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Revising my Who's Who entry


The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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The fact of the matter is that the most interesting chapter in the... so there are really two autobiographies, The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse, and you can see right away it covers an awful lot of territory. Particularly if you want to know about the pygmy chimps. What would they do between art and science? And that’s relevant and if I forget to come to... that’s why I keep the book here, I may come back to it because it’s probably the pygmy chimps which are the interesting transition between the two. But I would say at least science and art, and art in the broader sense, are really the two worlds in which... in the way I’ve always lived. But now I particularly live in the art world, art in the very broadest sense, literature being part of that of course and drama but also art... at least it’s an art corrective. But that last chapter in this one, which is a short one, and has a good title because originally that was going to be the title of the autobiography, and that was, Mind the Gaps. But since that autobiography was published in the United States, Mind the Gaps means something totally different in the United States than it does in England, where of course here you hear it all the time in the underground even, and you would not hear that in any subway in the United States, and particularly not in the place where I live, San Francisco, which doesn’t even have a subway. But it’s the gaps that are really important one, and as I say in there... in fact, what I’ll do which I may do every once in a while, I’m going to read something from there, because I’m not really plagiarising or anything else, because these are my own words. And these... when I quote myself, something that I’ve written 15 years ago, then presumably... and I’m still finding it relevant, then this has sort of, you know, passed the test of time.

Let’s see... 'Everything that can be said about the self-indulgence, the deviousness, the deliberate or subliminal image massaging of autobiographical writing.' And I’ll interrupt here... this of course applies to what I’m going to do now, because that’s also what it is, except he won’t be writing, he’ll be speaking, so you can really see everything that can be said about the self-indulgent, the deviousness, the deliberate or subliminal image massaging of autobiographical speaking... 'I thought it had been said many times, nor is it original I suspect to compare autobiography with Swiss cheese. The holes in a life account may be planned or inadvertent, but they are there. Self-reflection and disclosure must pass through one’s particular psychic filters. Depending on the filter's mesh all kinds of facts and interpretations are withheld, microscopic or macroscopic, blemishes, tragedies, infirmities, faux pas, or worse sins, hidden lies, treachery. When the Swiss cheese analogy for autobiography first occurred to me, I considered it apt, though a bit corny. But now, as I see closure of my own account, and a title, all I see are the holes, the innumerable little incidents kept out. Though often mundane, they tell something unexpected.'

To give an example: I refused to learn my social security number. I think I’m probably the only person in America who doesn’t... has to look it up, deliberately. I mean, it’s ridiculous. I do remember my telephone number and so on, but I refuse to do that. It’s... these are certain personal minutiae that I simply... and there must be a reason why a social security number which you really do need as your one... you know, it’s like your concentration camp number. You carry it on your arm. You do remember that one. Or want to refuse to remember it.

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: The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse, Pygmy Chimps, Mind the Gaps

Duration: 4 minutes, 25 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008