This interview with Paul David Adkin was carried out by the Spanish literary magazine “Galimatias” in March, 2015. We have translated it here into English.
GALIMATIAS: We want to centre this discussion on essences. Your writing is quite diverse: apart from your three novels, you have a large number of plays and short stories and philosophical essays, a couple of books of aphorisms and you dabble in poetry and songs. So, my first question is: is there an essential theme running through all this work?
ADKIN: Nothing that I’m conscious of. But I’m sure you could find an unconscious link. Or, perhaps the essential theme is a search for that unconscious link.
GALIMATIAS: You’ve said that art is an invitation to the unravelling of ideas. But isn’t that the role of philosophy?
ADKIN: Yes, but art, of course, unravels those ideas in a different way that philosophy does.
GALIMATIAS: What are the questions that you as an “artist” are concerned with? Are there any central questions, or any singular central question, that you are wrestling with in your work?
ADKIN: In my philosophical writings I’m mainly concerned with why humanity has made such little progress in establishing itself as “humanity” – which implies a simpler question: why do we keep making the same mistakes? But whether that question is buried in all my work … I’m not sure.
GALIMATIAS: Let’s take your three published novels: Purgatory, Art Wars and When Sirens Call. Is the question embedded in them?
ADKIN: Purgatory and When Sirens Call are both about trying to find our way Home with a capital “h”, and both of them contain an idea that our real home is not where we are but where we are going to. Contained in this is the philosophical idea, albeit unstated, that our final destination, in order to be truly purposeful, has to lie beyond our own lives, and that its purposefulness is far greater than our own lives. An idea which, through a philosophical link between aesthetics and human purposefulness, also links Art Wars.
Art Wars is about finding a purpose through art, or through taking an aesthetic stand point. Purgatory is about finding an aesthetic, and human position between art and the world through an alchemical search for eternity. And, When Sirens Call is likewise a debate around purposiveness and a search for life’s meaning which goes beyond our actual experience of life.
GALIMATIAS: And so we always make the same mistakes and fail to progress because we can’t see the real purpose of our existence?
ADKIN: Yes, in a nutshell, that’s it.
GALIMATIAS: Is your aim to point us in the right direction.
ADKIN: In my essays, yes. I tackle the problem of purposiveness head on. Philosophy has to be direct … like shooting an arrow, as Nietzsche said. But in the novels there is no deliberate exhibition of that idea. There can’t be. If there had been the novels would be unbearable. I think that would be a general rule in novel writing – if you’ve got something you really, passionately want to say, forget about it before you start writing. The question will remain if it’s truly important, but you need to let it sink into the subconscious and come out accidentally.
GALIMATIAS: And yet, art is about unravelling ideas?
ADKIN: Yes, but for a novel to work, the unravelling has to be part of the process of the creation itself. The big question being asked in the novel must always be the subconscious one, buried in the subtext. It’s the secret one. But a shaky secret because it’s the one that will always reveal itself whether you like it or not, and that is why it can, and should be, forgotten.
GALIMATIAS: What you mean is that all art has its subconscious question to ask?
ADKIN: Yes, and the essence of all works of art have to be found in the subject behind the image itself. They say that the essence of the Mona Lisa is her smile. But it’s not … it’s something deeper. A question between the lifeless representation and life itself. And a crying out for eternal life. The Mona Lisa, like all great art, is a bridge between the actual and the eternal.
The difference between art and philosophy is that philosophy attacks the ideas head on in a fully conscious way. A philosopher can never be shy about ideas, but a novelist must be.
GALIMATIAS: And what about the playwright?
ADKIN: The playwright is somewhere in between. Plays can be more direct than the novel. In my case they always are. I write plays when I want to scream directly at my audience, whereas I usually try to be more seductive with my novels.
GALIMATIAS: When Sirens Call is about seduction?
ADKIN: Yes. Sirens are seductive creatures. I wanted to write something that was, above all, atmospheric in When Sirens Call. But its ultimate purpose is to be useful, rather than to drive us against the rocks, as the Sirens do.
GALIMATIAS: It has very strong resonances.
On the other hand, Art Wars is not seductive at all.
ADKIN: No, it’s not. I made conscious, aesthetic decisions in Art Wars to deliberately not seduce. In fact I consider Art Wars as a kind of anti-novel. I made very conscious decisions to make things not as they should be made. Not that this was such an original standpoint – Dostoevsky did the same with his characters. There’s always an element in Dostoevsky’s characters that makes them seem inconsistent, even wrong, but it is that inconsistency that makes them appear so human.
GALIMATIAS: And Dostoevsky was exorcising his own demons through his characters, right?
ADKIN: Perhaps. We could analyse all art from the perspective of catharsis and it would be a very valid stand point, but a conservative one that undermines the purposive role of art. If catharsis exists it’s a cleansing and clearing process, pushing the pain of the past aside via direct confrontation, in order to clear the road for a positive future. But once we get immersed in the mess it’s not always easy to push through it. And for that reason catharsis is also a dangerous process. Kafka or Beckett probably never could get through, but the fact that they insisted and persisted with the creative act indicated the need for the positive results of the catharsis. Catharsis is an important element in art, but it is not the reason for art.
GALIMATIAS: Some of your own plays: The Clown or Hamlet Rex, for example, seem cathartic.
ADKIN: Yes, but both of those plays are basically comedies.
ADKIN: The tragic is part of the comedy. Nihilism is a tragedy in itself. In those works I was portraying, and laughing at, our nihilist society and the nihilistic direction of our civilisation.
GALIMATIAS: And yet your anti-nihilism is not obvious in those plays.
ADKIN: Not obvious for a nihilist. But really those plays were not at all subtle. Quite the contrary, I was trying to hit hard and they are full of the irony of the overstatement.
GALIMATIAS: An irony which is also crafted in Art Wars.
ADKIN: Yes, which is also overtly anti-nihilist.
GALIMATIAS: Can Art Wars be classified as a novel?
ADKIN: It is closer to a novella, and sprang out of my reaction to reading a short story by Thomas Mann, Gladius Dei.
GALIMATIAS: Which is very moralistic.
ADKIN: Correct. And Art Wars is moralistic as well. Which is why it couldn’t be developed as novel would be.
GALIMATIAS: You’re implying that there is a large aesthetic difference between the novella and novel?