Interviewer: Michael R D James has recently published a book entitled “The World Explored, the World Suffered: The Exeter lectures”.(November 2017) It is the first volume of a Trilogy which aims at introducing the reader into the world of Academic Philosophy via the medium of a fictional setting of human drama and tragedy.
Can I begin this interview by asking this question. A large number of Philosophers thoughts are taken up in the book but Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein seem to figure more prominently than the others.Why?
Michael: Yes I think that is a correct observation although there are extensive references to Socrates, Plato, Schopenhauer, Arendt, and Ricoeur. The reasons Aristotle Kant and Wittgenstein are central figures is to do with the training I have received at the three different universities that I have studied at, and a current conviction that these are the most important figures in philosophy. Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are interesting figures in themselves but they occupy a central role in the book only because of the character of Glynn Samuels.
Interviewer: The cover of the book depicts Plato as the central figure appearing out of the mists of the milky way and Aristotle and Socrates as his wingmen so to say. Why is this?
Michael: I think the Swedish expression “Vintergatan”, “the Wintry street” is, by the way, far more poetic than our English expression “the milky way”. In answer, to your question, however, the Greek world and Greek consciousness I hope, permeate all of the lectures in the work and Plato is in the popular mind the symbol for that world and that consciousness. I believe actually that Aristotle was the better Philosopher although Plato was the more popular figure because he embedded his Philosophy in the art form of the dialogue, which I believe used to be one of the areas of competition in the Olympic games. Having said that Aristotle was taught by Plato and could only see as far as he could, philosophically speaking because he stood on his teachers shoulders.
Interviewer: You have chosen unusually to embed Philosophical lectures in the form of a fictional drama. Why?
Michael: Because as the Delphic Oracle prophesied, knowledge of the self is so difficult to acquire. We, humans, appear to be moving toward a difficult to discern goal or telos and there are at least two aspects to this process: knowledge of the world and knowledge of our role in creating everything that is human about this world. The story of this development is a complex one but trying to explore this complexity without some kind of narrative structure would seem to me to be a formula for isolating Philosophy in an ivory tower on an academic campus far removed from the hustle and bustle of life.
Interviewer: I would like to ask about the Political Philosophy lecture which is one of a series given by Jude Sutton as part of his Philosophy of Education course. Does this lecture connect in any way to the what I presume is an underlying theme of the importance of International Education?
Michael: Yes indeed it does and you are right to suggest that the importance of International Education is an underlying theme of the work. Jude Sutton gives voice to a political position that I would characterize as Humanistic Liberalism: a position that is bound up with Kantian Ethics and Political Philosophy. The Kantian idea of a Kingdom of ends requires a cosmopolitan regime and a view of human rights that is transnational or international..
Interviewer: Harry Middleton is the third lecturer giving a series of lectures in your work, He is what one might call a Philosophical Psychologist in the Continental tradition of Philosophy but he also takes up William James and Freud in his lectures. He seems to be something of a hybrid.
Michael: Freud and William James according to secondary sources were the only Psychologists Wittgenstein is reputed to have read with interest. Yes, Harry is more of a hybrid character than Glynn Samuels who also in many peoples eyes walks a theoretical tightrope. Both of these lecturers manifest the spirit of the search for integrated knowledge which Alec Petersson, the first Director of the Internationa Baccalaureate program was engaged in. His agenda was partly to obtain a unified theory of knowledge, whether it be to use the language of the 1970’s a coat of many colours or a seamless robe.
Interviewer: You mentioned a tightrope in your last answer. Let me read you a section from your work “the World Explored, the World Suffered”: Glynn Samuels in his lecture on Wittgenstein, Religion and Philosophy of Education has this to say:
“Wittgenstein points to the industry of Bach, one of my favourite composers and points out the relation of industry to humility and suffering. Bach could really listen to music with the ear of an exploring sufferer and produce it for the hands of suffering explorers too. I personally cannot hear what I hear in Bach in very much of our popular music. Bach and his music are like the tightrope walker who is so high up in our cultural heaven supported by almost nothing but a little thread which seems impossible to walk upon: and yet he is up there moving across the space of our cultural sky. It is almost as if he has wings. This is why Bach’s music is religious music, ladies and gentlemen…the words of Solomon, the words of Ecclesiastes may sometimes land in our minds to the sound of softly flapping wings, but mostly these words are like the swifts flying tangentially on their secret mission.”
So, Religion and Education do not sit comfortably together in our modern secularized societies. How do you think the character of Glynn contributes to your message of finding common ground between these two areas of discourse?
Michael: The above passage comes immediately after a quote from Wittgenstein one year before he died. Wittgenstein in that quote is regetting that the schools of the time(1949) seemed to be more concerned with the children having a good time and pretending that suffering was out of date. Remember that all the “Greats”, Aristotle Kant and Wittgenstein were sympathetic to religion and appreciated its good intentions. For me and for Glynn, the Religion of the Philosopher must find its way into education and education needs to search for a way to address practical religious questions more actively.
Interviewer: Can I ask you to name the fictional authors that have influenced you and can you also say something about their influence.
Michael: Lawrence Durrell is the author I have read and re-read the most during the past 10 years. His Alexandrian Quartet is a masterpiece and allows the reader to “live” in Alexandria in a way that leaves memories about the place and people as if you had actually lived and worked in the city itself. The people and events are seen through the eyes of 4 characters and a process of “triangulation or “quadrification” occurs which gives one a very real impression of the people and the time they live in. Shakespeare has also been a regular source of inspiration because of his effortless unification of prose, poetry and theatre, as has been Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Laurens van der Post, and V S Naipaul. Given my admiration for Shakespeare T S Eliots poetry has haunted me since I studied him at school. Other poets like Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost, W B Yeats have also occupied me periodically. But Lawrence Durrell has always been the star in the sky of literature that I have tried to follow.
Interviewer: The first chapter of the work is about ships, the sea, deeply tethered bouys, and you say on the first page that you “began to look upon the sea as a teacher, with respect”. You speak also of a calm sea as a dreaming sea and “the rising of the tide of the level of your consciousness”. The sea then makes its appearance in many metaphors and images throughout the work. Why?
Michael: You tell me. The sea feels like a part of me. Powerful waves and tidal changes of considerable magnitude are the norm in Cape Town. High tide in Cape Town would probably feel like a tsunami to someone not used to such sound and fury. At every high tide I almost expected the sea to turn the streets of Sea Point into canals. I think I had pictures in my mind of Venice before actually knowing that the city existed.
Interviewer: Is that why Venice is connected to suffering?
Interviewer: What is the significance of the title “The World Explored, the World Suffered”. For you, these seem to be tied almost logically together rather than be the names for separate independent activities.
Michael: Yes that observation is correct. The fate of Socrates alone ties these two activities irrevocably together but Aristotle that explorer of the human spirit par excellence also had to flee Athens and died within a year of escaping. Kant, the philosopher that never left Königsberg, speaks several times about the melancholic haphazardness of everyday life. Freud’s mood is even darker than this as is Schopenhauer’s. I think the title reflects the response of many philosophers to our secularized world. The character of Glynn Samuels appears to the character Sophia to be the most stable probably because he builds religious walls around his life and prepares for the secular siege with the wisdom of all ages and the wisdom of all kinds of text.
Interviewer: The final lecture that Jude Sutton gives is the one he enjoys the most: the lecture on Aesthetics. He talks about the creation of a film of the “terrible events of this century” and he compares this anxiety laden venture with Giorgione’ss Quattro Cento landscape entitled “The Tempesta” where a storm is looming in the background of figures who are pursuing their everyday lives without concern for what is coming on the horizon. Sutton refers to Adrian Stokes and his hope that psychoanalysis will help us understand the good object in general and the beautiful and the sublime in particular. Love emerges as a theme of the lectures for perhaps the first time. Can you say something about this observation?
Michael: Yes, the quotation you refer to comes from Stokes’s essay on Michelangelo, perhaps the greatest of the Italian explorers and sufferers. The quote connects love to the oceanic feeling, the feeling of being at one with everything in contrast and connection to the feeling of the singularity of people and things. Stokes suggests that both Art and love stimulate these attitudes in us. In visual art, this is accomplished via the medium of space in which we are simultaneously enveloped but by an art object that singularly stands out like a rock in the sea. Jude Sutton goes on to discuss the work of Shakespeare and categorizes him as a Quattrocento writer embracing the suffering of man in a medium of a Stoic calm in the face of the storm. Stokes is a disciple of Melanie Klein’s but I can detect in this lecture the present of Freud and his principle of Ananke, or neccesity, looming over the hustle and bustle of life. I suppose my message is that love requires a considerable amount of Stoicism and if Art is like love than this means that our greatest artists should be at least Freudian Stoics if not Kantian Stoics.
Interviewer: Looking at your author page on Amazon and reading the first chapter of your book suggests that this novel is autobiographical. Is it?
Michael: Yes, there are some biographical events which lie behind some of the content but the work is a work of fiction. The drama and tragedy are not the focus but the medium for the message.
Interviewer: And what would you say is the message of the first book of the trilogy?
Michael: That life is a difficult business for most of us partly because of our divided human nature and partly because of the difficulty humans have in befriending one another in a philosophical spirit of fellowship. Our institutions seem to need a spirit of fellowship if they are to function as they should. Educational institutions try forlornly to address both the question of our questionable natures and our relation to our neighbours and other citizens but the attempt is not very impressive when one considers that it is more than two thousand years after the beginnings we were provided with by the Academy and the Lyceum.The spirit of fellowship, for example seems to me to be very rare in this world of ours but one encounters it occasionally.
Interviewer: Your characters mention several times throughout The World Explored that we read in order to know that we are not alone. Is this significant for the message of your trilogy?
Michael:Yes, we read, write and listen to music produced by exploring sufferers to know that we are not alone. There is something almost sublime in reading the words of the Great Philosophers. It a bit like a timeless eavesdropping at their study doors in Athens, Königsberg or Cambridge.