Logical positivist Alfred Jules Ayer was renowned both as a fierce debater and an audacious womanizer. As his stepdaughter Gully Wells told his biographer Ben Rogers, in 1987, shortly after his seventy-seventh birthday party, Ayer cleverly conjoined these competitive qualities in an unexpectedly philanthropic encounter with a besotted raper wannabe:
It was at another party, given a little later in the year by the highly fashionable clothes designer, Fernando Sanchez, that he had a widely reported encounter. Ayer had always had an ability to pick up unlikely people and at yet another party had befriended Sanchez. Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: ‘Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.’ Ayer stood his ground: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent men in our held; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’ Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.
In the following year, a no less competitive confrontation with a more formidable adversity left Ayer bested in a far less festive setting. In the articles reproduced and glossed below, he recounts and analyzes a near-death experience, which pitted him against a bright and painful red light that governed the universe, and the guardians of space and time. Some time later Jonathan Miller commented to Dee Wells, Ayer’s final and antepenultimate wife: “Freddie is in spectacularly good form!” To which she replied: “He’s so much nicer since he died.” A character-building opportunity of this sort would improve almost all of us.What I Saw When I Was Dead
A.J. Ayer post mortem, London, 5 October 1988, photo by Steve Pyke
My first attack of pneumonia occurred in the United States. I was in hospital for ten days in New York, after which the doctors said that I was well enough to leave. A final X-ray, however, which I underwent on the last morning, revealed that one of my lungs was not yet free from infection. This caused the most sympathetic of my doctors to suggest that it would be good for me to spend a few more days in hospital. I respected his opinion but since I was already dressed and psychologically disposed to put my illness behind me, I decided to take the risk. I spent the next few days in my stepdaughter’s apartment, and then made arrangements to fly back to England. When I arrived I believed myself to be cured and incontinently plunged into an even more hectic social round than that to which I had become habituated before I went to America.
Retribution struck me on Sunday, May 30. Continue reading a brief visit to the red light district
In an “ontological fantasy,” characters from “our” niche interact with sentient beings from other niches, as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The reader is not at liberty to doubt the existence of trolls, orcs, and elves, even if a character within the fiction does. Often the interaction borders on the sacred, as in Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost. Walter M. Miller Jr., in a passage from A Canticle for Leibowitz, makes a clear distinction between ontological and epistemological fantasy. Dr. Cors and Abbot Zerchi are debating the merits of euthanasia. The skeptical doctor speaks,
“If I thought I had such a thing as a soul, and that there was an angry God in Heaven, I might agree with you.”
Abbot Zerchi smiled thinly. “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body temporarily.” (W.M. Miller 242)
Given leisure from hagiography, the abbot might enjoy an ontological fantasy. Dr. Cors might read an epistemological fantasy, though he would likely prefer psychological realism.
—David M. Miller, “Mommy Fortuna’s Ontological Plenum: The Fantasy of Plenitude”, in Contours of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Eighth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Michele K. Langford, Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 208-209