Look At Me

Memoirs of a Public Baby

by Philip O'Connor, introduction by Stephen Spender
Norton, 229 pp., $18.95

Phillip O'Connor
Phillip O'Connor; drawing by David Levine

You are walking down a street, probably past a bar. A man shambles up to you, puts his face very close, and begins talking. He talks and talks. He is aggressive and not at all charming. He despises everybody and everything, but especially the bourgeoisie. This includes himself. On the other hand he knows he is almost the only person in the world who understands it. He is telling you the story of his life, which is unusual in its beginnings, but gets more and more ordinary—terribly predictable, in fact—as he goes along.

As Stephen Spender says in his introduction, “the ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ has become a cliché of living, as well as of poetry.” Still, the tale might be bearable if the furious ancient mariner were not also expounding his thoughts. They are mostly banal and transparently derivative, except that, from time to time, explosions of originality throw up fragments of brilliant perception: they are soon borne away on gusts of messianic hot air. Messianic is O’Connor’s own word for a recurrent state of mind. His talk jolts along in misshapen sentences caked with metaphors. Some of the metaphors are startling and illuminating, but all the same you just wish he would stop. He doesn’t, of course. So unless you manage to get away, you will have finished Philip O’Connor’s Memoirs of a Public Baby.

As described by himself, O’Connor is often drunk and sometimes mad. R.D. Laing has suggested that madmen are saner than we are, and from 1958, when he first got his book published, O’Connor himself has been a proto-Laingian: “Those who withdraw from normality,” he wrote, “may have better reasons for doing so than are apparent to the ‘normal world’s’ secular priests.” The sneering quotation marks are typical—though unusually restrained—of O’Connor’s contempt for the normal and the bourgeois, whose territories completely overlap on his map of the world. There is a lot of truth in the Laingian paradox, of course, but it is not new. Shakespeare was a proto-Laingian, and so was Tourneur when he wrote:

Surely wee’re all mad people, and they
Whome we thinke are, are not, we mistake those,
Tis we are mad in sense, they but in clothes.

The trouble with drunks and madmen, though, is that they are terribly boring. The great and famous mad and drunken geniuses have mostly done their writing in sane and sober moments. Stephen Spender, who has been inveigled not once but twice (in 1958 and in 1988) into writing an introduction to O’Connor’s Memoirs, put his finger on the problem. Talking about poems that O’Connor had published in various anthologies before the war, he said they were

both good and not good. Good because they were automatic products of a most anti-mechanical personality, not good, because their author had no self-requirements of style by which he could “work”…

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