Raymond Tallis Talks to Ingrid Wassenaar
Those lovely people at Notting Hill Editions, home of the best in non-fiction essay writing, are in the midst of their search for the winner of their 2015 Essay prize. NHE run the contest biennially, inviting submissions in English of between 2,000 and 8,000 words, published or unpublished, on any subject. The inaugural prize in 2013 was won by Michael Ignatieff who spoke about the choice of subject for his own essay as follows: ‘Raphael Lemkin, the subject of my essay, was the Polish refugee who in 1943 coined the term genocide to describe the crime that wiped out his entire family. He died unknown and forgotten on a New York street in 1959, yet if we have a Genocide Convention it is because of him. Here’s to refugees, may they always have a home with us.’ Ignatieff’s essay was published along with the other five shortlisted essays in a special NHE volume.
This year, the judging panel consists of Adam Mars-Jones, novelist, essayist and critic, Michael Ignatieff, last year’s winner and a well-known writer, Phillip Lopate, the American essayist, poet and novelist, Eileen Battersby, journalist and literary correspondent for the Irish Times and Professor Raymond Tallis (right), philosopher, poet, novelist, and cultural critic, who was, until recently, a physician and clinical scientist. The shortlist will be published on the 8th September, with the winner announced on the 3rd October. The prize is £20,000 to the winner and £1,000 to each of the five runners-up.
We were lucky enough to have Professor Raymond Tallis talk to our interviewer, Ingrid Wassernaar, about his experience of judging the prize and his own appreciation of the essay form.
1. Could you expand on the experience of being a judge on the Notting Hill Editions essay competition?
We were amazed and delighted by the wide range of topics, and the variety of writing styles. For example, there were wonderful essays on family relationships , on the impact of illness, on cultural differences between countries, on history and historiography, and on science. The quality of the entries was so high that I, for one, felt that I had to be quite mean-spirited in order to whittle down the entries to a short list. We had to be very picky!
2. What were the judges looking for?
I think we were looking for a brand new idea or a brand new angle, an essay that would make us say, ‘I’ve never seen things like that before!’. We were looking for writing in which no sentence had a hair out of place, in which the tone of voice was always at a perfect pitch. We wanted to see a piece that was beautifully structured, with a beginning, middle and end, but without the structure being too clunkingly obvious. We wanted, I think, to find ourselves in the presence of an alert, open consciousness, to be in the company of an immensely intelligent and aware human being thinking to herself or himself.
3. What was it like to try to reach a verdict?
To be honest, we quickly converged on a consensus; there were no fights. I was a newcomer and found this immensely reassuring! We judged the entries anonymously, and didn’t know the identities of the authors until we had made our decisions.
4. What do you think is the nature and value of the essay form in the 21st century?
The essay is potentially the supreme prose form. It can often deliver complex ideas better than fiction can. In fiction – sometimes – the ideas stick out too much, like undissolved lumps in the custard. (There are, of course, wonderful exceptions such as Proust, Musil, and Kundera). It is regrettable that that the essay is perceived at the moment as a marginal literary form or as journalism. At its best, it occupies the perfect mid-point between metaphysics and gossip.
5. What do you think makes good writing more generally?
The sine qua non is a certain tone of voice that makes you feel that you are in the presence of a person engaged in thought or reflection or recollection.
6. I love the notion of writing from the perspective of one’s own future corpse (your book The Black Mirror). Could you explore how you came to this idea a little?
E.M. Forster writes in Howard’s End, ‘Death destroys a man; the idea of Death saves him’. I wanted to conduct a thought experiment – to imagine my life from a standpoint outside of itself – when it is over and you are no longer present. Assuming this viewpoint makes your life visible to you as something astonishing, miraculous: the shining hour shines more brightly. Though I talk about Raymond Tallis, he is simply an instance of homo sapiens. Horace said, ‘quid rides? Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur’ – ‘Why do you laugh? Just change the name and the story is about you’. The story I tell about us focuses on the small, or at least, the ordinary details: this is where the profundity of our life is to be found. This book, like others I have written, is an expression of my anti-reductive humanism.
7. Could I invite you to reflect a little on your own career as a philosopher of mind, and a professor of the neurology of old age?
Well, I come back to that idea of humanism. I am pretty hostile to the idea that neuroscience or indeed any natural science can ultimately and fully explain us. My philosophical and neurological preoccupations touch on my concern with the nature of human consciousness. Some neuroscientists, and even some humanist academics imagine that we can be reduced to our brains. Seeing what is in front of our nose tells us that very little of human life can be explained by neuroscience. The neuro-prefixed humanities – neuro-lit-crit, neuroaesthetics, neuroeconomics etc.- combine bad science with a grotesquely simplified account of humanity. I’m an anti-reductionist humanist. There could be no more direct and faithful artistic expression of our humanity than the essay.