Jeanette Winterson’s most recent novel, The Stone Gods (Harcourt, 2008), spans time and space to critique humanity’s off-kilter relationship to science, technology, and nature. Over email, fittingly, Winterson chatted about the book, and meditated on the power and potential of art to connect us to history, each other, and the world around us.
Erica Wetter (Rail): What would you describe as the main issues that Billie [the book’s heroine] confronts as she tries to work out the ideal relationship between technology, humans, and nature?
Jeanette Winterson: There is no ideal society. Flaws, chaos, mistakes, attempts, are as necessary to balance as getting something right. There is no such thing as perfect where humans are concerned, but there are such things as values, and a society that puts science and technology in place of values is a society that will ultimately not survive. We live in a world where our future is being decided by science. This is wrong. Science is part of life; it is not the answer to life’s questions. Science can serve us, but it cannot lead us. As humans we are in danger of giving up personal responsibility. We are in danger of giving up on our humanness.
Rail: The narrative functions as a series of overlapping circles—if history and experience are cyclical what hope do we have of changing things and escaping the destructive side of these cycles?
Winterson: Buddhism teaches the doctrine of endless return. Nietzsche writes about a repeating world. Freudian psychoanalysis is based on the idea that we will keep tripping over the same unresolved conflicts in different disguises. As a society we talk about a war to end wars, and then a few years later we have another war. Our economy runs in boom and bust cycles. We find it very difficult to learn from our mistakes—just as difficult to learn from our successes. The Eastern idea of being stuck on a wheel is apt. However, there is always the opportunity to break the pattern, the curse, and that is what Greek drama is based on. It is also what the hero figure achieves in folktales. That which was lost is found. There is hope, but that hope lies with the individual and his or her readiness to take responsibility, both at a personal and at a collective level.
Rail: At the beginning of the book one character comments: “Stories are always true…It’s the facts that mislead.” Can you talk a little bit about how this principle may have driven your writing of the book?
Winterson: We live in the misinformation age, the age of spin, the age of downright lies. We wage war on the basis of false “facts.” We cannot believe what our governments tell us, and we know that so-called impartial news reporting is anything but impartial. Noam Chomsky is very good on all this in the US.
I believe that art, in all its forms, tells us true things about the human condition, about how we feel, about the things we are forced into, about the choices we make. Art also reminds us that this tiny part of time that is our time is not the only time, and that we are connected to history—not as a set of facts, but as a set of experiences—experienced by people like us. We don’t read Shakespeare to find out about life in Elizabethan England, we go and see a Shakespeare play to find out about ourselves—now. Art, the real thing, is not time-bound in the way that we are, it works across time, and so gives us a perspective that is emotional as well as intellectual. All art is a story of some kind, not because it is fixed in narrative—but because it holds an emotional understanding. A Jackson Pollock tells as much of a story as War and Peace. A story is not a beginning, a middle, and an end; a story is something happening. The something comes in all shapes and sizes and forms.
When we look at our own CV, when we look at the facts of our own lives, we know those facts do not tell anything like the whole story. The whole story is also our dreams, our fears, our secrets, our hidden selves, and so on. These other parts of us, these other truths about us, the truth the facts can’t tell, is the truth that art can tell.
Rail: Which of the “facts” in the books are true, and how do you think this buttresses the power of the book?
Winterson: If you mean is the science accurate, yes, all of it. Scientists are working on both genetic fixing and genetic reversal. They are also working on every kind of artificial intelligence—both to enhance human beings and to create an independent computer-robot being. There is also an active search for a new home in space or the possibility of space colonies. There is a willful desire to abandon Earth—trash it and move on. Stephen Hawking has said that the future of the human race lies in our chance of getting off the planet. That is a defeatist, and very male approach, but it is a very real approach.
Rail: In the book there seems to be a tension between characters who work with society and those who live outside of it. Can you discuss this tension in the book and in reality?
Winterson: It is impossible now for any thinking person to be wholly comfortable inside society. In the West we have made a world where money is King, and where the end always justifies the means. Like many people I find this repellent. The job of all of us is to ask questions, awkward questions, of our elected governments, and above all to withdraw financial support from corrupt systems. This is very simple: don’t buy from irresponsible companies; don’t buy food that degrades the environment in its growing and processing; don’t buy slave-labor products; above all, don’t buy more than you need to sustain a simple and dignified life. We know all this stuff! Do it, any of it, some of it, and you are automatically outside the norm. I’m back to personal responsibility again. The Stone Gods is not a preachy book, but it asks questions, and it questions the reader.
Rail: Can you talk a little about the role you think fiction should play in affecting political and social change?
Winterson: Art, all art, protects imaginative space. Encounters with art open your mind because they force you away from your usual little world into spaces both meditative and challenging. It is a great mistake, the biggest mistake of all, to confuse a piece of art with its subject matter—what it says, what it’s about. We can’t do that with music, and we can’t do it with abstract painting, etc. That should warn us not to do it, full-stop. Of course a novel is “about” something, but its power is in its language and its image-making. When we turn to art, we are turning away from the clock-driven busy world into a reflective space that allows us to find our own meaning and our own beat. Change is impossible unless it starts with the individual. Art is always, always, always about the individual, the one-to-one experience. Change begins when our minds change—when our hearts change. That’s what art does, and that is why governments in the West don’t ban art—that would make it important and we would fight to keep it—no, they trivialize art, call it a luxury, call it elitist, quietly withdraw it from school study, and we go along with this, and soon we are just passive consumers of goods and news items, and we lose our spiritual muscle. Art keeps your mind fit, keeps your heart strong.
Erica Wetter is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.