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HomeNumeri56On a value of eccentricity

On a value of eccentricity

Wojciech Żełaniec
p. 55-63

Abstract

Questo saggio cerca di definire un valore (non «il» valore) di ciò che, in esso, viene chiamato un «eccentrico». In una società ampiamente standardizzata e stereotipata come quella nostra, una società in cui un essere umano può essere creativo ma soltanto entro certi limiti predefiniti, diversi gruppi esercitano una serie di pressioni di vario tipo sugli individui, e con la crescente mobilità geografica e sociale questi tipi di pressione, intrecciati e sovrapposti, danno luogo a una tensione insopportabile e a situazioni di intollerabilità psicologica, e forse persino metafisica. Una soluzione è un atteggiamento di «non farci caso», in cui ci si fa più o meno compuntamente beffe di tutte le regole eccetto di un piccolo numero prescelto. Un’altra soluzione è l’atteggiamento di un eccentrico, simile, ma non identico, a quello del «gentleman» di John Henry Newman. Cerco di definire questo atteggiamento e di mostrarne un valore: quello di permetterci di eludere una pressione sociale troppo forte senza estraniarci dalla società.

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Testo integrale

  • 1 The first line of the Czech national anthem.

Kde domov můj? (Where is my home?)
Josef Kajetán Tyl1

  • 2 The title of a famous poem by Ernst Moritz Arndt.

Wo ist des Deutschen Vaterland? (Where is the motherland of a German?)
Ernst Moritz Arndt2

  • 3 From the poem Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, Swift and Davis 1967: 512.

His friends would let him have his way
Jonathan Swift3

1. Introduction (Stage-Setting)

1A leading ideology of our epoch is individualization; we are encouraged, enjoined even, to be independent, self-relying and self-confident, acquisitive individuals thinking and acting on our own, not determined in our choices by any collective allegiances or loyalties, still less collective reaction-patterns, let alone determinations due to common human nature as such, the very existence of which being questioned. (If this ideology had been true, or if we had taken it to heart, we should have been or become a society of radically others, Camusian étrangers.) The expansion of the jargon of “choice” is good witness thereof: it has become fashionable to prefix all verbs of action with a “choose(s) to” or “chose to;” instead of saying “those who smoke [or whatever]” we often say “those who choose to smoke [or whatever]”, even if most of us are aware of just how illusory the corresponding choice (if any) must have been. But those who willy-nilly just do or are something-or-other (for instance, smokers), without, really, too much deliberation and sense of not being driven to what they eventually are bound to “choose”, are obviously pleased and flattered by the imputation of free choice.

  • 4 An interesting attempt at spelling out the «extent» of being free is to be found in Carter 2004.

2Sometimes there clearly is an entrepreneurial design behind such imputations (when you want to sell things necessary for what the persons in question do or are – pardon, choose to do or be – for instance cigarettes); a telephone company sells a payment plan with a title “True Choice” to its customers, which (needless to say) does not involve much more choice or choosing activity that any other payment plan, but is called in a way intended to exploit a common illusion and cater to a warped self-image of a customer all too eager to be flattered. I am not saying that all free will and action is an illusion (there is in any case more of the former, as quite often we are constrained to act not exactly on the designs we have willed but to strike far reaching compromises or simply yield to the power of circumstances), because I believe that in some cases we are to some extent4 free; I am only saying that the scope of that freedom is far more restricted than the common ideologies would like to make us believe.

  • 5 Musil, Wilkins and Pike 1995, popular with analytic ontologists, who at the same time tend to prefe (...)

3For all that, individualization, breaking loose, or at the very least the attempt to break loose – inchoative individualization – from the constraints imposed by collectivities is not quite spurious. To begin with, while there are no less collectivities now than there have been in the past (and the claims they raise on us are no less stringent, on the contrary), they lose something of their impact and grip on us precisely in virtue of being more, not less; the resultant force is not so easily traceable to the influence of any particular collectivity. Do I live my life in function of, say, being a Dutchman, a liberal, a middle-class person, a scholar, a Buddhist, a vegetarian, a town-dweller, a stamp-collector, a passionate reader of Robert Musil’s book5, or what not (depending on the precise assortment of the collectivities to which I happen to belong)? Not clearly so; while all of these social groups, with their written and unwritten sanctions and the corresponding pressures get into one another’s way, the resultant force is anything but easy to break up in its components, and so I soon give up trying, indulging in the self-serving and flattering illusion that there is no resultant force at all but just my “free choice”, instead, which has its source in an unperturbed “this I want, that I don’t”, and which makes use of whatever determines the course of my action but is not a function thereof. There is a grain of truth in that, clearly, a residuum of freedom, a “true choice” in the literal sense of these words, and so I may be free to choose between different brands of commodities, or perhaps between Mac, Windows and Linux, or some such. As a German journalist once observed, the contemporary individuality defines itself in terms of brands it “chooses” to buy and be a consumer of. Other than opting for or against brands (and you extend this easily to other areas, such as subscribing for your image of reality to this or that newspaper or a TV station) you can boost your individuality by combining usual common, standardized traits which are you and which you share with millions of human beings very like you, in seemingly unique patterns. It is instructive to read “looking for a sweetheart” announcements in journals or the Internet: you will see how original, individual, diverse, individualized and personalised, and yet, at the same time, how alike and stereotyped they all are.

2. Eccentricity proper

  • 6 So Eric Basso in his introduction to: Nerval and Lappin 1993: 20.

4Eccentricity, as I understand this phenomenon, is not at all like that. That is: it is not an odd, fanciful selection and disposition of quite pedestrian things (like preferring dogs to cats in a cat-loving milieu, or vice-versa), and still less is it something one “chooses” to be. No-one in his good senses chooses to habitually take a lobster for a walk in Palais Royal gardens (Paris, France), and yet Gérard de Nerval was famously given to this type of leisurely occupation; well, he was not in his good senses, perhaps (he was schizophrenic, some say6). But schizophrenia is a way of escaping from too much pressure exerted by irreconcilable authorities and so is eccentricity without schizophrenia; at least, quite often.

  • 7 In his Awful German Language of 1880, an appendix to Twain 2002.
  • 8 As Hebel’s Alemannic peasant is saying to a stork after the latter’s extensive, but stork-like, enu (...)

5To give a little quite innocuous example: a certain gentleman is in the habit of interspersing his discourse generously with so-called tag-questions, such as: “is it not?”, “were they?”, “won’t she?” and similar, spoken all in an asking tone of voice, thus meant as questions which his conversation partners are supposed to answer, if only with a syllable or a grunt. This is an eccentricity admittedly far less remarkable than that of walking a lobster, but it is perceived as a somewhat tiresome, not to say irksome, mannerism and earns the gentleman the reputation of one whose company is to be enjoyed with caution (perhaps because he tends to be believed to lack in self-security). Yet, the mannerism has a clear explanation: the gentleman divides his life between Germany and another country, where different speaking customs (and unwritten rules) have currency. In Germany, a conversation is a series of intertwined one-man shows, where a smallest vocal reaction on the part of one of the other participants is interpreted as an interruption, bringing thus the utterance of the participant currently speaking (if he or she is polite) to a halt. This combines well with certain characteristics of the German language, those satirised by Mark Twain7 and others, such as the putting of the main verb or some other important word at the end of the sentence. (Thus if you haven’t listened to the whole utterance from the beginning to the end attentively chances are that you will not get it right.) But it also fits in well with the significance German culture bestows upon individual performance and individual responsibility (and keeping up a conversation is a performance in Germany). In any event, in the other countries the gentleman in question needs to spend a considerable part of his life there is a different rule: you have to, at regular intervals, confirm that you are still listening to, and taking in what the other person is saying, by discrete but audible grunts or other noises (“oh really?”, “well”, “come on”, “you don’t tell me” and such-like). To a German, such vocal activities are a sign of boredom and inattention, or perhaps patronising, a prelude to something like “well, my dear fellow, I know all of that, you don’t have me to tell it to me and neither is there any need to for you to tell me anything else, good-day”8. To a non-German, it is the absence of all grunts and “really?”’s which is a sign of inattention and boredom, maybe even not hearing or not listening (on the telephone you can’t tell by your vis-à-vis’s face if he or she still can hear you or is listening to you).

  • 9 As far as social mobility is concerned, see Hoggart 1957 for many instructive examples.
  • 10 A striking example of such attitude is the whole literary personality of Thomas Mann, who, eager to (...)

6Now this example, you might well say, is itself eccentric. But there are others, perhaps less so, such as opening the door for ladies and other rules of politeness across sexes (or “genders” as one is often reminded to say nowadays); as is well (and sometimes painfully) known there are quite diverse rules for this type of practice in various countries, and generations as well as social strata (“classes”) even in the same country. A (male) person forced to move across countries and social strata is often hard put to find a “ready-made” behaviour code for this type of situation. He is uneasy about any and all of them9. A seemingly obvious solution would consist in settling for just one (of such “ready-made” behaviour codes), for instance that one of country and social group the male person in question is best integrated with and/or admires most. This would produce very eccentric results in a different social setting (if the relevant culture code are very different, such as for instance between Italy-working class and Sweden-academic milieu), but that would be just “relative eccentricity”, that is, one that comes across as eccentricity only if indulged in the “wrong” social setting, but not in the eccentric person’s favourite one (except that there the person would often make the impression of a neophyte10). What, however, if the person in question has no such favourite (or distinctly favoured) social setting? Then, there is for him no “ready-made” behaviour code to settle for. He must invent one of his own, which will be felt as eccentric everywhere.

  • 11 See Taylor 1977: IV, ch. XIV.
  • 12 The reader will hopefully forgive me, in the context of diverse and conflicting culture codes, the (...)

7A person well-integrated with a social group individuated along national, class, religious and other lines does not have this kind of problems. In Poland we speak about ludzie stąd (ˈlud͡ʑe stɔnt), “local folks”, those who were born in a certain setting, have lived there ever since and belong into this setting; they are best approached on the basis of what this setting has taught them to behave like, transported into a different country and/or region and/or social class they would come out awkward, to say the least. There is no use telling them that things “could just as well” be different or be done in a different way; there is no “just as well” to them. They are a naive implementation of the Hegelian Sittlichkeit11, not given to either questioning their own ways or imagining others. Told that somewhere else meals are taken at different times, say, or that people dress in a different way on comparable occasions (work, leisure, etc.), they shake their heads in mild scepticism and indicate that they can’t take such customs seriously, least of all understand those who observe them (if there be any such fools at all). Such persons are “incentric” if a neologism be allowed; but this is always a relative term, you are always incentric with respect to a certain social setting while you can, as I have noted above, be eccentric with respect to all of them. Ludzie stąd or tutejsi (tuˈtejɕi) “the locals” are a phenomenon that has until recently been common in various parts of Eastern Europe, due to (until recently) small geographical mobility of large parts of its population; with the EU membership of most countries of the region there has come along a wave of Eastern European “economical refugees” to richer countries of Northwestern Europe; these persons, in the streets of Oslo, Amsterdam, London or Dublin, are often not so much eccentric as ill-adjusted, as they are often not aware of all the different culture (and not just culture) codes12 of their host-countries, and, busy with their jobs, they fail to inquire for and receive proper instruction about such matters – they seem to be flouting the rules, while (for the most part) they simply are ignorant about them.

3. Its value

  • 13 On norms for the Italian reader: see Lorini and Passerini Glazel 2012.
  • 14 See Newman 1852: 208 ff. (I.8.10).
  • 15 I found this information about E. thirty-five years ago in a Polish-language (a translation?) biogr (...)
  • 16 Politely called “Skeptizismus”, “skepticism”. “I am sceptical about x” is a polite German way of sa (...)

8Now being eccentric in the sense meant here is (not flouting anything, but much rather) a way of negotiating difficulties and challenges which arise from not being a “local” anywhere, while having (some) consideration for the sensitivities, customs, expectations and tastes of the “locals” (and I am all along taking “local” not just in the geographical but also in the social, cultural and ethnic sense). It is a challenge that a social setting which is not quite your own exerts a normative pressure on you13; you are aware of the norms but for some reasons you cannot act up to them (maybe because you have never internalised them to the right degree), yet still, you do not wish, for prudential and other reasons, to merely flout them, either – unlike a “yob” at the entrance gate of a public park who passes it kicking a ball, playing a portable radio and accompanied by an unleashed dog, despite a sign saying “no dogs, no radios, no balls”, but proudly wearing a T-shirt with “no notice” in big letters on its front side. Being eccentric involves being considerate to the sensitivities of people who take certain things for granted – without following their example. An eccentric is a gentleman in Cardinal Newman’s sense14 – all the while standing his ground against conflicting demands of his diverse and changing social backgrounds. If socially, rather than just geographically, mobile, the eccentric need not go as far as to imagine that he be “free-floating” (freischwebend) Karl Mannheim-style among classes (which he typically is not); it is enough not to be committed, quite committed, to any, while frequently, though not invariably, siding with one of them, embracing its cause when the moment calls for it; like Einstein, who, though essentially Deist and non-sectarian, started filling in “Jewish” in forms under “religion”, when the persecution of Jews began, out of solidarity with other Jews15. Well, this is already brinkmanship: in a vicious world in which being Jewish (or some other ethnicity or religion) is regarded as an offence in its own right, flaunting one’s Jewishness is offensive. But there are, perhaps, gentleman-like (though certainly not in the Newmanian sense any longer) ways of giving offence. The author of these words is a Pole living in part in Germany, where a subliminal aversion16 to things Polish is still quite well-spread; there is a tacit but strong normative pressure to be ashamed of being Polish (and Poland epitomises, to an average German, all miseries and evils of this world to a degree that borders on the ridiculous sometimes). One type of reaction could be exaggerated self-assertion qua a Pole, but this would be just offensive (provocative, daring, “cocky”) in a German context, like the “yob’s”, “no notice” of the “no dogs, no radios, no balls” sign. A Polish person in Germany just has to – such are the rules of the game, love it or leave it – be self-conscious, slightly embarrassed, about their nationality. Another way of dealing with this challenge is, however, the distinctly eccentric but not (overly) offensive habit of refusing to deny one’s nationality where the non-written rituals of everyday life would seem to call for it – such as for instance, insisting that one is Polish rather than «from Poland» (aus Polen), as the latter bears the connotation of dissociating oneself from the country of origin. The first – cocky pride of being a national of the looked-down-upon sort – is like saying “well, I am wearing old-fashioned clothes and am proud of it”; the second is, rather, like “I suppose you won’t like these clothes I am now wearing, but you see, I’ll have to see some old-fashioned folks later today, so I had better dress like them and besides, I feel more comfortable”. Those “old-fashioned folks” are in a sense never purely imaginary, because there is always a different group (even if “that was in another country”, to speak with Christopher Marlowe) to which one wishes to remain – at least partly – loyal.

  • 17 Newman 1852: 209 (I.8.10).
  • 18 Newman 1852: 210 (I.8.10).
  • 19 Newman 1852: 210 (I.8.10).
  • 20 Newman 1852: 210 (I.8.10).
  • 21 Why “and to himself” is now probably sufficiently clear from the things said above. But to give ano (...)
  • 22 Newman 1852: 210 (I.8.10).

9The Newmanian gentleman is defined as «one who never inflicts pain»17. It would surely be self-flattering, or rather downright presumptuous to define an eccentric as one who never does. Certainly, the very fact that someone cannot be quite “like us locals” (in the, remember, geographical as much as social sense) causes some discomfort to both parties. But it holds largely true of the eccentric what Cardinal Newman said of his gentleman: «He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles […] He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive»18, well, the latter part is perhaps not applicable – because too self-congratulatory – without qualification, as is also this: «Nowhere shall we find greater candour, consideration, indulgence: he [the gentleman, W.Ż.] throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes» because the eccentricity of the eccentric takes its origin exactly in his inability to «throw himself into people’s minds»19, and the way he accounts for what he thinks are his opponents’ mistakes is … well … sometimes rather eccentric (such as for instance imagining traumatic experiences in the life history of the erring opponents, which he thinks and makes others think leave them no choice but to make what he thinks are the mistakes in question). But it again is true that the eccentric, at the bottom of his heart «knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits»20. As a result, he, not by definition but as a matter of fact, does not inflict too much pain too often, and avoids suffering too much himself21. Unlike the Newmanian gentleman, the eccentric is not, perhaps «mainly occupied in […] removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him»22 (and himself), and yet, he does his best to make these obstacles more streamlined, if such a term be allowed in the present context. The last question to answer is, of course, whether «those about him» will «let him have his way», to speak with Dr. Swift, or be ready to put up with the streamlining. (If not, the eccentric will not be one but a misfit instead, and subsequently will suffer himself and make others suffer.) But they often will and are.

10And that is why, among other things, it is good that despite all standardization and normalization, eccentrics are not yet all gone.

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Bibliografia

Carter, I.
– 2004, A Measure of Freedom, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Hall, E.T.
– 1959, The Silent Language, Garden City, Doubleday
– 1966, The Hidden Dimension, Garden City, Doubleday

Hebel, J.P. and Matzen, R. (tr.)
– 2010, Alemannische Gedichte. Für Freunde ländlicher Natur und Sitten. Poésies alémaniques, Kehl, Morstadt

Hoggart, R.
– 1957, The Uses of Literacy. Aspects of Working-Class Life, with Special Reference to Publications and Entertainments, London, Chatto & Windus

Horace and Rudd, N. (tr.)
– 2004, Odes and Epodes, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press

Lorini, G. and Passerini Glazel, L.
– 2012, Filosofie della norma, Torino, Giappichelli

Musil, R., Wilkins, S., Pike, B. (trs)
– 1995, The Man without Qualities, London, Picador

Nerval, G.D. and Lappin, K. (tr)
– 19932, Aurélia followed by Sylvie, Raleigh, Asylum Press

Newman, J.H.
– 1852, The Idea of a University, London, Longmans, Green & Co; http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/

Swift, J. and Davis, H (eds)
– 1967, Poetical Works, London, Oxford University Press

Taylor, C.
– 1977, Hegel, Cambridge (Mass.), Cambridge University Press

Twain, M.
– 2002, A Tramp Abroad, Mineola, Dover Publications

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Note

1 The first line of the Czech national anthem.

2 The title of a famous poem by Ernst Moritz Arndt.

3 From the poem Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, Swift and Davis 1967: 512.

4 An interesting attempt at spelling out the «extent» of being free is to be found in Carter 2004.

5 Musil, Wilkins and Pike 1995, popular with analytic ontologists, who at the same time tend to prefer Stendhal to Balzac (Barry Smith of Buffalo University, e-mail communication).

6 So Eric Basso in his introduction to: Nerval and Lappin 1993: 20.

7 In his Awful German Language of 1880, an appendix to Twain 2002.

8 As Hebel’s Alemannic peasant is saying to a stork after the latter’s extensive, but stork-like, enunciation: «‘s isch gnueg, Heer Storch! Mer wüsse’s scho, un was de saisch, mer glaube’s jo» («enough, Mr. Stork, we know already [what you have been saying] and that which you are saying we obviously do believe»). Hebel and Matzen 2010, Der Storch.

9 As far as social mobility is concerned, see Hoggart 1957 for many instructive examples.

10 A striking example of such attitude is the whole literary personality of Thomas Mann, who, eager to rid it of all traces of his Latin family history (his mother Julia, née da Silva-Bruhns, was Brazilian), stressed the North German, Protestant, Hanseatic traits of his literary alter ego to the point of, intentionally or not, ridiculing it. It was a case of, not so much a neophyte, as an “elective purebred”, perhaps.

11 See Taylor 1977: IV, ch. XIV.

12 The reader will hopefully forgive me, in the context of diverse and conflicting culture codes, the all-too-obvious reference to Edward T. Hall’s work, starting from Hall 1959 and Hall 1966.

13 On norms for the Italian reader: see Lorini and Passerini Glazel 2012.

14 See Newman 1852: 208 ff. (I.8.10).

15 I found this information about E. thirty-five years ago in a Polish-language (a translation?) biography of the great physicist, and I have been luckless in trying to locate it in the biographies currently accessible to me. It is possibly characteristic of our time that such information should not be considered worthy of print.

16 Politely called “Skeptizismus”, “skepticism”. “I am sceptical about x” is a polite German way of saying “I don’t like/I abhore/I am afraid of x”. If Horace had been German, he would have said: I am sceptical about profanum vulgus, cf. Horace and Rudd 2004: 140 (III 1, 1).

17 Newman 1852: 209 (I.8.10).

18 Newman 1852: 210 (I.8.10).

19 Newman 1852: 210 (I.8.10).

20 Newman 1852: 210 (I.8.10).

21 Why “and to himself” is now probably sufficiently clear from the things said above. But to give another little example: an eccentric person known to this author was, for some time, in the habit of arranging situations in which a word or an expression, which that person mostly had an occasion to use in an academic context and in a figurative sense only, could be applied in its literal sense. So e.g. he persuaded a friend of his to keep canary birds as pets just for the joy of using the expression “full-fledged” with reference to young birds, rather than just in bookish contexts like “full-fledged modal logic” or such. Using words, being confined to use them, only with reference to abstract objects is a source of suffering. Yet procuring oneself “full-fledged” or “full-blown” real-life non-bookish thrill parties tends, in the long run, to be rather self-destructive. Hence the “queer”, eccentric solution.

22 Newman 1852: 210 (I.8.10).

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Notizia bibliografica

Wojciech Żełaniec, «On a value of eccentricity»Rivista di estetica, 56 | 2014, 55-63.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Wojciech Żełaniec, «On a value of eccentricity»Rivista di estetica [Online], 56 | 2014, online dal 01 juin 2014, consultato il 20 juin 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/estetica/814; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/estetica.814

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