We asked Michael Foley, author of The Age of Absurdity, to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him…
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
I’ve been thinking that many current social trends began in the 1970s. This was the decade of liberation, of anger at injustice and demands for recognition and rights. But, over time, the demand for specific rights degraded into a generalised sense of entitlement, the demand for specific recognitions into a generalised need for attention, and the anger at specific injustice into a generalised feeling of grievance and resentment. The result is a culture of entitlement, attention-seeking and complaint. The new infantilism is also a consequence of liberation, which, instead of providing fulfilment in itself, as many imagined, has led to complication, confusion and doubt. The backlash is a demand to have everything simple, certain and easy, to suck a dummy, fill a nappy and doze off to a lullaby.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
The most exciting idea I have come across recently is that the human brain is more plastic and adaptable than anyone imagined. Not only constantly reconfiguring, it can even regenerate itself. I always believed that the brain gradually deteriorated and that every gin and tonic killed a few million more neurons but the brain can actually grow new neurons, even into old age – an astounding miracle known as neurogenesis. So thinking can encourage not just imaginative but physical rebirth in the brain.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
One of the key discoveries of the 20th century was that the human condition is essentially absurd and the key work on absurdity is The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. This is a short book, the most stylishly written philosophy since Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, with aferociously lucid but also inspiring analysis of the human predicament and many striking sentences that should be on coffee mugs, T-shirts and fridge magnets everywhere.
And finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago: “What will the future make of the present?” What is your answer to this?
What the future will make of us is as unpredictable as everything else about the future. The only correct prophecy is that all prophecies will be wrong. Who could have predicted that 2010 would see a return to fashion for cupcakes, cardigans, vampires and Noddy?