Thursday, November 6, 2014

Oscar Wilde, "The Importance of Being Earnest"

- e-book

Read from February 22nd to 25th, 2013

My rating

“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.”

Here is a quote in a truly Wildean spirit, one of those sayings that Umberto Eco called “aforismi cancrizzabili” (how the heck do you translate this into English?); in other words, a reversible aphorism (and you seem to be able to reverse it all right: “In matters of grave importance, sincerity, not style is the vital thing”), a second-hand aphorism somehow, since the interest for “jeu de mots” outmatches the need to express a general truth. 

However, the question is: can this aphorism truly be reversed? In the light of all beliefs Oscar Wilde stood for, the exercise I made above loses its significance, for everybody knows that the only matter “of grave importance” in the writer's view was to be... “perfectly phrased!” in order to become “quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.” That is, life is not bearable if not translated into art, the only place where “earnest” ceases to mean serious or sincere and turns into a synonym of nontrivial. 

The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People reveals thus gradually the full meaning of the apparent paradox in the title: life is trivially comic only for one who thinks that being earnest is not a moral value, but an aesthetic one, who is forever ashamed “to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.” From this angle, Art might be untrue and unserious, because of its habit to mock human values, doubting not only their sincerity but even their reality. Moreover, the clichés of life are an unfailing source of comedy, from flippant inverted sayings (“Divorces are made in Heaven”) to scintillating nonsenses (“Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone”).

Wilde’s world courts the absurd and the caricature, his characters are hollow marionettes nourished, to use a Boris Vian image, with the foam of the days, preoccupied with social petty prejudices and personal laughable obsessions, uttering pompous rubbishes and generally making strange fools of themselves. Two pairs of characters illustrate this complex affinity-in-opposition between life and art: Lady Bracknell’s scrupulous care to observe society rules, involuntarily mimicked by her daughter Gwendolen, and Jack’s double gratuitous identity, assumed also by his friend Algernon when being “Earnest” becomes suddenly important.

And voilà, the aphorism I quoted in the beginning of my review is no longer reversible, no longer “cancrizzabile”, since style has always prevailed over sincerity in Wilde’s artistic credo, putting elegance before accuracy, fiction before life and art before interdiction. 

In the long run, isn’t it true that “more than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read”?

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