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Saturday, September 24, 2005

The importance of being Vivian

In 1889, Oscar Wilde published the Decay of Lying, a dialogue between Cyril and Vivian. Cyril is given the earnest lines, like the cutout in a Socratic dialogue, and Vivian is given the witty and visionary ones. The theme of the dialogue attaches, at points, to the very old theme of mimesis in art. Is an art to be judged on how well it copies reality? And what would it mean for a fiction to copy reality? Vivian explores the problems of mimesis from an angle taken from everyday life: the lie. The lie, after all, is a lie insofar as it doesn’t copy reality. However, it works as a lie insofar as it seems to copy reality. Thus, in the successful lie there must reside some special genius, and for that genius to work, we must look at another standard than that of truth or falsity. We must shift to the field defined by intensity:

“One of the chief causes that can be assigned for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure. The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modem novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.”

There is one modern novelist whose dull facts particularly get under Vivian’s skin: Zola. At first glance, one would have thought that Zola would be on Vivian’s side, or at least on Wilde’s side. Zola was, after all, a scandal and a stumbling block to Victorian proprieties. Since Wilde aspired to be a scandal himself, one looks for some solidarity. Instead, Vivian remarks:

“M. Zola, true to the lofty principle that he lays down in one of his pronunciamientos on literature, "L'homme de genie n'a jamais d'esprit," is determined to show that, if he has
not got genius, he can at least be dull. And how well he succeeds! He is not without power. Indeed at times, as in Germinal, there is something almost epic in his work. But his work is entirely wrong from beginning to end, and wrong not on the ground of morals, but on the ground of art. From any ethical standpoint it is just what it should be. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire? We have no sympathy at all with the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola. It is simply the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed. But from the standpoint of art, what can be said in favour of the author of L'Assommoir, Nana and Pot-Bouille? Nothing. Mr. Ruskin once described the characters in George Eliot's novels as being like the sweepings of a Pentonville omnibus, but M. Zola's characters are much worse. They have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest.”

This rings changes on an old trick in the game of scandal – one trumps the shock of scandal by being resolutely unshocked. In this way, one denies the initial, visceral moment that scandal depends on. The double movement of Vivian’s rhetoric conforms to an old routine: first comes the denigration of the shocked. Thus Zola’s work exposes the Tartuffe, and by implication the Tartuffe are the shocked. Second comes the denigration of the shock. Zola’s characters are dreary in their vices and their virtues. It is dreariness, not purity, that we must judge by. Wrenching the standard by which the copy is judged from the frame defined by veracity to the frame defined by intensity, Vivian finds a new angle from which to disarm Zola’s shock. Since one end of the mimetic spectrum is about sexual arousal, a continually deferred moment that defines art against its erotic use, its pornographic potential, this is a particularly good routine to top Zola. And once Zola is separated from his shock, we see -- or Vivian sees -- that he is without interest.

To Vivian’s remarks, Cyril responds by noting that that Vivian’s two favorite novelists Meredith and Balzac, have reputations for being realists.

Vivian replies by making two epigrams. About Meredith he says,

“Somebody in Shakespeare - Touchstone, I think – talks about a man who is always breaking his shins over his own wit, and it seems to me that this might serve as the basis for a criticism of Meredith's method.”

But it is about Balzac that the more famous phrases are leveled.

“A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind of fervent fiery-coloured existence. They dominate us, and defy scepticism. One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempre. It is a grief from which I have never been able completely to rid myself. It haunts me in my moments of pleasure. I remember it when I laugh.”

This post is about that phrase – or rather, it follows the history of the reputation of that phrase in the footsteps of A.S. Byatt’s brilliant essay about Splendeurs et miseres de Courtisanes – the Balzac novel in which Lucien de Rubempre’s suicide gets played out – in the Winter 2005 Kenyon. Which we urge all LI’s readers to read – it is well worth the price of the magazine.

LI wouldn’t be LI if we didn’t throw in some deconstructive cautions now and then, so we should preface what follows with a little disclaimer. The reputation of these remarks depends on collapsing the distinction between Wilde and Vivian. That Wilde put these remarks in the mouth of a character who is defending a thesis before another character is obliterated in the rush to make these Wilde’s remarks – a rush that is not repeated in, say, making Cyril’s remarks Wilde’s remarks. A philosopher might say that we know, intuitively, that Vivian represents Wilde and Cyril doesn’t. But a philosopher who had read The Importance of Being Earnest would be wise to treat the theme of pseudonyms with some respect. After all the play revolves around Jack Worthing’s habit of assuming the name Earnest in the city and Jack in the country. This becomes evident when Algernon – who we also instinctively identify with Wilde because his opinions are like those of Vivian, who we have assumed represents Wilde – finds Earnest’s cigarette case with a note addressed to Jack:

Algernon. … Besides, your name isn't Jack at all; it is Ernest.

Jack. It isn't Ernest; it's Jack.

Algernon. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn't Ernest. It's on your cards. Here is one of them. [Taking it from case.] 'Mr. Ernest Worthing, B. 4, The Albany.' I'll keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me, or to Gwendolen, or to any one else.
[Puts the card in his pocket.]

Jack. Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case was given to me in the country.”

Bertrand Russell’s example for the description theory of names, you’ll remember, was the identity between Walter Scott and the Author of Waverly – an identity that could not substitute in all instances. If Russell had wanted to, he could have used the Importance of Being Earnest as the artistic working out of the consequences of his theory. Pity he didn’t. In any case, the deconstructive point is that the chain of instinct that leads us to believe that Vivian is Wilde depends upon substitutions that themselves depend upon our instinct that Wilde is Vivian. So note, before we set off on our chase, that the conditions of the hunt are dodgy to begin with.

The next post will be about Proust.

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