Friday, 16 March 2012

Book Review: The Naked Civil Servant

The Naked Civil ServantThe Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This should be required reading for students of politics, sociology, creative writing, journalism, twentieth century history,and philosophy. And probably a few others.

To a twenty-first century reader, Crisp initially feels like a caricature of a drag queen, with his made up face, gossipy tone, and outlandish fashion. But when you recall that he was born in 1908 and the book was originally published in 1968, you quickly understand that he was the forefather of the beloved stereotype of the bitchy gay best friend. I mean that with the greatest respect.

The pace of the book is quick, almost fleeting, but not flighty. He crams the first 2/3 of his long storied life into a very slim volumen, clipping along with what feels like carefree-ness, but which actually becomes exposed as clear-cut bohemianism--a conscious unconcern with convention that permeates Crisp's life all the way down to his everyday housekeeping. It's not that he doesn't think about cleaning; it's that he's thought about it and come to the conclusion that it's not worth his while. There are more exciting things to do, like dying his hair crimson.

There is a temptation to say that he can dye his hair and grow his nails long, etc. because doesn't care what observers think of him. This is false. He cares deeply, and he cultivates his image. He very much wants his appearance to convey that he is queer. He has no interest in hiding this fact, but a deep interest in advertising it, as he repeatedly tells employers and other well-meaning types when they ask why he insists on dressing flamboyantly. Brilliantly, when he starts to go gray, he stops dying his hair bright red (because he is accused of doing so to appear younger) and starts giving it a blue rinse. Thus he cannot be reproached for trying to hide the grays and at the same time, he preserves the public flaunting of the fact that he dyes his hair, which is the whole point for him.

The most compelling parts of the book have nothing to do with his early upbringing or other pop-psychological origin stories that make so many memoirs deeply boring (he mostly leaves this kind of claptrap out, mercifully). The deeply moving bits are those that relate to his personal autonomy, which barely exists. Because of his defiantly public queer identity and its sexual implications, people conclude that his body is in the public domain. There are many occasions when he is beaten for no reason other than wearing makeup or is groped in the street. But there are odd moments where the infringement on his person is decidely more tender, and at these moments, the incomprehension by society of his humanity is magnified.

There is a particularly beautiful and intensely creepy passage, following on the heels of an account of another public beating, where Crisp boards a bus and sits in front of a soldier. Abruptly, without any conversation about it, the soldier takes out a comb and starts gently combing Crisp’s hair. You feel an odd sorrow for the soldier at first, and then, without any prompting by Crisp, moral outrage and loathing that this man thinks he can just touch Crisp without permission. Crisp himself sits perfectly still until the ordeal is over. He doesn’t give any reasons why he doesn’t move, but the reader can instantly understand that the soldier has asserted an oppressive dominance by assuming consent, or rather by assuming no need for consent. Not to get hyperbolic, but the mind can’t help making an instant connection with slavery and subjugation of women through old marriage laws.

Yes, yes, it’s all very topical in the current political climate. But for me personally, this dragged up memories of university years. I particularly recall groups of students wearing T-shirts with slogans like, “Stop looking at my chest” emblazoned across the chest, and the pettiness of this compared with actual bodily infringement. I felt then, and feel now more than ever, how simplistically aggrieved these students felt, without understanding (and for many of them, without desiring to understand) what a violation of personhood really means (meant?) in an institutionalized way. I’m not sure making them read Crisp would help; I think possibly it is a developmental stage to be endured by college students. Some people never require it and some never graduate from it.

In any case, read this. Aside from being interesting and moving, it is hilarious. There are occasional paragraphs that get bogged down in sentimentality, but they are few.

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