Saturday, November 15, 2014

`You Are the Parrot Sitting By'

You must know the pronoun thief.  He’s sly and bold and performs his acts of larceny in public, shamelessly, like an expert pickpocket. Everything you say he first-personalizes, takes away from you and claims as his own. YOU: “That new Indian place sounds like it might be good for lunch.” HE: “I went there. It’s so Goan. So fishy. You wouldn’t like it.” He is the vacuum who without assistance empties rooms, conversations and good will. If you buy a book, he has already read it, hated it and returned it for a full refund. If your eleven-year-old gets straight A’s, his kid is teaching Mandarin. Charles Lamb knew the type well, as we all do, and names him, in “A Character,” Egomet: 

“He is a remarkable species of selfishness. I do not mean that he is attentive to his own gain; I acquit him of that common-place manifestation of the foible. I shoot no such small deer. But his sin is in total absorption of mind in things relating to himself—his house—his horse—his stable—his gardener, &c. Nothing that concerns himself can he imagine to be indifferent to you.—He does my sympathy too much honour. The worst is, he takes no sort of interest whatever in your horse, house, stable, gardener, &c. If you begin a discourse about your own household economy and small matter, he treats it with the most mortifying indifference. He has discarded all pronouns for the first-personal.” 

Lamb published “A Character” in the Aug. 25, 1825 issue of The New Times, and signed it Lepus (Latin for “hare,” Orion’s quarry). That year he retired from the East India Company (not the Bank of England as “A Character” claims) after thirty-three years as a clerk. Two years earlier he had published Essays of Elia. Like Kierkegaard and Flann O’Brien, Lamb was fond of pseudonyms, a device that lent him a usefully fluid identity as a writer. “A Character” is collected in Vol. IV, Essays and Sketches, of The Works of Charles Lamb (J.M. Dent & Co., 1903). In his notes to this edition, William MacDonald appends a single wry sentence to “A Character”: “It seems useless going in search of this gentleman [Egomet]: we should be sure to pass him by, if we moved a step.” MacDonald is underlining Lamb’s gift for creating character type, a form most often associated with such painters as Hogarth. In literature, it can be traced to Theophrastus. Lamb’s adaptation is to turn his moralizing into mockery. We laugh at Egomet because we know him so well. He may be us. Lamb surgically anatomizes him, mon semblable, — mon frère!: 

“I said before, he is not avaricious—not egotistical in the vain sense of the word either; therefore the term selfishness, or egotism, is improperly applied to his distemper; it is the sin of self-fullness. Neither is himself, properly speaking, an object of his contemplation at all; it is the things which belong or refer to himself. His conversation is one entire soliloquy; or it may be said to resemble Robinson Crusoe’s self-colloquies in his island: you are the parrot sitting by.”


George said...

He does sound like one of Flann O'Brien's Bores, the man who read it in manuscript.

Denkof Zwemmen said...

Here on the East Coast we have to put up with a neurotic variant of Egomet. Instead of your Texans trumping one's good with better, our Egomets like to trump one's bad with worse. You've sprained your ankle? Last year Egomet sprained both his ankles at once (full painful details follow). Generally, as a sop to the nicety requiring a show of sympathy, he prefaces his tale of woe with, "I know just what you're going through."