When Wit Falls Flat

I’m not sure what’s happened. I, a huge fan of Oscar Wilde’s plays, have hit some sort of wall while trying to get through Intentions and Other Writings, which contains a few essays originally published in various places, now gathered in one convenient, and, I’m finding, highly frustrating spot. I picked up the thing mostly for its inclusion of “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” but said essay falls toward the end, and I’m starting to suspect it was placed there in the same purposeful way that a one-hit wonder is featured late on an otherwise mediocre album.

Forget the disorientation largely due to differences in writer’s and reader’s respective positions in time; stumbling over dropped names of now-forgotten figures and realizing the character dubbed “Vivian” is a guy really isn’t that big an issue. But I never thought I’d get just as bogged down by a Wilde character’s lengthy flights of flowery fancy as I would by some third-rate Romantic’s goopy paeans to Love or nature goddesses or whatever else came from the pen of a pale dork in a billowing blouse. Example: it took all my energy and a good bit of encouragement à la “The Little Engine That Could” (I think I can, I think I can) to get through the section of “The Critic as Artist” that features Gilbert’s high-flown recapitulation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Among other things, I’m pretty sure the old poet would’ve given young Gilbert a solid fist to the gut had he heard his work turned into melodrama, as it is when shaped by Mr. Prolix.

But Gilbert, I’m sure, would’ve pretended to be charmed by the entire assault and laughed it off with a witty remark and a drink. And it’s just that feeling that’s made Intentions drag from almost the very beginning of the collection.* Namely, the wit grows old pretty quickly, and you get the sense that there’s more in this writing that’s being hidden or repressed than is being revealed. That we’re dealing with a bunch of characters– and maybe a creator– who are terrified of revealing any chinks in their armor, almost panicked at the thought that some member of the literati might discover they laugh uncontrollably at the Victorian equivalent of Wipeout and still hang out at home in a beloved and unfashionably threadbare sweater, without a hint of irony. I’ll venture to say it’s akin to the disheartened way I feel when faced with a gathering of stereotypical hipsters, too cool to view genuine concern, passion, and interest as anything but idiotic, and making sure to look ultra-hip while sneering.

Given, Wilde did have a lot that the establishment of his day thought he should hide– among other things, resulting in his sentence to two years’ hard labor. You have to wonder, then, what was going on with so much flippancy, but retroactive pop psychoanalysis is just as tired as extreme aestheticism. I’ll keep slogging, through, then, and hope to have been convinced of this collection’s worthiness by the time I reach the end.

*(Caveat: The first essay, “The Decay of Lying,” is great– hence, the “almost.”)

Oscar Wilde photograph by Napoleon Sarony. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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