When a book is described by critics as “a funny, provocative coming of age novel” and “a tender portrait of a feisty little girl lost”, you don’t expect a cameo appearances by the real-life philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. Nor would you expect it to be divided into three “modules” named after Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Søren Kierkegaard. But then again, what expectations would you have of a novel called A Girl’s Guide to Modern European Philosophy?
Charlotte Greig’s debut combines the page-turning lightness of a popular romantic comedy with the weight of existentialist philosophy and the ethics of abortion. “When I first started writing it I didn’t have much philosophy in it at all,” she tells me. “What I was hoping was that the narrative in itself would be engaging enough, and I think it has to stand or fall as a novel. But I realised that the philosophers gave it a backdrop which gave it some depth.”
For the music journalist and contemporary folk musician, the novel was a chance to revisit the scene of her young adulthood, Sussex University.
“We had these weird courses like ‘modern European Mind’” she says of her first, foundation year. “I enjoyed the philosophy but, for instance, one of the things they gave us to read was Kant, and I just couldn’t understand it. So I thought I can’t do straight philosophy, plus I can’t do logic and things like that. So I found this course, intellectual history. It does sound really pretentious, but I absolutely loved it.”
Greig first became interested when she read Camus’ The Outsider aged 17. “I think we’re all at our most philosophical when we’re teenagers, aren’t we? There is something fascinating in those teenage years about questioning the moral order or the society you find yourself in, and I think it is a time when very strong and possibly violent dislikes and feelings of anger are coming up.”
In that sense, the sort of philosophy Greig was into still had that rock and roll like capacity to enthuse the kids and annoy their square parents.
“I remember asking my father, because he was going to London, to pick me up one of these introduction books, the Fontana Modern Masters, on Sartre. He was a naval officer, and he opened this book on Sartre on the train and came back absolutely horrified. He said, ‘What is this stuff, it doesn’t make any sense. I thought philosophy was about the meaning of life.’ And I remember saying ‘Don’t be so stupid, it’s nothing to do with the meaning of life! How could you be so foolish?’ But now I actually think it is to do with the meaning of life, and if it isn’t, or it has no bearing on what we do, what is the point of it?”
Philosophy was also a politicising influence. “It was a very political time. Marxism was a revelation to me, particularly in terms of history. I had studied history at school and had thought it was just a bunch of dates, and I always thought, ‘There’s something wrong here. we didn’t have a war because a treaty was broken, did we? There must have been another reason.’ Marx put all of this stuff into perspective. Although I wasn’t a Marxist or communist, I had, like most of my contemporaries, a very low opinion of the government and the way that our society ran, and I still do actually. I feel we could live a lot better than we do.”
The atmosphere of dissent and counter-cultural thinking at Sussex was quite intoxicating, even though Greig was aware that at times it felt uncomfortably like “a lot of middle class people pretending not to be middle class.” It was also home to several colourful individuals, including, for a time, Paul Feyerabend.
“Feyerabend was a rather vaudevillian character. He really played up and there were these scientists there who absolutely hated him. He was like the devil incarnate, and they’re still the same I think. Some scientists just can’t cope with any attack on the basis of science. And he was saying that science was witchcraft, you can imagine how well that went down. We loved him, because he was such a flamboyant character.
“He was quite an old man at the time and he had a very pretty girlfriend who was very young, and had red plaits, I remember. He was always saying outrageous things and didn’t have a respect for academe, and nor did a lot of people at Sussex, and that was why it was a fun place to be.”
“There were some bad things about it. Some of the tutors were very sexist. It was a lax time for social mores, and nowadays I imagine people probably look down on tutors trying to get into bed with young girls who come in as pupils. But I don’t think they did in those days. It was all par for the course really. There were quite a few of us who were hit on by tutors, it wasn’t uncommon. I remember one tutor, who put on my report, ‘she is an elegant presence in the tutorial.’ We were routinely chatted up and also undermined.”
Greig went on to do an MA on the concept of ideology in Hegel and Marx. Then she enjoyed a long career in music journalism, “which may not seem very connected, but actually if you do it sensibly and carefully, it’s about historical movements and movements of people to different places and different times.”
This unexpected continuity is evident in her first book, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, which was about girl groups such as The Shirelles. “You may not think it’s a particularly philosophical subject but I think it is actually, because I wanted to understand how much women were singing for women; how much they were singing for men; who liked this stuff; how much pop music is a female-oriented thing; and those questions all come up all the time. I used that general position of intellectual history or cultural studies, whatever you might want to call it, as a way of getting into serious discussion of music.”
This reflects both the strengths and limitations of her philosophical training. “One of the things I find difficult now is to look at a philosophy or a political position or anything and say ‘is wrong or right?’ I tend to take the attitude, which you do with intellectual history, which is more about the cultural context. What I’m interested in is why did Freud come up with those ideas at that time, not really was he right? That’s my limitation as a philosopher.”
Around five years ago, however, one of life’s strange turns led Greig to return to a more direct engagement with philosophy.
“I was making music and I was writing and I really wasn’t making much money. I had moved to Cardiff and I’d actually been in existential psychotherapy, because when I went to Cardiff, I had a – I don’t like to use the word breakdown – but I had a blip and it was a big one, and it came when the pressure came off. I had had two children and I have never really been part of an institution. I’ve done various things, like I’ve taught at university level, worked for publishers, working for the BBC, quite decent jobs, but I never really wanted to join, and I never really quite knew why. And after I did this existential psychotherapy I felt that I could have something to offer as a therapist, but I don’t think I did really. I did it for a year and really enjoyed it, but I think I came to the realisation while I was doing it that I did have some other skills that we quite well formed, like writing.
“It rekindled my interest in philosophy. To do that course I had to read Heidegger and various things and I suddenly thought I am really interested in this sort of stuff, I really like it. And I always liked the idea that philosophy could help you, because I had suffered a lot from anxiety, I had a very turbulent childhood, a lot of moving around, being sent here, there and everywhere. Maybe it’s just my nature as well. There’s a certain amount of unsteadiness and need to keep the balance and one of the ways I’ve done that, like a lot of people do, is to use your mind. It’s an important ballast, isn’t it?”
Returning in her fifties to the philosophy she read in her twenties resulted in some pleasant surprises.
“One of the things I really found amazing writing this book was I went back to Kierkegaard, I understood it so much better than I ever did when I was a student. It was like an open book to me, it was really easy understand, whereas at the tine I found it very hard and quite honestly I don’t know why I persevered with it. I did find it hard but I knew there was something there.”
Heidegger also appeared to her in a new, clearer light.
“I do remember reading Heidegger, about the subject and object relation, which is quite abstruse and in way seems to be quite divorced from one’s everyday experience. I think I didn’t understand it at the time. But then I did this course in existential psychotherapy.”
What Greig found was that, surprisingly, Heidegger threw light on the central dilemma of her novel: whether to have an abortion.
“I was interested in that abortion debate and it has changed, because it used to be, as I remember, about the rights of women, and it was about whether women could be sexually licentious and not obey their husbands. By giving women the pill you were giving them freedom, basically, and there were a lot of people who thought that was wrong. When I went to Sussex the abortion laws were only about five or six years old. We take it for granted now but it was still a very new triumph for women to have that so we were all very protective about it.
“But I always remember feeling there was something wrong about that. There’s long speech by Fiona in the novel, when she says it’s like having a tooth out, and you just don’t go into the moral dilemma of it, because it’s so easy to play into the hands of what we now call pro-lifers.
“Nowadays the whole debate has changed to the rights of the foetus, which wasn’t really considered in those days. But I still thing that whole way of looking at it, of rights, of the rights of the woman and the rights of the foetus, is the wrong way to look at it and I think Heidegger gives you a way through that. The Heidegger is in there for ontological reasons really, that’s to say it’s all a continuum, the baby is attached to you, it is one being, and then there’s the social world outside, and the environment, and this is all something which is connected and you have weigh it all up together.”
Greig must be confident that her own understanding of philosophy has deepened, because she gives her central character thoughts about the subject that lead her tutor to describe her as talented.
“I think if I had had those thoughts when I was 21, I would have been a very talented philosopher. I’m not sure that having them now means I would, it’s taken me so bloody long to get there.”
Greig continues to work as musician, having recorded five albums over the last decade. Her next novel takes a character who “only comes in and out in a page” of A Girls Guide and gives her a story of her own. “She’s a rather mysterious and all the tutors fancy her, and I wanted to write a story about her, because she always seemed so debonair and everything, but I write this story about her and her whole life is in a complete mess.”
Philosophy isn’t going to feature in this one, but TPM is happy to convey one more piece of advice which didn’t make it into the Girl’s Guide: “I found the best way to read Hegel was really fast, and the same for Sartre. You got a kind of feel for it if you skimmed it.”
You know what? I think she might be right.