#Unsung magazine

This appeared in the summer of 2009 in issue 3 of Unsung magazine, edited by a group of students from MMU. The interviewer was Matt Byrne.

‘Interview with Laurence Coupe’

 What was your initial inclination to set off on the path your research has taken? What early reading or influences?

When I was travelling around the north-west of England in the 1980s, teaching at about three universities a week and trying to get a full-time job, I started reading Kenneth Burke. I found him an inspiring figure because he used to do something similar: teaching a term here and a term there, never being given a permanent post. In his case, he didn’t want one, though! Anyway, reading his books opened up a whole new way of looking at the world. He advocated what he called the ‘comic corrective’, so that we don’t start taking ourselves too seriously and don’t start imposing our ideas on other people. He wrote about literature as ‘equipment for living’, and he saw both literary works and critical works as attempts to come to terms with a situation, not as final statements.


Music tends to be a medium which you enjoy using to illustrate your points. What is the power behind these forms and are they as powerful in the modern age?

As a teenager in the mid-sixties, I got interested in William Blake, T S Eliot and other poets because of listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. I think that the new emphasis on lyrics and their meanings at that time was hugely important, and still is today. Students have impressed me by the sensitivity and depth of their responses to song lyrics, so I think that there must be a hunger for meaning. Unfortunately, pop music is everywhere these days, simply as background noise. I loathe piped music! The best of it deserves to be taken seriously and listened to carefully.


Your work and interpretation of theory tends towards an eco-conscious and empathetic relationship with the environment, have you ever undergone any work to aid in its defence?

As a student, I was heavily involved in left-wing politics, to an extent which I now regret. I became very disenchanted with Marxism in the 1980s, and gradually moved from ‘red’ to ‘green’ politics thereafter. My support of environmental movements is almost entirely financial, apart from supporting the odd local campaign and attending meetings. I do admire dedicated eco-activists. I suppose if I were young and fit I’d support them more practically. I just hope that my teaching and writing might be making a difference.


Are there any writers or artists that you’ve come across recently which you feel deserve a mention?

I hate to admit it, but I don’t read many contemporary novels. However, I was really impressed by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which has a sombre ecological message. Our own resident poets are producing great work, and I might also put in a word for my friend and former colleague Jeff Wainwright, whose recent volumes have been really challenging.

As I’ve got more and more interested in country music, I’ve looked out for new artists in that field. I discovered Gillian Welch about five years ago, but the Handsome Family only in the last year or so. They seem to me to play what we might call ‘real’ music, which is good and gloomy. They belong to the same tradition as the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers, Gram Parsons, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. As for other popular music, I’m afraid I tend to listen to old favourites (including any recent work they’ve done): Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Richard Thompson, the Incredible String Band and Donovan. I revere Nick Drake as much as anyone. You will gather how behind the times I am when I say that I only discovered the wonderfully lugubrious Smiths just as they were disbanding! I’m also ashamed to say that I didn’t discover the splendid, graceful music of my colleague and friend Dominic Williams until three years ago. In classical music my taste is very conventional: I like Beethoven, Mahler, Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams – with only the odd contemporary composer, such as John Tavener. (Some people would say he’s very odd indeed!)


You have several publications in circulation dealing with everything from ecocriticism to myth to an intense speculation on the Beats. Has the road to this success been a hard one?

I honestly wouldn’t call it success. I feel as if I’m still just starting out – partly due to the fact that I didn’t get a permanent university position until I was middle-aged! My only ‘best sellers’ have been The Green Studies Reader and Myth. I’m hoping that Beat Sound, Beat Vision will go into paperback soon, which will help it reach a wider readership.


What, in your opinion, is the lasting benefit someone could draw from the Beats and their work?

I would hope that serious readers of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder would find themselves opening up to the spiritual dimension of life. I think that their turn to the East, particularly towards Buddhism, was decisive in waking up the West to a much wider understanding of what we mean by words like ‘sacred’. Of course, we’ve got their friend Alan Watts to thank for making us see that Jesus and Buddha are speaking the same language. Also, Watts and Snyder are the great gurus of green spirituality, which is going to become more and more important as we realise that we need to treat the earth as sacred rather than plundering it and laying it waste.


What has your time at MMU been like? What are your opinions on its teaching methods and organisation?

As I say, I didn’t get a full-time position until quite late on, but I do remember how things were before the expansion of higher education: small seminar groups and a much more relaxed atmosphere. Lecturing at university sounds an easy job but it’s really very stressful nowadays, given the sheer numbers of students. Also, there’s a huge amount of marking and administration that goes with the teaching. Sometimes I do apologise to the students because of the overcrowding and the unsatisfactory accommodation. Other times I’m aware that I come across as a grumpy old man concerning lateness, attendance, etc.  Another problem is that it’s getting harder and harder to be a scholar: there’s so little money available for research leave. Without the time to write, there’s not much chance to develop new ideas – which then feed into one’s teaching. Having said that, I am grateful to have been given the chance to develop units of my own, and it’s been really gratifying to see many students engage with them enthusiastically.


And finally… Leave us with a quote!

My academic hero is, as I say, Kenneth Burke, on whom I wrote a worthy but rather dull book. I often quote to myself his saying: ‘A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.’ It’s worth bearing in mind when you think you have got everything sorted out. Burke also says, more bluntly: ‘We always avoid being stupid like other people by being stupid in ways of our own.’ If you’ll allow me one more of his, I think this is worth dwelling on, particularly by people who think they’ve ‘arrived’ and are proud of having prestigious positions in their various institutions: ‘Men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss.’ Amen!



# PULP magazine Spring 2010

 Laurence Coupe


[Questions posed by editorial team…]

Does fairy tale have a similar impact on culture and society as myth? If so/not, how/why?

First we need to distinguish them. Myth is a founding narrative which gives people their cultural identity. It is our social imagination. In its early stages it is associated with religion, and even when society becomes mainly secular it still has a kind of spiritual charge and power. Myths involve heroes and heroines – often gods and goddesses – engaged in conflicts and transformations that evoke very deep cultural meanings. Myths tell us what we take most seriously.


A culture in its early days will usually develop both myths and folk tales. The one is, if you like, more serious than the other, but as myths develop they increasingly include folk tale elements. So what’s the difference? Well, myth is about needs; folk tale is more about wishes.


The late, literary version of folk tale is sometimes called fairy tale – though Marina Warner prefers to speak of the wonder tale, as the presence of fairies is not essential to the format.


Another contrast between myth and folk/fairy/wonder tale is that the one provides a sense of roots while the other offers a sense of play, which tends to subvert the idea of an ordered cosmos.


Fairy tales have been overtly refigured in many recent ‘adult’ cultural texts, the films of Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro for example. Does this say anything about our specific time and place?


We could say that our time is one of uncertainty and indeterminacy, in which people are sceptical about solutions. So fairy tale, with its strong emphasis on making a wish and succeeding through chance or good luck, suits our mood. As for more ‘adult’ treatments, there’s a strong case for saying that fairy tale was always about what it means to grow up and mature – but it insists that we need to retain our sense of wonder and adventure, or life is dull, pointless and oppressive. Burton and del Toro really do understand the appeal of fairy tale – for me, del Toro especially. PAN’S LABYRINTH is the most wonderful use of fairy tale that I’ve encountered in years and years. He knows that, though it’s all about wishing and hoping, it really does address serious concerns. He juxtaposes the horrors of history, such as fascist dictatorship in Spain, with the alternative world of the child’s imagination. Marvellous!


Perhaps I should add that the appeal of del Toro’s film is that it has a mythic resonance that goes deeper than fairy tale. After all, Pan is a god of nature. D. H. Lawrence once wrote an essay lamenting the death of Pan, by which he meant that modern humanity, dedicated to technology and progress, had lost touch with nature and so with their true selves. And don’t forget that the labyrinth is an archetypal image that recurs in many myths: it represents the depths of nature – the womb of Mother Earth, if you like – and it is where we find ourselves by losing ourselves.


As children, most of us become familiar with a ‘canon’ of fairy tales. Do any messages from these go on to inform our adult worldviews?


The Freudian view is that all fairy tales are about the child’s attempt to deal with his/her own sexuality and her relationship with her parents. So in a sense each tale is a rite of passage which we relive and reaffirm when we read it later in life. I don’t buy that interpretation completely. It’s true that depicting wicked stepmothers and terrifying ogres can alert the child to the likelihood that the world isn’t a rose garden. But if the key is the struggle for a new life, then that’s something which both children and adults are involved in all the time. In the tale, all problems are solved; but unlike hero myths, they’re not solved through force but simply through being good, being kind, being humble. There are some terrible things that happen to the hero and heroine of fairy tale, but at the end they have been dispelled.


There is, of course, a difficulty for contemporary readers. Due to the sheer amount of information at our disposal, we are much more acutely aware of the horrors of our world. It’s hard to affirm the power of imagination, and the idea of life as a game, in the face of such cases as ‘Baby P’, where three adults (one of them his own mother) colluded in torturing a defenceless little boy to death – or again, the case of Elizabeth Fritzl, kept in a cellar for decades by her sadistic father, raped almost daily and forced to bear several children (three of whom had to grow up in that confined space). In a sense, fairy tale can warn us that  atrocities are possible, but they are to be read symbolically. Nobody really expects to come across demonic types like Baby P’s killers or Joseph Fritzl.


Though del Toro is right to insist that innocence and imagination must continue to be affirmed, we have to admit that the society we live in cannot be overcome by wishing and hoping. But that does not mean that everyday life, with its struggles, isn’t somehow alleviated by the ‘wonder’ of the tale.


What is the impact on this of fairy tales being refigured for children, for example with Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes?


Fairy tales should be constantly refigured. That is what they are all about: transformation. Dahl’s subversive treatment is perfectly in keeping with the Brothers Grimm. Really, fairy tales cannot be too dark. But no matter what horrid depths they plumb, reality in our time will always go further.


For me, the ultimate challenge of our time is the ecological one. For that, fairy tale isn’t much use. We need to regain the power of myth. Myth has always dealt with the essential relationship between humanity and nature. Where did it all go wrong? It is myth which will be able to tell us. For many, the answer is: when myths about many gods, each representing an aspect of nature, were replaced about myths about one God, who created nature and stands apart from it. The Western world seems to be in thrall to a myth of progress, which allows us to do what we want to nature because either we have a God-given right, or because profit and the ‘free market’ demand it. But if we look back to early myths about the Earth Mother, we find a different way of thinking. The brilliant James Lovelock has developed his ‘Gaia theory’ because he knows that we will only ever care for a planet that we personify in mythic terms. It is almost too late, but unless we learn to revere Gaia, we’re certainly doomed.