Learn to Be Calm

Screen capture: John Hurt as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975)

I have always needed the world, though at one time I was prepared to do without it. This is a well-known posture for young people: you scorn the world before it has a chance to scorn you. My entire manner was so grotesquely grand that I should think it was annoying in itself. If someone had said, ‘If you go on like this you’ll never have any friends,’ I would have replied, haughtily and breathlessly, ‘I don’t care; if they don’t like me as I am they can do without me.’ But it wasn’t true. As I have remarked on many occasions: people are my only pastime. I practice no hermetic art or self-centered occupation. I am someone who needs some way of making my peace with the world more than others. I don’t think, well, I’ll just go home and build a galleon inside a bottle (that’ll consume several anti-social years) or ‘interface’ with my home computer.

Exhibitionism is a drug and I was hooked on it. I needed a daily ‘fix’ of public consternation. I had this notion that as homosexuality was then regarded as something between a crippling disease and a poisonous fungus – smaller in its scope than Socialism but twice as deadly, especially to small children – it was my ‘calling’ to go about and demonstrate how nice a homosexual could be: kind, considerate, patient, understanding and courteous to a degree unseen in most countries outside the Orient. In short: my first impulse as a hot-blooded youth was to rebel – and lo, I became a peacock without a cause. Eventually I realized that if I didn’t want to alienate everyone by becoming more rude and shrill about my sins with every passing year (with the cause of inversion being to me what the PLO is to Vanessa Redgrave), I would have to develop a post-rebel phase to win friends and influence pulpits. It was then that I formulated Crisp’s First Law: If you feel that you cannot comply with the morality of the world you must do everything else you can to be agreeable.

If you want to know a number of people on terms which are at least an armed truce, you have to find some way of conducting your life so that people do not attack you. If you do not want the praise, the assistance or acceptance of the world, then of course you can behave appallingly all the time and your separation from society will be mutually welcomed. People will say, ‘Oh, I can’t put up with him, he behaves so badly,’ and you’re saying, ‘I don’t intend to behave well, I don’t need other people.’ It’s only when you realize that you do need the world – and, like me, you’re on the outside looking in – that you think there must be some way in without abandoning your ‘self’. This is what manners are: a way of getting what you want without appearing to be an absolute swine – or at least a way of getting something of what you want without giving total offence to other people.

When the very centre of your being – in my case, my ambiguous gender – becomes a subject of scorn, there isn’t much choice about how to respond to the world: either you say, ‘I’m awfully sorry, I see how wrong it is, I will not be homosexual from now onward,’ or else you have to say, ‘I cannot be otherwise, this is the way I am, if you can’t bear it then we must never meet again.’ Eventually I reasoned that even if my appearance was startling to people, everything else about me must run the other way – to minimize my breach of manners. But this much of my life at least must be lived on my own terms. If you are a drunkard you have to be very, very nice to people so that they are willing to see you even though they know that by the end of the evening you’ll be on the floor. You’ve got to make yourself likeable enough to join the world in spite of your vice. Thus my interest in manners was born.

Many people, when they are young, behave badly in the eyes of their elders but they are really only being thoughtless. I was guilty of that all the time, I was so full of hysterical energy that I was always interrupting people. I didn’t actually think, Oh, what rubbish they’re talking, I’m sure they’d rather listen to me; I just couldn’t help myself. Now I’ve learned not to do this because I am totally calm and can adapt myself to any social situation much more easily. I’m not bursting to make jokes which could give offence. It’s very difficult for young people not to show off – although I have known a few whose pulse was so slow that they had a reputation for being well behaved. If I am qualified to speak of manners it is because I am now an old man, the turmoil inside me has subsided and I can consider other people’s feelings with equanimity.

Less than half of the remedy for bad manners consists of learning ritual. The major part consists of bringing one’s self to a state of calm, whereby one needs less and isn’t snatching at things or so anxious to get somewhere that one pushes other people out of the way. I feigned calm long before I actually felt it; in time the feigning of calm produced calm and calm encouraged the development of the ability to consider other people’s point of view. The Naked Civil Servant describes the rude but necessary actions of a raw youth who felt compelled to fling down a gauntlet in the face of the world and challenge society to a duel. This book describes what I have learned since – the more important lesson of how to get along with the world and avoid dichotomies where there need be none.

Quentin Crisp
Manners from Heaven (1985)

Screen capture: John Hurt as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975)


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