The Importance of
By Gabriel Blanchard
A tagline at the head of an essay is like saying "Thank you" for an unwanted gift: idiotic, and yet indispensable.
The nineteenth century saw the rise of a multitude of new movements and ideas. The arts were no exception, particularly with the rise of a school of thought called Æstheticism. It is from the Æsthetes that we get the saying we see on the MGM logo, ars gratia artis or “art for art’s sake.” We think little of it now, but at the time, it was a quarrelsome and even rebellious slogan.
The arts were generally held to have a moral and didactic function in nineteenth-century society—an attitude that appears in most societies, and sometimes becomes the prevailing view, as it did in the Victorian era. Art for art’s sake was an assertion that art did not exist to serve the purpose of edifying the public, any more than that of making money; it was an independent thing, in which morals and manners had no authority. This too is a recurring attitude; if they attend to it at all, artists tend to mock the “moral-utilitarian” view of art. Some do it lightly, like Lewis Carroll: the didactic poem “How Doth the Little Busy Bee” became the far more amusing and less forgettable “How Doth the Little Crocodile.” Others are subversive, like Henrik Ibsen, who accepted the moral “use” of art and then audaciously depicted the hypocrisy of the moralists. Others still flaunt their nonconformity, as the poet Charles Baudelaire did in his premier collection Les Fleurs du Mal (“The Flowers of Evil”), a work which so shocked contemporary sensibilities in France that it prompted charges of outraging public decency. Irony, subversion, defiance—in Oscar Wilde, we find all three.
Wilde was born in Dublin. A member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, he was raised in the Church of England, though he flirted persistently with Roman Catholicism. He studied Classics at Magdalen* College, Oxford (where C. S. Lewis would matriculate decades later), and began to develop the flamboyant style for which he became famous. His gift for witty epigrams made him a coveted guest at fashionable parties, and it stood him in good stead as he began to write essays, stories, poems, and plays. Like many writers, he has been saddled with quotes that are not his—rather in the spirit of the text To him that hath shall be given, since he has so many excellent bons mots of his own. Sometimes they are little more than brilliant insults, but at times they reach true profundity. “He writes fiction as if it were a painful duty”; “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”; “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily—that is what Fiction means”; “The supreme vice is shallowness”; and of course, “Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of ladies of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.”
One of his most famous stories (though not particularly well-received in its time) is The Picture of Dorian Gray, which we might classify as a modern fairy tale. The title character is a young man of great beauty, and a friend paints his portrait. Not long thereafter, Gray adopts a hedonistic worldview, and wishes he could sell his soul to cause his own youth and beauty to remain changeless while the portrait ages and decays; the wish is granted. He begins increasingly to experiment with dark and extreme pleasures, and only the portrait is visually affected, becoming unrecognizably corrupt. Gray reaches the depths of hypocrisy, treachery, and murder, before … But that would be telling.
Whatever else is true of Wilde, he certainly loved the sound of his own voice. His work itself is accordingly uneven. In forms like essays, prose fiction, or poetry that are designed for the monologue, he does well; in his dramas, the characters generally sound a little too uniformly like their author: they depend more heavily on the acting, directing, and costuming to lend them individuality. However, in the hands of talented performers, they can attain an atmosphere of glittering artifice, like a perfect miniature model of the Eiffel Tower made of rock candy.
Several of Wilde’s plays are still performed to this day, and none is more popular than The Importance of Being Earnest (which received an excellent film adaptation in 2002). The title is a pun: the lead character goes by the name Earnest Worthing when in London, and, partly thanks to her liking for the name, he has won the affection of a Miss Gwendolyn Fairfax, whom he wishes to marry, if he can only win the approval of her formidable aristocratic mother, Lady Augusta Bracknell. However, Earnest has a secret: his real first name is John.** For years now, whenever he wants to leave his country estate and its duties for the glamor of the city, he has been telling his household that he has to deal with his irresponsible brother, Earnest—and of course no such brother exists. He pours out his heart to his close friend Algernon Moncrieffe, Gwendolyn’s cousin, who, armed with the knowledge of the double deceit, then arrives unannounced at his friend’s estate pretending to be the irresponsible Earnest Worthing. All the characters tangle with each other through careless witticisms and the preposterous yet steel-clad strictures of Victorian etiquette, trying to get to the bottom of things and obtain the loves they prize.
The Importance of Being Earnest served as both the zenith and the irrevocable turning point of Wilde’s career. While this play full of falsified identities and charming paradoxes was still being performed in London, Wilde sued a noble for libeling him. The suit was unsuccessful because the “libel” was, quite simply, true. Wilde himself was promptly tried for offenses against public decency, a trial in which The Picture of Dorian Gray came back to haunt him as ostensible evidence of his corrupt character (the story’s orthodox and indeed painfully obvious moral notwithstanding). He was sentenced to the maximum penalty of two years in prison. While there, he composed one of his most famous poems, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,”† on seeing a fellow prisoner taken away to be hanged.
He also wrote a long letter to a former lover while imprisoned, castigating them both for their faults and follies. Published after his death, it received the title De Profundis (“Out of the Depths,”) the Latin name for Psalm 130. It took a long, sober look at his career as an Æsthete, re-evaluating many of his previous attitudes; it is still peppered with epigrams, but they are anything but frivolous: “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground.” In the second half, Wilde’s thoughts turn to Jesus, whom he characterizes as a supreme artist, and he reframes his own hunger for pleasure as something that should more properly have been a hunger for experience, painful as well as pleasant.
Wilde was released in 1897; he quickly departed for France, leaving his wife and two sons behind, and never returned to the British Isles. He edited and published the scripts for a couple of his plays, but wrote nothing more; in 1900, sick with meningitis, he became a Catholic, and died at forty-six years of age.
*Taken from St. Mary Magdalen, the name of this college (and its sister institution at Cambridge) is pronounced maudlin.
**Actually he has two secrets, but I shall leave the other for audiences to discover by reading or seeing Earnest for themselves.
† Reading here is pronounced redding; gaol is an archaic spelling of the word “jail.”
Gabriel Blanchard is not really named Earnest Worthing either, and is CLT’s editor-at-large; he has no brothers (irresponsible or otherwise), but is an uncle of seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore.
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Published on 7th November, 2022. Page image of a textual illustration from Wilde’s Salome (1891), drawn by Aubrey Beardsley.