Eccentricity is a subject that has preoccupied me over these past months. A chapter of the book I’m writing (Surreptitious Subversions: Breaking Institutional Codes in Ancien Régime France) is devoted to four eccentric figures, all priests and all scholars from seventeenth-century France, a cross-dresser, a conspiracy theorist, a compulsive-obsessive pedant, and a sexually obsessed prude. All good and well, but the primary problem that I’ve encountered in working on this chapter is an overwhelming lack of scholarly interest in eccentricity. The majority of hits on any library-catalogue search using the keywords of “eccentricity” or “eccentric” will bring up books such as Noel Annan’s The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses or studies of great British eccentrics, but there is a dearth of serious treatments of the theme. This contrasts with related –yet, of course, very different- issues such as madness and abnormality, which are the focus of much historical, literary, and philosophical research, notably Michel Foucault. And this has left me with an almost total lack of theoretical framework with which to have as a canvas for the chapter. The lack of interest in eccentricity and eccentrics is, on one level, understandable and at the same time provides the rationale for delving into the area: eccentric individuals appear to be harmless folk, and harmless folk do not, it would seem, contribute much to society nor do they rock the boat because of their marginal status. We are disposed to tolerate much from eccentrics in terms of their ideas and behaviour, because it does not strike us as offensive.
Among the few serious studies that have been undertaken on eccentricity, honourable mention has to made to two books by David Weeks, a neurospsychologist. In Eccentrics: The Scientific Investigation published in 1988, he asks what an eccentric is:
This is a mystery, not only for the average intelligent person, but also for most psychologists. Eccentrics are the last category of people to have eluded their scrutiny and investigation. This is not because of any deliberate evasion on their part, but is rather a neglected oversight by students of the mind, who perhaps see such research as rather a daunting prospect with few potential rewards. (p. 1)
He terms the lack of investigation into eccentrics as psychology’s black hole. Weeks uncovered some fascinating data in his pioneering work. Eccentrics tend to be only children or youngest children. They live longer, feel happier, and have higher IQs than the rest of the population. There is no such thing as an archetypical eccentric. Finally, there is no satisfactory definition of an eccentric, and this is a central premise of his work. However, like Dr Weeks, many people feel that they can identify an eccentric when they meet one. I know that I have done and do and I’m sure it’s the same for you. Can you think of someone you’ve encountered or who you know, that you just instinctively knew was eccentric? Salvador Dali was certainly such a person and was eccentric by his own and universal admission. When meeting someone you mentally categorize as eccentric, what was it about them that made them eccentric in your eyes? It’s an interesting question, because we don’t usually hesitate, in pondering, “could she be eccentric?” We just know, and unlike gaydar, everyone’s eccentridar is finely attuned to recognize specimens in the field. Sadly, a book demands some clarity and so I have come up with the following formulation as my personal working definition:
An eccentric is an individual who acts, dresses, and behaves in ways that deviate from accepted social codes, and who may also hold ideas or espouse ideologies that are unusual, non-normative, or are generally acknowledged to be strange. The eccentric is almost universally regarded as an innocent individual, incapable or unwilling to be dangerous to him or herself, others, or society.
The last part of the definition is the money quote. Since eccentrics get away with behaviour that would otherwise not be tolerated in other people, owing to their neutral or harmless status, it is my suggestion that some individuals fake it. That is to say they assume an eccentric persona in order to indulge in their heterodox ideas or actions. This is the case with the four clerics I study in my book-in-progress and I term such pseudo-eccentrics as active eccentrics to distinguish them from genuinely, often unself-consciously, eccentric folk that I label passive eccentrics. The consequences of such simulated eccentricity can be significant. Many scholars and patrons of radical ideas during the Enlightenment were deemed to be eccentric. More recently, the formerly congenial British national treasure and all-round oddity Sir Jimmy Savile has been exposed as one of the most prolific child abusers in history. I believe he assumed the profile of an affable eccentric in order to facilitate his terrible offending.
Weeks’s central assumption was that eccentricity is best studied in the eccentric, an opinion I share. Some cultures are more tolerant, even encouraging, of the eccentric, a factor intimately linked to these societies’ acceptance of dissent and freedom of speech. The United Kingdom has long been a particular hotbed of eccentrics, particularly in the arts, the academy, and the Church (meaning all denominations). This is perhaps best seen in the choice range of vocabulary that exists in English to describe such people: quirky, queer, quaint, strange, odd, curious, bizarre, barmy, off-beat, off-kilter, crazy, kookie, funky, peculiar, zany, outlandish, outré, off-the-wall, singular, screwy, wayward, weird, wacky, and whimsical. One of the most glorious eccentrics in history in addition to being one of the most fabulous human beings ever to walk this earth is Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), shown above in a photograph taken by Cecil Beaton. As an example of how utterly captivating she was, I beg you to watch this brief clip on Youtube, here, taken from a television interview in 1959 when she was aged 72 years old but possessing a charismatic and fresh vitality that is astonishing and in which she explains her curious sartorial choices. A recent academic biography has helped restore her much-neglected literary status. Her poetry was ranked with and spoken of in relation to T. S. Eliot’s in the 1920s, and during the same decade pioneered a genre of spoken poetry recited to the rhythm of music by William Walton, Façades, which has been rightly compared to proto-rap. What is unusual about her eccentricity is that she was conscious of her own version of it and could analyze is dispassionately, writing a definitive study of it in 1933, The English Eccentrics. Dame Edith had eccentric parents. Her mother was imprisoned for fraud and her father, Sir George Sitwell, invented a small pistol with which to shoot wasps and had a large sign posted on the front door to his house stating “I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night”. He engaged himself in researching books, most of which sadly never saw publication, which demonstrated his unusual choice of subjects and which included A Short History of the Fork, Lepers’ Squints, The Introduction of the Peacock into Western Gardens, Domestic Manners in Sheffield in the Year 1250, and Acorns as an Article of Medieval Diet.
My study calls for a re-evaluation of the eccentric, urging people to go beyond the amusement generated by such individuals and to see how their contribution can, at times, challenge our very notions of what is normal and what it means to conform. One of the most accepted band of eccentric people is to be found in the lives of saints. There are many episodes from hagiographic writing that illustrate the fine line or often cramped intersection between sanity, sanctity, and genius, whether it is the hermits living on the top of pillars for decades, or there is the example of St Simeon who would drag himself around on his buttocks, trip people up, or run naked into the female section of the local bathhouse in order to conceal the fact that he was holy and to be written off as a crank, surely the patron saint of kookiness if not of annoying people.
Today’s cufflinks are the product of a rampantly eccentric imagination. A married couple, both former dancers, founded the jewellery firm of Flora Danica in Copenhagen in 1953. The company still exists and specializes in crafting items of jewellery in the shape of Danish natural flora, though present-day items lack the quality of the founders. Orla Eggert was particularly obsessed with the beauty of garden herbs and had a penchant for the humble parsley plant. He would go on to found the Parsley Club in 1971, in an effort to stem the tide of dullness invading society. I am reminded of Uncle Monty in the cult movie Withinail & I who grows root vegetables in his home and opines “I happen to think the cauliflower more beautiful than the rose”. In a similar vein of passionate dedication, Orla would make many examples of cufflinks of herbs such as dill and thyme during the 1950s and 1960s, but the most striking example is that of that of his beloved parsley. The pair I have date from the late 1950s to the early 1960s and bear the Flora Danica maker’s mark. They are made out of sterling silver with a gold wash – Orla would insist that members of the Parsley Club would wear a real piece of parsley dipped into gold. They also possess an astonishing level of intricate detail, revealing the love that Orla bore for this genus, and each one of the pair is different from the other, reflecting the uniqueness of nature. Above all, this beautiful pair of cufflinks of an unlikely and not especially pretty plant show us the real power of eccentrics, for the colour that these unusual people can bring to the grey landscapes of our banal lives is nothing other than magical. It is a form of visual and ideological transubstantiation. It is a magic that we can all, and should, believe in.