Stalking the wild eccentric

A PSYCHOLOGIST from New Jersey is doing a study on British eccentricity. If fair is fair, a British psychologist should be landing at Newark any minute now, ready to fill his notebook with an investigation of eccentricity in New Jersey.

The Jersey jotter will not lack for material. After all, Walt Whitman and Vince Lombardi both came from New Jersey -- an unmatched pair of eccentrics nicely representing the two most popular branches of American eccentricity: the roaring Bohemian and the kooky athlete.

At the Howard Hughes level, our business tycoons can get pretty interesting too.

But in eccentricity -- let's admit it -- the British have always been the world-class champions. This is why a preliminary peep at the new British study seems particularly disappointing. In the first place, the eccentrics being analyzed came by invitation: ``Eccentric? If you feel that you might be, contact . . .'' etc.

No bona fide eccentric would answer this sort of advertisement, any more than a self-respecting cat would come if you whistled.

We're talking less about eccentrics than exhibitionists -- like the bank security equipment man who calls himself Robin Hood, dresses in Sherwood Forest green, and carries a bow and arrow on the job. Or the woman who goes through life doing a Marlene Dietrich imitation.

This is eccentricity on the level of Boy George -- no eccentric without an agent need apply.

But if we're going to hold to standards -- if we're going to demand that eccentricity be more than attention-getting -- then an eccentric must possess the qualification of character, in the fullest sense.

Think of the the consummate characters that Dickens invented, or rather, derived from life. For surely the success of Mrs. Gamp and Micawber and Sam Weller and all the rest depended originally upon the pleasure of reader recognition.

To be eccentric, it almost seemed, was once the proper business of every Englishman.

The serious eccentric is never a matter of mere whimsy. He or she becomes an eccentric because of special suffering, or perhaps as a gesture of stylish rebellion against an aspect of society to which he or she refuses to conform.

Eccentricity is a private response shaped into a public work of art.

If a psychologist of a generation ago had thought to do a formal study of British eccentricity, Edith Sitwell would have served as a prime example. An ugly duckling as a child, and almost morbidly shy, she made herself into something more than a beauty. If she couldn't be one of the sculpted angels in the cathedral, she could be the most magnificent, the most rococo of gargoyles, and she was -- a proud, flapping, unforgettable masterpiece of eccentricity in every way. And in the end, this was beauty.

But Edith Sitwell also illustrates the problem of self-consciousness that eccentricity has fallen into -- leading to the ultimate self-consciousness of a psychologist's survey. As time went on, Dame Edith and her brothers became a bit of an act -- victims of a public that egged them on. We are so hungry for something or somebody different that we eat up eccentricity and spit it out as just one more case of celebrity.

Give us the wildest outrage, and we put a leash on it and trot it off to one department or another of People magazine.

When Lady Diana Cooper, a friend of the Sitwells, died last week, newspaper headlines mourned her as a ``beloved eccentric.'' After being commemorated from her youth in fictional portraits by D. H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh, she might more accurately be described as an officially designated eccentric, cherished and protected in a time of shortage.

It's not just Dickens. Where would the English novel have been without these darling dodos?

And now they are the province of the social scientist.

The New Jersey native is feeding his data into a computer. To consider eccentrics and computers compatible, as they say, may be the final ironic proof that we are past the era of eccentricity -- though still capable, alas, of being off-the-wall.

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