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?

As Gill explains in her chapter ‘The Rise of Eccentricity’, early French views of excentricité showed a fearful intolerance of even the smallest hint of anarchy. The ridiculous English, like the ‘unnatural’ revolutionaries of 1789, threatened the old ‘courtly codes of honnêteté and politesse’. By the time the Larousse encyclopedia appeared, eccentricity was more likely to be interpreted as a symptom of insanity. Lord Seymour’s blackguardly behaviour was a mere ‘caricature of eccentricity’: in his case, ‘eccentric’ meant little more than ‘violently rude’.

According to Larousse, the true eccentric was unaware of his oddness: ‘eccentricity is the natural development of a mind that is “original” but also magnanimous and principled.’ The encyclopedist’s clear favourite was the ‘exquisitely polite’ Duc de Coislin. After receiving a foreign ambassador at his home, the duke insisted on accompanying the man down the stairs and into the street. The ambassador refused to allow such excessive courtesy. Making his escape, he bolted the door behind him, crossed the courtyard, left the building, and was amazed to see the duke standing like a footman at his carriage door. In a frenzy of frustrated politesse, the duke had jumped out of the window and rushed around the building, discreetly nursing a dislocated thumb.

Whether deranged or innocently peculiar, all these people had one thing in common: their antics made for a good story. An eccentric without anecdotes was undeserving of the name. In Dégénérés et déséquilibrés (1895), Dr Jules Dallemagne likened his colleague Moreau de Tours’s review of ‘contemporary eccentricities’ to a digest of amusing faits divers from the daily papers: ‘mad gamblers, absurd duellists, members of clubs with bizarre and incredible rules’. Gill mentions a spate of cheap, lowbrow magazines produced in England between 1790 and 1830 – the Eccentric Magazine, the Eccentric Mirror and Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Magazine – which specialised in pen-portraits of peculiar or grotesque individuals. Eccentricity was as marketable as the freaks who were displayed at fairgrounds. In France, Baudelaire kept dozens of journalists in copy by boasting of dandyish eccentricities: having a lampshade made out of his father’s skin, having oral sex with his mother, likening the taste of children’s brains to that of walnuts.

Collectors of curious eccentricities should note that Gill is sternly parsimonious with anecdotes. She is interested, not in the antics of colourful individuals, but in ‘the tangled relationship between semantics, history and culture’. She rightly dismisses as implausible the tale of Gérard de Nerval walking his lobster on a blue ribbon leash, and – also quite properly – omits the punchline. Why did he keep a pet lobster? Because it never barks, and because it knows the secrets of the deep. Analysing the concept as a sensitive ‘barometer of cultural change’, she concentrates on reactions to eccentricity, and her study is filled with the (occasionally eccentric) strictures of the deliberately uneccentric: ‘Your hat is not original. Your trousers are not eccentric,’ advised a conduct manual of 1858. ‘A man of good sense will never stand out because of the eccentricity of his dress,’ said another enforcer of good taste. ‘I recommend that you avoid any type of eccentricity or singularity whatsoever. If you draw attention to yourself in a ridiculous fashion, you will never recover from it.’

Women were bombarded with advice on how to appear normal without committing the unpardonable sin of being uninteresting. They were to avail themselves of certain acceptable eccentricities of fashion, but without falling into the trap of believing everything they read in fashion magazines. According to an obviously bogus cautionary tale of 1844, a woman who, despite being middle-aged and unattractive, always wore the latest fashions, was taught a useful lesson by her husband. He slyly inserted a drawing in her copy of the Journal des modes. That evening, the wife insisted on attending the Opera with a carrot in her hair, and was publicly humiliated. Quite how this sort of story was actually received, we have no way of knowing.

Towards the end of the 19th century, while some alienists were suggesting that eccentricity might be related to genius, others were using their professional expertise to detect insanity even in women who would never have dreamed of wearing vegetables in their hair. The word excentrique, Gill says in her own specialist idiom, ‘had performative force such that it could help justify incarceration where few other grounds existed’. The notion of partial madness ‘greatly expanded the professional remit of alienists and the médecins légistes’. Clearly, overriding the need to control behaviour was the need to generate discourse and uphold the profession. In the same collection of ‘comical, critical and philosophical’ articles that included the cautionary carrot tale, Balzac expressed an important ‘axiom’ of journalism: ‘For the journalist, whatever is probable is true.’ Similarly, for the alienist, anything slightly abnormal could be interpreted as a sign of madness, and, for the cultural historian, any textual fragment can be used to illustrate a theory.

Parts of this book, which is based on a doctoral thesis, first appeared as articles on subjects related to eccentricity. The word is applied to so many different forms of behaviour that the subject is really non-conformity rather than eccentricity. There are chapters on dandies and their female equivalents, courtesans and prostitutes, clowns and circus freaks, bohemians and other denizens of the Paris underworld. On its own terms, it is an unusually informative study. The evidence comes from a wide range of published works: etiquette manuals, fashion magazines, journalistic physiologies and psychiatric treatises – which makes the atrociously lacunary index even more unfortunate. This wealth of sources is not quite adequate to the grand ambitions of cultural history. Little is known for certain about readers’ responses – still less about the motives of people who gawped at circus freaks – and it is unclear how much a humorous or a highly specialised work, subjected to censorship and written for a small, like-minded audience, can tell us about bourgeois identity and its shifting boundaries. Much of what Gill says about general trends is quoted, not from 19th-century texts, but from modern studies whose conclusions, confronted with historical evidence, sometimes appear mischievously speculative. Fortunately, although her description of changing perceptions is cluttered by references to scholastic theories, much of the information can easily be detached from its methodological context: the fact, for instance, that almost all bohemian eccentrics were men, or that women were most often deemed eccentric when they adopted masculine traits, or that very few people in 19th-century France ever described themselves as eccentric.

A general reader with an interest in eccentricity who ignores the ‘members only’ signs (the academic idiom and the £55 price tag) might be tempted to see Gill’s book as an example of institutional eccentricity: the detection of ‘paradoxes’ in unexceptional phenomena (for example, in the fact that the bourgeoisie was shaped by what it tried to reject); the analysis of local details producing epoch-spanning generalisations; the preoccupation with epistemological purity and with ‘the semantic instability that can result from the incursion of metaphor’; the regular confirmations of the digested wisdom of a few prestigious figures whose own eccentricities are granted special status; and the exquisite observance of an apparently objectless etiquette: ‘As part of my efforts to reconstruct 19th-century ideologies, and for stylistic reasons, I have retained and not always placed in inverted commas the highly offensive personal noun “monstre”; this is not to condone it in any way.’ Monsters will no doubt be mollified.

Ironically (but not paradoxically), the process of confirming the precepts of the prestigious few can make their insights seem simplistic and questionable, whereas Gill’s own conclusions, drawn from her historical research, are usually convincing and precise. Is it really the case that ‘the bourgeoisie experienced profound anxiety about being duped in the anonymity of the city, where a local community could no longer guarantee the truth behind appearances’? Wilfully bizarre bohemians were suspected of fraudulent eccentricity, and some ‘bourgeois spectators’ were allegedly ‘infuriated by situations in which they were unable to decide whether behaviour was sincere or feigned’. But how firm and reassuring a grasp of objective reality did their country cousins enjoy in their ‘local communities’, which were plagued by witches, demons, winged monsters, quack doctors and cruel, destructive superstitions, well into the 20th century? For that matter, how much of that urban ‘anxiety’ reflects the later experiences of influential eccentrics such as Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault?

Medical discourse may well, as Gill claims, have eroded tolerance of difference and deformity, and it may belong to the history of ‘attempts to define and police the parameters of acceptable diversity’. The scientific study of teratological cases may have located monstrosity in the individual and helped to legitimate bourgeois anxieties. The problem is that the ‘cultural imagination’ is represented here by sophisticated urban texts, interpreted in the light of late 20th-century theories. Countless homosexuals, unmarried mothers, people who looked foreign or who were physically or mentally handicapped went to Paris to escape the savage conformity of village life. Baudelaire, who spent nearly all his life in Paris, had to try very hard indeed to be seen as an eccentric. Nearly all the tales of his shocking behaviour are least plausible when they describe the reaction of his bourgeois victims. Maxime Du Camp’s response, when Baudelaire presented himself with his hair dyed green, sounds more like the voice of everyday urban experience: ‘What’s so extraordinary about green hair? There’s many a hat in Paris hiding that.’

It is striking how bizarrely people could behave in 19th-century Paris without being deemed monstrous or insane. The concept of eccentricity may also have functioned as a means of incorporating the mad into society. Gill mentions the ‘containment’ theory of transgression, according to which deviance is licensed to a small degree so that it can be controlled. Licensed, it certainly was: Baudelaire’s bohemian friend Philoxène Boyer was considered endearingly odd (though not by his landlord) for wrapping his daily turds in little paper packages and storing them in his cupboard, and Gérard de Nerval suffered more from tolerant indifference than from bourgeois oppression. If ‘the parameters’ had been better policed, he might not have ended his life hanging from a rope in the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne.

Something about the politesse of academic discourse suggests a great deal of control and very little licence. This studious attempt to historicise and contextualise theories of deviance and bourgeois identity can do little to shake ‘all that boldness of assumption and reckoning’ (to quote Saul Bellow’s Augie March, dazed by an anthology of political philosophers). In this case, the ‘assumption and reckoning’ are applied to what is after all only a peephole view of bourgeois life in 19th-century Paris.

At the end of her study, Gill wonders whether eccentricity can still be a provocative or even a meaningful concept in the age of ‘decentred subjectivity’: if there are no universally accepted norms, how can there be such a thing as eccentricity? She concludes that, since ‘at least some norms’ survive ‘within particular communities and local contexts’, ‘the figure of the non-conformist individual continues to be imbued with redemptive power’. Subcultures and avant-gardes can be more fussily repressive than the dominant culture, and even ‘adherents of liberal pluralism can prove intolerant and monologic.’ Eccentrics are still revered by those who fear ‘the de-individuating influence of institutions such as government, corporations, and the mass media’. If it weren’t for fear of being deemed eccentric, one might suggest that these are not the only institutions in which eccentricity is severely policed.