Can't Always Get What You Want? Quentin Crisp Says You Can If You Use Manners from Heaven

updated 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For most of his life British-born writer Quentin Crisp, 76, has been a self-styled "blithe spirit reveling in androgynous anarchy." Nonetheless he has managed, he says, to "reach the highest echelons of American society through the art of manners alone—and there is nothing else in my favor." If good manners can do so much for an "unregenerate degenerate," then there must be something to them. That is what Crisp argues in his 10th and newest book, Manners From Heaven, A Divine Guide to Good Behavior (Harper & Row, $10.95). The book is written in the same tartly decorous style as Crisp's autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, which became a TV film starring John Hurt and made Crisp a cult success as "a sort of writer and sort of public speaker." In America, he says, "You can just be famous for being famous, and that's what I'm now doing." Louise Lague interviewed Crisp not far from the Manhattan apartment he has inhabited, alone, for four years without, he insists, "ever cleaning it."

What is the difference between etiquette and manners?

Etiquette is a process of exclusion, chiefly practiced by the English, to make sure that people of a lower class than their own cannot enter their kingdom. Manners, especially in America, are a technique of inclusion, to make people feel welcome. To me, manners involve being deferential. You call people "Sir," you don't interrupt them when they speak, and you appear to listen and never contradict them. It's a question of behaving nicely and of keeping quiet and not speaking unless spoken to.

Isn't it possible to be well mannered and assertive at the same time?

I don't think it is. I think if we're going to be assertive, we must do it in secret, with people who will not be believed later when they speak against us.

Then how do we get what we want out of life without just demanding it and, as you put it, "appearing to be an absolute swine?"

Because what we want—happiness—is a relationship with ourselves, never with other people. We have to decide what we want, then we move cautiously toward it. If you demand things, you may begrudgingly be given them, but you will have lost the people who gave them to you. Manners are for those people who really are born losers, and who feel that what they have may be taken from them and what they do not yet have they may never get. If you creep forward, then you can quite often get what you want without losing anything.

And if we must make demands ?

If you are going to make demands, you make them very completely and very quietly. When you have things to give away, give them away very loudly. This is a way of keeping your image alive.

Candor, spontaneity and sincerity are the bywords of the baby-boom generation. What do you have against them?

Precisely that they produce hostility. I have known people who say in a self-congratulatory tone, "Well, you know me, I speak my mind and people must lump it." Why should they lump it? Why should you speak your mind? We don't want your mind to start with.

You write, "The lie is the basic building block of good manners." What's the proper way to use a lie?

Never tell wanton lies, never tell lies that merely build yourself up. If you say, "Will you marry me?," I cannot say, "You've got to be joking." This is rude. I say, "I am not worthy." It means no. Now this is obviously in a sense a lie, but manners are not morality.

Why should we bother to go around saving each other's feelings all the time?

Both for their sake and for our own. Anger begets anger; that is unalterable. So if you're going to say, "Don't bother me now, oh do shut up," you are in the end going to produce a hostile situation. So you don't say any of these things, and in this way you preserve a peaceful relationship with the world, serving you as well as other people.

What can you do if you dislike your friends' friends?

I think you have to put up with people's friends, unless they literally insult you. And then you might have to say, "I've had difficulties with your friend Mr. Smith, and I'm sure he would prefer that we did not meet again."

Who deserves to be dropped, and how is it properly done?

Nobody deserves to be dropped, but in self-defense we do drop certain people. First of all you make it seem as if they cannot possibly bother with you any longer. You can never say, "Oh, don't rattle on so." You have to say, "I mustn't keep you any longer, you must be bored to death by the way I've rattled on." When you make excuses that you will not go out with somebody, you have to say that you are doing something else, which you realize is less enjoyable but which you have committed yourself to do, and you have to say what it is, so that they believe your excuse. Most people get the message that you cannot continue your relationship after about three refusals.

You make some rather inflammatory statements: "If you can't beat them, join them, and if you can't join them, grovel." Are you serious?

Yes. I think this is absolutely essential. If you can't join them it is no good knocking your head against a stone wall. You just have to stand at the door hat in hand and hope to join them. Ultimately you will be accepted, but of course it takes longer.

What about this one? "A sex that wants equality with men can only be leveling downwards."

That's right. If women want equality with men, then they want to be like this aggressive, coarse, unlikable, insensitive object. What women had was a muted superiority, and they're in danger of throwing this away. It would be nice if everybody could partake of the virtues of both sexes.

Quoting again: "Nothing in our culture, not even home computers, is more overrated than the epidermal felicity of two featherless bipeds in desperate congress." What do you have against sex?

Well, sex is a mistake. It is the last refuge of the miserable. It is largely a mannerless occupation. Takes up a lot of energy, a lot of time, causes a lot of shame and grief and for virtually no result. It accomplishes nothing. It is only a pleasure, and when we speak of manners we are speaking not of pleasure but of happiness.

Speaking of sex, what's the proper way to refuse a heavy-handed come-on, what you call a "pounce"?

The ordinary reply would be, "Don't do that." But this is unmannerly. Originally, of course, you were allowed to say, "I don't want to ruin a beautiful friendship." Whether you can still try that I don't know. I don't think you can say you're in love with someone else because this creates a competitive situation. I think you can say that you are too ill, too frail, or that it offends your religious beliefs.

How should you accept a compliment?

English women tear themselves down the moment you praise them. You say, "Oh, I like you wearing this," and they say, "Oh, this old thing, I've had it for years, and I was thinking of throwing it away." This is quite unnecessary. Just say, "Thank you." And you must seem pleased to receive the compliment. On the other hand, never ask for compliments. It is bad manners to say, "How do I look?" and, "Do you really love me?"—these cannot ever be said because they provoke bad manners in others.

What do you do if you're the only person who's been polite all day?

Nothing. You can never make it apparent to other people that they have behaved badly, because if you ever see them again, they will then behave worse. I think good manners mean that you are in many situations the loser, but the gains are very considerable in the long run.

When is it okay to talk about money?

Money is a grave problem. When I was quite young, my sister, wishing to seem sophisticated, waltzed into the room and said that the people next door had no money to speak of. And my mother said, "But money is never to speak of."

If you had one message for the human race, what would it be?

You should treat all disasters as if they were trivialities but never treat a triviality as if it were a disaster.

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