Is wit dead? No, it's alive and well and it's name is Quentin Crisp

April 13, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

If you don't know about Quentin Crisp, you can be forgiven, but you should not forgive yourself. He's a New York phenom and a London one as well, though in a distant way, since he has been self-exiled in America since 1982. He has written a number of books but has not accumulated - as the kids are wont to say - an oeuvre, a heavy body of work considered literary. Having turned 88 last Christmas day, he has a new book out, "Resident Alien: The New York Diaries" (Alyson Books. 240 pages. $21.95).

It's almost pure delight.

This is a sometimes rambling, often episodic, unabashedly gossipy, more-or-less weekly series of journal entries, from 1990 through 1994, by an aging - nay, ancient - unnaturalized English expatriate who insists that his entire life has been devoted solely to "the profession of being" and who lives in a single room on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Why on earth should it be readable?

Listen, as he relates having hired an accountant: "He is a gentleman of limitless patience who sits like a large hamster in a nest of papers. I have never actually seen him chew up the more troublesome documents and store them in his cheeks, but I suspect that is where they are. With the passing of the years, he has come to accept my invincible ignorance and even to condone it."

Acid reign

"Secretly," he writes elsewhere, "I have always held the opinion that it would be less depressing to be alcoholic than to be anonymous." And who would not envy his "Mrs. Thatcher has abdicated; her acid reign is over." Or "... teaching, preaching, acting, politics. They are all vocations adopted by people who cannot live within their income of praise." Or, on the seashore, where he was taken as a child on vacations: "I hated it and I still do. The ocean is not my friend. Why does it keep banging away at the helpless shore and making all that noise? What does it want?"

Few pages go by without a sentence that somebody should do up in needlepoint.

He writes of his beloved adopted city:

"People say that New Yorkers are indifferent to strangers. I have not found this to be so. I would say that everyone in this metropolis who isn't shooting you is your friend."

Now, one might take that to be arch, acidic, suggesting a fearfulness, an edge of resignation. But no. Quentin Crisp is dead earnest. Live earnest, actually - which works for Mr. Crisp (in his book everybody gets an honorific title, and thus he deserves no less in this space) because he accepts with precisely equal enthusiasms both being alive and the inevitability of being dead.

Mr. Crisp is most usually celebrated for his aphorisms. This is a shame, if taken to imply insincerity, something marginally cynical, about him. That is not the case at all. He is a wonder of human acceptance.

"When we say of anyone that he is boring," Mr. Crisp writes early on in the book, "it is ourselves we are criticizing. We have not made ourselves into that wide, shallow vessel into which a stranger feels he can pour anything. I have said that no one is boring who will tell you the truth about himself."

Though he describes himself as celibate for 20 years or more, he is declaratively homosexual - he takes pride in having been called "one of the great stately homos of England." He has been a regular contributor to The Advocate and Lambda Book Report, two publications of that community.

But for all his enthusiasm for life outside main streams on both edges of the Atlantic, there is not a hint, not a wisp of victimhood in him. This is by way of a memoir, a literary genre in which today everyone but Mr. Crisp seems to be wailing and moaning over some form of neglect, abuse, deprivation or other traumatic horror. In stark contrast, this book is totally free of self-pitying woefulness..

Why does it work so well? Successful wit, irony, depend on celebrating the clash of uncertainties. Certitude is lethal and immediate poison to humor. The righteousness of Political Correctness, the True Believerism of multiculturalism, all other forms of rigid absolutism, grimly deny irony and wit.

What parades as humor in those dank precincts - the act of laughter - is found only as an expression of relief that the person who is laughing has not been confronted with an actual irony or with actual truth.

Indomitable banality

Such absolutists are capable of only two states of mind and heart - invincible vindictiveness and indomitable banality. That is, of course, why their work - be it prose, painting, music, poetry - is invariably lifeless.

Not Quentin Crisp's.

He is lively beyond the reach of stylish ennui. His complexity of mind, his personal culture, is immense but never paraded. His power, of course, is that of the boy declaring that the emperor is naked. But his wisdom is in his convincing insistence that the emperor is really much more interesting and engaging while naked than in any imaginable state of raiment.

Mr. Crisp indomitably likes the world around him, or if and when he doesn't has the good sense to accept and make the best of it. And, loving truth, he respects language.

He puts that love as nicely as I can remember anyone ever doing, asserting what should be a fundamental truth among people who write - or read, or for that matter talk: "Muddled syntax is the outward and audible sign of confused minds, and the misuse of grammar the result of illogical thinking."

Splendidly logical is Quentin Crisp, and approaching 90 utterly unconfused. An ornament to civilization. And to civility.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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