Monday, February 18, 2013

Interesting dinosaur

My interest in literature and the arts has faded over the years. The arts have a habit of getting in the way of experience, filtering it, encouraging an indirect (and often government-subsidized) engagement with the world. And the world mediated by pictures, movies, performances, fictions and so on is not really the world, is it?

Besides, the arts aren't what they used to be.

A few interesting dinosaurs still roam the literary landscape, however. Like Tom Stoppard.

Unusually for arts intellectuals these days, his instincts are basically conservative, and his interests range widely and encompass the history of ideas, including mathematics and the sciences. (His play Arcadia bears witness to this.)

Stoppard was born in what is now the Czech Republic just before World War 2, and his (Jewish) family fled the Nazis to the Far East. His father (working as a doctor in Singapore) was captured by the advancing Japanese and died in a prison camp. Stoppard's mother escaped with her two sons to India and married a British army officer, Kenneth Stoppard.

Like many other central Europeans who fled the Nazis (or, in subsequent years, the Soviets) and who eventually found refuge in England, Stoppard embraced English culture with great enthusiasm – despite the fact that the English themselves, sensing that their glory days were behind them, were losing faith in their country and its future.

I came across an interview-based piece on Stoppard by Victoria Glendinning in the weekend press, and scribbled a few notes...

Stoppard dresses in an elegantly old-fashioned manner. He is not interested in clothes, he says: he just likes them.

He still smokes cigarettes. [I have a couple of theories about highly intelligent cigarette smokers, but I'll save them for another time.]

Stoppard: "The centre of gravity of our morality is our literary culture." [But, then, as a playwright he would say that, wouldn't he?]

Stoppard has for decades supported human rights and freedom-of-speech organizations, especially in connection with dissidents in Eastern Europe.

Stoppard: "Ultimately, at the level of government, decisive acts are acts of self-interest." (Thus the lack of international support for dissidents in Belarus, for instance, because Belarus has no oil, just people.)

Two final quotes:

"I can't bear travel. I hate the airport experience. Partly because I no longer like going anywhere anyway, partly because [the travel process] has become dehumanizing. Nobody is to blame. It is progress in operation."

"I am a small-c conservative."


  1. Plato might have written that first paragraph!

  2. Stoppard somehow manages to be both highly imaginative and very engaged with the world. But that last phrase is slippery. Many artists are highly political, but in what seems to me a fantastising way. Sartre for example. Delusional might be the word for it.

    I notice that Stoppard wrote the screenplay for the current Anna Karenina film.

    From Wikipedia: "In the early 1990s, with the fall of communism, Stoppard found out that all four of his grandparents had been Jewish and had died in Terezin, Auschwitz and other camps, along with three of his mother's sisters. In 1998, following the deaths of his parents he went back, for the first time, to Zlín after 60 years. He has expressed grief both for a lost father and a missing past, but he has no sense of being a survivor, at whatever remove. "I feel incredibly lucky not to have had to survive or die. It's a conspicuous part of what might be termed a charmed life"."