We keep asking: “Isn’t it time to drop religious faith from human belief?” We also keep answering: “The answer is self evident.” (Check out SUPERNATURAL DUMMIES and GRAY’S ANATOMY.) So it tickled us to see Deborah Solomon’s Q&A with Peter Watson this past Sunday.
Yes, it was a promo for his latest book, “Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud.” But Watson offered no bullshit, less certainly than the usual maundering about religion that we see in newsprint. Some excerpts:
What do you think is the single worst idea in history?
Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on earth determines how we will go in the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.
But religion has also been responsible for investing countless lives with meaning and inner richness.
I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.
It sounds as if you’re starting your own church.
Not at all. I do not believe in the inner world. I think that the inner world comes from the exploration of the outer world — reading, traveling, talking. I do not believe that meditation or cogitation leads to wisdom or peace or the truth.
Then I don’t understand why you would want to write a history of ideas, since inner reflection and dreaminess surely count at least as much as scientific experiment in the formation of new ideas.
To paraphrase the English philosopher John Gray, it is more sensible to look out on the world from a zoo than from a monastery. Science, or looking out, is better than contemplation, or looking in.
We’ll skip over Watson’s disparagement of the novel as an art form, even though we’re no big fan of Virginia Woolf either — Solomon cites Woolf”s “rejection of the panoramic outward view in favor of inner sensibility” as an achievement — to bring you a couple more gems:
You strike me as deeply unanalyzed. Have you ever considered seeing a psychiatrist?
I was a psychiatrist. I left because I thought Freud was rubbish. … I thought Freudian therapy was a waste of time. I don’t believe there is any such thing as the unconscious or the id.
In that case, where do you think ideas come from?
I don’t think they come out of daydreaming.
But here’s the kicker. We once tried to read Watson’s previous book, “The Modern Mind,” a great big tome subtitled “The Intellectual History of the 20th Century.” Tried is the operative word. We couldn’t get through it because it read so much like a textbook: Blah … blah … blah … although it’s useful as a reference tool. He must’ve been daydreaming when he wrote it. We hope this time he was fully awake.
Frankly, we have our doubts. The title alone makes us wonder whether the new one is just a retread with added prequel mileage. You’d think, given his interest in Gray, that something of Gray’s style might have rubbed off on him. Watson has great material, but his writing (unlike his replies above) is so verbose. He prattles. Gray is just the opposite: tight, almost aphoristic. His hallmark is fascinating brevity filled with original ideas and striking observations.
— Tireless Staff of Thousands
Postscript: It so happens, Gray liked the damned book. And since he knows a helluva lot more than we do about intellectual history, it seems wise to let you know what he said about it.