Friday, December 4, 2009

A Most Peculiar Man

A second suicidal song on the same album. This one differs from the last, "Richard Cory," in that the subject here was neither rich nor renowned. We learn that the deceased had a "tiny room" and that his chief trait was his hermit-like nature: "He lived all alone--Within a house, within a room, within himself." In fact, he is the polar opposite of Cory on both the fame and fortune spectrums; we never even learn his name.

The recluse's isolation was complete: "He had no friends... he has a brother somewhere." What was the cause of this isolation? "He seldom spoke." The assessment of this behavior by the community was brutal: "He wasn't friendly, and he didn't care, and he wasn't like them."

His isolation thus became self-reinforcing. The man offered little of himself, which led people to think of himself as aloof. Therefore, he was deemed uncaring, and therefore strange and unapproachable.

Normal people, it seems, participate in the community. We know Mrs. Riordon's name, probably because she introduced herself to us-- she was "friendly." She cared enough about the man to know that he was her neighbor and to find out who his next of kin was. And she knew enough about him to give him the title that substitutes for his unknown name: "She said he was a most peculiar man."

She also had the good fortune, being his upstairs neighbor and all, not to light a fire over the man's gas-filled apartment. No doubt, the fumes leaked up into her room, and she luckily smelled them before making tea or lighting a cigarette. In fact, we can presume that without these fumes, the man's body might have gone unnoticed for days, even weeks.

Such cases exist, and all too frequently, now that electronic systems can automatically collect Social Security or disability checks and pay out rent and utility bills. Without some indicator, such as weeks' worth of newspapers at the door or foul odors coming into the apartment hallway, isolated people are routinely found long after they have passed on.

When I entered college, I was informed that someone in my dormitory had died there the year before. He had a heart murmur and died in bed. It was three days before he was found. Now, Will had been an enormously popular fellow-- a talented musician, a witty raconteur, and clever with the cables and wires of communications technology. He was a leader in the dorm and well-loved. After his death, the dorm held a memorial fundraiser that endured at least until I graduated, five years after he had died, even after all who had known him had themselves graduated.

But on a college campus, one can go a day or two without seeing someone. And so, for three days, everyone passed by his room, not knowing he lay dead inside. Until people started asking, "Have you seen Will? Did he go out of town or something? I haven't seen him in days." His popularity ensured that he had only been missed for three days... and not more.

In the case of the Peculiar Man, however, the death was recent, only "last Saturday." So we are hearing about it less than a week after it happened, which means the body was found that day, or at the latest, a few days after.

Like all unnatural deaths, there had to be opportunity, method, and motive. The first two were readily available; the man had nothing else to do, and he had a gas stove or radiator. As for his motive, since he "seldom spoke," we can only guess. But we are certainly willing to: "He went to sleep... so he'd never wake up to his silent world and his tiny room."

Musically, the song has been lovely to this point. In fact, the simple, nonchalant, back-and-forth melody, punctuated by occasional filigrees, is one of Simon's prettiest.

But now, the voices become loud, perhaps angry. The lacy fingerwork crescendos to a strident strumming. A man has died-- why is there no anguish? Someone should be upset, at least! How could this have happened? Whose fault is it?

This pique subsides suddenly with the news that the brother "should be notified soon." Oh, fine. It's his problem now. Very well, then.

And then, the community's eulogy: "What a shame that he's dead. But, wasn't he a most peculiar man." Tsk, tsk. Well, what can be expected? He kept to himself, after all.

Up to now, Simon has continued to explore the theme of isolation in "Bleecker Street," "The Sound of Silence," "Wednesday Morning, 3AM," "Blessed," and even "Kathy's Song." And Simon acknowledges that isolation can even lead to death, as in "Sparrow" and "He Was My Brother."

But in "Richard Cory" and "Most Peculiar Man," we see another consequence of isolation: suicide. Death, yes, but at one's own hand. These were people who did not necessarily want to feel lonely. Richard Cory was known, but trapped in his status, unable to make connections because there was no one else in his situation. He owned "one half of this old town," and since the other half was not owned by one other person, he had no peers. (Compared this to, say, Tiger Woods befriending Michael Jordan years ago, who, while not in his sport, shares his ethnicity and superstar-athlete status. I write this while Mr. Woods' first scandal is still unravelling, and a column appeared suggesting that he consult with Mr. Jordan on how to handle such a situation. Obviously, we do not expect Mr. Woods to end his own life at this point.).

And the Peculiar Man? Who knows why he enclosed himself in a shell of silence? Well, we might ask the speaker of "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," who is on the lam, or the speaker of "I Am a Rock," who is heartbroken.  It may even be the effect of a mental illness like agoraphobia, as explored in the movie Columbus Circle, about a woman who has not left her apartment in 20 years.There are many reasons a person might shut him- or herself off from the world.

Perhaps he was simply sick or disabled and unable to move easily. My late grandfather died at 100 and hadn't left his house in five or more years, but he was tended by my grandmother and visited often by his children, grandchildren, community-appointed social workers and clergy.

Ultimately, why is the man seen as "peculiar"? Because he does not extend himself to the community. He wasn't "like" his neighbors, in that they did do so. But we do not know if anyone, Mrs. Riordan included, ever tried to draw the man from his isolation-- engage him in conversation, invite him to a community event, offer to run errands for him. At some point, the neighbors simply labelled him "peculiar," and went on their way.

Simon's implication is not that the man imposed his own isolation and refused entreaties, however. It seems that he was simply shy and unforthcoming-- perhaps he was new to the building, perhaps all of his neighbors were-- leading to his neighbors' shrugs and sighs, leading in turn to the man's eventual total alone-ness, which the neighbors reflexively blamed on the man himself.

And they should not have. They should have tried harder. Now that the man is dead, we see (too late) that he did not in fact want to be alone. They should have noticed the signs earlier, and taken his introversion not as a sign of rejection of them (as they self-centeredly no doubt did) or haughtiness, but as a sign of self-doubt and lack of confidence.

Simon indicts their indifference, but then wonders if he is expecting too much. Perhaps he is.

Sharon Begely writes in "Newsweek," December 2009: "How much babies gesture, smile, make eye contact, and babble affects how adults respond to them, including responses that shape how verbal a child will be, how emotionally secure she will feel, and thus what kind of adult relationships she will have."

Or, as the Beatles would say: "The love you take is equal to the love you make." Perhaps it was not the man's fault that he was peculiarly introverted. But it may be just as unavoidable, or at least as much "human nature," that society dubbed his introversion "peculiar."

Next song: April Come She Will

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