Disappointed in a man who wasn’t there


SO, how does it end? Do we find out that the Piano Man fell off a boat and banged his head on a rock after making the bold but misjudged decision to take a piano onboard? Or is he a former virtuoso concert pianist whose talent was eroded by mental illness, from which he then recovers and finds his musical skill intact, thanks to overwhelming support from the British public and beyond?
Where does the inevitable love interest come in? Did he take a vow of silence after losing the love of his life?
Does he speak again only after she returns, bearing his child and the missing labels from his clothes and dancing the limited section of Swan Lake he knows by heart?
When you know very little about a stranger who is mute and in an intensive care ward in a psychiatric unit, the possibilities are endless. The Piano Man, as he is known, was found wandering on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, six weeks ago. Since a photograph of him and his pencil drawing of a piano were published on Monday, speculation as to his identity has been consistently optimistic and imaginative; proof indeed that humans appear disposed to exaggerate what they know nothing of.
From the announcement that he played the piano, he became a "genius" and "virtuoso" in the eyes of the press, in preference to the "accomplished amateur" assessed by the hospital chaplain. A music teacher has been called in to analyse one of his compositions and her diagnosis is that it is the work of someone who is "very sad". Now he has drawn something that resembles, to Scottish eyes, a saltire, we want to claim him as our own.
Behind all these bold pronouncements made on the behalf of a man who refuses to speak is the assumption that we are somehow entitled to make what we wish of him. His photograph was presumably published without his consent, as well as all the other information that has emerged about him and his behaviour.
To be sure, some of this was necessary; the National Missing Persons helpline say he needs to be identified or else he'll become "lost in the system". What was not necessary was to stop seeing him as an individual.
Everything about the response from the press and public suggests that we perceive him as mere lost property and that, as such, he is public property. There seems no other explanation to account for the rather wide gap that has emerged between our ideas about him and the reality. The "lost genius" persona is who we want him to be; who scriptwriters looking for a viable adaptation need him to be. Because he has decided not to speak, we have taken it upon ourselves to speak for him.
Except, in doing so, we forfeit one thing: his privacy. From the anecdotal evidence of his behaviour thus far – the silence, the creativity when left alone, the anxiety and avoidance of eye contact when approached – this appears to be something he appreciates, whether he is conscious of it or not.
Indeed, there's nothing to suggest that he is fully aware of who he is and where he came from and just doesn't want to tell us. Yet we go on looking on the rationale that it's in his interests. Why? The fundamental reason appears to be that we think we always know what's best for the mentally ill.
Apart from that, I'm inclined to think it's because of three other things. One, everyone loves a good mystery. Two, we're willing to indulge in that mystery at the expense of its unwitting subject. Three, when someone with a mental illness is thrust centre-stage, it's not enough that they just be mentally ill. Accordingly, the Piano Man has been endowed with a rather tragic mental illness; one that stole from him a great, if imagined, talent and lent him some sartorial quirks along the way.
It's probably a far better autobiography than he ever could have wished for without us. We're helping, really. By overlooking his repetitious playing of John Lennon's Imagine and, instead, propagating his "genius", we're adding a tragic quality to what otherwise may be a rather pedestrian level of skill. We're refusing to see him as just plain old mentally ill and, instead, infusing his life with purpose. We're finding out who he is – his real identity, too; not just the one that draws pictures in private, is wary of company and doesn't tell people who he is. He'll thank us one day. If he ever talks again.
But our ideas about the tragedy of his story have now been overtaken by a real tragedy. It is that, now we know the true extent of his abilities, it somehow makes us disappointed in him for not actually being the genius we were at first led to believe, even though he did nothing to make us believe it was the case.
How is it that we can feel let down by someone who never said a word about themselves? Because we wanted to believe it, permitted his privacy to be violated for it and now the truth is no longer good enough.

Autor: Beth Pearson
Medio: The Herald (Web Issue 2273)
Fecha: Miércoles 18 de mayo de 2005
Notas: Copyright © 2005 Newsquest (Herald & Times) Limited. All Rights Reserved
ID: 1578 Editar

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