It could corrode the ego required for getting up in the morning, let alone for performing any of the great dances of life. Still, occasional rumination, by way of reality-check, may help. It avoids the more outrageous episodes of self-delusion.
Strange to say, most bald men, like me, don’t realise they have so little thatch on top. Like a pimple in a place that isn’t seen, it’s part of your eco system, life’s wallpaper. Baldness, a glaring lack, goes unnoticed by the inhabitant under the glossy dome. But it is rudely obvious for anyone else to see.
Occasionally, there is the disconcerting, fleeting glimpse of an image reflected in a shop window. It takes a reality-check to realise that the lumpen stodge peering back is really me. The reflection bears no resemblance whatever to the imagined self, who, in turn, is wholly unrecognised by the world. So, you bear-up and bustle on. The unpleasantness dissipates in moments. Then, back to un-reality.
A failure to temper fantasy, even mildly, with reality came to mind on Monday. It was a bank holiday and a sunshine-and-ice-cream sort of day. Domestic news was slack and foreign news was bleak. Up pops Pat Rabbitte, in a national newspaper, taking lumps out of life. The poor man probably hasn’t realised he has gone bald in the cop-on department. He hadn’t caught a glimpse of himself, passing, in any window recently.
So, on he went, leaving behind a trail of leaking credibility, scented by bitterness.
Charles Stewart Parnell told the great Victorian journalist WT Stead that the essence of politics is vanity. It takes enormous self-belief to stride across the public stage, bear the brickbats of the crowd, and never for a moment know you are metaphorically thinning on top. Pat Rabbitte never lacked it: The chutzpah, I mean. He loved mixing it, and he loved making it. A phrase-maker with an insatiable appetite for the microphone, uniquely in Irish politics he had an alternative existence as a star performer for decades on the fringe of the main event. In the end, however, he never attained a starring role on the main stage of Irish government. He had more lines to deliver than the importance of his character in the drama could support.
Now, his potential unrealised and his talent unrecognised, he won’t leave the stage. On Monday, from the wings, there were side swipes at his new leader, his Labour colleagues, and especially the ungrateful young TDs who hadn’t the manners to wait their turn and, instead, jumped the gun on Eamon Gilmore. It was all packaged in self-serving tripe about what is and isn’t the Labour way of doing things. The afterlifes of Brendan Corish or Dick Spring, on leaving office, weren’t the Labour examples that inspired Pat, though. A man with a sharp mind and a sharper tongue, he still hasn’t managed to disconnect one from the other.
Now don’t get me wrong. A lot of people in the same political party are barely on speaking terms, would prefer root-canal surgery before socialising together, and only ever speak ill of one another — but in private. Nothing compares to the enmity of old friends, you see. Politics is a fiercely competitive game, bursting with overly ambitious people. Just like in the casino, most people who get elected (and they are the lucky ones) leave having given up years of life for little, if any, ministerial preferment. In the Leinster House lottery, there are far more losers than winners. Little in life corrodes friendship like the success of a colleague. There is always unspeakable sourness for the left-behind. Ostensibly angered by one betrayal, Rabbitte effortlessly executed another; hardly the Labour way? But in the weeks since he went from ministerial office to oblivion, the context has changed. Acerbic when pitching molten tar from the battlements, he didn’t notice, or didn’t care, that the back of his hand wasn’t the caress many preferred to feel. The audience, if admiring of his stinging verbal skill, was seldom won for his cause. True, there was appallingly compelling listening as he flagellated the less fluent. There was little of it that was heartwarming or winning. Pat Rabbitte as leader singularly failed to increase the Labour Party’s store of political support from 2002 to 2007. As a minister, after 2011, with the condescension aired ad nauseam in the media, he was a JCB digging away Labour’s political capital one bon mot at a time. He wasn’t the root cause of his party’s problem, but he contributed repeatedly, when what was required was abstinence and the charity of his silence. But silence and abstinence were beyond him. When he was near the centre of affairs, he had the contemptuous air of being above it all. Now, out of it, he is determined, it seems, to be back in the thick of it.
One imagines wrinkle-less, wax-like Hollywood divas, sitting in their private cinemas looking at old movies of themselves. We all relive faded glories, and replay “what-ifs”. But it is that tempering of fantasy with reality, the dim awareness that nobody actually sees us as we see ourselves, that prevents us making outright poltroons of ourselves. There is, in Pat Rabbitte, something of the man throwing snowballs in St Moritz. You just don’t do it.
He never fully succeeded in the political game, because, ultimately, his deepest desire was just to be there. So, he went from one party to another. The Workers Party cum Democratic Left was always a clique without a following. It had what Rabbitte never lost, and could hardly ever hide: an essentially elitist view of politics. His deepest instinct was never for the Left, let alone for Labour. It was for power; perhaps, more accurately, authority.
Throughout a long political life, his next move was always right-ward. His deepest comfort was the company of the ruling class. That was the core of the Democratic Left project. Having given up on radical change, let alone revolution, its only remaining goal was how to position itself for power. That was the utility of the Labour Party. His outrage now is because authority has been usurped.
Rabbitte is a great wit and an exponent of the arts of sarcasm and irony. He possibly imagines, without intending irony, that in his unfair demise he is performing a tragedy. If it is that, he is playing it out as comedy. It is lack of self-awareness. The inability to see ourselves as others do prompts all our greatest absurdity. The deepest unease is the moment when, suddenly, imperceptibly, we become unsettled: Is the crowd laughing with us, or at us?