Stephen Fry got sent off to a faraway boarding school at the age of seven. His subsequent years of student life far from home taught him, among other things, a set of effective strategies to deflect bullying. (“I suppose it all began when I came out of the womb,” he once said when asked at what point he acknowledged his sexuality, and that must have given him plenty of time to consider what it was to stand outside the mainstream.) The particular line he recommends delivering in the Q&A clip above (recorded at The Oxford Union) may not be for everyone, but he also has a larger point to make, and he makes it with characteristic eloquence. The eternal threat of bullying, he says, is “why nature gave us, or enough of a percentage of us, wit — or at least what might pass for it.”
Wit, which Fry possesses in a famous abundance, must surely have carried him through a great many situations both professional and personal. A modern-day intellectual and aesthetic heir to Oscar Wilde, Fry has the advantage of having lived in a time and place without being subject to the kind of punishment visited on the author of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” But that doesn’t mean he’s had an easy time of it. He cites an “ancient metaphor” he’s kept in mind: “No matter how dark it is, the smallest light is visible; no matter how light it is, a bit of dark is nothing.” The challenges he’s faced in life — none of them a million miles, presumably, from the kind endured by those seen to be different in other ways — have sent him to the wells of history, philosophy, and even mythology.
“We have to return to Nietzsche,” Fry says, and specifically The Birth of Tragedy. “He argued that tragedy was born out of ancient Greece, out of a spirit that the Athenians had as they grew up as a special tribe that somehow managed to combine two qualities of their twelve Olympic deities.” Some of these qualities were embodied in Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Apollo, god of harmony, music, mathematics, and rhetoric. But then we have Dionysius, “god of wine and festival and riot. Absolute riot.” Tragedies, according to Nietzsche, “look at the fact that all of us are torn in two,” with part of us inclined toward Athenian and Apollonian pursuits, where another part of us “wants to wrench our clothes off, dive into the grapes, and make slurping, horrible noises of love and discord.”
This all comes down to the thoroughly modern myth that is Star Trek. On the Enterprise we have Mr. Spock, who embodies “reason, logic, calculation, science, and an absolute inability to feel”; we have Bones, “all gut reaction”; and “in the middle, trying to be a perfect mix of the two of them,” we have Captain Kirk, “who wanted the humanity of Bones, but some of the reasoning judgment of Spock.” The Enterprise, in a word, is us: “Each one of us, if we examine ourselves, knows there is an inner beast who is capable of almost anything — in mind, at least — and there is an inner monk, an inner harmonious figure.” Each side keeps getting the better of the other, turning even the bullied into bullies on occasion. The best you can do, in Fry’s view, is to “go forth, be mad, be utterly proud of who you are — whatever you are — and for God’s sake, try everything.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.