Interview: Sebastian


Sebastian is a German-American author and financier. Since our first meeting in an Amsterdam laundromat, we have been friends, confidants and sometime roommates. Sebastian also serves as an occasional content editor for Krapp’s Last Blog.

1. What was lost when men stopped wearing hats?

A great deal, Greg, a great deal. I wish I had by the time of this interview embraced a euphemism to describe my condition (my steadily declining condition). Male-pattern baldness ravages my pink-gray skull; my interest in hats has never been so keen. There are all sorts of hats that a man can wear, and no (commonly worn) hat confers less dignity on its wearer than a baseball cap. The Libertines once sang, ‘There are fewer more distressing sights than that / Of an Englishman in a baseball cap’ (can we guess whether it was Carl or Peter who penned this lyric?) . . . ah yes, Pete Doherty. He can wear his pork pie hats and trilbies and even the occasional straw hat (is it a panama hat or a boater?), and though some may revile him and his hats, I say: Darling, you look wonderful. After all, he’s not a member of the common herd. Rather, he is uncommonly handsome, famous, tall.

I think of the shot in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, the one where a sea of bowler hats atop navy-blue suits streams down Broadway. I think the shot is supposed to evoke Archer’s sense of the barrenness of convention, even the futility of his hamstrung existence, but am I wrong also to notice very many well-dressed men, and not one of them bald, as far as I can tell? In short, if I were to cover those few strands of hair left to me with a baseball cap, you would think me a slob, with a fedora, a fool. One can’t wear a hat anymore without it being a ‘statement’, instead of what it should be: a functional and dashing accessory. Best to dispense with it, then – to our detriment.

2. If a man has medical training and practices medicine, I would consider him a doctor. What does it take to be considered a writer?

One can become a writer without formal training, though I find it difficult to believe that one can become a great writer without the training that comes from the careful reading of the best literature and constant practice in telling stories in one form or another (lies to lovers? barroom tales? bawdy jokes?). I’m told that Stephen Crane had little use for school, and struck out on his own at sixteen to work as a reporter, frequenting brothels for his research. That sounds like excellent training. All of life is practice for becoming a writer, anyway, and that, of course, is what rends this answer from sense: perhaps others have learned more about life from a lingering embrace or a secret embarrassment than I have from all my decades.

In any case, the point is to be a competent doctor, a first-rate writer. Hence, I decree that the following two conditions must be fulfilled before you may consider yourself a writer: first, you must write for pleasure, and second, to adopt almighty God’s standard, at least ten people must enjoy reading what you write.

3. The actual plural to the word ‘octopus’ is ‘octopodes.’ ‘Octopi’ apparently entered our language due to a confusion between Latin and Greek endings. Which form should one generally use: the common usage, or the correct?

Common usage inevitably becomes the correct. I think the only thing one can debate is whether or not to feel sad about this. Kingsley Amis, in his amusing usage book, The King’s English, always favors the less pretentious of two options. He wants writing to be as intelligible as possible, to convey meaning as effectively as possible. For that reason, of course, he also warns the reader against imprecision in writing and speaking.

What then, can I answer you, when my guidebook fails me? I can’t counsel you to say ‘octopodes’ if only the few will understand you, and the many will think you are a cunt, but I don’t want you using nonsense words either (how did you discover this fact, incidentally? Are you a budding naturalist? Or do you remain nothing more than an incorrigible polymath?). Maybe Kingsley is out of date. We all speak a muddy, television English these days, anyway, an English riddled with linguistic laziness. Keep your octopodes if it gives (they give) you pleasure.

4. Would you rather own a novel in an elegant first edition, or in a homely edition featuring the latest in authoritative scholarship and editing?

Were I a dashing viscount with my own tiered library, occupied with the breeding of thoroughbreds and the pursuit of wantons, I would choose the heavy papered first edition with the gilt binding. Even a wretch like me enjoys holding books, knows the tactile pleasure of handling an elegant volume. But I find that these days I most often hold a book under my arm as I crush into a subway car, or against my tear-stained chest as I drift off to a few hours of restless sleep. That aside, as I do not benefit from a classical education, I require footnotes and explanatory essays to make sense of those books that I do read. Therefore, I choose the homely edition.

5. Does anti-depression medication pose a threat to art?

I agree with the suggestion made before now that depression itself is a grave threat to art, and that we are fortunate to live in an age where those who in the past would have been incapacitated by melancholy can, with the aid of a pill, live productive lives. The few people I know who do take anti-depressants, however, describe their effect as a sort of spiritual flattening. A tie, then.

6. Is there nobility in suicide?

I don’t believe that there is nobility in suffering, and to live is to suffer, correct? And yet death is not the absence of suffering, surely – it is the absence of everything, to call it the absence of suffering is to miss the point of the thing. Once I am dead, I may as well never have existed, and, in truth, I will cease to have ever existed once I am dead. I will be one of the numberless forgotten accidents of nature. This consciousness is all I will ever possess, and as it will be snatched from me sooner than I can bear to acknowledge. I endeavor to be as conscious as I can, for as long as I can. And yet it is perhaps man’s singular death-knowledge that makes human life so unbearable to start with. Then, to choose when one greets death is in a way brave, and not ignoble, considered that way. But not wise – it couldn’t be wise. I want to cling to life! Cast me not yet into the charnel pit! Leave the acceptance of the inevitable end to the rest – I shrink from it.

7. Kant said, ‘If I found myself on an uninhabited island, without hope of ever again encountering human beings, and could conjure such a splendid edifice as I wish, I should still not trouble to do so, so long as I had a hut there that was comfortable enough for me.’ J.D. Salinger has called publication, ‘a damned interruption . . . I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.’ Do you think it’s possible to write just for pleasure?

I believe that one writes first because one finds joy in producing something beautiful, even if it is only for oneself. So I would write even if I were certain that my work would never find a public to appreciate it. If I lived on an uninhabited island, I would spend much of my time searching tidal pools for crabs and chasing coconuts on the hot sand, but I think I would also learn the language of the exotic birds, and sing them the epic song of my loneliness. Keats wrote, ‘I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night’s labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine upon them.’ That suffices. But I would rather live on that island with a young Brooke Shields, and I would prefer to share what I write with my fellow man.

8. How accurately can you judge how someone will be in bed based on how they dance?

I’m a very inexperienced dancer.

9. What is an addiction?

Whenever I have to go into a meeting with one of my bosses, and I know that it will be unpleasant, and that my secretarying skills will be called into question, I make sure to pop a piece of nicotine gum into my mouth beforehand. Throughout the meeting, I think to myself, ‘You don’t even know that I’m enjoying a delicious cigarette right now.’

10. Buy low, sell high.

Many of your readers will be unaware that in addition to being a (somewhat) young writer of abundant promise, I also play a significant role at a leading financial firm. I don’t make the trades, exactly, nor do I think up our macroeconomic outlook or devise our long-term strategy. But I do work there. And along the way I’ve picked up a few things. Now, not only can one buy and sell, but also sell ‘short.’ For the uninitiated among Krapp’s worldwide readership, one sells short (or ‘shorts’ in the parlance of the industry) when one believes an equity will go down in value. I’m not sure how it works exactly. I’m a secretary, okay? I book flights. In any case, sometimes I feel like short-selling this whole city, and all the delusions of fame and immortality it has inculcated in me.

Does that make sense?


~ by ohkrapp on November 25, 2008.

2 Responses to “Interview: Sebastian”

  1. Terrific!

  2. splendid. I like the nicotine gum anecdote.

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