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Sunday
Dec192010

Pen, Pencil, and Poison

Since his death on the doorstep of a new century, this famous author's work has been denigrated and endorsed by various critics and yet retained the inviolable mark of greatness: no reader has shown himself indifferent.  How could anyone ultimately be indifferent to Oscar Wilde?  More than the other dismissive dandies of his or any age, Wilde was a supreme moralist.  That is to say, while he spared no one his thorns, he knew where to embed them if given the choice.  Morality was not something to mock in the day's spare hours but a mist that coated our every thought and action, an echo of our meanings, a prism of our treatment of others and ourselves.  While his most famous prose work is often construed as an ode to decadence, it is precisely the opposite: a protracted allegory on the shades of the soul.   Which is why we should view this essay with some healthy skepticism.

Our subject is undoubtedly a villain, if one of whom you likely know very little.  His poems are hardly read, much less studied; his drawings have garnered the interest of those who peddle morbid collectables; and even his reputation for evil has diminished.  How could a man of artistic ability and temperament consign himself to oblivion by murdering two family members and an old chum?  Wilde offers the rather reprehensible explanation that similar fates have befallen Roman emperors whose crimes have become the stuff of cocktail parties and other frivolous banter  reprehensible because it suggests that we slacken our morals as memory slackens its hold.  A survey of Wainewright's pursuits will give us an excellent idea of our subject's disposition:

This young dandy sought to be somebody, rather than to do something.  He recognised that Life itself is an art, and has its modes of style no less than the arts that seek to express it ... His essays are prefiguring of much that has since been realised.  He seems to have anticipated some of those accidents of modern culture that are regarded by many as true essentials.  He writes about La Gioconda, and early French poets and the Italian Renaissance.  He loves Greek gems, and Persian carpets, and Elizabethan translations of Cupid and Psyche and the Hypnerotomachia book-bindings, and early editions, and wide-margined proofs. He is keenly sensitive to the value of beautiful surroundings, and never wearies of describing to us the rooms in which he lived or would have liked to live. He had that curious love of green, which in individuals is always the sign of a subtle artistic temperament, and in nations is said to denote a laxity, if not a decadence of morals. Like Baudelaire he was extremely fond of cats, and with Gautier he was fascinated by that "sweet marble monster" of both sexes that we can still see at Florence and in the Louvre.

From such a portrait we may draw several conclusions, even if they are all blurry sketches.  Our man is first and foremost in love with his taste, and then secondly in love with himself  both of which compose the halves of his genius.  To be a genius, an Argentine novelist once claimed, you have to think you're a genius and be right.  And while we harbor serious reservations as to the genius of many contemporary writers who spend years composing works of dubious character and authenticity, with Wainewright no such hesitation arises.  He is thoroughly convinced of his powers to create and destroy, the magic to which every author feels himself entitled.  But, as we know, he takes things a step or three too far.

Why does Wainewright even merit mention?  Whom does the recapitulation of a murderer's habits befit?  With our contemporary fascination for real crime, this poet-poisoner would have gained a considerable portion of the limelight, but he would have faded much more rapidly than one would expect for two inevitable reasons.  Firstly, one may forget an above-average murderer, but a blessing indeed would be to remember an above-average poet; secondly, a murderer's fame rests either on the identity of his victims, their quantity, or the methods with which he dispatched them to extinction.  His methods were plain and bitter; his victims were relatively few for our gory times, only a triptych; and his victims were the most nameless of enemies, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law, and then a long-time family friend.  None of this will make our subject into more than he was in real life, a petty demon with a taste for green, and the excerpts of Wainewright's own works resemble abstract heraldry, motley and cruel.  But Wilde insists on promoting one strand of this fiend's accomplishments:

Modern journalism may be said to owe almost as much to him as to any man of the early part of this century.  He was the pioneer of Asiatic prose, and delighted in pictorial epithets and pompous exaggerations.  To have a style so gorgeous that it conceals the subject is one of the highest achievements of an important and much admired school of Fleet Street leader-writers, and this school Janus Weathercock may be said to have invented.  He also saw that it was quite easy by continued reiteration to make the public interested in his own personality, and in his purely journalistic articles this extraordinary young man tells the world what he had for dinner, where he gets his clothes, what wines he likes, and in what state of health he is, just as if he were writing weekly notes for some popular newspaper of our own time. This being the least valuable side of his work, is the one that has had the most obvious influence.  A publicist, nowadays, is a man who bores the community with the details of the illegalities of his private life.

You may have never heard of the term "Asiatic prose" (the formulation of this man of letters), but it is akin to what in some circles is now termed "ornamental prose."  And Wainewright, to be described thus, seems to have been one of the first ancestors of many members of our social networking and blogging communities who are so eager to impart the minutest details of their lives to strangers in exchange for some fleeting attention. 

What is even more remarkable is the date of this essay's composition, 1889, six years or so before Wilde's detractors got the better of him and ended his hope if not his physical existence.  How odd to see a young man whom one could not but admire for his ingenuity, wit, and insight into morality construct the most decadent texts, chant the most rebellious slogans, and all the while conceal longings for things that Victorian society deemed ill and outlandish.  The "illegalities" of Wilde's "private life" caught up to him just as he was willing to explain everything to everyone and in so doing, cease to be the mysterious figure known as Oscar Wilde.  That could never do.  And if his favorite poisoner had still been around, he might have even asked him for a favor. 

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