Jeanette Winterson is a poet and novelist who has authored over 20 books. She was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2006 for services to literature, and, in 2011, her memoir WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL? became a NEW YORK TIMES bestseller. Her latest novel, FRANKISSSTEIN, was published in 2019. She currently holds an academic position in the Centre for New Writing at The University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
ANNOUNCER: From the Bill Moyers Archive, Faith and Reason filmed at World Pen Voices Festival in 2006 now adapted for audio.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: And if God says he/she has made us in his image then we are the ones who are full of contradictions. So that might suggest that God is also full of contradictions and if you look at the text that seems to bear it out.
ANNOUNCER: Jeanette Winterson talks about gods and heroes and different ways of finding truth.
That’s in this episode of Faith and Reason.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Welcome once again. In this conversation of “Faith & Reason,” you’ll meet Jeanette Winterson.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Myths are interesting, because they allow us a completely different way in which to read our own lives.
BILL MOYERS: At the age of 12, Jeanette Winterson was reciting the Bible by heart and preaching sermons on street corners in the little English mill town where her parents were Pentecostal evangelists. At the age of 23, she wrote, ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT, and became an instant sensation in Britain, winning the coveted Whitbread prize for best first novel. Since then, she’s written nearly a dozen more. WEIGHT, a daring take on the classical Greek story of Atlas, the titan whose fate is to hold the whole universe on his shoulders for all eternity.
BILL MOYERS: Jeanette Winterson was a big draw at the Pen festival of writers on faith and reason. And I’ve been eager to talk to her about why myths still matter. But first, I want to know more about her amazing journey.
BILL MOYERS: How is it that a girl raised by fundamentalist Pentecostal parents in a house of utter poverty — no bank account, no phone, no indoor plumbing — who used to write sermons, who drove an ice cream van and worked at a funeral home. How does this girl go onto Oxford and get high on mythology?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Well, I think children often feel that their own way of life is completely normal because they’re not exposed to anything else. And I thought that everybody had a gospel tent, and went around the seaside towns to the northwest trying to convert the heathen.
BILL MOYERS: Is that what your parents did?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: They were itinerate evangelists?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yeah. My mother used to play the harmonium. And she was a good pianist. And, she had her portable harmonium. And we’d go around and other people would come from the church, and you’d put your tent up. Planning laws were less strict in those days. You put your tent up, and then you’d have services. And the heathen would come in and either they’d find Jesus or they wouldn’t.
BILL MOYERS: Do you still sing any of those hymns?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes. But my mother’s favorite one, it was a chorus called “God Has Blotted Them Out.” You can imagine why she would like that. And it went like this, “God has blotted them out. God has blotted them out. My enemies mocked and scoffed at me. He blotted them out when he set me free. God has blotted them out. God has blotted them out.” As you can see, she wasn’t the kind of forgiving, open-hearted, generous person. If she could have pressed the button. she would. You know, she had been there thinking the sooner we blow up the world the sooner Jesus will come back.
Because, you know, creationism and Armageddon are like the north and south poles of religious fundamentalism, aren’t they? If you can believe those, everything else in the middle is actually quite easy. And my mother was a creationist. And, she did believe in Armageddon. She thought that the world would be rolled up into a fireball. And Jesus would come back. And she’d go off to heaven, and none of her clothes would be second hand.
BILL MOYERS: Those are mighty acts of imagination, religion does fire the imagination up.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes, it does. And it asks you to believe things which are completely impossible – like creationism. In any case, you know, why would God want to do it that way? There’s no reason why God wouldn’t do it any other way. I don’t know. I’ve never understood why there’s such a fight over that. But it is an unbending, inflexible kind of religion, that religious fundamentalism. And it is about punishing people. The God of love becomes a God of punishment.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a line in WEIGHT where you say, “The hells we invent are the hells we have known.” Was home a hell?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: No, it wasn’t. You know, it was the craziest place. I mean it was bonkers the way we lived.
BILL MOYERS: During her appearance at the Pen festival, Jeanette Winterson talked about growing up in that fundamentalist family in England.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: My mother was terrified of any secular influences entering our lives. My father is illiterate and every day my mother used to read to us from the King James Bible and only six books were allowed in the house. The Bible was one, and the other five were books about the Bible.
Although in our house books weren’t allowed, because I had a job on the market stool I began to buy books with the money that I was earning and smuggle them in secretly and hide them under the bed. Now anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that 77 per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. And this is what I did. And over time, my bed began to rise visibly. And it was rather like The Princess & The Pea.
And one night when I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor, my mother came in, because she had a suspicious nature. And she saw a corner of the book poking out from under the counter pen. And she tugged at it, and this was a disastrous choice, because it was by D.H. Lawrence and it was WOMEN IN LOVE. And she knew that Lawrence was a Satanist and a pornographer, because my mother was an intelligent woman. She had simply barricaded books out of her life, and they had to be barricaded out of our lives. And when challenged with her defense, she always used to say, “Well, the trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.” How true.
The books came tumbling down and me on the top of them onto the floor. And Mrs. Winterson gathered up the piles of books, and she threw them out of my bedroom window and into the back yard. And then she went and got the paraffin stove, emptied the contents onto the pile of books and set fire to them.
And I learned then that whatever is on the outside can be taken away. Whatever it is that you think of as precious can be destroyed by somebody else. That none of it is safe. That there is always a moment when the things that we love, the things where we put our trust can be taken away, unless they’re on the inside. And that’s why I still memorize text, because if it’s on the inside, they can’t take it away from you, because nobody knows what’s there.
And I think that one of the reasons that tyrants hate books, ban them, burn them is not simply what they contain, though that’s often the obvious reason, but what they represent. Because reading is an act of free will, and it’s a private act. It’s an intimate dialogue between you and the text. And in there is all kinds of possibility.
I didn’t leave home that night. That happened some years later when I fell in love with another girl, and this was clearly not going to happen in 200 Water Street. And my mother gave me the choice. She said, “Leave the girl or leave home.” So I had to leave home. And as I was going, she called me back and she said, “Jeanette, why be happy when you could be normal?”
But she said it to the right person, because I went away weighing those words in my hand. Happy/Normal. Normal/Happy. Were such words always in tension? Were they in perpetual fight? Or, could there be some harmony, some sympathy between them? And beginning to weigh those words, I started to weigh other words too. Words like good and evil, black and white, right and wrong, faith, reason. Were these things always going to be oppositions, dichotomies? Was there a way of healing up these spaces?
And I began to realize that what we must not do is accept false choices, fake realities, imposed on us by other people. And for me, one of the things that books have done, literature’s done, art has done is refuse those false choices, but rather to offer a world where mind and body can be healed, where the heart can be healed, where it is possible to imagine a world constructed differently, a world that we could invent differently, a world that we could live in differently. Thank you.
[BACK TO INTERVIEW]
BILL MOYERS: Are you the kind of person who needs another world?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: I always need another world. I mean, I’m passionately connected to this one. With the world I think you might as well love it or leave it. So I love it. I want to change it. I’m political. I’m involved. I’m engaged. All of that. But I think, too, that there are vast dimensions of which I know nothing. But sometimes I can apprehend them a little bit. So I think of it in religious terms that sometimes I think of it as the kick of joy in the universe. It’s the moment when you feel that the whole thing is bigger than you, better than you, and you connect with an energy which is gigantic. And, I think writers, artists do feel that. I hope that people who are not writers and artists feel that. And it is a moment which is absolutely true, and it absolutely cannot be proved by science. But you feel it.
BILL MOYERS: Why when you were invited by your publisher to write about any of the great stories of mythology that you would choose to do so, why did you choose the story of Atlas and Hercules?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Well, it’s a marvelous story. You know, Atlas is punished for rebelling against the gods. And his punishment is that he will have to hold up the cosmos. You know, the great image that we have of him supporting the globe in space. And the name, Atlas, in the Greek means “long suffering one.” So, his punishment is in his name, because naming is power. When you unravel the name, you often unravel the meaning of the thing that is named. And Atlas is left there, holding up the cosmos, abandoned by the gods, who go off partying, like the gods always do. And then, of course, one day, Hercules comes along, who’s the second strongest man in the world after Atlas.
BILL MOYERS: Son of Zeus. Bastard son of Zeus.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Son of Zeus. Bastard son of Zeus. Always a dangerous thing to be a bastard son of Zeus, you know.
BILL MOYERS: Shakespeare tells us that over and again.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Over and over again. And as Hercules says to Atlas. Hera, his stepmother, the wife of Zeus, who’s really got it in for Hercules, because she was tricked into suckling him as a baby. And that’s what made him divine, because he had the divine milk of Hera’s breast. So, he’s half a man, half a god. And Hera —
BILL MOYERS: And he comes to Atlas and says?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: He comes to Atlas, and he says, “Atlas, I’ve got to perform the 12 labors of Hercules that we all know. This is my punishment. Yours is to hold up the globe, mine is to perform the 12 labors. And what I need is to get the three golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, and I really need you to do it for me. And if you’ll go and do it for me, I’ll hold up the world for a while.”
And Atlas thinks, “This’ll be great. I could get free just for a while.” And he decides that he will do it. So, they swap jobs. Hercules takes the weight of the world, and Atlas goes back to the garden, his beautiful garden. Atlas was a gardener. The Hesperides, by the way, are his daughters, and he named the garden after it. And of course, this thing is all gone to wrack and ruin, and it’s over grown, and it’s a mess, and he’s disappointed. He spends all this time making bonfires, and pruning trees, but he does get the three golden apples for Hercules.
But Hercules is no fool. He realizes that Atlas may never come back, so he has to trick him again into taking the weight of the world. It’s a drama between these two men, part god, part human. Um, Atlas is an introverted, thinking type, who really does suffer, and Hercules is just an extroverted blaggard who’s only ever had two thoughts and only ever asked two questions. And one is, “Which way did he go?” And the other is, “Are you married?”
BILL MOYERS: Bloodthirsty and lustful.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yeah, yeah. Whenever there’s a problem he uses force or violence to solve it. He never thinks first, because he’s the strongest man in the world, and he just says, “If these guys won’t listen to me, I’m just gonna club ’em to death.” You know, we all know that kind of response.
BILL MOYERS: But, he was the most popular of the Greek heroes.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yeah, because one of the things that the Greeks offer is: it’s complicated. They don’t try and clean up their heroes. Their heroes are rounded, complex creatures; they’re not kind of squeaky clean like the Superman cardboard cutout image of what we would like a hero to be now. The whole package is thrown in and you’re asked to look at it and say, yes this guy is a hero. He’s also a murderer, a thief, a liar, a rapist —
BILL MOYERS: And a womanizer.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: And a womanizer.
BILL MOYERS: So Atlas goes off, comes back with the three apples, and then Atlas decides he doesn’t want the job anymore, right?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Exactly, because he’s had a taste of freedom. He wants to go back into the garden and plant some seeds. There’s no way he wants to take on the weight of the world again.
BILL MOYERS: So, what happens?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Hercules tricks him. He says that he’s having a great time there, he’s not in any hurry to give the world back to Atlas. He says it’s marvelous to have some time to be by himself instead of having to run around the place. He acts as though he’s gone to some sort of Zen Buddhist camp, and he’s discovering his inner self. But, you know, Hercules doesn’t have an inner self, so we know that there is a problem here. And he just says, “Listen Atlas, you take the apples for me. Go and deliver them. That will be fine, but could you just hold the world up for a few minutes, while I get comfortable?” he says. “Because you know, the Matterhorn’s sticking in the back of my neck. And maybe we could just shift things round a bit.” And then he’s rather ashamed, because Atlas just stoops down, and with infinite grace flicks the weight of the world back on his shoulders – beautifully, balletically. And Hercules says, “Sorry mate, I’m off. Goodbye.” And walks into the distance. And, once again, Atlas is alone. And he remains in that state in my telling of the story, until something rather surprising happens much, much later.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I’m not gonna give the end away —
JEANETTE WINTERSON: No, we’ll— we’ll keep it a secret, then.
BILL MOYERS: But it is intriguing to me. I mean, the old story is pretty good.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It’s a great story.
BILL MOYERS: But you were presumptuous enough to change it.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes, I mean, as a writer, you’re always something of a vandal. You know, you’re a tomb raider. You’re gonna go in there and take the things that already exist – drag ’em out again, and dress them up differently. There is a sense in which you are a thief. It’s no wonder that writers are ruled by Mercury, god of thieves and liars, Mercury of the double tongue. And so, there is the sense in which you will always steal, and take for yourself, the things that you need. But then you also bring them back into the light. You dust them down, and then you put them out again for people to find in a different way. I mean, the whole thing about myths, is that they need to stay fluid, they need to keep moving, and they need to be dynamic. And that’s why we can go on retelling them, so that what is valuable is passed on from generation to generation, across time, through cultures.
BILL MOYERS: What intrigues me about the Greek gods, Romans too, is that they do great deeds. But also they get drunk, and as you say, they womanize, they lie, they negotiate with the Gods of the underworld. I mean, it’s true, isn’t it, that if you find the hero in mythology, you also discover the monster?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Always, yes. The thing is double faced. It’s as though these people are hinged in the center, and that the good and the bad have folded back, touching each other in each person. But, you know, that’s what so strikingly true, isn’t it, about the human condition? That we’re not one or the other, or very rarely. And, often, the people who do achieve great things, are also people who have fatal flaws. All heroes have fatal flaws as well as reprehensible conduct. But nevertheless, they are in the story that surrounds them, the only person who can do what is needed, either to save the —
BILL MOYERS: And what is that?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It depends. Each hero will have a task that nobody else can accomplish. And that hero’s task is to accomplish the job. And in doing that they manage to free up a whole set of circumstances, which otherwise, would have remained completely locked in, impossible to shift.
BILL MOYERS: In order to be a hero, they have to do something big for other people that people couldn’t do for themselves?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Always. Always. Because there is a sort of fashion now that we won’t bother to do anything for society, or for the collective. We’ll only do things for ourselves. That’s not the hero’s job. The hero is always, however he goes about it, doing something for the bigger picture, for the world outside himself, and that’s important. You know, think of Prometheus. We all know about stealing fire —
BILL MOYERS: Snatching the fire —
JEANETTE WINTERSON: — from the gods for mankind. So, suddenly mankind can light a fire, and be warm, and cook food. And Prometheus’s punishment, as you know, which is horrific, is to be chained to a rock, and have his liver ripped out by an eagle. And everyday the liver grows back, and is renewed, and everyday the eagle comes. And in my story, I have the eagle perching on his hip bone, to get a perch, and then just ramming it’s beak into the soft tissue. And the skin on his stomach is always pale, like a childs, although the rest of him is sunburned beyond recognition, because he’s chained to the rock. But everyday he suffers this punishment. So, there is a sense that if we– if we push outside of our limits, if we transgress what is the property of the gods, let’s say– there will be suffering, there will be punishment. That’s what happens to Atlas.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think we’re so fascinated with the stories of heroes and gods, brought down by sex? I mean, do you think Bill Clinton wished he had known his mythology, when he got into the White House?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: I wish somebody had told him. I wish somebody had told Kenneth Starr. It was a Greek myth being played out in front of our eyes. You know, that was a modern Greek drama.
BILL MOYERS: In what sense?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: In the sense that, here was this guy. You know, Clinton, I think, was, is, a great politician, somebody who was capable of really achieving things in the world who wanted to transform things, wanted to make a difference. Until, you know, he fancies a pretty girl. That should not be the thing that brings him down. But you know, when you read the hero myths, the things that bring them down are always very trivial. It’s always the thing in themselves that they can’t control. And there is also a truth about the hero, that they can never be killed, or destroyed by anything simply from the outside. They have somewhere to collude in their own death or destruction.
BILL MOYERS: So many of them experience death by female.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Death by female, yeah, it’s a worry.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: I think it’s because there is, often, in the Greek myths, a very one-sided aspect to the hero. He is the ultra-masculine figure, who denies in himself any femininity. You know, this is now much clearer to us since Freud and Jung have begun to unravel psychology. They talk about the shadow side, in particular. The part of you which is repressed in some way. A sense of yourself which you don’t acknowledge, which you can’t acknowledge; and it’s often a weakness. It’s often the fatal flaw. It’s often the failing. The thing that you do not want to know about yourself. And Hercules believes that he can do anything, and he can. Nobody will ever be able to touch him. And that of course, goes wrong, because he is destroyed by a woman.
BILL MOYERS: It’s a continuing theme, I mean, Siegfried is told, not to —
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: — turn his back on his enemy.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yep.
BILL MOYERS: He does. Sampson is told not to reveal the secret of his strength. He does. Caesar is told not to go to the Forum because danger lurks, but he goes. What is it? Is this pride, arrogance, what?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It’s huge pride. It is what the Greeks called hubris, is self belief in your own strength, and immortality. Achilles is told always to keep his Achilles’ heel, his ankle covered, because that’s the only place anybody can destroy him. And of course, he dies with an arrow straight through his Achilles’ tendon.
They always do it. And it is a warning. It’s a warning not to collude in your own death, and into your own destruction. Not to become so arrogant, that you really believe that you are invincible. Because outside forces will always try to destroy the hero. Because actually, heroes are objects of envy, as well as, suspicion. But they simply aren’t able to, unless the hero, in some way, colludes in the act.
If Siegfried hadn’t turned his back, he couldn’t have been stabbed in the back. If Achilles had kept his boots on, he couldn’t have been shot through the heel. So you see, always, the kind of folly, which is part of the arrogance of these people. That they allow themselves to be brought down by outsiders who are Pygmies in comparison to them. Moral Pygmies.
I think in our society, we are quite uncomfortable now with the hero figure because we’re told we live in a democracy, and everybody’s the same, and everybody’s got to be treated equally. But it doesn’t really seem to work like that, because it’s always an individual of some kind, who then pushes things forward. Things don’t happen in mass movements, they happen because somebody has a vision, or an idea, or a brainwave, and that changes things for the rest of us. It’s always about the individual. It’s never about the collective in that sense.
I mean, Superman, Spiderman, Tom Cruise, you know, they they are meant to be hero figures, but they’re all woefully two-dimensional. And they give us a false perception of what a hero should be like. So that, when we meet real hero figures in our own world, we’re uncomfortable with the fact that they are flawed, that they do have weaknesses, and that they need forgiveness like the rest of us.
BILL MOYERS: How do you compare the gods of Greek mythology with the God of the Old Testament?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Well, of course, it’s monotheism. The God of the Old Testament, Yahweh is one God. And the Greek gods were many. They were a pantheon of playboys and dodgy actors. But they worked for the Greek people. And Yahweh is somebody much more intense, much more poetic, much more terrifying. I mean, the Old Testament is a terrifying book, because you never know what Yahweh is going to do next. And what’s really scary, is that Yahweh doesn’t know what Yahweh is going to do next. Again, it is a figure, full of inconsistencies.
You know, in the Book of Job, for instance, God actually has to hide people from himself, under His throne, because if he doesn’t, he’ll get so cross he’ll destroy them. So, it’s almost as though, this God splits Himself in two, and thinks, “On the one hand, I’m a merciful God, and on the other hand, I’m a vengeful God. And I’m both of these gods in one God. So, I’m gonna hide you in case I get too vengeful before I get merciful.”
And I think one of the pleasures of the Old Testament is these contradictions because the Right Wing fundamentalists won’t have any of this. They make God completely in their own image, much as the Greeks made the Olympians in their own image. The mystery of the Jewish God that became the Christian God; is you can’t really make that force in your own image. Because there’s nothing in the sacred text which really allow you to do that. And if God says that He/She has made us in His image, then we are the ones who are full of contradictions. So, that might suggest that God also is full of contradictions. And if you look at the texts, that seems to bear it out.
BILL MOYERS: You spoke here, at the Pen Festival, of logos and mythos. Words I remember from my years of studying Greek at the university and in seminary. Why did you raise those to, in the context of a conference on faith and reason?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Because they are different ways of arriving at truth. And since the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, we have privileged reason, logos, the empirical sense, finding proofs for things, discovering things that can be touched, and tested in the universe. Absolute rationality has seemed to be the key to our advancement. And in many ways this Enlightenment, this rationality, this dependency on logic and reason, has freed us from many cruel superstitions, many nameless terrors. It also brought us technological advancements, civilized advancements. But it’s not sufficient.
And the Greeks, for instance, who were a very rational set of people, still knew that there were two ways of arriving at truth. And it’s Plato who makes the distinction between mythos and logos. That there is a mythic truth, which is an imaginative truth, an emotional truth, a way of understanding the world which is not about the facts and the figures, but which is nevertheless valid. And we need to have kind of a balance. The things need to be held in balance. You wouldn’t want to use mythic truth to tell you how to mend your washing machine, for instance. You probably just get the repairman in —
BILL MOYERS: I’ve tried that. Don’t go there.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: You tried? Did it not work?
BILL MOYERS: It did not work! What I loved about the Greek idea of logos was that they did have this sense of god as the unifying principle of the universe. And therefore, respect and reverence for god, was a logical act —
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — in their spectrum of examination, right?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes, that’s true. It was an extension of belief. So, belief and rationality were not separate in that way. But at the same time because, you know, they invented moral philosophy, they invented geometry. They were aware that there were different ways of approaching the world, and they didn’t confuse them. They held them together, as you say, with a certain reverence. Which is often the feeling that you need, to join things which seem incompatible.
BILL MOYERS: And at about the same time, the ancient Hebrews, you mentioned, they had this notion, you’ll find it in some chapters in the Old Testament of the Wisdom of God. Capital W. Also translated sometimes as the word of God. And Phylo, the great Greek stoic said, “This guy can’t be knowable. God needs to be mediated.” The Christians come along. They say, “We’ve got the mediator.” And they go back to the Greek, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh.”
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Which is fabulous.
BILL MOYERS: Religion evolves, doesn’t it?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It does evolve. It needs to go on evolving. Because, I think, one of the things that happens is when a myth gets fixed, it becomes an idol. That’s what idolatry really is. It’s when you fix something, and you won’t let it evolve, or change, or grow anymore. You get stuck with the thing, and you say, “No, this is the truth, and only this is the truth. And this will always be the truth.” And so people evolve, society evolves, and there’s your idol, slap-bang in the middle, which is the thing that is now completely out of date. When Jesus was talking about putting new wine in old wine skins; you can’t do it. The thing has to keep alive. And one of the ways we keep it alive is by retelling it.
BILL MOYERS: See, but I used the word religion evolving. You used the word myth evolving. Now, a lot of people are gonna say, “Wait a minute, mythology and religion are not the same.”
JEANETTE WINTERSON: They will. And if they are devout that they may feel offended by it. I think it would be fair to say, that a great deal of religion is based on a great deal of mythology, i.e. it’s about events that, in some sense, happened once. For instance, we know there was a historical personage called Jesus and we know that this person was crucified. And we know that he was a preacher. So, that story is true. Beyond that then, all of the other things come into play, and other stories are made up around it. But what we’re really not trying to do is say is this absolute historical, verifiable fact? When we talk about religion, we’re talking about some emotional truths, and we’re talking about the response of the individual to the ineffable. So, it doesn’t lend itself to those sort of scientific criteria.
BILL MOYERS: Interesting, you bring up Jesus. Because probably no life has affected the world the way that life has. Jesus’ life—
JEANETTE WINTERSON: I think not. No. I mean, Jung once said, that he wasn’t really interested in whether or not there was a God. But he was interested in the fact that human beings always wanted to believe in a God. And that was worth talking about. And that’s why he did all his investigations into religious matters. And indeed, wrote ANSWER TO THE BOOK OF JOB, which is a fantastic piece of work, about the contradictions of the Yahweh figure. And we are interested in God. We are interested in religion. I don’t think it’s enough to dismiss it as superstition, and the comfort zone. It appears in every culture across time. As far as we can see, human beings have a need to worship. They have a need to make a God for themselves, of one kind, or another. And that is interesting because it’s about us.
BILL MOYERS: Which gets us closer to the truth? Faith, reason or mythology?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: I think they are connected. And I think I would not want to live a life which did not have mystery in it. I don’t need to know everything. I don’t need everything explained to me. I do need to have an imaginative connection with the world I live in, which contains elements of wonder, elements of the unknown, elements of the fully mysterious that fires me forward. And I look there to arrive at truth about the human condition, about myself.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think William Blake meant when he talked about the doors of perception? Do you think one door was marked faith, and one door was marked reason?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes, I do. I think because we love to have things in polar oppositions, don’t we? Black, white. Good, evil. Male, female. Reason, myth. And somewhere there has to be a way of bringing them together again. And it’s probably, if you accept both as genuine ways at arriving at truth, but you don’t privilege one above the other. Previous to the enlightenment, the 18th century, there was much less of an anxiety about things which belonged to the realm of the magical or the miraculous. And the things which belonged to the realm of the mundane or the everyday. So they would just come together.
So, you know, Shakespeare writing the WINTER’S TALE. Doesn’t ask us to have a problem with the fact that, at the end, Hermione, who’s supposedly been dead for 16 years, is a statue which comes to life and comes back to Leontes. It is the most wonderful and moving moment. And surely no scientist could sit there and say but this can’t happen. Look at THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, look at anything that happens before the great split in the way that we think. And the things just tumble over each other together. It’s not a problem. It’s accepted that the miraculous and the mundane live in the same place. That they’re not separate, and they’re not figments of people’s imagination.
BILL MOYERS: As you talk, one gets the sense of the feast of opportunity that is awaiting the good writer. And yet you said at the Pen festival, this is a dark time for writers—
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It is a dark time. It may be that, in some ways, I do think of it that we might be going into a cultural dark ages. And we might have to be like the great Abbeys of Cluny and Fontainebleau and simply keep the culture alive for the future. Because people will come along and they’ll want it, and they’ll need it.
BILL MOYERS: You mean you keep writing because maybe one day somebody will read it.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: You never know for sure.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: You never know for sure. You never know. And you never know how long things will last. That’s why you have to have the burning belief in the now and in the moment. And that the thing is valid. And that it’s worth doing. And it’s worth doing with everything you’ve got and for your whole life. You know, it can’t be a hobby. It can’t be a thought experiment. Much depends upon it.
BILL MOYERS: I believe that. But what is your Achilles’ heel?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Well, I’ve got so many; I think I’m covered in Achilles’ heels from top to bottom.
BILL MOYERS: I’ll tell you what I think it is, and and I’m gonna have you read the concluding words —
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Oh no.
BILL MOYERS: — of your book WEIGHT.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: “Atlas looked around at the jigsaw of the earth. The pieces were continually cut and re-cut. But the picture stayed the same. A diamond blue planet, ice-capped, swirled in space, nothing was as beautiful. Not fiery Mars. Not clouded Venus. Not the comets with their tails blown by solar winds. And then Atlas had a strange thought. Why not put it down?”
BILL MOYERS: So your Achilles’ heel could be that you can’t put the weight of the world down.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Jeanette Winterson, thank you very much for joining me.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening, visit Bill Moyers.com to learn more about the Faith and Reason series.