"Our time has run out of control:
we are going to have mindless revolutions"
John Calder for Právo, interviewed by Michael March in Paris in December 2001.
You've been publishing for over fifty years, what have you seen as changing the role of the publisher, and also of books? Has there been any very great change?
Yes, there has, because now there are so many other ways of putting out information; television of course changed things a very great deal, now you've got the internet and all the electronic media, and perhaps people pay more attention to what they get out of newspapers than they used to, compared to what they get out of books. Certainly the percentage of readers has not increased as the population has increased, but the number of core readers, serious readers, who like books, keep books, get the information out of books, use books both for reference, for knowledge and of course for entertainment, is probably roughly the same number of people as a century ago, and that is not so bad. I feel as a reader as well as a publisher that I belong to a minority that's becoming more of a minority, because the problem with democracy - which I don't think really exists, except in a few very highly educated countries like Scandinavian countries for instance - I think democracy is a fraud.
We have a brand of politicians today, who nobody trusts, nobody really believes in and who have very little stature. In the past, people who were elected - who had power without particularly being elected but often through very corrupt political system - were often people of real intellectual stature and well-meaning. People who get elected today, in my opinion have very little to offer; those who really care about the world, if they feel they can do anything and have real intellectual abilities to think through problem, are very few.
I also think the problems that confront us tend to have fewer and fewer solutions. In the past those naive believed in social engineering, which is a term that has gone totally out of the time, you never hear it anymore - the ability of the mind to be able to tackle a problem and eventually overcome it, to find a solution to a problem. The problems of today seem more and more insoluble, ever greater, and that is the reason that violence and terrorism and counter-violence are increasing all the time, to try to find the way of solving insoluble problems.
You were friends with Samuel Beckett for forty years. What did he think about all this?
Well, Beckett was the realist. He understood the world and he didn't ask questions about why things are the way they are. He understood it. He didn't believe that mankind was in any way improvable, and he also believed that the end of the world couldn't be all that far away. And I can't see that he was very wrong. He also saw the world as full of the pain and suffering. He was against seeing the population increase, never produced any children himself on principle, he said that to produce children was to produce more suffering; and from Beckett's point of view to see the end of the world was not necessarily a bad thing. The overwhelming weight of pain and misery as seen against the happiness of very few people, who for one reason or the other are on the top of the heap, is such that he cold not really see much point in human existence.
We live in a world where the media and especially the whole advertising industry is so powerful that they present a picture of life that people on the whole accept, for they are meant to not worry, assume things are always going to get better, consume, spend, earn, consume, spend… never think about the black side of life and never think about the misery of the others. Beckett could not do that. He was unable not to see all around him and the real thing about Beckett was the pessimism based upon observation seems to be the most realistic, and that makes him one of the most powerful and I think the important writers of the last century in that he finally says that life is shit, but all you can do is try not to make it worse, hope that you can and try to give the human species a kind of dignity think of others better than you think about yourself.
Ultimately I think he is a kind of ethical philosopher who offers comfort - it's not an easy comfort, but it is a comfort. One can live in one's own mind comfortably, understand what is going on about oneself, understand the situation of the world, understand perhaps the whole human being and not the kind of the limited, thinking about oneself the kind of personality that most politicians, most advertisers, most persuaders try to make us want to be.
And how would this response be echoed by the nouveau roman school, especially in the voice of Robbe-Grillet?
Well, Robbe-Grillet says that he doesn't see any reality, that every mind is different from the other mind. We all perceive a different reality and therefore there is no such thing as an objective reality. The world consists of millions of different ways of looking at the world around us, each person in his own mind creates his own world, and the fact that they have nothing to do with anybody else's world doesn't matter. In other words, there is no such thing as reality as such and nothing really matters.
That is where there is a link with Beckett, in that Beckett had found it impossible to live with the misery of the human condition, Robbe-Grillet says you can live with it, but it doesn't matter. Nothing really matters. And if nothing matters, in a way it is sort of hedonism of living in a self-enclosed backroom of your own mind and making the best of things, and if you are wrong it doesn't really matters, because all of us can be wrong in some ways, what matters is the individual mind and what it thinks. It's the form of intellectual selfishness in a way, but also based upon a kind of philosophical reality.
It sounds very French.
No, I don't think it is particularly French. I think you can find this in different literatures internationally all over the world, but certainly French literature all in one way or another goes back to Descartes, and Descartes believed in logic above all, the ability of the mind to puzzle everything out. Robbe-Grillet doesn't try to puzzle, he simply says: accept what you see, accept what is acceptable, if you're wrong it doesn't really matter, if life is unacceptable, well, there are various ways to escape it, including the thought of escaping from life altogether. The lucidity of Robbe-Grillet's mind is quite extraordinary, because he is able, more than anybody else I've ever met, put over complex human, intellectual, philosophical problems in a way that anybody listening to him can understand and follow - they might agree or not agree, but he really has a Descartean mind and in that way you might say that his thinking is very French. It is certainly based upon that kind of logic.
This year the Festival is dedicated to Jean Genet and one of the themes is revolution. Do you think it is a good choice?
Jean Genet was very much a troublemaker with a very personal sense of humour. One must remember that he was a criminal, at one point sentenced to the prison for life, and he began to write when he was in prison and was published. And it was Jean Paul Sartre in particular, who saw Genet as the perfect example of one of his theories he called "the lock", in other words: we become what we are seen to be by other people. If you are observed generally as a criminal, you become a criminal. If you are observed as a saint, you become a saint. And he was able to build a whole new literary style and fashion I suppose of writing about a criminal mind, which is also a certain example of a mad mind any very creative people always have to have, and speak of madness and madness of others we call reality in order to perceive things differently and bring out that difference to their readers or their audiences. There's also a streak of impish, mischievous humour in Genet, which is one of the most appealing things about him, I think. Part of Genet success is that he made the average person realize that anti-social tendencies are there in everybody and it is society that tends to either reduce it or make it seem normal, but today, when we realize that many of the most successful persons living are in fact criminal, that their activities are basically criminal and do great damage, one has to have a new concept of what criminality is all about. And Genet is one of the modern keys to the conception of how we live in a society were we believe ourselves to be moral human beings, but in fact we are not. And society itself increasingly is very immoral.
Genet believed in the individual artist as being separated, isolated in dealing with humility, but nonetheless he believed in the social revolutionary process, and how the word revolution has a dirty meaning. And Genet also mentioned that whoever is in power controls the meaning of words.
Well, revolution is simply a violent way of overturning the status quo. And anybody who is brought up in a very underprivileged environment tends to be revolutionary and want to upset that which is suppressing him and that which is holding them down. Is revolution possible without violence? I think probably not, but I have a horror of violence. There can be situations where the general disgust with the status quo is such, that with the minimum of violence things can change, as happened in Romania after the fall of Ceausescu, but change is always uncertain, you never know if a change is going to be for the better, it could very easily be for the worse. But there are times when things get so bad in human affairs that some form of overturning them has to happen. It can be through warfare, it can be through revolution, it can be through a general consent where people just rise and overturn what they don't like. The kind of revolution that people like Genet would have advocated would be basically a revolution inside the class system. But most of the time those who assume themselves revolutionary want to either infiltrate or replace whatever they are revolting against.
But do you think that revolution is possible or pertinent to present day, to our present day existence?
I'm sure we are going to see many more revolutions in the early 21st century, especially in the Arab countries I think, most of which are dominated by absolute rulers or autocracies of one kind or another, and where women in particular are very much subdued. There will be a revolution, what form it's going to take I don't know, but I think in many cases it sill be violent, where you'll see rulers toppled and heads cut off.
I mean I also think there is revolution very possible in a country like the United States, where you have an underclass that's nearly 40 percent today of Hispanic, black minorities, as well as poor whites, who live in real poverty. That could lead to revolution, because all these people are armed, almost everybody has a gun, and the cheapest thing you can by in the States really is some kind of a firearm. And it gives a clue to the future in that wars in many cases will take place not between different countries, but between people living in adjoining streets, different communities. A revolution I think will have many new meanings in this new century.
If a revolution could be confined only to ideas I would be very pleased, unfortunately I think what we are going to get is more and more mindless revolutions spurred by emotions, hatreds, religious or national; and we are coming into a time that's run out of any kind of control, the controls of traditions, of moralities of people used to be brought up with that certain things must not happen, are not allowed to happen, is all gone. I think we are moving into an age where anything goes and we are back into rather fundamentalist simplistic ways of thinking.
Do you think this is similar to what exists in Central Europe?
I think actually it could be Central Europe that becomes the saner part of the world, where the people have seen so much in the past, have endured so much, have been through so much misery and have learned to live through different ideologies which they have on the whole thrown up one by one - at least it might be the saner countries. The more affluent countries, I think, are now going to be more prone to revolution and will have the bigger upsets - they are all dependent upon not only market forces, because the stock market is only one, but upon expectations that are increasingly unrealistic. Everything is getting closer and the weapons of massive destruction are everywhere; any kind of accident can suddenly spread around the whole world and bring it finally to an end.
Would you say there is such thing as a human nature?
Well, yes. Human nature can be transformed by thinking, influenced by ideas and by a certain innate morality that many people have but other people don't have. I think morality might have more to do with genes than anything else, but that's a very debatable question. By that I mean is man inherently good, is he inherently bad, is he a mixture of the two, or does something in our natures push us to one side rather than the other, makes us idealists or makes us purely selfish? That is one of the great debates going on today in scientific circles. We are living in a very interesting times, but they are also incredibly dangerous times, and nobody can really predict what's going to happen not only in the next ten years, but often in the next ten minutes.
If I were young I would say it is very exciting.
Well, maybe you have very adventurous mentality and like danger. I've had enough of danger in my life already, but it's certainly an interesting time.
I never fail to turn on the news the first thing in the morning and I read a great deal of opinion in the newspapers about the world controlled by much more emotions today that by any kind of logical sense.
But you still continue to publish books even when you could eat oysters, read newspapers and play pinball in a nice café in Paris.
Well, first of all, I might enjoy oysters and I can't be bothered with pinball; I publish books because I have always wanted to since I was a child and now it has become rather more than a habit. It's very difficult to decide or to know exactly what influence books can play, but they do have an influence on the world events, you can never know exactly what, but if a book did not appear, there would be no chance whatsoever. Publishers never have quite as great influence as they think they have, but things they do happen by putting information out there that somebody is going to pick up maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe in many years time, and you do have a certain influence, I suppose, on human thinking, human history, the way the world goes on - it might not be what you expect, it might not be what you want, but there is nevertheless a certain satisfaction in seeing that you're putting something into the world that is going to have a certain duration.