One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Bonobo Interview

Azahar has got me involved (not exactly kicking and screaming) in a blog meme whereby another blogger (In this case, she) puts interview questions to me. Her own interview is here. Being a self-absorbed show-off, I'm happy to oblige.

Damn good questions, Az! I warn you...I tend to digress - but you probably know that about me.

You call yourself a 'militant atheist'. Why do you think it's important to take a militant stance on this matter?

I've already admitted to a tendency to show off - I've a pathetic tendency to want to portray myself as 'different' (and I could probably talk for hours about how this is a psychological defence mechanism caused by not feeling as part of the crowd in the first place.) So obviously there's a large degree of pour ├ępater la bourgeoisie. Although there's a serious side, too.

The full title was 'Born-Again Militant Atheist Fundamentalist'. Born-Again, because although I've been an Atheist at least since the age of 12, for much of my life, I was happy enough to countenance countenance pseudo-religious, mystical hippy shit...Taoism, Zen, UFOs, Telepathy...again, all part of voluntary difference; I probably thought it made me more interesting. Of course, they're all nonsense. Militant - yes, that's pretty much a pose. I'm more strident than militant, in that I don't actively seek out religious people to attack and abuse (but if you hand around long enough, they'll come to you...), so that's really redundant. Whether or not I'm militant, people are going to carry on believing all manner of tosh.

Atheist and Fundamentalist I'm entirely comfortable with. Atheism is really so obvious that it really doesn't need any explanation. There is simply no reason to suppose there is a god - nor indeed things like souls or spirits or cosmic forces, or anything outside/ alongside our physical existence. Further, the idea of god in no way helps us think about the universe or our own lives. It's a useless, meaningless concept. Fundamentalism - yup, here I get to retain my outsider credentials. Fundamentalism, usually religious, is generally held to be A Bad Thing. The accepted wisdom is that the religious headbangers who deny evolution and/or murder innocent bystanders are to be distinguished from the nice, sensible religious (those for whom I've coined the phrase 'fluffies'). Now, from a Rationalist, Atheist perspective, I've got any number of arguments against such bastards. Indeed, I'm sure I share these arguments with the religious. However - I cannot conceive of any even vaguely plausible religious arguments aganst them. Such like "That's not true religion" or "That's not what god wants" don't stack up. How do the fluffies know? It's all too easy to throw back "Yes it is" and "Yes he does". Religion just doesn't have any good answers, either to scientific or moral questions - and that's what I'm fundamentalist about. I have to apply the same standards to the fluffies as to the murderers.

But there's another side, too - partly following on from my outsider stridency, but in a good way. Religion - proper religion - is held up by the religious (and even by some non-religious) as being better than non religion at all. It gives us a place in the universe, a meaning to life, a moral code, a sense of beauty, awe, wonderment, mystery. At worst, the religious look down in pity (or even anger) at those who simply don't get it. But even those who are open to the idea that there are many ways of being religious tell us that we need our 'spiritual side'. There's an implicit - and often explicit - suggestion that religion makes us Better People. Well...of course, I react against this. I regard myself as a tolerably moral person. And I can't prove it...but I'm reasonably certain that I feel spiritual sensations (although I'm allergic to the word 'spiritual') in pretty much the same way and just as intensely as the religious. I'm bound to! We share similar neurobiology. I doubt I'm missing anything.

Even more...there is something that the religious are missing. The fact is that we are all biological entities, sharing a common, physical existence. Our whole perception of the world and our various ways of getting on with one another has to take this into account. We have to think about these things in Atheist terms, rather than adding random, god-centred logic. And if we all want to get along in a democratic world, we have to talk about them in common, secular terms. So I'm Fundamentalist about religion adding absolutely nada to human understanding. In terms of organised religion, this obviously means we shouldn't privilege the language and terms of reference of those who live within theological houses of cards.

And here is where the anti-Fundies may start to get agitated - I'm afraid I have to be equally Fundamentalist about disorganised religion. Some people, while eschewing the mainstream, claim a personal; spirituality or god concept. (Hi, Az! ;-) ). Now they're entitled to use whatever mental models they want, but when they start talking, I'm afraid it doesn't help me to understand where they're talking about. Which is fair enough...except that if they're thinking in god terms, it doesn't help them either. If they're trying to think about anything of real world relevance, there's a good chance they're not going to be coming up with much sense. Sorry - I'm only trying to help.

So that's me - a nasty, prickly Atheist Fundamentalist. What I'm trying to say with the phrase is "Sorry - religion does not give privileged insights into the world or the self. Quite the opposite."

How has being bipolar affected your life? Are there any positive aspects about it?

I think Azahar was kindly concerned that I might not want to answer this question. For the record...I have absolutely no embarrassment about my illness. I'm deliberately open about it, and on the whole haven't experienced negative reactions.

It will be helpful if I take the second part first. It's also something I feel strongly about. The notion of bipolar disorder as having positive aspects - the highs as massive compensation for the lows - has entered public mythology. For example, Stephen Fry has made high-profile statements along the lines of "If there were an 'off' button to take away bipolar disorders, sufferers wouldn't press it." Well, I'm sorry...maybe Stephen hasn't experienced extreme highs...maybe he has sufficient life cushions (wealth; life in a tolerant, arty circle) that his highs haven't damaged him. Yes, many people with bipolar disorder speak of the creativity the highs give them...but they're a self-selecting group of high achievers. Could it be that there's a hidden population, perhaps undiagnosed, whose lives have been ruined? Think of that next time you pass a homeless drunk slumped in his own piss.

As for hypomanic episodes were scary and destructive. They started with an upswing into happiness and creativity...and I wouldn't have sought help for them because, I told myself, I was having a whale of a time, living life to the full and solving all the world's problems. But even at the time - I think knew that something Wasn't Quite Right. And there were definitely a few scary moments when the brain went into complete short circuit (although I'd dismiss them a few minutes later and carry on running, full-tilt). Put it this way - at the end of the day, I needed to be in hospital for my own good. Being Sectioned is scary! Trust me - you wouldn't want it. Neither would you want the realisation, on coming down, that all that 'fun' stuff in the lead up was absolutely fucking embarrassing. Even now, hardly a day goes by without my breaking out in cold sweat on remembering something I did or said.

And it goes even deeper. Hypomania is the extreme end of the creative, happy spectrum. So how would you feel if every time you felt happy or creative, you had to think "Is this going to get out of control? Do I have to take a step back? Am I allowed to feel this way?"

Which all goes some way to answering the first part of the question. I have a bipolar brain (latest evidence is that b-p is associated with abnormalities in midbrain white matter - although it's not clear whether this causes or is caused by the condition). I guess if I didn't have the illness, I wouldn't be me...and since I've come to see my good points, I guess I have to accept - reluctantly! very reluctantly! - the disorder as a net positive. But I could certainly have done without the disabling episodes in my life.

It took me a long, long time to be diagnosed, and this is typical for sufferers. I've been treated for depression since my mid-twenties. With hindsight, it had started by age 14...and possibly by 12. There was quite a bit of misery along the way, leading up to the thing I'm most proud of in my life - checking myself into hospital instead of killing myself. could say my illness has affected my life. And in other ways - lack of self-confidence, failure to achieve, inabilty to cope with life's turmoils, etc. etc. put it in context...what doesn't kill you makes you strong. I'm me, and I like the result reasonably well. Mostly. I was in a hospital casualty department with an eye injury yesterday, and the doctor asked me if I had any other conditions. "Only bipolar disorder," I said. (To quote Woody Allen, "What's so 'only' about it?"). Yes, it has and continues to be a major factor in my life, but I guess I can cope with being a pharmaceutically-regulated bipolar person. It's a killer disease, and for the untreated prognosis is not good.

When did you become a vegetarian and why did you make this choice?

Ah...I'm afraid this one really is down to deliberate difference. Age 20, I did it as a sort of experiment. You should try anything once (Except incest, folk-dancing or sitting through Star Wars). Being vegetarian for one meal hardly counts, so I tried it for a while and it got to be habitual. It would be nice to pretend there was some sort of ethical underpinning...but truth be told it made a change from finding different ways to cook a quarter of mince. Up to a point, I have absolutely no qualms about animal suffering - it's humans that count for me - and so I in no way mind others eating meat, or even find the idea personally repellent. In fact, it's probably a little daft of me to keep ordering the vegetarian choices on menus, even when they're boring. I like food, so why should I compromise? (Although if I did waiver - I think I'd waiver towards seafood or offal. In fact...I sometimes have a notion for braised lambs hearts. I think it's possibly genetic. It's the one thing my Grandpop ever managed to cook in his life.).

You have a very interesting Desert Island Disks list on your blog. What would be your 10 Desert Island Books?

Thanks for the compliment, and for giving me an ever-welcome chance to talk about books.

Contrary to some impressions (eg my wife's), I really don't go in for that whole, male, Hornbyesque list-making shit. In fact, I hate the idea of 'Best Of's. My attitude is more "This is good...and so's this...and have you read this?". But Desert Island Disks isn't really about best ofs either. One way to play it woukld be that I'd like to take ten books that I've never got around to, to keep me busy. Ulysses, War and Peace, Gravity's Rainbow, etc. etc. But the best thing to do is to choose books that are meaningful in the story of one's life (although in reality...I might not want to read them again). So...let's go for:
  • Some kind of classic 'Space Opera' SF - I'm tempted to go for Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars - but I can get extra credibility for the wonderful The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem.

  • Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (I should choose Slaughterhouse 5 - but this was my first proper literature)

  • On The Road by Jack Kerouac

  • The Good Terrorist - Doris Lessing

  • Candide - Voltaire

  • Penguin Modern Poets: The Merseysound - Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, Brian Patten

  • A History of Western Philosophy - Bertrand Russell

  • Selected Poems of Hugh McDiarmid

  • Another Country - James Baldwin

  • English Bread and Yeast Cookery - Elizabeth David

Eek! Where's the Greene, the Burgess, the Salinger, the Steinbeck...10's not nearly enough! (Funny - in my Desert Island Disks, I chose the complete poems of Norman McCaig. That's a nice thick book that I'd like to delve into more, but it's not really part of my story).

If you could change jobs tomorrow, and money and qualifications weren't a factor, what new career would you choose?

I always say that if I win the lottery, I'll go and study something. Anything. I'd enrol in a university and study stuff. If I could, I'd do it without bothering about exams or qualifications. (I suppose I'm an intellectual at heart. That's what my university old tutor still maintains...ever since he saw me coming out of the library on the day after finals had finished, with one of the books on the above list. Mind you - at my university it was a relative term). I do also like teaching people stuff - although I don't think I'd want the hassle or discipline of working in formal education. Maybe I could be some sort of 'public intellectual'. (Gawd! That sounds poncy and self-aggrandising - but we did say qualifications weren't a factor)It's all a complete pose, of course. 'Intellectual' doesn't imply that I'm smarter than anyone else - just that my head's full of more shite. (I'm dead serious here. There's more than one way of being clever. There's more than one way of being a good person).

Alternately - a baker.

Or a fluffer for Lesbian porn films.

The rules of this meme are here. Feel free to ask me to interview you.


ophelia payne said...

I think you'd make a good public intellectual- or porn fluffer.

While I'm not familiar with all of your desert island books (might have to read a few of the ones I haven't), I happen to love most of the stuff on your desert island disks list. I've never made any of those lists- too hard to choose few enough to bring them along to the island.

azahar said...

Very interesting answers, Edward. And I'm glad you liked the questions.

Just to say that I wasn't being specifically 'concerned and kind' about you maybe not wanting to answer the bi-polar question (though do I know someone who wouldn't be happy answering that publicly). It was a general concern about any of the questions not being to your liking.

And I also wasn't aware that some considering the 'highs' to be positive aspects was a sort of 'public mythology' - sorry if it came across that way. I wasn't asking about the 'highs' as such, just wondering if there was anything positive about being bi-polar that you've personally experienced.

Great answer for being a militant atheist fundamenalist!

And quite a surprising answer (for me) as to why you're a vegetarian. I guess I expected something more 'militant'?

Anyhow, thank you for your very honest answers - I feel like I know you a bit better now.

Robert Handward said...

Great goodness me-OOOO-my!

I am astounded and impressed. I happened upon your place here entirely by the way that random happenings happen online: I followed some number of links from where I was. And, I paused. You are amusing.

I felt like reading so I did. Now, why am I so impressed? Sure, you are clearly cool and witty. But, more than that. This very post is one of the three blogmeme posts that I've ever read that I actually enjoyed and it is the only one that followed the meme rules.

There are other reasons why I think you are cool. You'll have to use telepathy to obtain them.