Oscar Wilde in the 21st Century. What would he say?

What would you say?

The Oscar Wilde Society recently held a competition for members to come up with aphorisms and epithets that a 21st century Oscar Wilde might have said. One of my submissions made the short list of 20 out of 300 submissions. 

Since then I have come up with a few more. But can you guess which one made it to the list? Answers on a bee’s wing please. Enjoy!

Restraint of speech and imagination enslave ideas to the bondage of the masses.

Being told what to think, is the greatest luxury of 21st century life.

To explain my absence I tell my friends I am having issues.

The art of the influencer is not the same as the influence of art.

That subjects and topics could have ownership is fundamentally undemocratic.

Restrain imagination and all progress will cease.

Self-obsession, the 21st century’s favourite disease.

Health and fitness are vastly overrated.

Beauty and deception are natural partners.

In the digital age, opportunity and responsibility have become irreconcilable.

Morbidities are ambitions for the unrestrained appetite.

A convenient alternative to an alert intelligence is to be woke.

To label one’s sexuality is to confine it.

An agile mind may lurk behind a lardy physique.

Sex and labels are both so exciting, but not necessarily in the expected ways.

Diet at your peril.

Social media is neither social nor mediating.

Trump and Johnson are delightful entertainers. They take satire to a whole new level. 

Being fat is one of life’s great joys and its greatest sorrow.

Climate change is the planet’s way of telling us we’ve gone too far.

Having issues is a mysterious way to admit that there’s a problem. And problems are so much easier to address than issues.

What does should of mean? I should’ve asked before.

Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis (not a review in the end) – if you want to know more about Oscar Wilde go here:

https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk

Dear Oscar,

My hero.

I am writing to tell you about the latest big fat biography of yourself, you, Oscar Wilde. You’ve probably already read Oscar: a Life by Matthew Sturgis, but if not do. It’s a vast catalogue of your life, a huge collection of facts all gathered together in a single volume and narrated with lively enthusiasm by historian Matthew Sturgis. Even for people not inclined to read or to learn more about your sainted self, it’s an easy page turner. Like you, the book is an astonishing achievement, exhaustive, charming and compelling, and only minorly flawed by the publisher’s sloppy production.

The book tracks the timeline of your life with immense detail. Your upbringing in Ireland and time at Portora School are carefully documented, along with masses of skinny on your relatives, family, friends and contemporaries. Your brilliance and sometime (fleeting) sportiness are shared, as are the details of your move to Trinity College Dublin and thence to Oxford. It was at Oxford that your identity as an artist started taking tangible shape, along with your previously under-developed abilities to command attention, involvement and direction. You’re soon drawn to London and its fashionable society, a larger and more demanding stage where you continued to thrive rising slowly through the soup. But you had no readily accessible means of earning a decent living, despite winning the Newdigate Prize for Ravenna in 1878 and publishing Poems in 1881. Transition was needed from poet, to performer, author and playwright, and was soon in motion.

The brilliant idea of an American tour was almost a disaster following your first performance in New York City in 1882. D’Oyly Carte had wisely hedged his gamble with only a single booking for the preening society aesthete with unproven oratory skills. Subsequent tentative dates were only to be confirmed following responses to the initial outing. Despite a rough start, the lecture and the jokes worked out and you grew over the coming months into a polished and popular performer.

It was clear from the outset that Oscar Wilde’s outwardly shifting persona would respond to the demands of audience as it did throughout the 1882 US tour. But persona and audience morphed in tandem throughout your life. Aspiration and vanity, victories and collapses, your evolving sexuality from heterosexual, bisexual to homosexual, shaped your identity and presentation. A pattern in others’ of cautious or bold risk-taking, mirrored your own mercurialism. It traces across your life: diminished risk to publish or stage your work as your reputation grew; increased risk to commercial ventures of your notoriety and attendant outrageousness. No rules. 

Mr Sturgis presents a clear picture of your obvious brilliance and magic, and also of your vulnerability to flattery and beauty. No surprises there. And throughout his work Mr Sturgis energetically corrects errors in literary critic Richard Ellman’s definitive biography, published after Ellman’s death in 1987. But the huge numbers of typographic errors publisher Head of Zeus has allowed in Oscar: a Life rather undermines one’s confidence in these corrections. I am sure someone has already pointed them out, but throughout the text’s 720 pages there is barely a chapter without mistakes: your funeral was on the 3rd December, not the 3rd November. Is it Salomé or Salome? And shouldn’t pronouns and verbs agree? 

We learn that intellect untamed searches always for innovative ideas, insights and perspectives no matter how grungy their habitats or philosophy (remember the Decadents?). Pushing the ideas of others to their limits, challenging social convention and expectations whether in poems or fashion or home décor began with you, you, Oscar Wilde. And it’s what all of us now aspire to. Aesthetic traditions, their particularities, expression, are conversely universal and unique, for individuals are simultaneously ordinary and exceptional. Whatever the green eyed James Whistler charges, your aesthetic persona and expression are more than a reworking of someone else’s philosophy. Thankfully this comes through in Oscar a Life.

It’s also clear that your genius morphs with your humanity, kindness and individualism subverted, or glittered, with vanity and ego. The emergence of the Oscar Wilde persona began early, grew as your genius became apparent, was amplified by fame and then started to distort. But never, ever did your brilliance, underlying decency and generosity of spirit diminish. Throughout the public scenes, trials and imprisonment, consideration for others was always there. It too often got lost in the torrent of passion for Bosie and his evil influence and subculture corruption. Denial and shame made you spiteful sometimes, as guilt and embarrassment periodically trumped kindness. This was particularly and horribly evident in your dealings Constance and others whom you should have trusted more. But you know this.

Knowledge, carnal or otherwise, was always your fuel but sadly wisdom too often lingered a little too long, as it does for most of us. Our shared frailty is why people still read and enjoy your work, why love for Oscar Wilde is spread so far and wide. You are not forgotten and your influence persists, variously cloaked in notoriety and hero worship. It’s acknowledged by those who know you. It’s obviously unacknowledged by those who are unknowingly beholden to you, but they are many.

You show us the origins of much that distresses modern life: performance and identity, the need for audience and attention, the desire to be heard and taken seriously, understanding what it is to be as one and as one of many. The paradoxes in which you so delight are clear in both biographies. Truth and lies, male and female, brutality and gentleness, hypocrisy and faith, the secptic and the trusting, mirrors all. But the paradoxes are clearest in your works. They veil our ugliest traits, our vanities and deceits, ignorance and denials. In the darkly radical The Picture of Dorian Grey and the evanescent humour of The Importance of Being Earnest our own hypocrisies are played out.

You were not self-destructive (too vain for that), but rather caught in a vortex of events, shocked and horrified at your own reversal, that your gainsayers really did mean it. That this time there was no chance of rebounding. You knew disaster was coming but instead stood fast, brave, and faced it. It was a matter of honour and truth, of the artistry of life in black and white and of your own integrity in the dock. You stood on a stage of your own construction and were not cowed when enemies tried to dismantle it. Not then, not now.

Ever yours,

– A Woman of Even Less Importance.

PS “…No longer now shall Slander’s venomed spite 
Crawl like a snake across his perfect name, 
Or mar the lordly scutcheon of his fame. …”

Discontent leads to progress

“Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.” (Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance (1893
― Oscar Wilde https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk/

Without discontent there can be no progress, which is probably how I have ended up here, doing this, writing blogs about writing and fiction. Not that life’s been an endless series of gloomy torments, because it hasn’t. But discontent is a powerful driver borne of dissatisfaction and suffering. I did all my suffering a very, very long time ago. Ever since, I’ve struggled to keep it in a strongbox, chained, padlocked, buried in some dark and chilly recess. Mostly that is where it stays, ice cold, frigid. Occasionally I unlock the padlock, loosen the chains, lift the lid and stare into blackness that only gets lighter, if I have the courage to keep staring for long enough. This was never often, but it’s getting more frequent and slowly the blackness recedes.

So it is with all of us, although too soon we slam down the lid, grab at the chains with wet, tearstained hands, and clasp tight to shut the padlock once again. This is a bad idea, because the next time you open the box the blackness is deeper and denser. Next time, if you let it the blackness starts creeping out of the box, stealing its evil way into your head and heart. When this happens, brutal exercise can help but only if followed by a long and lazy bath, preferably with someone you love. And if this doesn’t work, the box must once again be opened. This time make a diamond of your head and heart, take hold and scream as loudly as possible the names of all those terrible demons who want to own you. The diamond head will add the necessary light and the diamond heart won’t be broken again. Where were we?

Ah yes, discontent and progress. Discontent that leads to progress is something other than the agonies of our personal black worlds. This wider discontent is borne of anger and frustration, of an awareness of universal frailty and vulnerability, frustration with the lazy belief that individuals can make no difference, that we are all sad and passive players in some abstract horror story. The list of reasons to be discontented is long, from climate change and the environment, to the suffering of so many displaced and untethered people in so many contexts.

So what’s to be done? Nothing much in truth. It’s as it ever was. But each of us can still take tiny steps, no matter how miniscule they are towards a more positive world. Far better than bleating about whatever and moaning and looking for scapegoats, people or histories to blame. Far better than wallowing in our own wonderfulness or victimhood. Put it behind you and accept that the why of the what isn’t always the point: mostly the why is beyond us or our capacity for understanding the what.

Yes something can be done to make a difference. Engage, recognise and own your own truths with harsh honesty. Have compassion for those willing to listen to you and do not judge. Be more than your audience. Embrace as wide a view of the world as you can manage, and do it with patience and kindness, with sympathy and empathy in every part of your day. Without complaint, without blame, without recriminations, harness discontent so that it really does lead to progress no matter how small the step.