Sunday 4 December 2016

Go Wilde for the right reasons

Published 06/02/2012 | 06:00

TELEVISION Oscar Wilde's brilliance is being overshadowed by his popular image, says Declan Lynch

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Let us speak today, only of Wilde. I adore Wilde, but not in the way that many adore him. Because the version of Oscar Wilde that is most widely adored, is the one given to us again last week in the otherwise excellent Scannal!.

This is Wilde of the notorious court case against the Marquis of Queensbury, Wilde who was crucified for being gay, Wilde the martyr. And a great and tragic story that is too. Yet it has been told so many times, it has become the only story of Wilde. And that is wrong.

Scandal, as Wilde himself explained, is "gossip made tedious by morality". And leaving aside the gossip, increasingly I see Wilde not as another of our great Irish writers, but as the greatest of them all. And the reason I see him in this light has nothing to do with the Marquis of Queensbury or Bosie or his cross-examination by Edward Carson or any of that traditional fare.

I have come to revere Wilde above all others, not for his exposure of 19th-Century society, but for his devastating commentary on the events of the present day, of last week, of this week, almost certainly of next week -- the fact that he hasn't actually been around for about a hundred years seems in no way to diminish his powers of observation.

For example there were no political correspondents, as we know them, in Wilde's day, yet he nailed that entire industry with the line, "seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow".

He foresaw with perfect clarity that culture of received wisdom and group-think: "Most people are other people, their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation."

He understood the folly of consensus and he saw through the concept of the focus group long before it was invented -- "to disagree with three-fourths of the British public is one of the first requisites of sanity". He would even insist that "whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong".

Ah Wilde. We insist on seeing him forever holding forth in some elegant drawing room, forever gay, and wearing a cravat, this flamboyant creature from some distant civilisation. And so he is destroyed again, by a world of shallowness.

Indeed it would be doing the man a great favour to impose a moratorium of, say, 50 years, of all references to his homosexuality or to any other lifestyle matters, which have become a distraction.

Obviously, he saw that coming too, aware that we are easily distracted, that his masterful wit might give the impression that his observations were less than entirely accurate -- "if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you".

But the truth it was, then and now. Indeed we are only now catching up with Wilde, and his acute awareness that the truth is almost always the opposite of what it is generally perceived to be, that everything you know is wrong. Even today, we just laugh at this description of his day's work: "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again."

The majority of respondents would chortle at Wilde's apparent idleness. The truth is, only a writer of the utmost seriousness would spend all that time on punctuation.

Wilde has perhaps blinded us with his own brilliance, so that we can't quite believe how astoundingly modern he is. And by this I am not just referring to his line that "we live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities".

I am also reminded that I was writing recently about the way that celebrities are increasingly willing to confess to depression when they may in truth be suffering from alcoholism, when I came across this, by Wilde: "There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution."

So I adore Wilde, and I am not the only one. I just feel that we probably don't adore him half enough.

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