set of strangers. There is this man here and we should call him Daddy and there is this woman here. We should call her Mummy. This girl here I should call my sister and this boy here I should call my brother and we are somehow bonded for life.
I remember making an absolute… Well, I wouldn’t say fool of myself. I was expelled from a meeting of Latter Day Saints when I first went to Salt Lake City. I just literally as a tourist I was wandering around and this person in a grey shift came up to me and said, “Would you like to see around?” And I said, “That’s very kind.” And then she started gathering others and then I realized she was a Mormon who was doing a tour and presumably there was a little bit of a recruitment going on because they are very proselytizing sect as you know, the Mormons. Anyway, she gave us a good tour and we saw this tabernacle here and this here and so on and then at one point she said, “I just want to tell you a little about the church of the Latter Day Saints.” And we all politely stood and then she said how in the afterlife all families will be reunited. You’ll be with your families forever, so I put my hand up and said, “What happens if you’ve been good?” And she said, “Could you leave please?” Because everyone started laughing, but I mean what a ridiculous idea. How is that supposed to be attractive that you’re going to be stuck with every aunt and every cousin and every…? Good gracious, every you know alcoholic or slightly deviant uncle. I mean Jesus, it’s just the most awful destiny imaginable and they think that’s a USP. That’s a… Yeah, that’s what our church promises. Good Lord. Well of course, what it does. You don’t have to be that smart to spot is what it does is that church focuses entirely on women the d’un certain âge as the French say, woman of a certain age and who have lost their children because they’ve grown up and have lost their parents because they’ve died and they’re lonely and they’ve still got that family queen bee mother nesting instinct and they’re the ones the Latter Day Saints hone in on and say, “You follow us and we promise you that you’ll be your family all around you again in heaven.” And they think that’s a cool thing. Everyone else would go yuck. Anyway.
Question: When did you discover Oscar Wilde?
Stephen Fry: I say and I think it’s true that for the most, the first moment with Oscar was language. I was youngish, eleven-ish, twelve-ish, too young really to be... well, to be entirely sure of my sexuality or what that sexuality meant. I think I’ve always been aware of my sexuality, but I never quite knew what it meant, but what I… So that side of him I would come on to, but first it was language and I remember there is a line of Algernon’s in The Importance of Being Earnest and I was watching the film The Importance of Being Earnest and Algernon says to Cecily, “Would you be in any way offended if I said that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection?” And I leaned forward and I… There were no videos and instant pauses and on TiVo in those days and I replayed it in my brain. “Would you be offended if I said that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection?” And I thought how unbelievably beautiful, the swing, the balance the rhythm. How clever to make a sentence that’s all full of Latinate words ending in ation, to make that sing and poetical because mostly in the English language the words that are lyrical and beautiful are not words like the personification. They’re rather technical clunky words, but just simply by colliding them together it’s funny and beautiful and breathtaking and I had never… I’d know that you could use language to say, “Can I be excused?” “I need to go to the men’s room.” I knew that you could to say, “I want some more.” I knew that language had that function, but the idea that it could be used to dance, that it could be used to delight, that it could be used to enthrall quite so magnificently was new to me, so I read. We had right in the country the library would come and visit us. It was what is called a mobile library. It’s like a big van and it would come about you know a half a mile from the house and walk down a country lane to where it used to stop and get in and that’s where I get all my books and so I said, “Do you have any Oscar Wilde?” And they said, “Yes.” I said, “I want a play called The Importance of Being Earnest.” And they said, “Yes, I think we’ve heard of that one.” And then it gets to me and I’m saying it’s there in front of me and I read it and I kind of learned the whole play off by heart. I mean I can still to this day, “Did you hear what I was playing on the piano just now?” “I didn’t think it polite to listen sir.” And so on and that’s how the play begins. “I’m sorry for that for your sake.” “I don’t play the piano well.” “Anyone can play the piano well, but I play with wonderful expression.” And so on.
Anyway, I just became obsessed and then I saw a biography by a man called Montgomery Hyde of Wilde, so I read the biography and this is where it all changed because not only was this man as I said before, a lord of language, it’s a phrase of his own actually, but he was if you’d like a kind of secular messiah, a Bohemian prince of the most fantastic power and beauty and grace and gravity and he collected friends and he looked at the world and he showed you the true colors of things as no one had and on top of that he shared what I knew instinctively was my sexual preference of my own kind and not only that, but it caused of course him the most appalling suffering. He was despised and rejected of man in the most terrible way and then when I read “De Profundis”, the letter he wrote to Lord Alfred from Reading Jail I think it was perhaps one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. Now of course like a lot of people in my generation that meant I grew up with a sense of doom being allied to sexuality, that there were no… Literature and biography offered no examples of happy endings for homosexual people. Gay wasn’t used then. So I had an immense and obvious sense of the fact that my life would be doomed, would be fatal and would probably end in prison or in shame and something horrible, but the knowledge that I would be joining Oscar Wilde and then after that of course through bibliographies you find out other people you know Andre Geed or whoever, Michael Angelo. I would be joining a kind of Olympia of fabulous men and women who were better than others. They had a special inside. They vibrated at art and beauty with a sort of greater frequency and gave off a more wonderful harmonic than most people did and so I was proud to be an elect even if it was a doomed elect. That was my sentimental and adolescent I suppose response to my sexuality. I can’t imagine how different it would have been if I had been born twenty years later into a world of the internet and much more open things. I’m sure it would have been a lot less doom laden, but I suspect I would have read a lot less literature and I would have been a lot less interested in the intellect and the life of the mind. I would have been much more interested in just getting my rocks off I suppose because it would have been easier to do so I guess. I would have been…felt less guilty for so long. There are compensations though for the era in which I grew up and that is as I say, the fellowship of literature.
Question: What was it like portraying Wilde?
Stephen Fry: Yes. I never thought of course when I grew up loving Wilde and collecting his books and even trying to collect early editions that I would one day play him onscreen. It was simply unthinkable, but it did come to pass. I became aware as I entered my thirties that it was just being shall we say, I was disposed to the adipose. I was getting a little plump, that I could if I grew my hair look a little like him and although that is a completely irrelevant basis on which to be qualified to play someone is it… It just sets the thing on your mind and the English player Bennett once stopped me in Jo Allen’s in London just as he was passing the table and he said, “I was looking at you from across the room and it suddenly occurred to me you look terribly like Oscar.” “You know, you should play him one day.” And I thought… and I looked in the mirror. I went to the gent’s and I looked in the mirror and I thought gosh and I really didn’t think much more of it. Occasionally people would use that tediously predictable phrase born to be wild and then suddenly I was approached by Julian Mitchell the writer and Brian Gilbert the director and Marc Samuelson the producer who had this project and saying would I play Oscar Wilde and it was overwhelming and what was even more overwhelming was they had as a consultant this wonderful charming man called Merlin Holland who was Oscar’s grandson who was younger than Wilde was when Wilde died and that connects us to is and it just so happens that Wilde’s younger son Vivian Holland married very, very late and had a very late child and hence Wilde’s grandson lived you know a hundred years after Wilde was Wilde’s age, which is rare. So anyway, that seemed so exciting and novice and I prepared it. I read as much as I could of course, but nothing can prepare you for the… I don’t know. Everyday getting up and worrying about whether or not you’re going to let him down, whether… I mean the one thing I was absolutely determined was that Wilde was not just a sort of epigram factory, just a machine for spouting witticisms in a camp brittle pea cocky manner going oh, how to, to utterly utter. Everyone who described him described the mellow gravity of his voice, the seriousness of which he looked into your eyes, which is what made him so funny because he you know everything he said was said as if it was absolutely true, so when it was a dazzling paradox or a mother’s aphoristic turn of phrase, literal turn of phrase, you know where the thing is inverted you know like, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” He didn’t say it in inverted commas as if he knew it were a joke. He said it as if he had just seen it as the truth and that made it funnier, but it was also part of his whole manner is that there was a direct simplicity about him, not an arch campiness, which is… So even if I was hopeless I hoped the one thing I could set straight about Wilde was that, so that was a heck of a feeling.
Another side to him is of course that naturally people think of him as a gay martyr and a gay icon and a gay symbol for the age, but that he was a marvelous father until he wasn’t, until of course he created such a scandal or it was embroiled that the scandal obviously was disastrous for his family and that betrayal was not a piece of good father, good piece of good fatherhood, but while he was a father he was a kindly father, a loving father and he created one of the greatest gifts to children that there ever was, which is his fairy stories, which I don’t think are well known enough. I think they rank absolutely with the Grimm fairy stories and the Hans Christian Anderson fairy stories. They’re marvelous tales. They have all his qualities and something extra, greatness of heart and the beauty and the charm and then amazing, I think the word is proleptic, a sort of prophetic vision almost of what suffering and pain and sacrifice he would go through, although they were written at the height of his happiness and his riches and his popularity. There is a sort of doom in the way the stories play out, which is quite staggeringly as I say proleptic.
Question: Does Wilde speak to modern issues?
Stephen Fry: I suppose I mean yes, Wilde teaches us much, even from a 120 years in the past seems as true as ever it was. He wrote marvelously in his essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism” about the press. In medieval times they had the rack. Now we have the press. He… I think he predicted really quite brilliantly the enormous growth of the press, the impertinence of the press, how wrong it was that the emphasis on the press was on the individual lives of private people rather than on sharing truth and beauty and innovation and I’m afraid I don’t really enjoy the press at all. I like to know what is going on in the world, but that’s a very small part of what the press delivers, so I haven’t read a newspaper for fifteen years I think, twelve years certainly and certainly not a British one. I just don’t and I find I get on with an… without them incredibly well. It is actually not just that it makes me less unhappy. It actually makes me actively happier. It’s as if some huge weight is rolled off me not to read the opinions of others and I can quite understand why others wouldn’t want to read the opinions of me and they don’t have to and that’s the beauty of it is let’s not… But there is a sort of I think a more… Wilde understood, but there is a sort of furious anger in certain class of journalists that they’re not being heard even though they have access to everyone of their readers the fact that someone else isn’t listening or isn’t paying attention drives them slightly potty and they actually want to bellow their malice into the ear of the person to whom it is directed and if they felt that person wasn’t getting it, it would really annoy them because they want to hurt. They actually want to hurt people and that’s unfortunate. I just don’t want to be a part of it and the thing was I was a part of it. I’m really not speaking as some giant noble spirit who is easily wounded and must be sympathized with. I was a journalist or at least a columnist, which is not… which is what my objection is in news galleries. I was a columnist for several years for The Daily Telegraph in England which is the most successful or at least sells the most copies at least of the serious newspapers and I could see how easy it was to become this poisoned figure because the… You know there is nothing easier than writing and article against something, which is so simple. It writes itself. You just got to be angry about something and just got to puff and wheeze with indignation and fury and resentment and bile and malice and the thing writes itself and if you write anything that’s for something it looks sentimental and cutesy and you know so much… and so much harder to write, so much harder to write well. So all the successful columnists are… certainly in the British press are vicious and they’re good at being vicious and admirable and if you share their politics mostly their viciousness is something you can applaud. If you don’t then you just call them beasts and animals and revolting. It just gets so annoying. It’s such a pity and that’s one of the reasons I love the online world is that although that exists in abundance you can choose absolutely which part of the online world you want to live in. You can make your own kingdom in that sense, so things like Twitter or whatever I’m sure there are all kinds of Twitter you know clusters of people who have politics that I would find horrific and really just views that I would preposterous and impertinent, but I just don’t have to follow them and I can block them and I will never know they exist and that’s glorious.
And similarly as long as you don’t lower your eyes when reading a blog, as long as you don’t go down to the comment section where the trolls lurk, where the viciousness is because that’s… I mean there really is just suppurating, boiling seas of acid where if you just so much as dip a toe you’ve lost your limbs you know, just vileness abounding. Again, there is this resentment, “I will be heard and not only will I be heard I will offend.” “I will tear.” “I will lacerate.” “I will wound.” “I want the sensibilities of anyone who disagrees with me to be bruised beyond mending.” That kind of attitude is very strong on the net and for all that we can be advocates for the glory and the democracy that exists online we must be aware too that that dark side of humanity that just needs to be heard and can’t bear people like me for example who have access to greater numbers of followers on Twitter or whose website gets more hits and the more they see that, the more the web becomes a reflection of their view of the meanness and wrongness of society where somebody will get it all and others get none and then the more bitterness there is and I think it’s difficult because I don’t certainly want there to be aristocracy on the net. I don’t want there to be that. I think that whole beauty of it at its best is that there is genuine equality and genuine reciprocity between you know a Twitterer and his or her followers or between a blogger and their readers and that it’s not… You know it’s not an audience going to one site that is permanent and stable and is like the equivalent of the old models of the broadcaster, but that it’s much more fluid and the broadcaster becomes the broadcasted too, you know the TV station becomes the audience and as long as people believe that and behave as if that is true then there is real hope in the way information is going.
Question: Who was your first love?
Stephen Fry: Who was my first love? Well I shan’t give you his name because that’s unkind and he is married and has children and I wouldn’t want to embarrass his children, but I’ve given him various names in novels and in books. Like a lot of first loves, certainly first loves for sensitive people such as I was then I guess I have what I have is called the primary writer’s arrogance of assuming that my experiences are common to everyone else’s experiences, sometimes it is true, mostly one hopes it’s true and therefore that’s what one likes in a writer. You think oh, I feel that too. Just occasionally you might express a feeling and everyone goes, “What?” Then it’s very embarrassing, but I’m assuming that most people their first love when they’re teenaged that unbelievable hole that opens up inside them of longing and yearning, of pain, of joy, that huge great bundle of toxic emotions and allied to beauty and opening out into nature and to glory and suddenly connecting you with every love poet and every love song ever written that that explosion in my head and heart will never be matched. You can never hope to recapture the first fine careless rapture as the poet put it, but it stays with you like a good acid trip. You know you get a little flashback every now and again. It will never leave you and it teaches you to look at things differently and to feel things differently. It educates your soul if you like and all first love is unrequited ultimately because it’s so huge. It’s such an act of giving and it requires so much back that it can never be given back and in that you wouldn’t necessarily want to give them back. It’s just like a… It is like an atom bomb. It is like… It’s all the energy of who you are and who you want to be and what you love and what you hope to be explodes and it is impossible for a single human being to offer that back to you in a mutual way. It would be like matter meeting antimatter. It’s sort of almost important that what you do is worship and yearn and long, but so that was to me of course the single most important thing in my life and occasionally I get dreams and I’m back there again and I’m still as trembly as every I was and I get… because I’ve written about it I get emails and Twitters, whatever from people in you know in adolescence who are going through the same thing and say, “Oh, I read your book and it was the same for me and it is the same for me and he’ll never look at me, she’ll never look at me.” “What can I do?” “I’ll make a fool of myself.” “Should I write them a poem?” And, “What if they reject me?” And, “oh my God.” And I read that and … You know these vast sagas, these romantic sagas that are played out in every school, in every village and every town and every country in the world. It’s going on. It’s all this massive emotional energy just spreading outwards and some of it is… and totally unhappily, so the only thing that saddens me is that the, I suppose the default community attitude of kids is to suppress it and to smother it and to pretend it isn’t there and to be ashamed of it, not because it’s transgressive or because it’s gay necessarily. It’s just as, just as, just as problematical if it’s straight. It’s nothing to do with that, but because the school yard attitude is that you don’t talk about these things. There is no… You know you feel all this emotion, but the language for it is forbidden really. You just don’t do it, unless I think girls are probably better at it and maybe the online community helps with it. Chat rooms and things you can express yourself, but generally speaking boys of fifteen, sixteen are much more interested in sport or even if they’re not more interested in sport and their soul is yearning they’re not going to say it and if only they could it would be good.
Question: What is your advice for someone looking for real love?
Stephen Fry: I suppose ask whether you’re looking to be loved or to love or whether you really do because I think you know the risk of using the parallel of the slightly vulgar or carnal parallel of the gay community as it is amusingly called. Why don’t straight people have a community? Why don’t you say so what’s the view in the straight community of dot, dot, dot? Anyway, you know there is this thing of tops and bottoms, which I find completely ridiculous and nonsensical. But anyway, the idea of passive and active is an obvious thing we can sort of grasp the point of and I think that emotionally more important there is an equivalent of that. There are… It may be there are some fifty-fifty people in the world who want to give love and receive love in equal measure, but most of the problem I see amongst friends and I’ve experienced amongst myself is when people haven’t accommodated the inequality that they want, they haven’t understood that their partner wants to give more love and receive less or they haven’t understood that their partner wants to receive more, but sort of give less. You know what I mean? And as long as they fit in what they you know then it’s wonderful, but I think people talk about one love, but there is the need to love and the need to be loved are not the same thing and I suppose that’s… and it’s working that out is part of growing up.
Question: What makes love last?
Stephen Fry: What makes love last? I wish I knew. It can get ill and it gets better again. I suppose I mean you know awful things that cliché is that you got to work at it and communication, laughter. Laughter is deeply important. Realizing that flaws are to be loved rather than to be ignored or denied, that once you admire and if you love someone enough you actually love their flaws I suppose and you hope they love your flaws, but I couldn’t claim that I have a secret as to what makes it last. Hope is another thing that makes it last.
Question: Can you discuss your experience with bipolar disease?
Stephen Fry: Yes. I was first diagnosed actually not to my knowledge as being possibly bipolar when I was about fifteen. I didn’t know this until much later when I made a documentary about my life as a manic depressive or someone with bipolar disorder, whatever you choose to call it, an uppy-downy, mood-swingy kind of guy. In fact, technically I believe the correct diagnosis for my condition is psychothymic, which is like also known as bipolar light in America, which is rather nice and makes it sound like a variety of cola, but bipolar disorder is a mood disorder rather than a personality disorder such as that might mean to anybody, but I think we all kind of get what that is. To me mood is the equivalent of weather. Weather is real. That’s the important thing to remember about weather. It is absolutely real. When it rains it rains. It is wet. You get wet. There is no question about it. It’s also true about weather that you can’t control it. You can’t say if I wish hard enough it won’t rain and it’s equally true that if the weather is bad one day it will get better and what I had to learn was to treat my moods like the weather. On the one hand denying that they were there and saying I can’t… I’m not really depressed. Why should I be depressed? I’ve got enough money. I’ve got a job. People like me. There is no to be depressed. That’s at stupid as saying there is no reason to have asthma or there is no reason to have the measles. You know you’ve got it. It’s there. It’s not about reason. You don’t get depressed because bad things happen to you. That’s getting pissed off and annoyed. That’s reasonable. Someone hits you in the face you go ow, you know that’s… but depression is something that happens like weather to you inside you and it’s not about… It could be triggered by something unfortunate, but it isn’t… You know it’s not enough to talk yourself out of it by saying but I shouldn’t be depressed because I’ve got people who are nice to me, which is frustrating for people outside. They go, “Don’t be depressed.” “Everyone loves you.” “You’re really happy.” “You’ve got a good life.” I know. That is what is so depressing. I can’t help it. So but once you… It’s not a solution, but anyway, it’s very important at least to get that stage of it out of the way is to recognize it as a mood disorder as something that is akin to weather, but the nature of manic depression or bipolar disorder is it is bipolar. It is two poles. It’s not just depression. The point is that there is this other side to it. You have a depressed mood. You have an elevated mood that is mania, which is the manic side of manic depression and these are hypomanic or hyper manic states in which you can be grandiose. You can be absurdly extreme in your optimism and your creativity and your energy. You can go for ages without sleep. You can be sexually promiscuous. You can be a shopping addict, but people have different ways in which they’re elevated moods are expressed and they talk nineteen to the dozen. They can’t stop thinking, their mind races. They think they can solve the problems of the world. They think they have a unique insight. It can be a very blissful and exciting and extraordinary state of mind to be in and then comes the crash. The problems of it are manifested in tens. One is that people, most people outside family and friends are more annoyed, are more uncomfortable at the manic phase than the depressed phase. The depressed person you can deal with because all they want to do is just sit there and they want to be in dark in the bedroom sleeping and not doing any work and just hating themselves and as long as they’re not you know really considering suicide, as long as the pain isn’t that bad then you can manage them whereas a person in an elevated state is unmanageably annoying. They won’t stop talking. They won’t stop shaking their knees up and down and getting excited and talking about things and changing things and re-tidying rooms and oh, like that. So you know it can be a very frustrating for people around you. At its worst it can be very dangerous. Obviously suicide is the down side of depression. I had several suicide attempts in my life, but also really and this always sounds like a feeble excuse, but it is true. The most natural way you would attempt to cope with something inside you that is affecting your moods and your energy levels is to intervene with chemicals to help and because medical science hasn’t come up with pharmaceuticals that do particularly well you tend to reach for the chemicals that are outside the Pharma counter, i.e. narcotics and alcohol because they can guarantee your mood more or less. They like, like the condition itself will store up a big crash or big reverse, but you just keep at it and you keep getting drunk, keep getting wired and you’ll stave off the inevitable disaster of being alone with your moods.
So for a long time I was I suppose dependent is the word on cocaine powder and naturally when you take a lot of cocaine powder you tend to take a lot of alcohol with it as well, so for many years really I never went out without at least four or five grams of cocaine powder on my person and I would ingest it intranasally as was the fashion through the use of some sort of straw or rolled up currency note and managed to get by on it. I never did that when I was working. I didn’t do it onstage or on while filming or anything. It was a way of ending… As soon as you… Because work provided its own high, but as soon as I finished work that was it. I was out. I was in clubs and things. I can’t believe it now. I don’t know how I managed to do it. It’s just extraordinary, but I did and anyway, then I had a bit of a disaster in the mid nineties. I was in a play and it just all went wrong and horrible and I ran for the hills as it were. Well actually I ran for Belgium which are not hills at all. I ran for the low countries and through Belgium went to Germany and I was… and so declared missing by the British for awhile and then I was found and it was all very ghastly, but it sort of made me confront the whole business of this diagnosis and I saw doctors and things and they confirmed the diagnosis and then a few years later when I was back on a more even keel and more used to dealing with things and a little bit more clear about myself I made a program about… called Manic Depression and Me or The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive was the proper title. And in which I… It was two one hour films in which I went around America and England actually and talking to people with the problem, talking to doctors, talking my own history and my own condition and it was really interesting because it was considered something of a success this program and something of a breakthrough and because aside from all the problems I’ve spoken about one of the major problems is not the person who suffers with the disease. It’s with the rest of the world and mental health disorder and its stigma. People just are terrible at coping with it, other people. They don’t like anyone mentioning it if possible.
I had the great pleasure of dinner last night here in New York with Dick Caveat, the talk show host of the sixties and seventies, a brilliant talk show host. Look him up on YouTube if you don’t know his… the show he… I mean he is absolutely wonderful, but his career was pretty much stalled in many ways by his fight with depression and he has written about it superbly and he talked about it and we were chatting about it last night and it is that problem of you know say to someone I’ve got a broken leg or I’ve got diabetes, particularly if you say diabetes and asthma say, which are both chronic conditions that won’t go away. People go, “Oh, do you take insulin or do you take that little wheezer thing for your asthma?” You go, “Yes.” If you say I’ve got a mental health condition they go, “Oh, do you?” “That’s nice.” And they want to be somewhere else. They don’t want to be anywhere near you and I can understand that. Of course I can understand it, but you know that it’s like six degrees of separation I think. You know that you know all six of Kevin Bacon or whichever. I don’t think that you’re ever more than three or four steps away from someone close to you who has a mental health problem and I think the more we accept that it is us, it is part of being human then the better we are because then we can start concentrating on the things that matter in terms of coping with it.
Question: What do you think about medicating children who appear manic depressive?
Stephen Fry: It’s a really… It’s a really tricky business that of diagnosing children. On the one hand it is very good if the diagnosis is sound and you believe in it to spot the early signs of what could be a very difficult growing up for a child, on the other hand, to give Ritalin or powerful antipsychotic drugs to a child as young as four or five. I spoke to a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He is one of the leading people in his field who is quite prepared to diagnose very young children as being bipolar, not just ADHD and things that we’re used to in children and his point is that non intervention is not a neutral act. Not giving someone drugs when you’ve diagnosed it is in itself allowing the brain as he would put it to toxify itself, that whatever is happening as the brain is forming if it is forming in a bad way, bad pathways, bad neural signals are being sent and they’re creating bad pathways as it were or you know bad demands for you know because let’s face it. We don’t really understand that balance between hormone… if you like or hormone and neurotransmitter, but that’s his argument is that nonintervention allows the brain to build itself badly, but it’s a heck of a thing to give a child as young as… Well as young as ten or even as young as fourteen frankly some of these powerful drugs when the brain is still growing. I find it tricky and certainly in Europe it’s considered outrageous, but it happens a lot in America, but then you have more mad people. No, I mean sorry. You have a bigger population and better scientists.
Question: What is your favorite city in America?
Stephen Fry: Yes, I’m always asked what was your favorite city, what was your favorite state. City, well I love New York. I just adore it. I do like Chicago, but I think if I could choose any city to live in I’d probably choose San Francisco not just because the beauty of San Francisco itself. It’s a great town, but because of its nearness to northern California generally and there is so much in northern California right up through to the Sequoia National Park up to Oregon the Oregon state line and down below in also Big Sur area and the vineyards and you know that part of America is just simply unbelievable, so I would probably say the favorite city is San Francisco and maybe northern California if called it a separate state, but So. Cal. as they call southern California has its charm to, but I loved Kentucky actually. I loved South Carolina, the lowlands of South Carolina, Buford. Montana takes a heck of a lot of beating just for sheer physical beauty. The lower of New England is wonderful, New Hampshire, Maine. Maine people are so great. Maine is the lovely… Down east as well, which is the absolute… Ironically up east is what it really is, but it’s called down east and marvelous people, marvelous, marvelous. I mean it’s just a hell of a country. It really… You’ve got yourself quite a nation here.
Question: What is the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?
Stephen Fry: The worst career advice I’ve ever gotten well, is to something because it paid more money. I mean it’s… I know it sounds obvious and cheesy, but it’s just if you got two jobs and one pays a lot more than the other and they seem the same maybe you go for the one with the more money, but even then I just think toss a coin because if you go for it for the more money somehow you always end up paying more in terms of ease and peace of mind. Of course one does things just for money and everyone knows that when you do a commercial you’re not doing it because it’s a statement of personal belief, but it’s a fun film. You try and choose a commercial, TV commercial that’s good. It’s made by a good nice people and it’s a product that you’re perfectly happy to be associated with, so but obviously you do those in order to earn time to do other things, but no, I don’t think I’ve ever been given disastrous advice.
Question: Who are your heroes?
Stephen Fry: We’ve mentioned some of my heroes. Oscar Wilde is certainly one. I like people who are as unlike me as possible, which is not an expression of self disgust or self hatred, but it’s just that you know you obviously particularly admire things that you recognize yourself as not having, so ornery artists, people who speak their mind and don’t care who knows it because I fear that one of my greatest faults is my desire to please all the time and my dislike of offending people. I think it’s a good thing in many ways. I’m absolute attacking my own instinct for politeness, but I think I admire artists who just speak out or who are strong, so it’s very hard. You know if I name them I’ll go home thinking why didn’t I name this person or that person and obviously the usual suspects of the you know. Your Mandela’s and your whatnots, how can you not admire them? But also and this will sound sentimental, people who live quiet ordinary lives of unremembered kindness, people like my brother. I’m not saying he is ordinary. He is remarkable, but you know he is a reminder to me of the you know the… just the virtues of being a good person.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Stephen Fry: What keeps me up at night? My minds races with guilt at things I haven’t done, things I’ve got to do. Things are always worse in the steady watches of the night aren’t they? The things you think oh my God, I’ve got to do that, I’ve got to do that. Will I have time to do this? I better set my alarm for an hour earlier to do this. And also if I’ve… I don’t know. You know and laziness. I still feel that I’m being watched you know by my grandfather or somebody who is shaking his head at me and going you know you let yourself down there.
Question: If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?
Stephen Fry: Who would I go to dinner with? Well obviously Oscar Wilde. I mean I know it’s just he seems to be the theme of our conversation, but he would be a good one. I’d like to go to… And I’ll tell you who else. I’d like to go… I’d like to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald. I mean I love his lectures. I think he writes amazing letters and someone who is just about the best writer his age I think, just sentence after sentence were simply perfectly made and I just want to know how he did it. That’s terrible. I just want… I mean there are other writers who you know you could regard as just as great, but something about him just so technically perfect and yet so I don’t know what it is. Whenever I read a sentence of his I think it’s so simple. There it is. It’s in front of me and all the words are easy and yet just wow and you know from his letters that he did work very, very hard at it, but I just want to know where it came from.
Recorded on December 8, 2009
A conversation with the British comedian, author, actor and filmmaker.
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