JOURNEY IN DYSTOPIA

Tribune, 17 June 1988


Paul Anderson and Christina Koning talk to Edward Thompson about his new novel, The Sykaos Papers (Bloomsbury, £13.95)

You are known as an historian and political polemicist. What made you decide to write a novel?

I’ve always thought of myself as a writer first, an academic second. One or two bits of The Sykaos Papers go back to the early sixties. But I’m not exactly sure that that book is, in any recognised sense, a novel. One or two readers have made the error of supposing it is intended as science fiction. I know it certainly isn’t that: most of the bits of space machinery are a send-up of science fiction. Maybe the book is three things: one part is entertainment or fable the reader is supposed to laugh; another part is satire; and a third part is imaginative exploration, in which differing modes of consciousness interrogate each other and, in the course of this, explore how human culture and even personality is constructed. However, let’s call it a novel.

In that sense it is very much a utopian, or rather dystopian, noveL Which books in that tradition have most influenced you?

The one, obviously, that influenced me most is Gulliver’s Travels. I’m not claiming I’ve written a Gulliver’s Travels. But anyone who writes this kind of book has the shadow of Swift on his or her shoulder. There are several things one has to avoid because Swift did them so much better than one could ever hope to do today. What I had to watch particularly were the universal denunciations of the follies of the human species, which were done so beautifully by Swift.

But Oi Paz, the hero of the novel, who arrives on earth from the planet Oitar, does have a certain disgust for human beings, at least at the beginning.

Yes, but I hope I’ve, A managed to introduce an ambiguity to that disgust by making him have ludicrous misreadings of things. His is not a clear vision; he’s very confused. What attracted you to this sort of fiction rather than realist narrative? I tried to write a realist novel after the war. I did the proper thing and went to an isolated cottage, sat down and wrote. The result was dreadful. I think I discovered then that I didn’t have a natural talent for realist novels. I might possibly try my hand again some time.

Utopian and dystopian fiction has often been used to portray political alternatives. To what extent does The Sykaos Papers do this?

There is not a one-to-one political read-off of the metaphors in the novel. If there were,- why bother to write in such a complex way? I see it as an attempt to discover things that can’t be said in other ways. Very few of these things ate directly political. I hope they bear upon the sub-rational level out of which political association and forms come. What is said in one place is often contradicted in another. Around about mid-way, the book gets hold of its own tail.

What has appeared as a satire going in one direction turns back on itself. In the first half you have Oi Paz’s ultra-rational perspective upon the confusion and anarchy of human affairs, and from that perspective of sexless equality, the human race appears to be irrational in all kinds of ways, as well as unequal. But when you get to the second part, which is in a certain sense the deeper level of the satire, the critical absence of laughter in Oitarian society, the Oitarians’ incapacity for articulating their emotional life and the emptiness that comes from their lack of bonding point to the falsity of the Oitarians’ description of their society. This is a society in an advanced state of computer-dependency.

The book isn’t there to provide answers but to challenge the imagination in ways which leave the reader to draw conclusions. Quite a lot of the book is an exploration of language as poetry and an exploration of laughter. It’s an exploration of non-rational, either chaotic or creative, sources of energy. But I don’t know what the conclusions are. In the past 40 years there’s been a great rise in the amount of cerebration, including on the left: I don’t blame anyone in particular for it, because it’s part of our times. Look at New Left Review over the past 20 years: it may be admirable in its way but it’s not a very creative journal, it’s a cerebral analytical journal. This contrasts with the thirties, which are quite rightly criticised for their lack of theoretical rigour but were a very creative time. I come from the very last years of the thirties: some of my older friends were thirties people, so I know something of the poets and artists and musicians of the time. In a sense you can say this book is anti-cerebral.

Many of the themes in the book reflect those in your nonfiction work – from your biography of William Morris to The Heavy Dancers. In particular, there is the critique of technocratic “rationality” you have just mentioned.

In different ways I’ve always been concerned – obsessed perhaps – with the blighting of human capacities and imagination by utilitarianism, the absurd abbreviated world it offers and the imprisonment it has imposed on working people. The Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals was also deeply penetrated by this view of the world. That doesn’t mean I reject historical materialism, but it does mean that I qualify my acceptance of it. The work I am doing at the moment, some of which is quite advanced (in particular a work on Blake and another on the early years of Coleridge and Wordsworth) continues this critique of the whole nexus of utilitarianism.

For much of the past nine years, your name has been almost synonymous with the peace movement. But in The Sykaos Papers you present some rather muddle-headed peace activists, in contrast with sympathetic portrayal of a British Intelligence officer. How come?

Well, there isn’t any one-to-one read-off of characters or metaphors, as I’ve said. This is a novel. But at the height of the cruise campaign, the peace movement did drift into a kind of moral self- righteousness, assuming that only the peace movement wanted to prevent nuclear war. This was, I think, pharasaical, a wrong frame of mind to get into. We all fell into it. As for my Astro-Intelligence officer, I have always thought that some politicians, corrupt media operators and “defence experts” are more dangerous than the military.

How, looking back, do you assess the influence of the peace movement?

It is very difficult to show precisely the lines of influence of the peace movement. But, in its raising of consciousness, its providing the kind of weather through which the politicians have had to steer, it has been extremely important – though I’m sure no official historian will ever admit it. The other thing is that there has been this profound change in the Eastern bloc. I don’t think that’s because of anything Western politicians or political parties have done. But it’s just possible that the peace movement did provide some helpful influence.

The changes in the Soviet Union are a little unexpected to Western Leftists. We always expect struggle to be clearly coming from below, and the idea of significant and genuine moves from above is not in our main historical tradition. But it is there in the Russian political tradition. The fact that the reforms are so severely contested is testimony to the authenticity of some of them. The thought of reversing them is extremely alarming it could only be done by repressive measures. Any attempt to reverse them will lead to a military regime.

You have just returned to Britain after five months teaching in Canada. How do you find it?

Britain is getting to be an extremely nasty place. The strengthening of the security state, the move towards a highly centralised authoritarian state – it’s incredible that the Tories can still get away with talking of “freedom” – is being countered by a lukewarm Labour Party rhetoric. I am worried by the way in which increasing numbers of people are getting into a naked celebration of success and money. Everything has moved three paces to the right. What always were the establishment institutions – the Church of England, the BBC, the House of Lords – suddenly become “left-of-centre”, under attack from this totally cynical, totally amoral, mean-minded mercenary government. Virtually the only place where there seems to be some vitality in some of the old Labour traditions is in local government. In Worcester we’ve got a good Labour council which is genuinely popular: it’s not so bad coming back here.

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