Friday, July 1, 2011

Character Sketch: Elliot Hilliard

He was every bit as pretentious as his name sounded.  Elliot Hilliard.  Elliot Wordsworth Hilliard.  He spoke with a slight lisp and an affected British accent, even though he was from Boise, Idaho, and had never left the country.

He was a hipster, a “space cowboy,” a plaid-flannel-and-aviator-sunglasses-wearing man of the modern world.  He thought himself cosmopolitan because he could name the Presidents of Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua, as well as the chief opposition to each in their upcoming elections, but did not find it at all ironic that he could not do the same for Canada.  He would have explained that his bachelor’s degree in political philosophy culminated in a thesis on modern Central America, as if that specialized knowledge excused his ignorance regarding the rest of the world.

Moreover, Elliot didn’t speak a word of Spanish.  That is, he knew the basic vocabulary that any resident of the American Southwest picked up just from channel surfing and going to the grocery store, but he had never put any particular effort into understanding the language (a fact which irked his professors very much).  Instead he had taken Latin in high school, and French in college, and while those languages gave him enough working knowledge to translate - badly - the speeches and Mexican news articles that made up his background research for his thesis, they did nothing to teach him the intonation, the conversation, and the music of Spanish ("The Romance languages are called that because of the Romans, not because they are lovely," he would say).

Not that Elliot cared for such things.  His interest in language was more... imperialist.  He was a conqueror of the word, a wielder of its power, not an admirer of its beauty.  He valued persuasion and rhetoric, and his love of poetry had more to do with its effect on other people than its affect on himself.  That’s not to say he was emotionless, unmovable, uninspired.  No, Elliot was simply thickheaded, a man smart and cunning enough to understand the machinations of the political and social world, but far too practical to see either the spiritual value of human interaction or the satisfaction of self-knowledge.

The result was a man very much in the world, with a great many acquaintances, but few friends or enemies.  Most people regarded him as an Italian prince might regard a wealthy merchant carrying a copy of Machiavelli - respectful of his intellect, suspicious of his potential power, and wary of his lack of empathy.  That Elliot himself was totally oblivious to the reaction he elicited in others reinforced and perpetuated that reaction: his lack of self-awareness came across as a meticulous, calculated indifference.

Even so, Elliot believed he had a great many friends.  As he had never known meaningful friendship or true conversation, he took his superficial interactions for profound ones, his philosophical rambling for a heart-to-heart.  Elliot was not, then, unhappy.  Quite the opposite.  Among those who knew him best, his cheerfulness was one of his most troublesome qualities, betraying a disturbing lack of empathy.  No wonder so many of his acquaintances - and even his own family - continuously urged him to go into politics.  No wonder, either, that Elliot would say that he didn’t have the heartlessness and cynicism for it, that he was too much the “common man,” with simple needs and simple desires.

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