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Entries in Wilde (4)


Lady Windermere's Fan

That is the worst of women: they always want one to be good. And if we are good, when they meet us, then they don't love us at all. They like to find us quite irretrievably bad and leave us quite unattractively good.

There have been three periods of my life in which I read intensely: between the ages of four and eight, thirteen and fifteen, and twenty-one and twenty-three. What I devoured during those hungry times may surprise those who know my tastes now, although I developed an early antipathy to salty sea novels, crunchy westerns, and those bitter books about subjects like drug abuse and fractured families. For the last I have my own blissful childhood to thank; but for what I did appreciate and treasure there was little in common save an overarching sense of what I then may have called fairness, maybe justice, and what I now may term sound moral philosophy. What is sound moral philosophy ("unsound moral philosophy" has the defiant ultramodern ring of faux opposition)? In a nutshell, as well as in the nut itself, the difference between what is right and just and what a clear conscience cannot abide. And, as odd as it may seem, there is no better example of moral purity than the works of this writer of genius, as exemplified by this play.

Our characters are three mainly, a fourth partially, and a handful of hardly distinct cads and fools for whom epigrams have long replaced the normal feelings of a normal human heart. We begin with a triangle: Lady Windermere, a young mother, her husband Lord Windermere, a straight shooter perhaps ten years her senior, and her suitor, the very dashing and very preposterous Lord Darlington – his name says it all – in the same manner that any tale of budding adultery has ever begun, with the faults of one married member and the helplessness of his partner. Not much is made of Lady Windermere's child until a crucial juncture late in our work; yet her gentle comeliness cannot be overlooked by someone like Darlington, who habitually overlooks a woman's personality to scratch a recurrent itch. His approach is always truthful, if truth means doing those things whose pleasures can be quantified:

Do you know I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in the world. Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance. It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious. I take the side of the charming, and you, Lady Windermere, can't help belonging to them.

Like almost all of Wilde's heroines, Lady Windermere has an unusually acerbic tongue, but for this proclamation of wantonness she has no reply. What can be said when a station of our intellect understands morals and culpability as our downfall? Why does a stitch of truth line the little black book of every devoted debaucher? Perhaps because we are instinctively drawn to happiness, and just as instinctively to satisfaction, both of which often beget nothing more than a desire for more happiness and more satisfaction. Lady Windermere, however, has long since resigned herself to another fate. After her mother died, she was raised by a paternal aunt with the good values of Puritan etiquette: order, modesty, Godliness, family, and honor. Lord Windermere in his dull ways embodies all these characteristics, yet has enough affluence to secure them in elegant variation. And as the play opens on his wife's birthday, he gives her a fan with her name, Margaret, stenciled across, and leaves her to her thoughts and schedule. Much will occur that day, especially following the visit of the snobbish Duchess of Berwick and her daughter. But our play's name is quite significantly not The Duchess of Berwick.    

What the fan might mean and not mean should not concern us terribly. Film studies likes its McGuffins, and our fan is decidedly a McGuffin; it could just as easily have been a glove or a shawl. Although contemporary ears might detect a pun on an admirer or supporter of a famous team or person, we can rest assured that this could not possibly have been Wilde's intention. Our fan will serve a variety of McGuffinesque roles – weapon, gift, lost object – and one could argue that, apart from ventilation, its primary social function has always resembled that of a screen. But in the hands of a society lady, which for better or worse Lady Windermere has become, the fan allows its holder to concern herself only with herself. Even the wittiest of rakes will hardly slow down her wrists, because that would signify access to something no lady should ever concede. So when the Duchess mentions Lord Windermere in repeated conjunction with a fallen, somewhat older woman by the name of Ms. Erlynne, we understand our triangle is now a trapezoid. What ensues is the tedious unraveling of a plain plot, fettered only by a reader's inability to enjoy the stream of observations while awaiting the revelation – the very definition of a bad reader, but anyway. The best scene occurs when best lines often occur: among drunken, dissatisfied men in the wee hours of the morning. The succinct brilliance of these pages has few peers in literature of any form: "Whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong"; "Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality"; "Experience is the name every one gives to his mistakes"; "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing ... and a sentimentalist ... is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of a single thing"; "There's nothing in the world like the devotion of a married woman. It's a thing no married man knows anything about." No purpose attends this scene other than the promulgation of Wilde's wit, which is reason enough to sit through the most imbecilic of plots, and we need say no more.

It is hard to review a work of Wilde's without quoting him extensively, because he says it so much better than most everyone else. Surely his plays have many characters, but they all speak with the same self-assurance. Namely, that of one who knows, mostly secondhand, the wickedness of his world and yet hopes for its redemption. Why mostly secondhand? Wilde's reputation as a decadent continues to be one of the greatest lies perpetrated by literary critics, because a true decadent would not wish for anything more than more decadence. Drugs usually just make you want more drugs, be those drugs synthetic substances, fleshly pleasures, or the addictive jolt of violent actions. More happiness and more satisfaction, that is all Darlington proposes when he proposes – and men of his caliber always seem to be proposing something – and if that is all one gets from life, then one has had no life to speak of. So many of Wilde's aphorisms, original or modified from classical sources, have entered our vocabulary that we would be hard pressed to pick his finest, although I think it appears in Lady Windermere's Fan as a careless aside. You might remember it. It begins with one tragedy and ends with a second.


The Portrait of Mr. W. H.

Are most contemporary students of English literature required to discover these works?  Perhaps one hundred years ago we might have answered with a resounding yes; nowadays, however, when everyone allegedly engages in some kind of hidden cultural dialogue with everyone else (on terms to which, it should be said, the authors themselves seem not to have been privy), we can no longer be so sure.  Shakespeare has been lauded as the most liberated of authors and damned as manifesting the typical racist and sexist prejudices of his era.  And if the previous sentence thrills and enthralls you, you may want to find somewhere else to peddle your thoughts.  You may also not particularly enjoy this famous story.

Our protagonist has no name, which is just as well, since in time he will prove to be little more than a filter for the spirit and ideas of others.  The first and dominant spirit will be that, of course, of the greatest playwright in the history of mankind; the third will belong to a man called Erskine, who exists as the typical pseudo-intellectual, to wit, utterly consumed by some backwash of a theory, or in denial of hard and fast facts.  But it will be the second, a spirit which inhabited the forever young body of Cyril Graham, that is destined to capture and hold our interest.  A brief portrait, in Erskine's words, of Cyril will suffice:

Cyril .... certainly was wonderfully handsome.  People who did not like him, Philistines and college tutors, and young men reading for the Church, used to say that he was merely pretty; but there was a great deal more in his face than mere prettiness.  I think he was the most splendid creature I ever saw, and nothing could exceed the grace of his movements, the charm of his manner.  He fascinated everybody who was worth fascinating, and a great many people who were not.  He was often wilful and petulant, and I used to think him dreadfully insincere.  It was due, I think, chiefly to his inordinate desire to please.  Poor Cyril!  I told him once that he was contented with very cheap triumphs, but he only laughed.  He was horribly spoiled.  All charming people, I fancy, are spoiled.  It is the secret of their attraction.  However, I must tell you about Cyril's acting.  You know that no actresses are allowed to play at the [Amateur Dramatic Club of Cambridge University].  At least they were not in my time.  I don't know how it is now.  Well, of course Cyril was always cast for the girls' parts, and when As You Like It was produced he played Rosalind.  It was a marvellous performance.  In fact, Cyril Graham was the only perfect Rosalind I have ever seen.  It would be impossible to describe to you the beauty, the delicacy, the refinement of the whole thing.  It made an immense sensation, and the horrid little theatre, as it was then, was crowded every night.  Even when I read the play now I can't help thinking of Cyril.  It might have been written for him.

If you know a little something about Wilde's biography, this passage, published in 1889, will seem to precurse what the world at large might have long suspected.  But there is, naturally, no need to know anything about Wilde or Shakespeare to enjoy one genius's love affair with the other.  More vital is the understanding that Cyril Graham, who martyrs himself early on, is speaking and thinking only of himself.  Graham gazes upon the sonnets and sees merely a reflection of his own beauty; yet, like in all daydreams, he augments what God has already granted with what God should not have overlooked.  He makes Cyril Graham, who appears womanly enough to pass for many a Shakespearean heroine, into William "Willie" Hughes, who, as opposed to Cyril, can actually do what thespians are called upon to do night after night.

Who is Willie Hughes?  You may read this novel by another Irishman and be presented one opinion, but a long story can be made very short by clarifying that our titular initials appear to belong to the person to whom the sonnets are dedicated.  This unexplained mystery has launched far too many – too many being more than zero – investigations by otherwise respectable literary scholars, utterly unrespectable hacks, and purported dilettantes on the identity behind the dedication, as if the whole matter should have any bearing whatsoever on the quality of the work in question.  For his part, Graham believes that W.H. is an English boy actor by the name of William Hughes, likewise entrenched in Shakespeare's female roles; no proof is offered from any cast list, only textual homophonic clues from the sonnets (hew and hue, and so forth).  His theory, which has never been seriously pondered by Shakespeare's biographers who seem more focused on the "dark lady" and other such nonsense, is fleshed out in almost preposterous details, and slowly but surely our narrator becomes an acolyte of Cyril Graham's vision.  Yet at length these details do not convince Erskine, who initially was just as rabid a Grahamite.  "It is," he tells our horrified narrator, "a perfectly unsound theory from beginning to end."  The two men agree that they will not be unanimous and part in some acrimony, at which point our narrator reflects upon what has come between them, namely great and eternal art:

There was a strange silence for a few moments.  Then Erskine got up, and looking at me with half-closed eyes, said, 'Ah! how you remind me of Cyril!' .... He tried to smile, but there was a note of poignant pathos in his voice that I remember to the present day, as one remembers the tone of a particular violin that has charmed one, the touch of a particular woman's hand.  The great events of life often leave one unmoved; they pass out of consciousness, and, when one thinks of them, become unreal.  Even the scarlet flowers of passion seem to grow in the same meadow as the poppies of oblivion.  We regret the burden of their memory, and have anodynes against them.  But the little things, the things of no moment, remain with us.  In some tiny ivory cell the brain stores the most delicate, and the most fleeting impressions.

Whether it is noteworthy that the above passage has been excised from many editions of Wilde's narrative we will leave to the literary investigators to determine.  And there is also that nugatory matter about the eponymous portrait, but we have already said enough as it is.

If you know a little more about our story's author, you might not be surprised that a year after composing The Portrait of Mr. W.H., he published his only novel-length work, which just happened to be about the unforgettable power of an unforgettable painting.  It may be of equal non-coincidence that Wilde would become world famous thanks to his stage writings, not his poetry, a logical outcome if one considers the universal acclaim allotted to his improvised wit.  But Wilde was one of the most Romantic of writers, one so in love with literature and the spine-tingling bliss (unmatched by few earthly sensations) it induces as to neglect so many other aspects of our existence.  Which reminds us of that old, late-nineteenth century saying about life's two tragedies.


The Importance of Being Earnest

One of the tritest sayings in currency among literary frauds is "I am often asked," such as, "I am often asked why I read Oscar Wilde" – a phrase that Wilde himself would have skewered with some reference to the speaker's hopeless obtuseness outweighing his excellent taste.  There is only one reason to read Wilde, and it is the same reason that one might eat a delicious, delicate tart: both are made to be devoured and savored.  His works' structure have little originality (indeed, their plots are almost boilerplate farce), almost no emotional depth, and all the characters seem to chant in one brilliant, whimsical chorus that eerily channels the voice of their creator.  Yes, he sensed the differences between Victorian men and women with startling accuracy; but his primary contribution to literature is his understanding of how a group of people can agree to a myth – the myth of a family fortune, of a long-tempered love, of England as a society of manners and leisure – and on that basis let generations be nourished.  In that way, Wilde is the most Romantic of all writers because his characters are, to a man, so blind as to stumble upon truth after truth.  There is no real upper class in England, only a bunch of rich, lazy, entitled fools; there is no class struggle in England, because class struggles are for people incapable of being accepted into society; there is no England in the idealized sense of the word because England is composed merely of a long and magnificent series of traditions that gave the world one of its most majestic libraries and one of its stiffest upper lips.  What remains are wit, passion, and optimism, even if guised in the cynical snipes so commonly incident to a great mind who finds daily existence cruel and dull.  Which brings us to one of the most famous of English plays.

Our love trapezoid will become a hexagon by the end, but our primary male protagonists are two: Algernon Moncrieff, a good-for-nothing charmer in his late twenties, and the slightly older Jack Worthing, for all intents and purposes the straight man in their stand-up routine.  Algernon has money, looks, and education, and consecrates almost his entire existence to pondering why others are not as lucky as he.  Jack, at least, has an aim: he has focused his attention on Algernon's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax, whom he adores but who knows him as Ernest Worthing.  Why Ernest?  We get the first of many answers:

We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals.  The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has now reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest.  There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.  The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.  The name, fortunately for my peace of mind, is, as far as my own experience goes, extremely rare.

This extremely rare experience will be doubled when Cecily Cardew, Jack's comely eighteen-year-old ward, professes the same interest in Jack's brother Ernest – who we already know has never quite existed.  It goes almost without saying that Algernon has heard as much about Cecily as Cecily has about Ernest, so their meeting is a pleasant confirmation of mutual suspicions.  This would be enough for a plain romance, but for comedy we need ridiculous obstacles, and these come in the form of Gwendolen's mother Lady Bracknell, a reverend by the name of Chasuble, a governess by the name of Prism, and Algernon's imaginary valetudinarian chum, Bunbury. 

The rest of our plot will involved an Ernest or two, an outstanding dinner bill, some wooing and cooing, and more than a few of the most scintillating ripostes ever seen or heard on the English stage.  The Importance of Being Earnest is widely considered Wilde's finest dramatic work, although it contains as much drama as a toilet flush and only slightly more workmanship.  Its genius resides in the voices, which have separate agendas by defaulting to the necessities of the plot, but which rattle and hum as the soundtrack to a single vision.  Wilde believed that we had the ability to spend hours speaking about trivialities and yet, through their observation and broader reflection, outline a remarkably precise philosophy of humankind.  Such nonchalance yields some of the finest adages we have all come to know: "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That is what Fiction means"; "Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us"; "The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to some one else, if she is plain"; "All women become like their mothers.  That is their tragedy.  No man does.  That is his"; "If I am a little overdressed, I make up for it by being always immensely overeducated"; "Good memories are not a quality that women admire much in men"; "Dr. Chasuble is a most learned man.  He has never written a single book, so you can imagine how much he knows."  There is snobbery, sloth, affectation, hypocrisy, deceit, impetuousness, and unadulterated, barefaced lying – in short, the normal menu for any tale about the aristocracy.  There is also an underlying sense for the vigor and juice of life that was frowned upon in Wilde's day and is perhaps overemphasized in ours:

It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time.  The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity.  But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.

Are we really supposed to live for the moment?  Is our favorite lover, to paraphrase a famous sportsman, always our next one?  We may ruminate on such matters, but we are better off simply enjoying the show, and in terms of wit and smoothness, the show is rather spectacular.  And then there's that perambulator in Victoria Station.


Pen, Pencil, and Poison

Since his death on the doorstep of a new century, this famous author's work has been denigrated and endorsed by various critics and yet retained the inviolable mark of greatness: no reader has shown himself indifferent.  How could anyone ultimately be indifferent to Oscar Wilde?  More than the other dismissive dandies of his or any age, Wilde was a supreme moralist.  That is to say, while he spared no one his thorns, he knew where to embed them if given the choice.  Morality was not something to mock in the day's spare hours but a mist that coated our every thought and action, an echo of our meanings, a prism of our treatment of others and ourselves.  While his most famous prose work is often construed as an ode to decadence, it is precisely the opposite: a protracted allegory on the shades of the soul.   Which is why we should view this essay with some healthy skepticism.

Our subject is undoubtedly a villain, if one of whom you likely know very little.  His poems are hardly read, much less studied; his drawings have garnered the interest of those who peddle morbid collectables; and even his reputation for evil has diminished.  How could a man of artistic ability and temperament consign himself to oblivion by murdering two family members and an old chum?  Wilde offers the rather reprehensible explanation that similar fates have befallen Roman emperors whose crimes have become the stuff of cocktail parties and other frivolous banter  reprehensible because it suggests that we slacken our morals as memory slackens its hold.  A survey of Wainewright's pursuits will give us an excellent idea of our subject's disposition:

This young dandy sought to be somebody, rather than to do something.  He recognised that Life itself is an art, and has its modes of style no less than the arts that seek to express it ... His essays are prefiguring of much that has since been realised.  He seems to have anticipated some of those accidents of modern culture that are regarded by many as true essentials.  He writes about La Gioconda, and early French poets and the Italian Renaissance.  He loves Greek gems, and Persian carpets, and Elizabethan translations of Cupid and Psyche and the Hypnerotomachia book-bindings, and early editions, and wide-margined proofs. He is keenly sensitive to the value of beautiful surroundings, and never wearies of describing to us the rooms in which he lived or would have liked to live. He had that curious love of green, which in individuals is always the sign of a subtle artistic temperament, and in nations is said to denote a laxity, if not a decadence of morals. Like Baudelaire he was extremely fond of cats, and with Gautier he was fascinated by that "sweet marble monster" of both sexes that we can still see at Florence and in the Louvre.

From such a portrait we may draw several conclusions, even if they are all blurry sketches.  Our man is first and foremost in love with his taste, and then secondly in love with himself  both of which compose the halves of his genius.  To be a genius, an Argentine novelist once claimed, you have to think you're a genius and be right.  And while we harbor serious reservations as to the genius of many contemporary writers who spend years composing works of dubious character and authenticity, with Wainewright no such hesitation arises.  He is thoroughly convinced of his powers to create and destroy, the magic to which every author feels himself entitled.  But, as we know, he takes things a step or three too far.

Why does Wainewright even merit mention?  Whom does the recapitulation of a murderer's habits befit?  With our contemporary fascination for real crime, this poet-poisoner would have gained a considerable portion of the limelight, but he would have faded much more rapidly than one would expect for two inevitable reasons.  Firstly, one may forget an above-average murderer, but a blessing indeed would be to remember an above-average poet; secondly, a murderer's fame rests either on the identity of his victims, their quantity, or the methods with which he dispatched them to extinction.  His methods were plain and bitter; his victims were relatively few for our gory times, only a triptych; and his victims were the most nameless of enemies, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law, and then a long-time family friend.  None of this will make our subject into more than he was in real life, a petty demon with a taste for green, and the excerpts of Wainewright's own works resemble abstract heraldry, motley and cruel.  But Wilde insists on promoting one strand of this fiend's accomplishments:

Modern journalism may be said to owe almost as much to him as to any man of the early part of this century.  He was the pioneer of Asiatic prose, and delighted in pictorial epithets and pompous exaggerations.  To have a style so gorgeous that it conceals the subject is one of the highest achievements of an important and much admired school of Fleet Street leader-writers, and this school Janus Weathercock may be said to have invented.  He also saw that it was quite easy by continued reiteration to make the public interested in his own personality, and in his purely journalistic articles this extraordinary young man tells the world what he had for dinner, where he gets his clothes, what wines he likes, and in what state of health he is, just as if he were writing weekly notes for some popular newspaper of our own time. This being the least valuable side of his work, is the one that has had the most obvious influence.  A publicist, nowadays, is a man who bores the community with the details of the illegalities of his private life.

You may have never heard of the term "Asiatic prose" (the formulation of this man of letters), but it is akin to what in some circles is now termed "ornamental prose."  And Wainewright, to be described thus, seems to have been one of the first ancestors of many members of our social networking and blogging communities who are so eager to impart the minutest details of their lives to strangers in exchange for some fleeting attention. 

What is even more remarkable is the date of this essay's composition, 1889, six years or so before Wilde's detractors got the better of him and ended his hope if not his physical existence.  How odd to see a young man whom one could not but admire for his ingenuity, wit, and insight into morality construct the most decadent texts, chant the most rebellious slogans, and all the while conceal longings for things that Victorian society deemed ill and outlandish.  The "illegalities" of Wilde's "private life" caught up to him just as he was willing to explain everything to everyone and in so doing, cease to be the mysterious figure known as Oscar Wilde.  That could never do.  And if his favorite poisoner had still been around, he might have even asked him for a favor.