Interview by Nick Spencer
Devotees of The Review Show on BBC2 know
Professor John Carey as the most gracious and yet
most robust of critics. Third Way booked an hour
with him in his cottage in the Cotswolds.
Your biog in What Good are the Arts?1 says of
has been at various points in his life a soldier, a barman, a
television critic, a beekeeper, a printmaker and a professor of
literature.' It's a rather unexpected CV for a don, and I wondered
what influence those different activities have had on the formation
of your mind.
Well, the one that I should think was most formative was
the Army, really. I did National Service, like everyone of my
generation: I was commissioned in the East Surrey Regiment in
'52-4, before I went up to Oxford, and went out to Egypt to guard
the Suez Canal. It was peaceful soldiering, of course, but it was
very educative because I'd come from a small grammar school -
jolly good school! - and I didn't really know anything about the
Army and thought of it, I suppose, with a sort of slight contempt.
But I found that the people I met in the Army were actually
extraordinarily interesting and admirable. I was lucky enough to
have a company commander, a decorated officer who had served in
North Africa and Normandy, who was a very gentle and considerate
I think the Army also gave me habits that have lasted, like
punctuality. I can't bear it if people are late for things. And
also, you know, keeping fit.
Yeah, I think so. I think so. And that might not be so
good… I mean, I think I was all right as a tutor at Oxford - I'm
pretty sure I wasn't a bully or anything.
Being a barman, of course, was just a holiday job, in Liverpool
Street Station. I think I did it for a couple of vacations. Very
fascinating, actually. Very good, again, for someone who's sort of
lived among books and had a rather sheltered life. People are very
insulting to barmen, you know. It's amazing how much rudeness you
get. It taught me a bit of what it's like to be not respected at
all - you know, treated like a menial. What most people have all
their lives, I suppose. That was good.
What had your upbringing been like?
I came from a very middle-class home, in Barnes. My
father was an accountant. Very Christian family, actually. We went
to the parish church every Sunday, and I belonged to the
My father had been in the war and I imagine that influenced him in
that respect, in that he was very religious - not in a
demonstrative way, but he prayed on his knees by his bed every
night. I sometimes heard him. I remember that on the wall facing my
parents' bed was a huge picture of the Crucifixion in a black
frame. Not a very joyful decoration for a bedroom…
So, yeah, I grew up in a Christian background - not, you know,
fanatical, but Christian values, certainly.
Did they influence you as a child?
Yeah. I think that kind of background influences you
forever afterwards, actually. All my values, really, are Christian,
even if they're wholly secularised.
I remember sort of losing my faith, as it were, when I was in the
Sixth Form. I think I told my mother first that I didn't believe
any more and she said, 'Talk to your father. He's a good man.' He
was a wonderful man, very generous, very gentle. He said: 'It's a
dark road you're starting on.' True, of course.
In what ways have you found the road dark?
Well, inevitably there is an emptiness…
What occasioned that loss of faith?
I couldn't say there was any one, particular thing. The
headmaster at my school was a very interesting man - I don't know
whether he was agnostic but he had been in the war and he was
slightly sceptical. I remember him setting us an essay on 'Of what
can we be certain?' - a very good essay to tackle at 16 - and I
found there is nothing, of course (as he hoped we would). So, that
was the kind of thing, I fancy. Reading and talking with other
Sixth Formers, I suppose. It was a kind of drifting away. That's
quite common, don't you think?
Did it feel like a loss at the time?
No. Partly because although I had changed inside, as it
were, I went on going to church and I think I had the same values,
only no longer quite with belief behind them. I went on with
church music, which I liked a lot.
Religious music still moves me, in a way that I suppose it
shouldn't, if you like. It's not something that a Christian would
think of as religion, but it's a substitute. When my sons were
choristers at New College, I would go and hear them sing - almost
every night, actually.
And another thing: when you study English literature, it seems to
me that you are kept in touch with what it is like to believe. I
mean, I was studying George Herbert and so on, and when you read
these poets you do imaginatively enter into what they're writing
about and it gives you a kind of nostalgic feeling that helps to
fill the gap that is left by what you haven't got.
Of course, it's not the same as faith, but at the same time… I'm
pretty certain that then - and now - in extremes I would pray -
but then I think that's very common, too. I think there is a kind
of hinterland where you can go either way according to
circumstance. Perhaps it has been common among the ordinary people
for centuries, actually. It's very hard to tell, because the
testament we have is by people who often are committed
Who feel strongly enough one way or the other to write
Yeah, that's right, that's right. Sure.
What attracted you to the (notably Christian) poets of the
late 16th and 17th century, and how did they inform your
understanding of Christianity? I'd have said that one of the surest
ways to put anyone off religion would be to get them to study
17th-century European history.
Yeah. I was, I suppose, influenced greatly by the people who
taught me, as usual. I was tutored by J B Leishman, who had written
what was then the book on Donne.2
I think what attracted me to Donne was that - well, although he
had Christian faith, he also (so to speak) didn't. I mean, the Holy
Sonnets are all about the devil claiming him - perhaps he will
'perish on the shore',3 you know? They are expressive of doubt, and
I suppose that matched my feelings, particularly when I was an
And Milton - well, what I love about him, I think, is really his
Puritanism. I do find Puritanism actually very appealing. I'm not
absolutely certain why, but one thing is that I was brought up
during the war, obviously in frugal circumstances - not that we
were poorer than most people - on the contrary - but there was
rationing, there were no luxuries, you know; and I came to feel
that frugality was the right way to live. I still do, actually. The
sort of influx of affluence in the last 20 years seems to me not
normal, not the kind of way I want to live, really.
And, also, Milton's application of reason and logic to religion, I
think, was very attractive. At the beginning of the Sixties, I
spent my evenings for nearly four years translating Milton's De
Doctrina Christiana, the huge, four-volume work of Latin
exegesis in which he goes through the Bible working out what it
really says. I was fascinated by that. I mean, it was the first
time I'd really looked at someone applying their brain to the
It led him in some very heterodox directions, didn't
Oh, heretical, absolutely. Denial of the doctrine of the
Trinity, denial of the divinity of Christ…
I learnt a lot about doctrine. I mean, it's astonishing how
little people know about Christian doctrine now, but I discovered
reading De Doctrina that I didn't know as much as I thought,
either. He does virtually ransack the whole Bible for his proof
In the introduction to The Faber Book of
Science, you say: 'Theology might, without any paradox, be
regarded as a science, committed to persistently questioning and
reinterpreting available evidence about God.' That is a thoroughly
orthodox medieval view of theology but not one you hear very often
today, when it is fashionable to disparage theology.
That's right. Yes, that's right. And certainly my view of
theology is partly coloured by what I've just said about Milton: if
that's theology, well, that's an extremely interesting thing to do
and it's interesting to see how the mind works in that kind of
enquiry. It doesn't seem to be very different from the way the mind
works in any enquiry, actually. Examine the evidence. Go back to
the sources and then see how it works out.
But you're right that I don't take a hostile view of religion. I
mean, that seems to me extraordinarily insensitive and
inconsiderate and irrational. Why should you deprive someone of
their religious faith? Again, a lot of my feelings and thoughts are
derived from literature, having read it for so long and taught it
for so long; and William Wordsworth, when he's watching the
pilgrims at some shrine in France, says:
If the sad grave of human ignorance bear
One flower of hope - oh, pass and leave it there!4
You know, don't quench or question these people's faith: they're
happier with it. Well, surely that must be right, it seems to me.
Obviously, Christian faith has been of enormous comfort through the
centuries to people in tragic circumstances. I don't see what you
gain by trying to stamp it out, like Richard Dawkins - and what you
lose is obvious: not just a huge resource for comfort spiritually
but also, well, the moral dimension, which we seem to be much in
I guess that the Dawkins camp would say that it is all a
question of truth. Is it right to commend something you don't
believe is true on the grounds that it keeps people on the straight
and narrow? And aren't you yourself proof that one can live a moral
life without it?
Yes, I take your point… Well, I'm not sure that I
wouldn't have been a more moral person myself if I had kept my
religious faith. Not that I'm a criminal, of course… I'm sure that
my father was a much better man because of his faith. I mean, the
people I have known well who were religious - and quite a few of
them I would think of as almost saintly - didn't behave
unselfishly because they thought they would be punished if they
didn't but, I believe, out of love of God.
Fifty years ago or so, there was a widespread opinion
that as societies became better educated and wealthier, religion
would wither away; but patently that hasn't happened. Does that
influence your attitude to religion, and to Christianity
specifically: that, whether or not it is true, it speaks to a deep
and ineradicable human need?
Yes, it does. Furthermore, this business about truth is
quite a complicated one, I think. It's clear that the truth or
untruth, say, of the existence of God isn't something that is
attainable by the human mind, so that the best position someone
like Dawkins could honestly, it seems to me, attain to is
agnosticism. I can't see how you can be certain of the
non-existence of something when there aren't any means of finding
I also think that the notion that science, or logic, is capable of
something you might say is truth is itself quite questionable. I
mean, the human brain, the scientists tell us, is a piece of meat
with electric impulses going through it. Now, why should that piece
of meat have some connection with something called 'truth'? You
know? I don't see why they're so sure about it. It seems to me the
whole business is so uncertain that their dogmatic certainty seems
The last line of William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of
the Flies famously refers to 'the darkness of man's heart'. Is
that, fundamentally Christian idea something you would countersign:
that there is something genuinely dark in human nature that is not
erased by wealth or education or civilisation?
I'm rather inclined to that. Certainly, Golding leads
you in that direction. But I think also, from reading a bit of
anthropology, it seems that two of the basic instincts we need to
survive are aggression and (obviously) sex; but it happens that at
the moment they are what's destroying the world. That is to say,
we've got a huge population that is expanding all the time, and no
one knows how we're going to feed it, so you could do without
sexual intercourse for a while, as it were. I did a Faber Book
of Utopias and from the middle of the 19th century that has
been the main worry of Utopians. H G Wells was always thinking how
to get rid of people…
And aggression - well, obviously, aggression is, alas, what you
There's another thing about the human brain from that point of
view - going back to Richard Dawkins. He often talks about awe,
doesn't he? About how you don't need religion because science gives
you awe and wonder - as if religion only gives you awe and wonder!
But awe and wonder, it seems to me, are simply traceable to the
deficiencies of the human brain as it has developed over the
millennia. What it's developed to do is to, well, solve simple
physical problems - make stone axes and so on. And if you look at
subatomic particles and think how awesome they are - well, they're
only awesome because we're completely unable to deal with them.
What Dawkins calls 'awe' is actually ignorance. I don't see
anything particularly wonderful about it.
It is often remarked that, irrespective of our religious
faith, we lose something profound if we lose contact with the
culturally formative narratives and mental landscapes that
Christianity has given us.
Well, exactly, exactly. I mean, you can't understand any
literature before the 20th century without that. Even in Oxford,
for heaven's sake, where you're supposed to get, you know, the most
brilliant undergraduates and so on, you'd be surprised how little
they know. You might say: 'Well, they can't understand
pre-20th-century literature. So what? A lot of people don't need to
understand pre-20th-century literature.' But what it actually
means is, there isn't a common culture any more. There used to be a
whole set of references that would be understood by everyone, and
we don't seem to have that any more.
What we have now is pop culture, and it's interesting - I mean, I
find myself now beginning to appreciate what it must have been like
when I was growing up for people who had no knowledge of, say,
literature, classical music and so on. I'm in that position now
with pop culture. Only yesterday I was reading in the New
Yorker a piece by its editor, David Remnick, about Keith
Richards - I mean, pages and pages. I couldn't tell you anything
about Keith Richards…
I guess the question is: Does all this
Well, I think that's a very good question. At the level of not
having a common culture, a common set of references, I think it
probably does. Intellectual life becomes disintegrated.
Is it more important to learn about English literature than pop
music? Now, that is a very important question and in What Good
are the Arts? I say: Well, you can't show that it does. I
wrote that against the grain, obviously, but also, I suppose,
because I've studied Milton and I thought you should examine the
evidence and find out, whatever you'd like to believe, what
actually seems to be the case.
And if you ask, 'Are there objective, absolute standards in art
and literature?', I don't see that there are - and I don't see what
they would be like supposing you could imagine there were. If you
believe in God and believe that he's got aesthetic taste, then
that's that - I mean, I've heard Anne Atkins on the radio talking
about Shakespeare as if God likes Shakespeare, you know? But I
don't believe that - and what other kind of criterion could there
be? If it's objective and it's absolute, it would also have to be
transcultural - the same for the Japanese and Chinese and Indians
as for us. And it must be through time - and if you look at the
reputations of artists and poets through time, they change a
So, I find it very hard to believe that you can say that Milton
is better than Keith Richards.
Nonetheless, the book cites several powerful instances
of how art can be beneficial - how, for example,
poetry-and-literature workshops in prisons foster self-esteem and
creativity, which make us more fully human; and you seem to regard
that as an objective good and not just a subjective one.
I do, I do, and I was very impressed by what people who
have worked in prisons on art and literature have written. It was a
straw to cling to, I felt - which goes counter to the purely
negative and relativistic argument.
On the other hand, it's not clear to me that authors and artists
who can lead people towards self-esteem and so on cannot come from
pop culture - I'm thinking of Christopher Ricks's book on Bob
Dylan particularly.5 I mean, Dylan means nothing to me but Ricks
believes he is as good as Shakespeare and Keats, you know? I didn't
agree with anything he said in the book, but I admire Ricks
enormously - I think he's the greatest critic writing, actually -
astoundingly intelligent man.
Another man I admire a lot is Sarfraz Manzoor - he's often on
The Review Show and so on - and he once told me that his
life had been changed by Bruce Springsteen - he was, so to speak,
his Shakespeare. Well, again, I mean, fine: that's good if these
writers and artists are very important, it gives you something to
cling to; but it also slightly weakens the sense that there is a
kind of canon of admissible people who will give you that feeling
of self-esteem. And maybe you can also get it from - I'm not
trivialising this, but - learning a language, say, or playing a
As for creativity, I see your point but I'm troubled by it. I'm
not sure that creativity is a good thing necessarily, you know? It
seems as if the ability to imagine something that is not the now
and here is specifically human - animals haven't got it, it seems
to be agreed - I don't know if that's true - but that imagining can
be the imagination of a serial killer as well as a Milton or
Shakespeare, you know?
Nonetheless, doesn't the fact that there is a canon in
literature - albeit that Shakespeare was not much admired for a
good 50 years after his death (or ever by Tolstoy) - suggest that
there is something of objective value that is greater in some works
than in others?
Yeah, I don't at all disagree with you. In fact, I would
advise someone starting out to start with the canon. It seems to me
that what Dr Johnson said is right, that what mankind has thought
about and valued, you're likely - unless you're very unusual - to
find value in, too. That doesn't seem to me to amount to a claim
for (so to speak) absolute values, because it's over a very short
time-span within a single culture, you know? If you think of a
larger time-span and ask which of the cave paintings in Lascaux are
better than the others, you can't answer, because you have no idea
what the criteria are. You just don't know.
It's trying to think in big time-spans that starts, for me, to
erode the absolute notions. I was impressed by reading about how
perplexed they are at the moment about what danger sign to put on
nuclear waste which is going to take, you know, thousands and
thousands of years to disintegrate and stop being dangerous. The
assumption is that all the known languages will be extinct long
before then. Once you start thinking about that, you realise - and
it's quite a chilly feeling - that we live in a tiny, tiny little
You make a very strong case for the importance of
reading literature. In Pure Pleasure,6 you say: 'Reading
and civilisation have grown up together … A democracy composed
largely of television-watchers is mindless compared to a democracy
composed largely of readers.' It's often said that we're moving
from a print culture to one that is both much more visual and more
instant. Do you agree? And if so, what do you think are the
implications for us as a society?
Well, one has got to be careful here because it's easy to
talk in a way that assumes absolutes and, you know, I don't believe
I'm worried that the basic, sort of physical differences between
reading and watching film or television might be things that, if
lost, are a deprivation - for example, the ability to be alone
with yourself and a book, alone with another mind and thinking. If
you don't do that at all, well, you're a different person from
someone who does, you know? (I obviously prefer the first kind of
person, being one.)
Also, if you read you're constantly visualising the things
you're reading about. If you watch a film, that process is, so to
speak, stilled. And I'm inclined to think that the thinking and
imagining creature is one I would rather see making decisions than
the non-thinking, non-imagining creature. But this is a subjective
view, of course, and I'm sure that adherents of music and the
visual arts would be able to make out a case against it - which I'd
be interested to hear.
It strikes me that a lot of what you say in your writing
is informed by antipathy to those who write in order to obfuscate
rather than elucidate. Is that fair?
Yeah, absolutely. This again goes back to my education, I
think, which valued clarity. Also, because I'd been to a grammar
school and so didn't feel at ease with the kind of elitism that a
public school almost inevitably instils, you know, the use of
language or ideas to exclude some people was antipathetic to me
from quite early on.
And the more I read the people I admired - mainly [George]
Orwell, actually… I remember reading the collected letters and
journalism and thinking: That's mind-changing, really. Such a
brilliant writer! And, yeah, that helped me to see why I felt as I
did about unclear thinking and writing - particularly when it is
deliberately unclear, as in quite a lot of the kind of literary
theory that was fashionable about 10 years ago, and quite a lot of
On a desert island, which book out of all the thousands on
your shelves would you want to have with you, apart from the Bible
and the complete works of Shakespeare?
I'd take The Complete Works of George Orwell,
edited by Peter Davison.7 It's got wonderful notes.