Water me

Graham Robb

  • Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination in 19th-Century Paris by Miranda Gill
    Oxford, 328 pp, £55.00, January 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 954328 1

The word excentricité was first used in its figurative sense by Germaine de Staël in her Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution française (1817). Until then, it had been an astronomical and geometrical term. In its new sense, it was an anglicism, expressing ‘a wholly original way of behaving which pays no heed to the opinion of others’. Eccentrics could be found everywhere, according to de Staël, but nowhere were they so prevalent or so noticeable as in England. The English character was (and perhaps, from a French point of view, still is) remarkable for ‘a bizarre mixture of timidity and independence’: ‘They do nothing by halves, and pass all at once from slavish observance of the minutest customs to the most complete indifference to what other people might think.’

Sixty years later, Pierre Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire universel saved up all its anecdotes on the subject of eccentricity for the article on originalité: ‘What we call an original is what the English more accurately call an eccentric.’ In France, an ‘eccentric’ was an original who was dangerously close to being an extravagant, a person who was ‘one of a kind’ but who might also on occasion be described as a lunatic.

At one end of the scale were solitary intellectuals whose domestic habits looked odd when exposed to the outside world: Jacques Cujas ‘could write only while flat on his stomach, with his books and papers scattered all around him’; ‘Corneille, Hobbes and Malebranche liked to compose their works in total darkness’; Crébillon ‘dressed in dirty clothes and wrote while perched on a ladder’. This is probably still the commonest form of perceived eccentricity: the oblivious recluse in the library, the carpet-slippered don who treats the town as an extension of his study, the ‘eccentric who had gone public’ (as Iain Sinclair describes his seedy book dealer, Dryfeld, in Downriver).

At the other end of the scale were the obviously insane, who nonetheless continued to orbit a recognisable ‘centre’. The author of the Larousse article mentions the Prince de Condé (son of le Grand Condé), who, acting on an irrational premise, behaved quite logically. One day, under the delusion that he had turned into a plant, he ordered his servant to water him and attacked him when he refused. On another occasion, believing himself to be a bat, he sensibly had his study padded in case he banged his head on the ceiling. Later, he became convinced that he was dead; consequently, he stopped eating, and died. In this case, the eccentric was simply a lunatic with money and power. This was also the expert opinion of Dr Moreau de Tours in Les Excentriques: étude psychologique et anecdotique (1894): ‘From a medical point of view, the eccentric is an unbalanced person who enjoys the privilege of not being locked up.’

Between these two extremes, the Larousse describes various other surprising characters, confident that ‘the reader’s common sense will easily distinguish excentriques from originaux.’ Perhaps it was easy in the 1870s, but no one now, especially not after reading Miranda Gill’s well-researched and historically sensitive Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination in 19th-Century Paris, would claim to know in which cage of the human menagerie each of these specimens belonged. Was the Marquis de Bagueville mad or merely eccentric because he convinced himself that it was possible to live without eating? (Probably the latter, since he first tried out his theory on his horses.) Was Lord Seymour an ‘original’ or just a loutish practical joker because he fed his dinner guests laxatives and gave them exploding cigars?

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