Quentin Crisp and Political Courage

2 March 2021

We do not usually number Quentin Crisp, queer icon and media quipster, among the theorists of liberal democracy, or indeed among the serious thinkers of anything. Like his predecessor and model Oscar Wilde, Crisp cultivated an arch, ironic verbal style, in which apparently outrageous nonsense was uttered with flat matter-of-factness. We have trouble with funny philosophers. Some we reduce to the merely hilarious; Crisp and Wilde are best-remembered for a certain number of one-liners. Others, who are perhaps less fortunate, we make mirrors of our studious dullness. Many read Plato and Derrida without ever cracking a smile. 


Classifying a thinker, or even a thought, as either serious or comic misses the fact that irony is intended as an incitation to thought, a provocation by which a thinker solicits the perspicacity of some members of his audience. Listened to in this spirit, Crisp poses a number of challenges for our understanding of liberal democratic politics. Framed by his camp- posturing is a suggestion that the defense of legal rights depends less on the force of reason appealing to universal norms, than on the physical and philosophical courage embodied in particular individuals. He reminds us of the political necessity of a sort of virtue by which subjects offer themselves up for sacrifice, and of a way of living in public that confronts one’s fellow citizens with the inadequacies of their ideas, even at the risk of death.


In 1975, a few days after the airing of a made-for-television film based on his 1968 autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp was interviewed by Mavis Nicholson for an afternoon chat-show. One of Nicholson’s first questions concerned the many incidents of homophobic violence to which Crisp had been subject over the years, or rather, the motivations of his assailants: “what is it that makes people want to attack you just for being something you want to be?”


Crisp might have taken the opportunity to play the role of the innocent victim, but he instead began by genuflecting to his attackers’ righteous fury. “Part of it is genuine moral indignation, and for this one has the greatest respect,” he answered. “I see no reason why people shouldn’t morally object. But of course the English answer won’t really do. You can either shoot the homosexuals, the moment you know that they’re homosexual, or you can let them be. You can’t take a middle course.” 


In 1975, the English state did not shoot homosexuals. Sodomy had been decriminalized seven years before, and the death penalty had not been applied to those convicted of sodomy since 1835. But, Crisp argued, the end of state violence against homosexuals had not meant toleration. Rather, it created an incoherent situation, in which the English hoped that, having renounced the use of the state to persecute homosexuals, men like Crisp would nevertheless continue to stay out of view. 


Where they had once openly expressed and legally codified their desire to eliminate same-sex relations and, if necessary, to kill homosexuals (or perhaps indeed it was the other way around, with the desire to kill that was primary), the English now wanted gay men to go away, at the very least, stay on the margins. But the English were no longer willing to avow that desire politically, to make it explicit as a law. This, Crisp insisted, was untenable. They could not pursue the society that they wanted (one free of visible queerness) through the means that they found tolerable (that is, without recourse to acknowledged state violence). If they weren’t willing to shoot Crisp, they would have to learn to share their civic life with him.


From Crisp’s vantage, appearing in public as an obvious gay man is a provocation to violence, a posing of the question to the English whether they are more committed to their liberal means (giving up on a persecutory legal regime) or moral ends (a purely heterosexual society). As a member of what Judith Shklar (thinking rather of Jews) called a “permanent minority,” Crisp did not resist the violence of the heterosexual majority with violence of his own, or try to convince its morally-indignant members with a moral indignation of his own. He simply appeared as himself in public, and invited his fellow citizens to decide upon which horn of their dilemma to fall. Living proof that the post-68 English answer of extra-political homophobia could not work, he summoned the English to admit that their wish for a world without people like him could only be satisfied through violence, and to choose whether or not they would commit it. 


A disconcerted Nicholson responded to this, after a flustered pause, by asking why Crisp, notorious for his ambisextrous attire and purple hair, dressed “so flamboyantly” given that his appearance incited violence. Crisp observed that many people had asked him this question, often with the implication that he would be better off keeping his sexuality private, since it has “nothing to do” with strangers on the street. Not so, Crisp answered. The fact that gender-bending dress invites the hostility and violence of passersby proves that such matters of apparently intimate personal preference are in fact matters of public concern. Public outrage is a “protest” against homosexuality, which, Crisp argued, he had tried to answer. 


This answer, however, was not organized around any apparent claim. Crisp did not appeal to a universal human right to the free use of one’s body, or to the legitimacy of love in its varied forms. He suggested that there is, in fact, no response that a member of a minority can make to a morally indignant majority, except to ask its members if they are truly prepared to accept all the violence that they will have to commit in order to achieve their vision of the good society. When Nicholson asked him if he got a “kick out of” his protests (some subversive jouissance, some masochistic thrill of being gay-bashed), he replied: “The difficulty is that I know that I am not only speaking to you, I am speaking to the world. Therefore I must never say, ‘the kick I got out of it was that I felt I was right.’ I couldn’t do otherwise. I never had a feeling of making a choice.” 


This answer dismissed Nicholson’s suggestion that there was a perverse enjoyment in his resistance to, and incitation of, homophobic protest. More importantly, it revealed that while Crisp believed himself to be right—to have a better understanding of the good than the members of the majority—there was no point saying so in public. (Of course, in saying that he “must never” say such a thing, Crisp was in fact saying it.) Rather, he claimed to have been guided by an inner necessity of troubling his fellow citizens, confronting their inadequate conceptions of moral and political life by asking if they were committed enough to their project of the good life to kill him, or committed enough to liberal principles to let him live in the sight of all. Had he not been born in the era of talk-shows, Crisp might have been a troubling figure in the Athenian agora.


Besides his Socratic role as a demon-driven gadfly awakening his countrymen, Crisp also anticipated insights of French post-structuralists like Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault. The latter pair were then developing, in dialogue with each other, a sense that rights could only be protected through the spontaneous action of subjects willing to risk violence to themselves. Public norms designed to protect citizens from state and non-state violence are only efficacious, they warned, to the extent that they are continually confronted by a challenge from individuals prepared to face death. 


In his 1977 essay “Forget Foucault,” Baudrillard argued that the heart of any meaningful resistance to power lies in a kind of defiance “which dares those who hold power to exercize it to the limit and which can only spell death for those who are dominated. A challenge to power to be power… it is in facing this unanswerable challenge that power starts to break up.” This kind of challenge, Baudrillard continued, has the character of a “sacrifice,” in which an individual accepts the possibility of death, or rather, throws his life away. 


Such a challenge is “nonpolitical, nondialectical, and nonstrategic,” insofar as it seems to refuse to give explanations, make specific demands, or insert itself into a program for change. But only such apparently irrational moments, Baudrillard claimed, can bring about real transformations. They force those who rule to either pursue their projects in earnest, accepting the violence inherent in them, or to concede their impossibility. 


Baudrillard ended on a pessimistic note, worrying that “no one exercizes power or wants it anymore… and no one wants to take up the challenge any longer.” Politics seemed to have become stuck in a situation like Crisp’s “English answer,” in which rulers and ruled alike lacked the courage to avow their desires. This pessimism, growing over the following years, is the basis for Baudrillard’s later insistence that contemporary politics had become a futile “hyper-reality” without either power or resistance, rulers or ruled, violence or sacrifice—only an endless whirl of empty signification.


Foucault, too, the target of Baudrillard’s essay, had spent much of the 1970s concerned about what seemed to be the disappointing or illusory character of resistance to power that had led the ostensible radicalism of the late 1960s into an impasse. By 1979, however, Foucault had come to see something like Baudrillard’s “challenge” as an enduring phenomena, an “irreducible” capacity of human beings that had, for better or for worse, motivated forms of resistance, from jail-breaks to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Iranian Revolution. He came to see this ability to wager one’s life in a confrontation with power, a challenge that defies power to assume responsibility for the potentially murderous logic of its designs as an essential part of human nature—a concept he had often attacked in his previous work, but which now, implicitly, began to operate in his thought.  


This new, albeit largely implicit, sense of a trans-historical human nature, founded on an inherent capacity to choose death over some kinds of life, underwrote the work that would occupy Foucault’s final years: a study of classical Greek practices of parrhesia, or fearless speech. Such speech, he insisted, is not about expressing a private opinion, but about risking the potentially fatal consequences of self-revelation in order to transform the moral and political understanding of one’s addressee. Our individual and collective freedom might depend, Foucault suggested, in our possessing the prudence of self-protective opacity and the courage of dangerous disclosures.


In the late 1970s, Crisp, Baudrillard and Foucault alike shared an insight into the terrifying center of politics, where individuals confront power—or, as Crisp less abstractly put it, their fellow citizens—at the risk of their lives. It is, for majorities and minorities alike, more comfortable to try to ignore this insuperable feature of politics, hiding it behind legal and moral appeals, persisting in what Crisp called the “middle course” that wants political results (a particular kind of society) without political means (state violence). But the question, “are you really willing to kill me to pursue your vision of the good?” remains the central political question, one that we ceaselessly, albeit disguisedly, pose to each other, even, Crisp insisted, in our dress. Our individual way of life poses for our neighbors the question of politics. The courage to ask that question without indirection is the political virtue to which Crisp, Baudrillard and Foucault call us.


Photo Credit: Ross Lewis, Quentin Crisp, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


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1 Comment

  • Ann says:

    Great writing, although i need to give it more thought before deciding whether or not i strongly disagree with the central ideas of Foucault and Baudrillard as reported by the author. Thanks for a good read.

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