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The Last Interview with Bryan Magee

By John Maier

When I met him, Bryan Magee was nearly 89, marvellously lucid, curious to hear about my time at Oxford, and paralysed from the waist down: in many ways the ideal interviewee. For a generation of young viewers, Magee’s legendary television series about philosophy were a baptism in the waters of the subject, and he the urbane and worldly gatekeeper to a realm of theoretic abstraction and grounded, vigorous discussion such as had never before been entered—a watershed moment in a primetime slot.

“I wouldn’t rely on television for my introduction to anything,” Magee confided in me, blinking from behind glasses so thick they appeared to be double-glazed for warmth. “It seems to me a completely unimportant medium.” Bryan! I wept internally… It was like being told there was really only ever one Ronnie, or watching David Attenborough kick a pigeon. But—remembering what television is generally like—it was hard to disagree. Magee smiled grand-paternally back at me from where he sat, inside a small arms-reach fortress of books and papers, wielding a copy of Dumas the size of house-brick; the television screwed to the opposite wall was, I assumed, purely ornamental.

Bryan Magee, who died last month, had a career of intimidating sweep. He came up to Oxford in 1949, a particular post-war moment when the university’s unofficial monopoly in the production of trademark-ruling-elite seems to have been a little overstretched, as Magee found he had to take up several careers almost at once. He was watched by millions as a television journalist on This Week and began his 30-book literary career, making considerable contributions to scholarship on Wagner and Schopenhauer, all the while keeping up friendships with figures like Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell. The television series, Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers, together took five years to produce, some of which time overlapped with Magee’s ten-year stint as a Labour MP.

Given his pick, he would have liked to be foreign secretary, but in 1982 he defected to the SDP, a heavy-hearted move that he knew would result in losing his seat. He had in fact by that stage already discovered that politics “was a way of life that I didn’t really want for myself… I realised—and I think this was an aspect of maturing—that the pursuit of power was in some very deep way a mistake.” The political career was a school-boy ambition that palled in the wake of its own attainment; the television, though, that was just for money. “From the beginning, I was looking for ways of making money that didn’t involve my having a job… which is not very easy to find.” Magee quickly discovered he could earn twice as much working part time as most of his contemporaries could in regular work. “That was my only interest in television: it would earn me some money while I started writing books.”

It is curious to note that several of Magee’s most enduring legacies were forced upon him somewhat against his efforts. Aubrey Singer, the notorious broadcasting executive who conceived Men of Ideas in the bath one dayseems to have pursued him over months. Magee continually demurred, eventually agreeing to a pilot with Noam Chomsky, but only if he retained a veto over its being broadcast. “I deliberately chose Chomsky because I thought he would be the most difficult subject to make plain and interesting to a non-philosophical audience.” Actually, Magee confessed, “I’d even created an interim hurdle. I’d said to Aubrey, ‘well, I may make it work once, but I don’t think I can do a whole series of them,’ and Aubrey rather exasperatedly said, ‘all right then, two!’” The two pilots found their elusive target, never sacrificing intellectual integrity to intelligibility; Magee was stunned.

Perhaps of even greater lasting importance, though, was One in Twenty, the book Magee wrote about homosexuality after presenting two controversial editions of This Week on the subjectThe book’s direct, unflinching style made it an unforeseen best-seller and “contributed to the change in the law,” the 1967 decriminalisation act of the following year. Again, he admitted to me, “that’s an example like what I was telling you with the philosophy television programmes. I didn’t want to write that, and was talked into it by somebody else” (the publisher, a friend of his, who confided in Magee that he himself was a “practising homosexual,” and implored him to write the book.)

It was at first a little odd to hear Magee talk in notes of slight dispassion about these projects, which in anybody else’s life would likely figure as career-defining accomplishments. The two philosophy series—the interviews with figures like Marcuse, and Ayer, and Bernard Williams—seem to me to constitute an indispensable document of imperishable value: at once timeless and dated almost beyond parody. Every episode began with Magee plus guest sitting on a sofa, suspended within what appeared to be an enormous beige womb, or cosmic waiting-room—a kind of philosophic purgatory in three camera-angles. Magee, partly concealed behind his signature welding-goggles, would then deliver a sombre set-piece to camera, mapping out in multi-clausal, donnish cadences, the territory to be covered.

Of course, the show’s austere, rather unflashy production actually disguised its considerable presentational intelligence. Magee was the vital element; it became a running joke that he frequently appeared to have a surer grip on his guest’s material than they did, and he described going to some lengths to disguise the degree to which he masterfully steered and clarified the discussion as it developed. Consequently, one of the things that the shows suggest so wonderfully is philosophy’s essentially discursive character. Both Chomsky and Quine would later say that their interviews captured the most direct, general statement of their work.

The shows “wouldn’t be made now. It isn’t imaginable,” said Magee with conviction. “But, people can’t say that it didn’t meet the needs of an audience, because it did. It had record audience figures.” It isn’t, I suppose, a controversial view that educational television today is a genre irretrievably sunk in affectations of style and structure, deformed by gimmick and arcs, and the creative death-grip of decision-by-committee. “The people who are responsible for the change are the programme makers. There’s been an attempt to turn everything into light-entertainment, to turn even the news bulletins into entertainment, which has taken the guts out of television, I think.”

So, while it’s not that Magee wasn’t proud of the shows, and with entitlement—he was—they seemed to figure from his point of view as incidental: marginal, if enjoyable, diversions in a life given over to philosophic contemplation. This overturns a serious potential misperception of Magee, one that casts him as some public-spirited pedagogue of high-Reithian vintage, who muttered the BBC Charter in his sleep and martyred his career to the manual eye-opening of the great unread. Magee never ran on that kind of fuel. When, for example, “people say they went into politics because they wanted to make the world a better place, that’s very foreign to me… I wanted to go into politics because I thought I’d like being in politics.” His governing, pragmatic rationale was always that he needed an occupation to support his pre-occupation: his life-long grappling with the philosophic problems.

Indeed, Magee repeatedly described himself as “having” philosophic problems, as if naming a psychological affliction. As a child he would dwell, solitary and obsessive, on the antinomies of time and space, like an uprooted ancient puzzling the problems through, systemless and unguided. Woven everywhere into the fabric of reality, Magee perceived paradox and palpable mystery. He was “enslaved” by the questions and wonderstruck by the sheer fact of existence. His time as a tutor at Balliol served to reinforce his conviction that philosophical problems are a thing “felt,” requiring a responsiveness of spirit akin to a sensitivity for great art.

Not a day went by without such metaphysical puzzles pressing themselves upon his consciousness. At times they tormented him. Once, midway through chapel, he became so overwhelmed by the apprehension of the unbridgeable separation between his mind and the external world that he fled the church, staggering, almost collapsing before a bemused congregation of his peers, who would never have guessed the source of his sickness was not systemic but philosophic. I suggested that such moments of revelation, epiphanic in their force, have been a dominating source of insight for Magee. “Yes. That’s a very good perception. I don’t think of myself as fundamentally an intellectual person.”

Questions about the nature of ultimate reality, and what we can know of it seem “obviously the most important and interesting there are,” said Magee, “and in my heart of hearts I do not really understand why not everybody sees them as such.” Appeals to common sense and reason provide no asylum; the former ill-defined and capricious faculty has a record of invariably being contradicted by inquiry and discovery, and it is the application of reason itself that reveals the paradoxes lying barely submerged beneath reality’s surface.

Upon his arrival, he found Oxford thoroughly in the grip of its post-war linguistic convulsion. The ordinary-language movement left Magee bewildered, but was embraced with triumphalist zeal by his contemporaries, many of whom held that once philosophy’s essentially clarificatory task was complete, its central problems would have been analysed out of existence—their appearance as problems depending simply on confusions of language. The result was a conception of philosophy curiously cut off from its past. Ridiculous, said Magee, because “philosophy basically is its past!” Alfred Whitehead once observed that it is possible to be provincial in time as well as location, and 1950s Oxford comfortably secured both kinds of parochialism, settling into a cobbled cul-de-sac on the highway of history, and cultivating a Lilliputian spirit that was inward-looking and self-congratulatory bordering on the complacent.

While philosophy was not the only field in the 20th century to enter a prolonged period of strangely subject-limiting self-awareness, its new second-order character—“talk about talk” in Gilbert Ryle’s compact phrase—meant that the subject was talking past, or rather over, its central questions. A technique, analysis, had been mistaken for subject matter; the medium displacing the message.

The era—as many in thrall to a fashion vivid in bloom and quick to expire—was one of domineering personalities with cultish followings, given to pitch battles in analytic-pyrotechnics designed to exhibit brilliance in performance. To commemorate such displays, Magee and I studied an important piece of archival-footage, a video of political theorist Jerry Cohen allowing himself to be possessed by the ghost of Ryle. (That’s “really spot on,” laughed Magee.) As he saw it—and Cohen’s impersonation hints—the root of the problem was that most such philosophers didn’t “have philosophic problems and never had had them or any idea what it was like to have them.” “Ryle was a person of life-enhancing intellectual brilliance, but he had no inner life worth speaking of,” Magee recalled. (Ryle, for his part, would no doubt have readily agreed, thinking talk of an inner life hopelessly couched in metaphorical confusion). It was some years later, at Yale, that Magee discovered Kant, and much later Schopenhauer, and awoke to his inchoate Kantianism. So many philosophers spend their lives foraging in the foothills of the subject; here were theories of mountainous grandeur.

The Mahler, the Wagner, the shelves of transcendental metaphysics, the Teutonic sensibility and cleanliness of exposition: it’s hard not to suspect Magee of being secretly German; his abiding condition one of well-contained existential anxiety, of permanent spiritual restlessness. “Well, I don’t experience it [as restlessness],” he considered, “because not to be interested in [any one of my pursuits] would be missing a part of my life.”

If not restlessness, then Magee did admit to feeling an irrepressible need for unbounded independence, and contempt for authority (“I don’t accept authority. [He laughed]. I don’t have a problem with it. I just don’t accept it!”). Indeed, Magee’s self-conscious devotion to his interests seems to illustrate the possibility of a self-interested life free from self-absorption. At intervals, he gave up work altogether, once to take up musical composition, but found that his compositions were intolerably mawkish. “I’m not a great artist, and I would like to have been… I would like to have written great philosophy in the form of poetry, which after all some of the ancient Greeks did. But I didn’t have it in me. It just wasn’t there.”

“I feel, to take an analogy from card games, I was dealt a good hand—not a wonderful hand, not a marvellous hand—and I think I’ve lived in such a way as to make the most of the hand I’ve got. But, what I basically wish more than anything else is that I’d had better cards.”

Magee’s intellectual wandering seems to have taken its darkest turn in his mid-30s when he became engulfed by a crisis of “cataclysmic force,” manifesting in an inescapable pre-occupation with death. “The conviction that I was wasting not just my talents but my life began to take root.” For several years he inhabited “a nightmare from which it was impossible to awake because I was awake already.” His response was to re-read the masterpieces of philosophy—and “read them as if my life depended on it,” plundering them for insights that might serve as therapy or cure.

To the increase of his isolation, apart from a short, early marriage, Magee always lived alone, (though his life has been “full of relationships”). “Not everyone could live like that,” I remarked; “Most people wouldn’t want to,” he replied. “In fact, most people don’t like being alone. Most people are afraid of being alone.” He regarded the great philosophers as his “life-enhancing companions and guides,” to whom he felt closer, in some respects, than his friends. As counterpoint to this, he spoke, a little disquietingly, of his life-long incapacity to reciprocate the romantic love directed at him. “I felt from an early age that a problem that I had was not that nobody liked me, but that I didn’t like them.” “The older I get, the more I realise that the roots of some of these things lie in my relationship with my mother. My mother had no affection for me whatsoever, and I knew that because she kept saying so.” The upshot of his existential torment was a novel that took four years to write. The book started life under the title Love Story but evolved—much, no doubt, to the distress of the sales team—into Facing Death.

Denis Healey, Magee’s former colleague, used to talk of the political importance of having “hinterland,” and behind his painstaking Oxonian style and bullet-proof glasses, Magee’s seemed to unfurl towards a vanishing point. There was a kind of Victorian high-mindedness about him, an intensity of gaze that caused more frivolous, worldly concerns to wilt away. I am reminded of a definition Susan Sontag once gave of polymaths—they are people who are interested in everything and nothing else.

His unremitting seriousness of purpose, his preoccupation with the grand problems of philosophy—at times beyond what he could bear—the range of material in which he was willing to find insight, all suggest he connected with philosophy more authentically than many of the subject’s professionals. The nature of ultimate reality is more elusive than we tend to admit to ourselves; there is more—much more, perhaps—in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in philosophy. Despite his own predicament, inescapably possessed by this mystery, Magee saw that we are not all so made as to live our lives as he did. One consolation. “Death will be upon us before we know where we are; and once we are dead it will be forever.”

JOHN MAIER is a former editor of the ORB. He is a man of letters, particularly the letter 't'.


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