Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wilde Thoughts















I've retreated to "the library," three walls of books, one of which (books) I pulled down: The Importance of Being A Wit: The Insults of Oscar Wilde, edited by Maria Leach and published in Oxford in 1997.

From p. 54 and, originally, The American Invasion:

"The cities of America are inexpressibly tedious. The Bostonians take their learning too sadly; culture with them is an accomplishment rather than an atmosphere, their 'Hub' as they call it, is the paradise of prigs. Chicago is a sort of monster-shop, full of bustle and bores. Political life at Washington is like political life in a suburban vestry."

Take that, America! Although Wilde claimed the cities of America are inexpressibly tedious, he seems to have expressed the tediousness well enough. I think there's still a sense in which Americans learn sadly, or think they should learn sadly, especially at colleges that position themselves as "traditional" in one sense or another. Of course, there are some colleges where learning seems to be taken not at all, so I guess things could be worse. . . . I do imagine that Wilde might have a better time in Chicago nowadays. It must have been a pretty rough "town" back then, certainly not up to his refined expectations. (Ironically, the great iconoclast comes across as a bit of a snob in this quotation.)

From p. 150 and, originally, The Critic As Artist: "Ah! It is so easy to convert others. It is so difficult to convert oneself." That's a wise one.

From p. 48 and, originally, A Woman of No Importance: "The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years." Still true, yes? Americans, the eternal teenagers.

From p. 49 and, originally, An Ideal Husband: "If one could only teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen, society here would be quite civilised." I think he meant the English need to be more interesting and the Irish less self-consumed, but I'm not sure. Of course, almost all Americans still equate "talking well" (whatever that may mean) with the English and "the gift of gab" (whatever tha may mean) with the Irish. So from this side of the Atlantic, it's call good, Oscar.

And from 106, originally The Decay of Lying: "Lying and poetry are arts--arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other--and they require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion." Indeed, poets and fiction-writers sometimes forget to "lie," to change "what really happened. " Poetry isn't journalism--or autobiography, although Wordsworth really tried to make it the latter, when he wasn't trying to make it philosophy. Both philosophers and poets like to play with words, however. I think that's why Plato was so suspicious of poetry and why the early Wittgenstein was so suspicious of philosophy, why he tried to reduce it to wordless math. Auden, a most philosophical poet (at times), liked "to play with words," his chief definition of poetry.

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Wasn't Stephen Fry superb in the "biopic" about Oscar Wilde? Great casting, but also a great performance. We've been watching him and Hugh Laurie (who is now "House") in the old Jeeves and Wooster BBC show. "Just as you say, sir."

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