Monday, June 9, 2014

The Tao of Wilde

I really feel bad for Oscar Wilde. I can't think of another literary giant who is so adored yet, in my opinion, so misunderstood.

I know a guy who is really into aesthetics. I remember one conversation we had when he was trying to convince me of the virtues of appearance vs. substance, where he dropped this gem: "People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." 

The problem with using this quote in this way is that it was completely out of its satirical context. If you're not a huge Wilde dork like me, the quote is uttered by Lord Henry in chapter 2 of The Picture of Dorian Gray. And if you don't know Lord Henry, well, suffice it to say he's incredibly charming and undeniably brilliant, but ultimately doesn't end up being too great an influence on Dorian. Wilde was parodying the sort of person who ultimately would drive Dorian Gray to completely ruin his life. So I don't think it's the kind of quote you'd want to slap on a picture of a sunset and spread all around Facebook. 

And this was not the only time I've heard a Wilde quote used in this way. So I feel bad for the guy. He left so many compelling words behind, and yet we seem not to know who he really is. I can't know any better really than anyone else who wasn't alive to know him (which is pretty much everyone now), but I think it's safe to wager he wasn't quite as superficial as he would have us think.

Then again, maybe he was trolling us on purpose.

I think what I find so eternally intriguing and inspiring about Wilde is that he shows evolution: a progression from unashamed materialist and unabashed lover of the superficial (even if his embrace of these things was a bit tongue-in-cheek), to a man broken enough by the world to begin to embody those truly transcendent virtues: compassion, humility, graciousness. Dazzling as his wit is, I am not a fan of Oscar because he was great with words, I'm a fan because of the largeheartedness he had and how it comes through in his writing -- alongside that generous helping of sass.

Perhaps it's because I am so inspired by his progression that it really bothers me when people get so hung up on Oscar 1.0 and parrot his earlier witticisms without a shred of irony (even though most of Wilde's truly sassy sayings were written with some irony, whenever he said them). Because really, guys, there are times when Wilde writes with such searingly beautiful heart that he might as well be Lao-tze. Example:

"...had I not a friend left in the world; were there not a single house open to me in pity; had I to accept the wallet and ragged cloak of sheer penury: as long as I am free from all resentment, hardness and scorn, I would be able to face the life with much more calm and confidence than I would were my body in purple and fine linen, and the soul within me sick with hate.

And I really shall have no difficulty. When you really want love you will find it waiting for you." (Excerpted from De Profundis.)

Right??

So next time you find yourself a nice Wilde quote, do everyone a favor and consider carefully how you use it. It's a shame to see a writer of such glasspane clarity and almost zen-like wisdom be reduced to trifley vagueness about "art" and stuff. For the more purely material content, try Jersey Shore transcripts performed in the style of Wilde -- you're welcome.