My colleague in the blogosphere Patrick has been writing about Quentin Crisp (not for the first time) in relationship to some of his own experiences of being given the cold shoulder by some of those “among his own kind” as he quoted from the Naked Civil Servant (in eight parts – go to the sidebar on Youtube for parts 2 to 8). The film is touching, though I haven’t yet seen it all. I’ll watch the whole of it this evening.
Quentin Crisp lived to the ripe old age of 90 and made a name for himself as an entertainer but also a person who was himself his entire life. He makes me think of Oscar Wilde. The camp affectation makes me squirm somewhat. But, why not? He and other “old queens” did and do less harm than the bullies and liars of this world who are considered as so “normal” and masculine. There is a sign of contradiction with some of those men mincing around and flapping their wrists. I wondered what there was at the basis of it. My enquiring mind would just not let it go.
I was quite flabbergasted that some psychological studies had revealed a relation between high-functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome with effeminate personalities and physical characteristics. Here is one study. Of course, not all men “on the spectrum” are effeminate or androgynous. The article is interesting even if it might not convince us conclusively. The idea is interesting, and I would like to read further into the subject as I research my own life.
I do believe that whatever may be our quirks and feelings, we do have to make some effort to live in society. Someone who is effeminate might have an easier time of it nowadays than in the 1930’s or until very recently. I have read quite a few criticisms written or said by “conservatives” about effeminate men and their attraction for liturgical forms. I saw the connection with high-functioning autism with regard to set liturgical forms. The usual accusation is that liturgical “tat” can be the object of a perverted sexual fetish. Perhaps that is so in some cases, but I hope not in all. In any case, no one should be excluded from churches, and we all have to work our salvation and our peace with God and ourselves.
I met a number of “queens” when I lived in London as a student between 1978 and 1982. I never found their dress or manner appealing. There were a few men like this at a city church where I was assistant organist there when I was about 20. I kept my distance but sympathised. I remember the Curate of the parish announcing before the sermon “My dears, next Sunday, we will not have one – but two – bishops and an orchestra“. Are we assimilating liturgy and worship to cheap entertainment? I am tempted to be hostile, but are not these men loved by God as anyone else?
In my own life, I have found it very helpful to live in the country and I took up sailing shortly before my fiftieth birthday. It is a sport, but not a competitive one – and I have always loved boats and the sea. I am good with my hands and enjoy practical work around the house, garden – and of course maintaining and improving my boat. My experience at Gricigliano, full of preciousness and lace (no arsenic), was instructive. It was not nearly as blatant as in the London Anglo-Catholic “spikes”. Anyone found involved in homosexuality was very quickly told to leave the seminary, but there was a side to Italianate liturgical flamboyance that would give me cause for reflection. I just don’t have that kind of thing in my way of life, but at the same time I am extremely sensitive to the violence and unpleasantness of the ultra-masculine.
We have to live in society. I tie up my hair when “on duty” as a priest or when in town (apart from practical / safety reasons such as using power tools). I am not effeminate or even “foppish”, but I do like people to be themselves. I have learned many things from reading about the autism spectrum (which may concern me given the many coincidences I have found) and many things fit. A priest has to have some social skills, and the “aspie’s” tactlessness can prove a setback. We have to learn to compensate and think about what we are tempted to say for that bit longer before going and offending someone. The same goes with anyone who wants a friend or two in life and some sympathetic company.
Quentin Crisp had a long life. I find knowing about his having been a “rent boy” quite repugnant. I can only begin to imagine what life would have been like for someone like that in the 1920’s and 30’s, being harassed by the police and bullied by local yobs. The little film brings home the ugliness of bullying for any reason – and the need for prudence when we live in such a hostile world. There is no need to provoke or tempt the Devil! I hope he found peace with God at the time when he died alone of a heart attack. Understanding such people is costly, because we have to get over our own egos and social masks in order not to judge them as degenerate, immoral of whatever. To what degree is affectation part of that personality or a mask to conceal something really rather ugly and deformed. I don’t think we will ever know in this life.
See his obituary in The Telegraph. Evidently, he was a complex personality who refused to give any support for the modern LGBT movement, and was quite a misanthropist in many ways. He did not practice any kind of religion but did not seem to be a complete atheist. I certainly wouldn’t have known what to make of him had I met him. He seemed quite contradictory and bitter on the surface.
People are not always to our “taste” and are often beyond our understanding. Perhaps this can bring those of us who do care about other people and our effect on them us to greater humility.
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What was his attitude about God and religion? He himself gave us a few notions in Do you believe in God? I quote the main consideration which resonate perfectly with many of us.
I am unable to believe in a God susceptible to prayer as petition. It does not seem to me to be sufficiently humble to imagine that whatever force keeps the planets turning in the heavens is going to stop what it’s doing to give me a bicycle with three speeds.
But if God is the universe that encloses the universe, or if God is the cell within the cell, or if God is the cause behind the cause, then this I accept absolutely. And if prayer is a way of aligning your body with the forces that flow through the universe, then prayer I accept. But there is a worrying aspect about the idea of God. Like witchcraft or the science of the zodiac or any of these other things, the burden is placed elsewhere. This is what I don’t like.
I am grateful for the link, father and for your interest but I would argue strongly that, contrary to his appearance, Mr Crisp was not, in fact, “camp” by any means. He didn’t speak like Julian Clary, for example, and he once said:
“Though the strongest resist the temptation, all human beings who suffer from any deficiency, real or imagined, are under compulsion to draw attention to it. To their doing this I could hardly object since I was the living example of this obsession. But about camp, with its strong element of self-mockery, there seemed to me to be something undignified – even hypocritical. At its worst, it is a joke made by someone who acts in a certain way for laughs about a less fortunate person who makes the same gestures unconsciously. When I lived in Maida Vale in the flat of an invoice clerk, if I came into the kitchen and found him washing his socks, he could not have refrained from uttering some such phrase as, ‘A woman’s work is never done.’ I longed to cry out, ‘You are washing your socks because they are dirty. The situation needs no comment.’ I never did. I needed the room.” The Naked Civil Servant, Chapter 11. He then goes on to discuss his being rejected by other homosexuals, for his eccentric appearance and his views about homosexuality which were, in many ways, similar to my own.
In terms of Asperger Syndrome (which I seldom think about these days), and to some extent my being queer, my detractors have often made the charge that my interest in liturgy stems from some kind of symptom of those things, which is another way of saying that it’s pathological or hollow. Far from it, I would say. On the homosexual front, I am not in the least bit interested in theatricality, which is why I despise aliturgical tat. As for having Asperger Syndrome, I would ask my detractors in all seriousness: if I am a “liturgical fetishist,” as I have heard it said, that is to say, if my interest in liturgy stems solely from that, why do you suppose I have almost completely given up studying liturgy, and completely given up on churchianity, ecclesiastical politics, and generally feel apathetic about the future of the Roman Rite? I mean if I was as hollow as some you might find me still going on about it, but I don’t, and if I raise my voice in objection at all these days it’s usually when something irritates me that is so outrageous, so idiotic that I feel compelled to say something. Like the recent hot air about the Mandatum. The trouble is, people aren’t interested in facts but their own comfortable worldview, and if the foundations thereof are removed from under them by hard facts, they become angry. This is why I am proscribed and ignored, and possibly why I am treated with contempt at public events. Some of the queens who saw me on Saturday may well read my blog. If so their reaction can either be because they find my views outlandish or (in one case certainly) because I lack influence and power in this world. Whether those views are expressly liturgical or about the homosexual lifestyle, which unlike them I do not live, is up to you to decide. I can’t say I care much.
Patrick, I think I probably understand you better than you think, even though there are some aspects that make me cringe, doubtlessly because I see vague reflections of my own young and tactless days. There is also a sense of modesty and self-effacement in you, something you share with my father. There is always a secret to keep like the proverbial Ace up the sleeve.
There is a lot of nonsense on the internet, and I have enough experience that setting oneself up as a blogger to be an “educator” is largely futile. That being said, some are grateful for my eccentric and original view of things. I hope you will forgive me for going on about the Asperger syndrome, because it is a lot newer for me than for you. I discover that two people with it may have very little in common in the surface. I am discovering it, because it seems to explain many things about my childhood and how they reflect on my present life. I am no one to give you any advice. You will find you own way in life, with great difficulty, but I trust you will be true to yourself.
I do think you need a good “time out” to avoid burning out again as I have seen before (going by the evidence). It can help to go where you are not known and give yourself a new beginning…
Father, I long ago gave up trying to explain my idiosyncrasies and eccentricities by recourse to psychology. I was briefly a member of the National Autistic Society but removed my subscription after reading some of the material published by them, much of which seemed to eschew any attempt to cure symptoms in children and instead celebrate “diversity,” which, as you know, is a concept wholly anathema to me. I have never been to their events. I have seldom liked other people with Asperger Syndrome. I read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” and found it a horrifying book. Little to be wondered at as the author is an atheist, but I digress. I am much more concerned about how being queer separates me from the rest of humanity than anything psychological.
Mr Crisp was indeed misanthropic. I was delighted to discover this because, as John Donne (whom you quoted the other day) said: “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe,” and I suppose I was encouraged that many of the opinions expressed by Mr Crisp about homosexuality, gay liberation, Lady Diana Spencer, &c were in accord with my own, the which, as Mr Crisp knew too well, only seem to encourage hostility in others. I always thought Mother Teresa was a fraud but conventional wisdom and the propaganda of the Papal communion keep her aloft as a paragon of altruism and self-sacrifice. I’d like to know what part of my personality makes you cringe!
I think I am having a time-out at the moment. But for work (which I could well do without), I do nothing these days. Absolutely nothing. I don’t even read.
I have just finished watching The Naked Civil Servant. Penetrating through the outer style and the aspects intended to shock, I find that this representation conveys an endearing personality. For example, there was the way he defended himself in court, his eloquence with sincerity behind it – which convinced the Magistrate. There is something I found more Christ-like in Mr Crisp than in many overt Christians and believers. The experience of seeing this film was quite humbling.
I think you do well not to identify with any kind of autistic “orthodoxy”. Whether or not I have this condition, I have had to learn social skills and the tact I lacked as a teenager. We then learn to live regardless of how we feel within. I see the alarm bells in some points of view that even pit the “neuro-diverse” against the “neuro-typical”. It is like the “gay scene” that Crisp eschewed with such energy as you and I do. What I seem to have learned is that two people with Aspergers have little in common on the surface. Their wounds are interior and secret most of the time.
What does make me cringe is not for the sake of my own “respectability” but yours. In my own life, perhaps because I still have to wear something of a social “mask”, I am often content to remain silent about things and leave people to their opinions or their own social masks. Perhaps I am cowardly? I am not a very pastoral priest – the evidence being that I have not gathered a congregation, but I still have the ideal of keeping some secrets for the sakes of those with whom I have social contact. What I say may seem obscure.
I see you and what you say reflected in Quentin Crisp as in (to a lesser extent) Sebastian Flyte. It is your prerogative and your choice of life. We haven’t spent enough time together for me to get beyond prejudice and –in my case – a very poor judgement of personalities. Please look after yourself and don’t allow yourself to “decay”. At least read books! And do write a book – I really believe you have it in you.
I am conscious, father, that you and I are the only ones commenting on this article. I’d be interested to hear the opinions of anyone else on Mr Crisp, or my own comparison.
I’ve been following this thread with considerable interest, and frankly have enjoyed the dialogue between you and Father enough to refrain from interrupting. As I’ve said before, I am a homosexual male, but determinedly celibate.
Unfortunately I never met Quentin Crisp, though I certainly knew of him. He came to New York City not too long after I had left both the city and the gay lifestyle in which I had been immersed. There is much to admire in the honesty with which he lived, and one can agree with the rather dim view that he took of humanity in general and of human society. After all, the scriptural and traditional view of humanity is that the image of God is deeply marred by a strong propensity toward sin, and that confession and repentance are essential. His witness is a challenge to the nearly universal tendency of societies to pick out a few specific sins as objects of disgust and hate, while defending one’s own sins as inly natural. It appears that Quentin was remarkably free of that kind of hypocrisy I watched and enjoyed The Naked Civil Servant, though somehow I missed the book.
I’m made uncomfortable by his career as a rent-boy, and holding firmly to traditional Christian morality, by the gay sexual lifestyle. There are distinct limits on homosexual practice, but a man is what he is. Whether this is something one is born with or something one somehow acquires is certainly an open question — in my own case, I simply have no idea — but it is so firmly a part of one’s personality and nature that the question is not one of getting rid of it, but of what to do with it if it is present. I believe Christians are called to abstain unless they are married to the opposite sex, and that this is not negotiable. But I do not believe that it is reasonable to expect someone to be what one is not, and the hatred so often shown is completely unacceptable.
Is his in-your-face behavior acceptable? Well, I could never act in such a way (even though I am as ‘queer’ as he), nor am I comfortable with people who do. If I had met him, it would have been with an odd mix of honor and discomfort. However, that is strictly up to him. There are many ways one can live in society. Deadly conformity is an option, but can kill the spirit. Various degrees of eccentricity (his blatancy or my less noticeable quirks) simply will exist and simply must be accepted if we are to (like St. Paul) be all things to all men. Jesus loves grey flannel middle class types, and he loves flamboyant queers. I’m glad he loves one as weird as I. We are called to love others with His kind of love.
Well, there’s my somewhat disjointed reaction. Anyone else?
Well, I don’t know anything about Quentin Crisp to comment on him directly, but I came across this quote from him :-
“I always thought Diana was such trash and got what she deserved. She was Lady Diana before she was Princess Diana so she knew the racket. She knew that royal marriages have nothing to do with love. You marry a man and you stand beside him on public occasions and you wave and for that you never have a financial worry until the day you die………..She could have been Queen of England ……. What disgraceful behaviour! Going about saying she wanted to be the queen of hearts. The vulgarity of it is so overpowering.”
They’re comments that are rather more ungarnished than I’d be prepared to say except, please forgive me(!), in private conversation, but on the basis of them, I’m inclined to think I’d have had high regard for his taste and judgement!
I have to say, Stephen, that is one of the things I like best about him!
I’m with you there!