Sunday, January 20, 2008

The End of Eccentricity

Simon Schama, in a review of a new collection of Isaiah Berlin’s correspondence, describes a talk given by him in Cambridge in the late sixties on the tortured relationship between Tolstoy and Turgenev which was prefaced with this directive: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I must warn you that I speak very low and very fast, so if you fail to understand me, would you please indicate this by some eccentricity of behavior.” Thoroughly charmed by the very eccentricity of Berlin’s call for a show of eccentricity should he be found obscure, I began to reflect, in my usual manner of masking the frivolity of my reflections by wrapping them in the weightiest of categories, on whether there is a place for eccentricity within a democratic regime. Berlin, after all, was himself something of an aristocrat: raised for the most part in the capital of Imperial Russia, he spent most of his life teaching at Oxford and was even awarded the dignity of Knight Bachelor. So, in short, he could get away with being a bit eccentric.

A dozen or more years ago I was gossiping with an especially urbane monk about a particular hierarch. He smilingly described this bishop being an eccentric, to which I snorted and smiled mischievously, to demonstrate that I appreciated that he was criticizing him in politic terms. Oh no, he remonstrated, he used this as a term of praise. Not just anybody could qualify as an eccentric, he assured me, only a superior person. The eccentric, that is, is not the spinster aunt with a dozen cats, the solitary farmer who has lined his walls with aluminum foil, or the baffling foreigner who dries pigs’ ears on his laundry line but, instead, the superior but off-center (ek + kentron) man; it is the person so convinced of his own integrity that he doesn’t see any reason to conform to the common opinion of the herd. This is evidence of a profoundly undemocratic spirit for, as Tocqueville argued, what we witness in the democratic experiment is a leveling of the human spirit in which aristocratic superiority is sacrificed for the common good: “If there were less splendor than in an aristocracy, misery would also be less prevalent; the pleasures of enjoyment might be less excessive, but those of comfort would be more general; the sciences might be less perfectly cultivated, but ignorance would be less common; the ardor of the feelings would be constrained, and the habits of the nation softened; there would be more vices and fewer crimes.” The result is that the democratic nation “will be less brilliant, less glorious, and perhaps less strong” and, most importantly, will be less welcoming of the eccentric.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the British Empire was the golden age of eccentricity – a certain residue remains just under the surface of British society to this day, though it’s slowly evaporating – and that the only institutions in America in which some evidence of a toleration of eccentricity remains are those which maintain something of an aristocratic, or at least meritocratic, structure, namely the academy and the arts. Any student can call to mind various eccentric professors who are tolerated because their oddness is part of the tweed and ivy landscape guarded by the ivory tower. It is likewise not difficult to name artists of known eccentricity, paradigmatic among them Glenn Gould with his scarves and gloves at all times of the year, his tendency to hum, conduct, and even dance while playing, his traveling piano stool, his fear of the public, and his premature reclusion. But apart from the largely caricatured absent-minded professor and demanding artist, can one name any prominent eccentrics on the contemporary public square? There’s Tom Wolfe, but his sole eccentricity is his taste for wearing tailored white suits year round; Michael Jackson, but he’s simply an insolated celebrity with perverse affections; Christopher Hitchens, but he’s more properly a contrarian than an eccentric; Wes Anderson, who seems too self-consciously hip to qualify; I refuse to include bohemians, rock stars, subjects of reality shows, middle-aged men with elaborate comb-overs, conspiracy theorists, or crazy relatives, all of whom lack the necessary positive qualities to qualify. If Dame Edith Sitwell were writing today, whom would she portray in her gallery?

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