The Two-Sided Man

Stephen Fry is that rare creature, a popular British intellectual. The popularity rests, I think, on his predilection to exaggerate rather than downplay his upper middle class background. This lack of artifice is refreshing in an age of prolier-than-thou bullshit.

I also sympathise with his words on the gulf between the public and private self. The outer man is urbane, at ease, gregarious and yet detached, self-deprecating (but not too self-deprecating) full of charm and dissemblance, and with considerable powers of being pleasant. The heart within is a roil of fear, paranoia and self-loathing. As Fry puts it:

I am English. Tweedy. Pukka. Confident. Establishment. Self-assured. In charge. That is how people like to see me, be the truth never so at variance… It may be the case that my afflictions of mood and temperament cause me to be occasionally suicidal in outlook and can frequently leave me in despair and eaten up with self-hatred and self-disgust. It may be the case that I am chronically overmastered by a sense of failure, underachievement and a terrible knowledge that I have betrayed, abused or neglected the talents that nature bestowed upon me. It may be the case that I doubt I will ever have the capacity to be happy. It may be the case that I fear for my sanity, my moral centre and my very future. All these cases may be protested, and I can assert their truth as often as I like, but the repetition will not alter my ‘image’ by one pixel. It is the same image I had before I was a known public figure. The image that caused a delegation of college first-year contemporaries to visit me in my rooms and demand to know my ‘secret’… Like many masks this smiling, placid one has become so tight a fit that it might be said to have rewritten the features of whatever true face once screamed beneath it[.]

This passage reminded me of a Kipling poem I came across called ‘The Two-Sided Man’:

I would go without shirt or shoe
Friend, tobacco or bread
Sooner than lose for a minute the two
Separate sides to my head!

Fry’s recent autobiography also has a great passage on upper-class Cambridge student life:

Revising finalists under chestnut trees, books and notes spread out on the grass as they smoke, drink, chatter, flirt, kiss and read. Garden parties on every lawn in every college for the first two weeks in June that are perversely designated May Week. Dining clubs and societies, dons, clubs and rich individuals serving punch and Pimm’s, beer and sangria, cocktails and champagne. Blazers and flannels, self-conscious little snobberies and affectations, flushed youth, pampered youth, privileged youth, happy youth. Don’t be too hard on them. Suppress the thought that they are all ghastly tosspots who don’t know they’re born, insufferable posers in need of a kick and a slap. Have some pity and understanding. They will get that kick and that slap soon enough. After all, look at them now. They are all in their fifties. Some of them are on their third, fourth or fifth marriage. Their children despise them. They are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics. Drug addicts or recovering drug addicts…. Their lives have been a ruin and a waste. All that bright promise never quite matured into anything that can be looked back on with pride or pleasure.

Fry is also one of the few people who can say something interesting about celebrity. He writes about the story of Aaron, partying with his golden calf, enjoying the revels and idolatory, until Moses gatecrashes with his stone tablets, destroys the golden calf and ‘slays 3,000 men before hauling his vengeful arse back up Mount Sinai to get a second batch of commandments.’

‘I think we can celebrate,’ Fry says, ‘the fact that we now live in a culture, flawed or not, that instantly sees that, while Aaron may be a weak voluptuary, his brother is a dangerous fanatic… We humans are naturally disposed to worship gods and heroes, to build our pantheons and valhallas. I would rather see that impulse directed into the adoration of daft singers, thicko footballers and air-headed screen actors than into the veneration of dogmatic zealots, fanatical preachers, militant politicians and rabid cultural commentators.’

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