The Eccentropedia is a delightful book brought to you by the author Chris Mikul, the artist Glenn Smith, and the hip publishing house of Headpress. What could have been a coffee-table project is much moreso because of its thought-provoking affirmation of all that is odd in the realm of human behaviour. It is as easy to take eccentricity for granted as it is to use the term too liberally. Mikul’s introduction makes it clear that an eccentric is probably a one in ten thousand rarity. Wilhelm Reich, a star exhibit, claimed: ‘A person like me comes along once every thousand years’. The etymology is from the Greek and implies ‘out of centre’, interestingly, as many in the book were very marginalised figures, including the most exemplary: Blake. The word seems to have been invented as a necessary catch-all for a recurring type of Englishman. It can now be applied retrospectively to men and women of all races, classes and creeds, though it helps if a particular race has an innate sense of superiority. Here, four classes of eccentric are identified: contrarians, theorists, visionaries, and entertainers. Some are all four. Other important ground rules are that eccentrics are ‘innocents’ who are not trying to be eccentrics, and that they are ‘never, ever dull’.
Many are from the arts. Not all geniuses are eccentrics, and – as the book amply demonstrates – not all eccentrics are geniuses, but it’s safe to include Captain Beefheart, William Burroughs, Erik Satie and Edith Sitwell in such a roster. They are emblematic of the many eccentric artists who are not included and which would have made for a very different and less philosophical book. Quentin Crisp is another artist singled out, surely a born eccentric, but who would have predicted that the self-styled ‘Stately Homo’ would have began life as Dennis Pratt, the son of a Surrey solicitor? Also itemised are a few outstandingly awful artists, such as ‘the World’s Worst Poet’ William MacGonagall, whose only posthumous consolation is that he’s still in print. There is also the book’s nadir, Issei Sagawa the ‘celebrity cannibal’ of Japan who ate his German girlfriend, got away with it due to the machinations of a wealthy father, and enjoys his life in Tokyo as a writer, painter and television personality.
If The Eccentropedia is a labyrinthine exercise in storytelling, perhaps the most touching and astonishing of the stories is that of another writer and artist, Henry Darger (1892-1973). He is today the most famous of the group known as ‘Outsider Artists’ and whose exhibition tours internationally. (I saw it in Primrose Hill a few years ago). He was indisputably the most innocent of Mikul’s subjects. This mysterious son of a German immigrant was educated at a school for feeble-minded children and worked most of his life as a cleaner. Instead of a social life he created a vast psychodrama in literature and painting called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Uneal, of the Glandeco-Angellinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The beautiful young heroines of the epic – startlingly – have penises, often displayed. This is probably due to Darger’s ignorance of female biology. Here we have the most childlike of eccentrics. His example makes the others seem like poseurs. Working-class, retarded, and a loner, Darger channelled his own terrible childhood into a colossal fantasy, which was discovered by his landlord, the first person to see the stuff. Amazingly, the canvases have been received as great art rather than twisted paedophile rubbish. The books are impossibly long. Darger’s humility is moving, as is the intense personal necessity of his work. Like Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience the paintings take you into a wonderful and frightening infanthood.
At the other end of the gamut are King Ludwig II and Liberace and Michael Jackson. (How unlucky for Wagner that his royal patron was so insane he had to be assassinated by his own family.) The story of Liberace is exasperating, and that of Jackson has always been a bore. What’s pleasant about The Eccentropedia is that Mikul doesn’t judge his protagonists. He leaves that to the readers. Occasionally there’s a slip. He accuses Gurdjieff of being ‘no writer’ but this is wrong. Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is written in a very difficult prose style, but so is that of many philosophical geniuses. To read Gurdjieff’s highly imaginative autobiography Meetings with Remarkable Men is to encounter an incredible storyteller. Mikul’s own writing is wryly smooth, richly concise and doesn’t draw attention to itself; the book is compulsively readable.
Are his categories correct? It seems to me that eccentrics must also be classified as either rich or poor, sane or insane, geniuses or idiots, lovable or insufferable. Again though, they’d probably defy those dichotomies. I recently saw a film about Edward James, the millionaire patron of the Surrealist movement, who is included here. A fascinating man but so overbearing… The audience was delighted when the film was over, so they could be free of his company. There are plenty of grade-A arseholes in the book, such as Sir George Sitwell, ‘Aristocrat’, son of Sir Sitwell Sitwell and father of Edith. Read it and weep. Edith was later the author of The English Eccentric. One gets the impression that many of these overblown personalities were so because they were competing for attention in a ruthlessly competitive world.
Other outrageous characters are equally essential to know about e.g. William Price the Archdruid of Wales, famed for his fox-skin headdress and for cremating his son Iesu Grist, pioneering the practice in Britain. Elsewhere, Donald Sinclair is not a household name but the character based on him is: Basil Fawlty. His entry is horrifying. Back in Victorian London, Madame Blavatsky is, as always, brilliant and beguiling, sage and fool, truth-teller and charlatan, raging against the materialists, unveiling her Isis. More recently, Screaming Lord Sutch is the ultimate rockstar-cum-politician manqué. Shocking to read of Gaudi as an old man whom people would cross the street to avoid. Fascinating to find out about H.P. Lovecraft’s life of dedicated poverty, hailed by Michel Houellebecq as ‘exemplary’.
The book will not only populate your consciousness with its colourful oddballs – many of whom are masterfully sketched by Glenn Smith, adding to the book’s uniqueness and undoubtedly saving a small fortune on photographic royalties – but will remind you of others you may have known yourself. I think of Ken Campbell. Readers are invited to email candidates for future enlarged editions to: [email protected]