Stephen Fry: You Have No Free Will

Photo illustration by Bráulio Amado

02 May 2021 | David Marchese | New York Times Magazine (original link)

We all have them: cultural figures whom, beyond any single thing they’ve done, we’re just kind of glad to have around, and whose sensibility seems to jibe in some fundamental way with our own.

I remember when Stephen Fry started to become such a figure for me. I was a teenage Anglophile, sitting at home on a slow afternoon — this would have been the late ’90s — and watching a rerun of the British sketch-comedy show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” (Judge me not.)

Fry appeared on the screen, a tall, urbane man with a zigzag nose. He was improvising a story in the style of John le Carré novels. “George,” he began, referring, I would understand later, to le Carré’s spymaster George Smiley and doing so in what I dimly inferred was a tone of upper-class officiousness. “Control’s gone potty, George. Operation Ascot went downhill, George, since the lamplighters and the scalphunters went on their own.”

Why that oddly specific word, “potty”? Who were John le Carré and George? What’s Control? Who was this Stephen Fry? Door-opening questions all. And as to the specific question of who he was — that the ensuing years have provided no easy answers has been a source of only pleasure.

A rare polymath, Fry, who is 63, has written, among other works, satirical novels, a trio of unsparing memoirs, a charming how-to-write-poetry book and reimaginings of the Greek myths (the latest of which, “Troy,” will be published on June 22).

In his native England, he has hosted popular quiz shows, documentaries and podcasts. He has acted to great acclaim in television (the Wodehouse adaptation “Jeeves and Wooster” is a highlight) and film (earning praise in 1997 for his portrayal of his hero Oscar Wilde in “Wilde”). Lately, he has settled into the role of avuncular public intellectual. “I’m terribly keen to find things out if I don’t know about them,” Fry says. “Then I need to show what I know. It reminds you of people at school who just had to put their hand up and go: ‘I know! I know!’ It’s strange that I’ve never lost that desire.”

There’s not a lot of playfulness in the larger cultural discourse these days. It can all feel so strident and humorless. Where do you look when you don’t want to be depressed by everybody scolding one another? That is the situation we’re in, of course, and because of that, Ihave to give a little mental check to make sure that I’m not going to say anything that is going to get me into trouble. But most of my solace is looking backward, reading. I’m trying to teach myself more. I’ve been reading things like Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy,” and a friend of mine put me onto Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents.”

I was intrigued with what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. How come when something aggressive occurs just outside your little moral, political and cultural bubble — a statement by someone you really dislike; it could be Eric Trump or some figure like that of no significance in the world — you find yourself trembling with fury at the person who is saying these things because they strike you as so dumb, so cruel, so deceptive, whatever it is?

What we have to understand is that once we have our set of rules and outlooks, any suggestion that those may be wrong becomes a suggestion that may be wrong. It’s an assault on my Self with a capital S. That’s partly what Freud meant by the narcissism of small differences: that arguments become deeply personal. That is a huge part of what one has to try to overcome. There’s a W.H. Auden quote which is basically, “If there’s going to be inequality in love, let me be the one I’ll be the one who doesn’t get angry, who doesn’t get personally affronted. It’s very hard to do.

Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in ‘‘Jeeves and Wooster.’’ ITV, via Everett Collection

Do you ever wonder where your old friend would fit into things now?I do. I loved him. He was adorable company, but I was also quite scared of him. He was a much tougher figure than I. He didn’t mind being disliked. He didn’t mind being howled down even. He seemed to enjoy it. I can quite imagine Hitchens being on the same platform with a Ben Shapiro perhaps. But I can’t imagine him having come out on the side of Trump.

Hitchens just had a style that suited America despite his Britishness. It was the swagger. I miss that the culture doesn’t have enough of these sorts of people. Toward the last year of his life, I would visit another one of them, Gore Vidal, in Los Angeles, where he had his house; it was so overgrown in the garden that it was dark inside. He would retell stories of his great rows with Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag and William Buckley. Their arguments could be mordant and full of venom, but they weren’t as unhappy as so many debates now. There was a kind of joy and pleasure in the fight.

Can you remember a good Gore Vidal story? The best Gore Vidal story I have you’ll probably find unprintable, but it amuses me. I was visiting him in America at one point, and he was coming to England. He said, “I’m debating whether to stay at Claridge’s or the Savoy,” and I said, “The Savoy’s a bit down-at-heel at the moment.” He said: “Yes, I’d heard that. I think I will make it Claridge’s. I am fond of the Savoy, however, for a very particular reason — it’s a literary reason.” So I said: “Oh, is that because of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald staying there in the good old days? Or because Oscar Wilde was there in the 1890s?” He said: “No, no. It’s far more literary than that.” He said: “I was there, oh, some years ago now, and I picked up the Yellow Pages and let my fingers do the walking, as the advertisement said, and found an agency. I thought, Oh, hello, here we go, and the agency duly were obliging and sent a young man to see me in the suite.

We had agreed on a sum on the telephone, and we got down to it. At one point, he said, ‘I don’t do that.’ And I said: ‘Don’t be absurd. Of course you do.’ So all went perfectly well, and then I gave him his 30 pounds, and he said, ‘It’s got to be an extra 30.’ I said, ‘I agreed on a price with the agency, and I don’t propose to diverge from it now.’ And he started cutting up rough. He threw an ashtray at my head, which I had to duck to avoid, and so I pressed the bell, which was very handily placed in the wall above the head of the bed.

In due course, a floor manager in a swallowtail coat and striped trousers appeared. I said: ‘Could you please remove this young man? He’s being a thoroughgoing nuisance.’ And the young man said, ‘He owes me an extra 30 quid.’ Then the floor manager said, ‘You come with me, young sir,’ and he got rid of the gentleman and I thought no more about it. But two days later I was checking out, and as I was paying the bill, I saw that at the foot of the column of figures it said, ‘Sundries: 30 pound.’ I thought the use of the word ‘sundries’ was inspired, and I have been fond of the Savoy

Fry in “Wilde” (1997). Sony Pictures Classics, via Everett Collection

You mentioned Ben Shapiro.I’m not sure that people would agree that he’s quite the right comparison for Christopher Hitchens.I mean, yes, I find Ben Shapiro abrasive. This anti-woke nonsense that he — a lot of it is disingenuous at best and malevolently blind at worst.There are people who have been denied any say in the way the world goes or even allowed a voice in expressing their experience, their stories, their lives, and it’s great that this is slowly being put right. It’s a shame that people of my background so often take it in a moaning way, as if it’s an assault on our gender and race.

I watched a discussion you took part in last October on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Royal Society of Literature, and you talked about the formative experience of reading “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” as an adolescent. You said something to the effect that if you’d grown up 20 years later, your feelings of shame or guilt about being gay probably would have been different, but also that perhaps you wouldn’t have had this sort of Wildean key to literature that you then developed. Do you have any other sense of howyou might be different if you were growing up gay today? It’s very difficult to know. But I’m pretty certain that if I had grown up and there were video games and 24-hour television and a candy-store approach to movies — if there was all this fun laid out, let alone social media and computers — I can’t imagine that I would have had the impulse to go to libraries and make this web of connections radiating out from Oscar.

That was the first thing that hit me like a hammer: when I read about the life of this extraordinary man and saw what it came to and then realized that he committed was one that I was likely to commit — that we had a similar nature. Discovering his whole world: I went from Wilde to the French writers Huysmans and Rachilde, then through to American writers: Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar,” or John Rechy’s “City of Night,” and William Burroughs and the extraordinary sexual adventures going on there. Then in Europe, there were writers like Roger Peyrefitte, who would write books like “The Exile of Capri” and “Les Amitiés Particulières,” and then you’d read “The Quest for Corvo.”

By A.J.A. Symons. Exactly. Extraordinary book with the famous One would make all these connections, and along the way, there was an education in what the life of an artist and a writer was — the nature of an artist as an outsider. You didn’t have to be gay to be that, of course. You could be a Jack Kerouac or an Allen Ginsberg.

Didn’t those two — They did. Allen said, “Jack [expletive] me.” Or he said, “I [expletive] Jack.” One of them.

Something I didn’t realize until I was researching for this interview was that you were celibate for 15 years. What was going on there? Oh, yes, that’s right. We’ve got 15 years in which I was not partnered or, as the phrase now is, self-partnered. From about ’96 onwards, I’ve tended to have a partner, and for the last five and a half years, I’ve been But I’ve been thinking about this a lot since this TV show that I had a small part in came out: It did make me think: I left in 1981, ’round about exactly the time that any sexual adventuring I would’ve done would’ve been fantastically dangerous.

Most people would say it’s a pretty odd coincidence that my celibacy lasted from the widespread arrival of the virus to the arrival of widespread antiretroviral medication. Also, I cannot tell you how much I loathed nightclubs. That feeling of walking inside and being raked with stares and then the look-away as you clearly did not pass the test. And the music — I don’t know how to dance in nightclubs.

Fry and Kristin Scott Thomas in “Gosford Park” (2001). Mark Tillie/USA Films, via Everett Collection

Was it scary to eventually go back to sexual relationships? Yes. You can get consumed by a fear that you’ve been out of the game of love for so long that you just don’t know any of the rules. You don’t know how it’s done. Even the smallest details of it, like, how do couples share the bathroom? Then somebody said to me: “Every relationship you have is the first one either of you have had in that relationship. It’s a unique one, and there are no rules.” That advice allowed me to relax. It was surprisingly easy.

You started out in and gradually moved toward more “serious” pursuits. But I still wonder: Do you think comedy has any access to truth that, say, literature and philosophy don’t? Nearly always. Comedy follows the particular rather than the general. It distrusts abstract statements and therefore distrusts philosophical statements. Woody Allen is a perfect example of that when he said, “Not only is there no God, but try finding a plumber on Sunday.” You test grand ideas against reality, and one of the results is often comedy. You know, one of my favorite moments in cinema is the end of when Joel McCrea says laughter may not be much, but it’s all some people have in this cockeyed caravan. I genuinely think that laughter is not only enough, it is what is needed, and it saddens me that it is a young person’s game. I regret my seriousness. If I were 15, I would look at these comedians who I thought were funny suddenly trying to be serious and I’d think, You pretentious tosser. I remember going through that with John Cleese when he started making But anyway, I watch someone like Dave Chappelle, and it’s a bit like what Shelley said about poets.

They’re “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Yes. They see things more clearly than anyone else.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard someone say? Ridley Scott seemed to think that I might play this instructor in his film “Gladiator” so I went to see him for a screen test. I had to imagine that I was inspecting some slaves and how likely they were to be good gladiators. So he said, “Just march up and down proudly, maybe grab one of them between the legs and give it a twist to see how manly he is.” I’m thinking, I’m Stephen Fry, a helpless old queen, let me pretend to be some wildly butch gladiator trainer? Being asked to stalk up and down twisting potential gladiators was one of the weirdest things I’d ever heard a human being.

Fry and Natalie Portman in “V for Vendetta” (2006). Warner Brothers, via Everett Collection

You said earlier you’ve been reading philosophy. Is there a particular idea that you’re tickled by lately? I suppose the real biggie is free will. I find it interesting that no one really talks about it: I would say that 98 percent of all philosophers would agree with me that essentially free will is a myth. It doesn’t exist. That ought to be shocking news on the front of every newspaper. I’m not saying we don’t look both ways before we cross the road; we decide not to leave it to luck as to whether a car is going to hit us. Nor am I saying that we don’t have responsibility for our actions: We have agency over the body in which our minds and consciousness dwell.

But we can’t choose our brains, we can’t choose our genes, we can’t choose our parents. There’s so much. I mean, look at the acts of a sociopath, which are performed with absolute will in the sense that he means to do what he’s doing, but he’s doing it because he has desires and impulses which he didn’t choose to have. Nobody elects to be a sociopath. The difference between us and them is one of degree. That certainly interests me. But, generally speaking, I suppose ethics is the most interesting. You do wonder if there are enoughpeople in the world thinking about the consequences of A.I. and technology.

This reminds me: One of the reasons I love is that it got that the collective unconsciousness of the people who make myths understands whatno individualis smart enough to understand. An example is the Prometheus myth. Zeus said, “Prometheus, these little people, they can worship us and obey us, and they can live in a golden age of happiness, but there’s one thing you mustn’t do, and that’s give them fire.” Prometheus says, “Why not fire?” And Zeus says, “If you give them fire, they won’t need us anymore.” By fire, it’s understood in the myth that it means literal fire but also the divine fire of self-consciousness. Zeus didn’t want to give it because he realized that a race of people like that, mini-gods as it were, wouldn’t need major gods. We would live our own lives according to our own rules. And what was interesting is that toward the end of the Enlightenment and the opening of the Romantic era, Prometheus became immensely important.

Fry and Ryan Gage in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (2013). Warner Bros. Pictures, via Everett Collection

You’re back to the Shelleys? Exactly. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.” Her husband, Percy Shelley, wrote “Prometheus Unbound,” and Beethoven wrote “The Creatures of Prometheus.” It was immensely important to these Romantic figures that once you’ve kicked out the Ecclesiastical grip, our hero was Prometheus. He gave us this ability to control our own lives and be the inflamed, inspired human beings that Romantics thought we could be. What’s so interesting now is that in 20 or 30 years, we will be in exactly the same ethical positions as Prometheus and Zeus. We will say, “A.I. has reached this event horizon, this transformative moment in which it becomes self-conscious.” Will we then say we have to turn those machines off — be like Zeus — and not give A.I. fire? Or some will be like Prometheus. They will say, “Give A.I. fire; it would be fantastic to watch these creatures have their own will.”

Just curious: Is there a Greek myth where achoice like that arises and things don’t go badly? [Laughs.] No. They’re very honest, the Greek myths. They understand if we can take a wrong turn, we will.

Opening illustration: Source photograph by Joe Maher/WireImage, via Getty Images

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.


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