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My Play Ego and automythology

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Marx, Deceased: a book about productive insecurity
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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What the novel’s about and what the play is about, is about the preoccupation- well, it’s first of all, I now know what the subject matter is. In my play, one of the characters says it. The term is productive insecurity. And what productive insecurity means- and I certainly suffer from that disease without any question. And I think it is one that the vast majority of scientists, of really good or important scientists, or of those who think they’re important, which I think is the important point, suffer from. And which the general rest of the public- and I don’t mean just non scientific public or non professional public, the rest of them really don’t recognise or think about. Let’s say there’s a guy who’s won two Nobel prizes- let’s say Linus Pauling. He’s a very good example actually. You’d say, my God, one of the greatest chemists and Nobel Laureate and everything else. He’s got everything. And in fact, he doesn’t. Unless he’s finished doing whatever he’s doing, but if he’s doing more work, he needs the approbation of someone else. And that is probably a very good example, because late in life he did not get it. Another man like Szent-Györgyi won the Nobel Prize for vitamin C and he had a hell of a time with the public, the scientific public, at the end. But even if you’re not taking these extremes, you can take- the character Stephen Marx is based, is in my mind a composite of three writers, and these writers are world famous, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Gore Vidal. And I- this novel is dedicated to a woman named Brett Millier who was a graduate student of my wife’s in English at Stanford whom I hired as a research assistant and asked, would you please collect the hundreds of reviews of novels of Roth, Mailer and Gore Vidal which I would like to read. But collect them for me. Obviously not trivial ones, but the major ones. And also ones where colleagues wrote about them. And here you have three writers that, to me as a writer, are the pinnacle of success. I would like nothing more than- particularly Philip Roth whom I just think is probably- if there’s another American who in my lifetime who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature, it should probably be Philip Roth. And yet, they are extremely insecure. Their response to reviewers has been passionate. In the case of Norman Mailer, he responds to reviews- that’s in the "New York Times", where his response his longer than the review, and of course the "New York Times" does publish it because it’s amusing, entertaining and everything else, and he’s had fisticuffs with- literally physical fights with reviewers. Philip Roth was so resentful of reviews that he got for his first great novel, "Portnoy’s Complaint", that he wrote another novel about it. One of his "Zuckerman trilogy" novels is nothing but a revenge against one of the reviewers. I mean, they carry it to that extreme. Gore Vidal stopped writing fiction in the 1950s for a number of years because of the scathing reviews he got by the "New York Times" of his fiction. So here you have examples of people who seem to be highly- James Joyce was preoccupied with reviews. I mean, taking people whom we all consider that they’re crème de la crème and yet they need that approbation from- a continuing one, and that in fact drives them to excel, and that’s what I mean by productive insecurity. So it’s both a poison and a nourishment of that place, and that’s what I want to write about. And this man, Stephen Marx, falls in this category, this American writer has won the Pulitzer Prize, the national book awards, blah, blah, blah, but he still feels, what do they really think of me? And he feels that the only way he can tell that, is if he read his own obituaries. Now, not the obituaries in the newspapers which, of course, are canned things that have already been written, but the critical obituaries that colleagues and other people write sometimes weeks or months later, and that are long and reflective and usually are the last things people write about him, because there isn’t anything more to do. And remove some of the more personal aggravations I think. So he stages his own death in a very plausible way in a sailing accident where the body was not found in New York. He’s a New Yorker like Philip Roth and Mailer, and flees to San Francisco, and holes out there and writes in the meanwhile anonymously in San Francisco while he’s reading these things. And that, of course, is the person you see. You now see the two faces. He is already writing another name and so on. And he eventually decides that he will not come back. Originally he thought, of course, he would return. He was married. He had no children. But he was about to get divorced and he felt his wife would not be devastated in the long term, and it might even be a relief. And he didn’t screw her in any other way in terms of financials, and so on. In fact, she would end up with continuing royalties and everything else. Money was of no interest or anything. It was the work and the self image and such. And he decided he would just actually in fact continue all over again. Well, that’s what this novel is about. Of course, he couldn’t consummate this. As usual, some things go wrong. But you will have to read the novel to find out what it is.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Stanford, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Brett Millier

Duration: 6 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008