What Does It Mean To Be Human?

Quentin Crisp: Portrait

Again, I return to thoughts of Quentin Crisp and how, in his own highly eccentric manner, his life seemed to symbolize and attempt to promote a perspective (however paradoxical) of individuality, self acceptance and tolerance. Along this line, he once stated, “I have always lived my life in the profession of being.”

Many years ago Quentin wrote a short autobiographic note of his life, entitled “What Does It Mean to be Human?” The following is the text of that autobiographic summary:

When thinking about what it meant to be human, I was very sorry that I was not a scholar and had no philosophical point of view to express. More than not being a scholar, I am not really a human being. I do not mind spending long hours alone, and I never find something to do. This is part of my nature.

My sister reminded me before she died that she and my mother sat on each side of the fireplace and occupied themselves with darning socks, and knitting, and writing letters on their laps. I lay as a child on the rug between them, and once an hour one of them said, “Why don’t you get something to do?” And I said, “Why should I?” That is a question I cannot answer. Why should I have something to do?

Of course, there is the theory that time is money. It is an American theory: I am not earning money while I am doing nothing. Which is sad. But if I were rich, I would never do anything. I was asked by a paper, “If you suddenly had a million dollars, what would you do?” And I said, “Go to bed, and never get up again!” This was a great disappointment to the people who asked me the question. But idleness is my only occupation, and people are my only hobby.

If I regard what I think is human, and perhaps I was asked precisely because I am not a human being and, therefore, have a detached view of the subject, I would say it was a preoccupation with the idea of death. The reason why people do not live alone and do not spend hours doing nothing is because they can hear time ticking by. Then they develop hobbies, which drive them mad. You may ask them, “Why do you do this?” They ultimately say, “Well, it helps kill time.”

I don’t want my time dead. Time is meant to be lived!Those who are not hopeless are worried that one day their lives will end. And, if you live long enough, of course, you long for it to end. That’s been my desire in recent times. I only hope to become extinct. But before all that, you must try everything. Have children. Behave in such a way that monuments are built to you. Rule the world! Have streets and theaters named after you. Write your autobiography. These are ways to staying alive, and this seems to be a preoccupation with being human.

When I was younger and was not ill, I didn’t mind how long I lived. Now that every step of my life is painful, I long for death. If being human has any other special aspect it is that in every human being there are two people. One who sits in judgment on the other. The worldly, the doing person, acts irresponsibly, or nobly, or wisely, or foolishly, according to the mood or the situation. But inside him, further away, is an abstract spiritual being who never changes and who sits in judgment on him.

This situation becomes evident when we hear people say, “I was ashamed of myself.” Who is ashamed of whom? It is this duality between the active living organism and the contemplative inner-self that sits in judgment that constitutes the whole human being. This is, I think, what constitutes a human being.

Quentin Crisp

One Response to “What Does It Mean To Be Human?”

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