Q and A with James Murphy on

‘The Misanthropist’s Secret Love-Life’


The themes of the Misanthropist are challenging, certainly the book’s first half is bleak. – Are you wary that its subject matter might deter readers?


“No. The book is esoteric anyway: it will only ever appeal to a select number of people: people interested in the romantic origins of the misanthropic nature.”


What do you mean by ‘romantic’ in this context?


“Well the kind of misanthropists that interest me start out as Romantics: they’re failed misanthropists in that they allow themselves to become embittered when life disappoints them.

“Actually, literature, movies – art in general is populated by misanthropists: most are dismissible bores, but a few are deeply fascinating. Hamlet is a classic misanthropist for example – ‘what is this quintessence of dust? No, man delights not me..’ et cetera.

“I find the syndrome fascinating and misanthropists deeply interesting as a psychological type: they feel and say forbidden things. And they have a contempt for the herd, and herd-mentality.


Do you see yourself as a misanthropist?


   “Worse: I’m a failed misanthropist! No, of course there’s an aspect of me that is misanthropic or I wouldn’t’ve written the book, but there’s another part of me that sees the limitations of that outlook, that world-view, so to speak.

“To a large degree The Misanthropist’s Secret Love-Life is concerned with redemption from the dark night of the soul that misanthropy represents. It isn’t pleasant to feel contempt: it’s not an emotion that sustains one in life, it corrupts one ultimately.


So you don’t believe human nature is irredeemably fallen then?


“No I don’t. But, at the risk of sounding pseudo-mystical, I do believe you have to fall, to use that kind of terminology, in order to experience any sort of redemption.

“That’s why a certain kind of misanthropist interests me: because he knows he’s fallen. Most people don’t realise they’re fallen –  most of them aren’t even interesting enough to fall: they just live life in a state of deeply dormant averageness; you see them in the High street, eyes glazed, humping round their shopping from one place to another, wading around in a sort of eternal stodge: they haven’t liberated themselves from the primal stew of eternal mediocrity – if that doesn’t sound too misanthropic…


But surely history repeatedly reveals humanity’s extraordinary qualities?


“You say ‘humanity’ as if it were a general virtue. Actually it’s a few individual human beings. That’s my point: that actually it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to be ‘good’ – whatever that means – than we like to think.

“The vast majority of people are entirely self-interested, and their morality is merely a function of that self-interest, a quid-pro-quo method for securing their own self-interest without colliding with too many others who are all doing the same thing.




Cynical as it is, Is that necessarily a bad thing?


“No, of course, not. In fact it’s vital. An enlightened self-interest is vital for the functioning of society at a very basic level. As long as we realise that’s all it is, and that it doesn’t actually make for very interesting beings. Most people are profoundly boring, driven by profoundly predictable beliefs and instincts.


Do you really believe that?


“Absolutely! Look, we’re all tedious low-level misanthropists to a degree.

“As a species we’re always pretending – lying would be a better word. We pretend we like people when we don’t. We say ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’. We smile through our teeth when we’d rather scowl, we shake people’s hands when actually we’d rather hit them. So when you meet someone who doesn’t play the game, who sort of declares that contract of insincerity null and void, then that immediately makes them fascinating as far as I’m concerned. And actually let’s not forget there’s a lot of humour in the Misanthropist’s position…”


Humour? In what way?

“Well, the book may be bleak at times, but sometimes the darkest realisations access a kind of gallows humour, which seems to consist in a kind of saturnine, cynical admission of one’s own powerlessness in the face of one’s own limitations. – Misanthropy is actually a humourous vice, if it’s coloured with a degree of ironical self-knowledge.



Certainly, there’s another side to the Misanthropist. The second half of the book could be regarded as  a kind of celebration…


“Yes indeed. The redemption side of it – though I think, for the sake of accuracy, you would have to say that it’s not as high a proportion as the whole of the second half: maybe about ten percent of the book is to do with redemption towards the end!

“But I’d like to emphasise that we’re not talking about a sort of preachy version of redemption here. The redemption comes, if it comes at all, through a renewed appreciation of beauty, not just in nature, vital as that is, but in people, places, a renewed perception of the beauty of what you might call every day kindnesses people show each other..


So people ARE capable of goodness!


“Yes, yes – touché. I never promised consistency. Misanthropists are never consistent!

“Actually, half the time the book deals with the pain of losing beauty, and the souring effect that has on one’s own nature and the way one perceives others.


What do you mean ‘losing beauty’?


“Well, losing it in several ways, whether it be in one’s relationships or losing one’s sense of the visual beauty around, or losing one’s faith in music – even one’s faith in life itself; and then having to deal with one’s sense of despair at the ugliness one is left with.

“The misanthropist is absolutely no saint. That’s the point: he is someone who admits his failings, sees them as inevitable and inherent to his species, and yet rails against the fact that he is incapable – we are incapable – of  overcoming them.

You said art’s history contains a lot of misanthropists: do you regard yourself, this book, as standing in some sort of tradition then?


“As a poet I’ve always been profoundly influenced by the mood of Baudelaire’s poetry. In a sense I suppose you could say I look upon the Misanthropist as a humble modern codicil to Baudelaire’s ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, which is, in my opinion, one of those rare bequests to culture made by a truly great artist, a work that, all the ‘hype’ of ‘lit-crit’ apart, really is central to Post-Christian, post Industrial Western culture.


The forms of poetry in the Misanthropist are many and varied; it veers unashamedly between prose and poetry, rhyme and free verse, et cetera. why is this?


   “Well I don’t want to say too much about that here as I’ve gone into it in some detail in the preface of the book itself, and also in my book ‘Handbook for the Damned’. Suffice to say, the poetic forms one uses are dictated by the kind of emotion that generated the poem in the first place: if the emotions or thoughts are jagged, then so will the form be; conversely, if the emotions have a kind of inherent lyricism and rhythm, then one might instinctively want to rhyme, et cetera. Of course, that’s putting it simplistically, but you know what I mean…


Would you concede that in some ways the Misanthropist is a very strange beast, literarily-speaking, containing, as it does, some passages which are not so much poetry, or prose poetry, as downright logical analysis?


“Yes, no doubt it is a strange beast – a chimera, part poetry, part novel, part analysis. But that’s fine as far as I’m concerned. I like the fact that it can’t be pinned down to any one form, any one critical, or aesthetic approach. It is what it is. No more nor less.

In one section of the Misanthropist, you deal with your own madness: how easy was that to write about?


“It was and it wasn’t.

“Any subject you are close to is easy to write about, and there was a stage when I very definitely doubted my own sanity and I was right to doubt it, because I was losing it at one stage.

“But in writing about it, I clarified my state of mind – actually the poetry enabled me to purge my heart of some pretty dark emotions, feelings and ideas about myself that had their source in some bizarre syndromes set up, I would say, mainly by my relationship with my mother, which was a deeply difficult one at times.  – what was the question? Ah yes, madness! Well, it’s not easy to expose yourself to the scrutiny of conscience, in a sort of transcendent sense, and yet it must be done if you’re to heal yourself, again, to use that kind of terminology.


But why include the madness section in a book of this kind?


“Because I experienced it! And experienced it, I have no doubt, as a result of my own attitudes, attitudes that had been hardening over years, decades, even. The misanthropy, the failed romanticism, if you like, only focussed it to a degree where I had to take account of it, had to deal with it. In that sense you could call The Misanthropist’ a sort of poetic psycho-drama. – If you wanted a daft genre-name!

“And again, I think it’s relevant because I do believe we all have the capacity for insanity to some degree or other. Well, certainly profound neurosis at least, the kind that is capable of rendering us incapable of happiness, incapable of living life in any way that is acceptable to us, let alone other people. Look how many people everyone knows who’ve been depressed, or anorexic, or bulimic, or drunks or addict – there’s a lot of it about!


So, reading the Misanthropist could be considered as some kind of antidote?


“Why not? I think it’s a force for the good. Yes, I do. I wouldn’t be setting it before people if I didn’t.


So, when all is said and done, the Misanthropist is a kind of anti-hero?


“Well as I say, the misanthropist is absolutely no saint. He’s just rebelliously honest in his outlook, I think. He admits things about himself, issues that the majority don’t address at all; he admits that there’s an essential darkness at the heart of human nature; that actually misanthropy lies at the core of human nature, and that that needs to be addressed we are to make any progress in securing any sort of liberation from the pain and suffering inherent in the good old human condition….”