Just back from a wonderful weekend in the depths of Wales. I didn’t find RS Thomas, or any great rural epiphany, but, in keeping with the joys of weekends in other people’s houses, had a great time dipping into some books.
The most enjoyable was Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics*. It’s an eccentric volume itself, but delicious for that difference. The Folio edition I was perusing began with a quote from John Stuart Mill:
“In this age the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”
The quote comes from his 1859 book ‘On Liberty‘, where he regularly rages against ‘custom’, believing it leads to conformity, and thus lack of freedom:
“Even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes.”
Eccentricity simply means ‘having a different centre’. For this reason alone, and with no thought for wanting to be ‘quirky’ or ‘different’, I’d like to sing in praise of being eccentric. Within this definition it is only the eccentric who can speak prophetic criticism. It is only the eccentric who can, by the gravity of their thought, draw close and change the orbit of the masses. Bauman writes in Liquid Life of “the mind-boggling quandary of having to mark oneself out as an individual, while also remaining obviously an acceptable part of the group” and it is this pressure that draws us into predictable, one-dimensional orbits. Being such a satellite around such a large mass is safe, yes, but cold and life-less.
The force to break away from this comes in two forms. The greater force, perhaps, is the gravity of the a-centrics, the vacuous cult of celebrity that tempts us with ideas of total freedom: responsibility-free sex, rootless trans-atlantic existence and the exultation of form over content. But nothing can have no centre, save nothing itself.
So it is down to the eccentric, the differently centred, the ‘dirty trickster’ as my book would have it, to provide some alter-orbit. The physics is clear on this: the closer this eccentric orbit swings to the other mass, the greater its changing effect. Eccentricity is not an excuse for seclusion or flight, but an invitation to challenge the prose-flattened, cathode-ray world with some vital poetry.
[* The book. Not the online fashion store. Urgghhhh.]