Thursday, 16 October 2014

“Whoever has seen deeply into the world has doubtless divined what wisdom there is in the fact that men are superficial." On Oscar Wilde

16 October 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin.

“Whoever has seen deeply into the world has doubtless divined what wisdom there is in the fact that men are superficial. It is their preservative instinct which teaches them to be flighty, lightsome, and false. Here and there one finds a passionate and exaggerated adoration of "pure forms" in philosophers as well as in artists: it is not to be doubted that whoever has NEED of the cult of the superficial to that extent, has at one time or another made an unlucky dive BENEATH it. Perhaps there is even an order of rank with respect to those burnt children, the born artists who find the enjoyment of life only in trying to FALSIFY its image (as if taking wearisome revenge on it).“ (Friedrich Nietzsche “Beyond Good and Evil”)

One of the iconic portraits shot by the American photographer 
Napoleon Sarony (1821 – 1896)
showing Oscar Wilde wearing his favourite coat in New York, 1882


Being a true-blue dandy in the rather metaphysical tradition after Charles Baudelaire requires an immense amount of self-discipline, far beyond the demands of immaculate dress and grooming, effort enough as that alone may be. Elevating aestheticism to a religion usually implicates a continuous flirt with disaster and a bit of a passion for self-destruction. A dandy is supposed to be far too aloof, though, for algolagnia or Todessehnsucht, a full-fledged death wish. Oscar Wilde, for a while the epitome of a dandy during the days of the fin de siècle, had all the required qualities, attitudes and skills along with the necessary audience that adored his witty aperçus and paradoxa, however, as his comrade-in-aesthetic-disposition, the Austrian author Hugo von Hofmannsthal once remarked, Wilde’s bon mots were actually not meant to be whispered into the ears of beautiful aristos but into those of the sphinx called reality, the one he ridiculed without ceasing in his hubris, knowing full well that she would wreak vengeance on him some fine day. And she did. Sophomoric to the core, unable to control his hubris, Hofmannsthal compares him to Oedipus, heading seeing-blind for disaster, and Wilde, far beyond from suffering of the dandy’s mal du siècle, ennui, melancholy, accordingly called himself Sebastian Melmoth in his last two years in Parisian exile, after the restless creature his uncle Charles Maturin had created, a wanderer who tries in vain to sell his pact with the devil to poor souls who seem even more wretched than he is. A truly Gothic character, but certainly not a dandy, a being á la Byron and not Henry Wotton.



Oscar Wilde reclining with Poems, by Napoleon Sarony in New York in 1882


In 1947, when the catastrophe of 20th century that overshadowed, by and large, every individual tragedy was temporarily brought to an end, Thomas Mann moved Wilde near Nietzsche and compares the dandy’s lunges against Victorian morals with the outpourings of the “patron saint of immorality” and put it in the context of the revaluation of all values at the dawn of modernity. And while the cup of hemlock reconciled Nietzsche with Socrates, so Thomas Mann, “the more or less deliberate martyrdom of his life’s end, Reading Gaol, Wilde’s dandyism takes on a tinge of sanctity which would have aroused all Nietzsche’s sympathy”. Whatever Wilde became a martyr for beyond the failure of the individual, especially the one with an inflated ego, against society, remains open to debate, though, Victorian morals certainly were to vague a subject for his self-centred creation of his own self as his own greatest work of art. The wisdom of old age a senescent dandy might acquire when world-weariness loses its appeal and poses become meaningless along with the wonderful ability to laugh at oneself remained closed to one of the greatest wits world literature had brought forth.


And more about Oscar Wilde on: