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In praise of eccentricity

It is no news that news these days is more trivial than it used to be. Gossip was once relegated to the gossip columns of certain papers that also heavily featured horoscopes and racing results. At a supermarket checkout counter bubble gum and razor blades are now outflanked by the ever-growing stacks of periodicals of chit-chat whose headlines ignore the Middle East, Northern Ireland, or even the state of the economy in order to shout about who is doing what to whom in a wobbling Hollywood marriage.

Gossip has invaded the most staid and respectable publications as well. It is a rare newspaper that doesn't run its daily "People" column, up front and prominently displayed.

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Is there any explanation, other than the obvious one, for our often appalling obsession with "personalities"?

We suspect that, behind even the worst near-slander and sleaze, there lurks a misdirected hunger for what in novels used to be called characters: full-flavored and piquant human beings who remind us we too are not faces in the crowd, or, worse, automatons.

While being forced to settle for punk-rock swagger and petty scandal, the world, we suggest, is really longing for what was formerly thought of as eccentricity.

Eccentricity -- literally, the state of being off center --innocence or determination, the eccentric does not orbit according to the prevailing style -- and is conspicuous about it.

Eccentricity may exist on the surface -- Howard Hughes wearing sneakers with his tuxedo. Eccentricity may go deep, as with Henry Thoreau at Walden.

Eccentricity is the unlisted option that helps define an individual for himself or herself, while amusing, heartening, or outraging the rest of us.

The eccentric, for one reason or another, is not as intimidated by public opinion as most. One plot that seems to release eccentricity is unrequited love. Johnny Appleseed went off on his odd and inspired wanderings after being spurned.

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The other condition that appears to emancipate the eccentric is passing time. Many an eccentric reclaims the independence of childhood simply by living long enough. The Countess of Desmond was reported to have climbed an apple tree at 140. Henry Jenkins, an English fisherman who lived to be 169 according to the records of 1670, regularly abandoned his rod to leap exuberantly into the water, swimming with his beard spread out on the surface like seaweed.

As a matter of fact, we would do well to look to England if we are to search for personalities, for genuine characters beyond the unsatisfactory models of flaky athletes and rudely misbehaving entertainers.

"Eccentricity exists particularly in the English and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and the birthright of the British nation." So wrote the English eccentric Edith Sitwell.

Eccentricity is not modest. Eccentricity is not subtle. But it is not a rock group called the Plasmatics blowing up an automobile on stage either.

Excess is the peculiar vice of our times, and it has made eccentricity too contrived, too hyper an act, pushed to parody, like Muhammad Ali and Truman Capote, and sold for profit.

As a P. T. Barnum sideshow or as gross boorishness, eccentricity plays into the hands of the gossip sheets, and we are back with what we didn't ask for.

What we want from eccentricity is a third choice between dullness and madness , between the conventional and the barbaric.

What we want from eccentricity is life with a little more color and a little wider horizon than we had imagined -- a sense of possibility.

What we want from eccentricity is something possessing the best qualities of Charlie Chaplin's walk and a lyric poem, and celebrating a lot more than the ego.

"Glory be to God," wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, for "all things counter, original, spare, strange," and all friends of the eccentric -- and enemies of the merely sensational -- will cry "Amen."

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