“Glorious eccentrics! Every age is enlivened by their presence. Some day, my dear Denis,” said Mr Scogan, turning a beady bright regard in his direction–”some day you must become their biographer–’The Lives of Queer Men.’ What a subject! I should like to undertake it myself.”
Mr. Scogan paused, looked up once more at the towering house, then murmured the word “Eccentricity,” two or three times.
“Eccentricity…It’s the justification of all aristocracies. It justifies leisured classes and inherited wealth and privilege and endowments and all the other injustices of that sort. If you’re to do anything reasonable in this world, you must have a class of people who are secure, safe from public opinion, safe from poverty, leisured, not compelled to waste their time in the imbecile routines that go by the name of Honest Work. You must have a class of which the members can think and, within the obvious limits, do what they please. You must have a class in which people who have eccentricities can indulge them and in which eccentricity in general will be tolerated and understood. That’s the important thing about an aristocracy. Not only is it eccentric itself–often grandiosely so; it also tolerates and even encourages eccentricity in others. The eccentricities of the artist and the new-fangled thinker don’t inspire it with that fear, loathing, and disgust which the burgesses instinctively feel towards them. ”
- from Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley (1921)
We live in a world where our technology empowers the individual spirit at the same time it coaxes a strict conformity of the masses. Given Caws’ extensive knowledge of the artists, writers, and thinkers who defined the Modernist period, I like to believe she is familiar with Huxley’s use of the phrase that is her title, and therefore chose it with the intended allusion to Huxley’s best known work, Brave New World. But maybe it is coincidence.
Either way Caws brings some outstanding material to the table at a time when eccentricity is being attacked. Of course, since I like my modernism like I like my Raisin Bran (Post, baby!), I see eccentricity as always under an attack narrative and so the timing of her book was bound to be perfect. She brings to us the “crucial moments” from the lives of seven women to demonstrate an “inseparability of intensities” that could be the fodder for all the films Wes Anderson will ever make.
A couple of things come across painfully clear in these stories. First, these were women of talent, interest, and vision, who influenced and were influenced by some of the biggest names of Modern thought, but were not allowed to place their own names on the same list. The second is that no idea is ever created or discovered in a vacuum by a single person. Instead ideas come from the intellectual breeding pits and are therefore a collective human manipulation of natural seed. It is a collective process for which credit is given to a lucky few, while many of the deserving are left out.
Caws does not attempt to simply write short biographies of these women, she seems to capture the various parts of eccentricity, then roll them into a united entity. It is a daunting and philosophically paradoxical task and I am endowed withÂ neither the academic credentials nor the requisite will to be its judge. Let me simply say that in spite of a narrator that often sounds like Augusten Burroughs’ mom with a plantation-sized inferiority complex who keeps declaring her pedigree, this book does great justice to these women and their really amazing stories and lives. This book is not for everyone. It’s a little above the heads of the people in Sioux City. But I will be looking into Claude Cahun a bit more. She sounds like she was the real thing. If you want to dive into the lives of some widely unknown and interesting women, you’ll find what you’re looking for in Mary Ann Caws’ Glorious Eccentrics.