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My Play Ego and automythology
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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I myself have often fantasised about... it would be amusing to read one’s obituaries. But we can’t do that. And then eventually I decided to write a play about this. And I think that it’s a very good play. It’s a play that I’ve enjoyed very much and it has, as I said, already come out in book form in German, not yet in English, and there will be the German premiere... this was only performed in London. It opened only last year. I wrote it a year and a half ago, less than two years ago. And it has only three characters. They were wonderful actors, particularly the woman actor, Leigh Zimmerman, a spectacular actress, and it did so well that my German agent... I don’t have an agent in English, but I have one in German, managed to get not only a very good Austrian premiere which will be next month, a month and a half, and I’m very much looking forward to it. And much more importantly, a huge German tour of 60 performances which will start in January of next year, January, February, all over Germany with a real German theatrical star. So I’m looking forward to it. And the German radio has already broadcast a radio version which I also prepared for it. So it’s a play that’s moving in the right direction. It has not been performed yet in the United States. It’s a very recent one.

But in the play I do that... or the actors have really managed to get across the emotional things even better, and I learned a lot about myself in writing both the novel and the play. And there are hidden autobiographical things in there that I will never disclose which are the sort of the gaps that I talked about, because the gaps in an autobiography are only of two kinds. And that is why I think autobiographies, or even what you’re doing right now, this type of interview, people had better realise that future viewers... and I want to say for the record, and I don’t want you to cut this. Whatever else you cut, don’t cut this... don’t believe everything you hear in this interview, not because I am necessarily deliberately lying, but most likely inadvertently.  That autobiography and therefore this type of oral history is automythology. It is automythology because you are presenting yourself, and unless you are an utter masochist, you’re trying to do it in some sort of favourable way, or at least a semi favourable way. I mean, even the worst autobiography is- not the worst written. One that is brilliantly written, but a painful one is Erwin Chargaff’s- and there’s a man if he were alive, you should have interviewed him. He died at age 99 just a couple of years ago. And it was called, "Of Heraclitean Fire", a very pretentious title, but an extremely complex and sophisticated autobiography. A very bitter one. Usually autobiographies are not that bitter, but still there are some. There’s a great deal of ego that’s also presented, and you either have the unconscious filters that prevent you from saying certain things, and they are are also the ones that convince you that certain things way back have happened a certain way, because you hoped they would happen that way. But in fact they did not. And this will be my next digression. I will give you a striking example in my own life of this, and I am sure there are oodles of other examples. So, therefore, it may not necessarily be true, although you think it is true whoever is speaking, and in this case even being I. So autobiographies and automythology are a form of fiction and I believe that the only really true place, where you can write a real autobiography, is unconsciously in the guise of fiction. Because it’s when you write fiction that you are God. Everything is possible to you. You can write anything you want to and you can pretend to the public and to yourself that you made it up. And, of course, in a way you made up many of the things, but in another way, you can say you cannot have made up anything if it comes out of your own mind. It’s there the moment I’ve created it. And where did it come from? Well, it comes not just from neural connections, it comes from my past experiences, and that is coloured by whatever or whoever I am. But, in addition, in autobiography- so these are the omissions which are unconscious ones you can’t help. They’re inherent in the genre, but then the second kind of omission, these are the ones out of discretion or shame. Particularly when you talk about other living people, I do not feel entitled or shouldn’t feel entitled to write about them. I feel that way about women in my life, for instance. That is, no-one’s business but that woman’s and mine. So therefore there is already a huge area that we wouldn’t address. In fiction you can do that, and I find that I’m doing that all the time. But I don’t provide anyone with a Rosetta Stone to Carl Djerassi because I put myself- I mean segments of me or certain events and so on, in so many different persons and events, and sometimes in certain female characters- in fact, perhaps even more in female than in male characters, deliberately so, to mislead the reader or the nosy person who wants to find out something about Carl Djerassi that he is not disclosing and thinks correctly that it’s somewhere in the novel. But it’s one thing to think so. It’s another thing to find it. And I will not provide you with that key obviously and never have before, and I’m sure will not otherwise.

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: London, Of Heraclitean Fire, Leigh Zimmerman, Erwin Chargaff’s

Duration: 6 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008