Joker Apart, Interview with James Harkin

It is a sparkling Sunday morning in early autumn, and one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, dressed in a mod jacket and sandals and swigging from a can of Diet Coke, is giving me the benefit of his experience on cheap London hotels. “This one” – he points to it – “is pretty reasonable. Not cheap, you know, but cheap for London. There are other good ones around here, if you know where to look. And you can walk everywhere from here.”

We are in the heart of bohemian Bloomsbury, but this is a far cry from what I had expected. When I agreed to meet Slavoj Zizek in Tavistock Square, it was because he mentioned that he’d like to look at a house in the square where Lenin had once lived and written one of his books. When we get there, there is little to see apart from a statue of Gandhi – Lenin no longer packs in the tourists, and there is no record of him having stayed here – and so he entertains me and the photographer with quips and apercus from everyone from Brecht to Kierkegaard.

Zizek positively fizzes with enthusiasm for anything that might be hoisted into the world of ideas, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to get him to shut up. When the photographer tells him to keep his mouth closed for the pictures, he dutifully obeys for about two seconds before launching into a half-serious aside in which he compares the camera to a phallus. “You spoke,” fumes the photographer in jokey exasperation. On discovering that the photographer is Scottish, Zizek assures him that they share a bond of kinship. “We Slovenians are even better misers than you Scottish. You know how Scotland began? One of us Slovenians was spending too much money, so we put him on a boat and he landed in Scotland.”

For someone like Slavoj Zizek, even a joke can be an exercise in theory. In the flesh, the bearded, intense Slovenian looks a little like Jesus might have done, if Jesus had lasted another 10 years, upped sticks to the chillier climes of eastern Europe and converted to revolutionary Marxism.

[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on October 8th 2005.]