Taking A Walk on The Wilde Side


“My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.”  So wrote the acerbic, witty and unrelenting Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892.  Wilde openly led a movement of aestheticism and public decadence in a time when sins were expected to be committed with discretion out of the public eye of a highly pious Victorian society.  The age-old struggle of good versus evil and the ensuing black comedy that resulted from every human’s double life was his central theme – one as apropos today as it was during the time of this “wicked” Irish iconoclast.

As a recovering collegiate sybarite and literary enthusiast, I have always been fascinated by Wilde.  I am drawn to his sarcasm and often rely on his wit when trying to contend with a world that judges too harshly.  While I cannot condone Wilde’s lifestyle choices, I could never disparage his genius.  Like so many great writers and contrarians, his tortured soul and conflicted contempt for what Victorian society viewed as “decency” compelled him to persistently test its boundaries.  In doing so, he sealed his own fate but left us timeless footprints in the forms of quotes, stories and plays.  Wilde might have been considered a troublesome dissident by today’s standards — constantly prodding and testing our conventions and hidden hypocrisies.  Although I wonder if Wilde was born in 1964 instead of 1854, if society would have been more forgiving — celebrating his brilliance and choosing to not be so offended by his habitual testing of the status quo.  A few gems:

  • Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, fa...
    Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, facing front, seated, leaning forward, left elbow resting on knee, hand to chin, holding walking stick in right hand, wearing coat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    “ A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal..” My mother called it “compulsive candor.  Wilde’s strengths taken to excess became his weakness and ultimately led to his decent into a determined frontal assault on society.  However, the truth was too tempting to not flaunt in the face of a pious England that held itself in such high esteem while choosing to conduct its venal pursuits in far off places and under the complicated cloak of class and corruption.

  • “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them more.” There is indeed power, liberation and humor in forgiveness.  Making one’s amends and stepping up to apologize for your part of a conflict defuses a situation and gives you the upper hand.  One spiritual advisor once chided me to pray for my enemies.  “Perhaps if he gets exactly what he wants, he may no longer offend you or better yet, he may actually get what is coming to him. Either way, it’s out of your hands and it takes away people’s power over you to forgive them – especially without their permission.”
  • “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It seems in a society that has come to judge material gain as a yardstick for personal advancement, we have come to understand how much everything costs but have lost our ability to understand intrinsic value.  Real moral and spiritual value requires a more complex calculus of living whose numerator is one’s impact on others – the lives we change and the legacies we leave divided by the price others pay as we achieve them. Many build wealth but may not recognize the intangible deficits they accumulate over a lifetime of misguided priorities.
  • “Wisdom comes with winters.” Our emotional intelligence is forged from the difficulties we endure.  The unexpected stone thrown through the bay window of our lives often forms the foundation for stronger character and a more resilient future.  Every winter holds the promise of an ensuing spring of insights, but only if we have the humility to seek these lessons.
  • “When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” We often say be careful what you wish for.  “You want to make God laugh?  Tell him your plans.”  In praying for something, perhaps we would be better served praying for strength to deal with whatever is to come our way.  Our own best thinking and resolve to get our way usually get us into a tangled mess.  Perhaps our lives are best guided by a point of reference other than ourselves.

In the end, Wilde’s determined sybaritic lifestyle – “working is the curse of the drinking classes”  where “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”) – became his undoing.  In the midst of his physical and intellectual self-indulgence and his war against the English establishment, he penned brilliant works of literature : The Importance of Being Ernest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Canterville Ghost among others.

Wilde dared to suggest that human beings are a mass of contradictions.  We must periodically remind ourselves, as mistakes are made, boundaries broken and glass shattered, that it’s all part of the human condition.  As we move back and forth along life’s continuum between self and selfless, we should never forget that no one is without fault.

Wilde paid the ultimate price by flaunting his own self-destructive behavior in the face of an unforgiving society, then publicly challenging its hypocrisy.  He was imprisoned and died penniless three years later.  His “gross indecency” led to his mortal defeat, but also opened society’s aperture to tolerance and change.  He left us as an immortal — a fire that burned too bright, too hot and became too dangerous for the conventions of his day.  

Even now, as I finish this essay and tiptoe into a darkened kitchen in search of Easter candy hidden by my wife, Wilde whispers to me, “I can resist anything but temptation”.

Fire Starter

Cobbe portrait, claimed to be a portrait of Wi...
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A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.  ~Author Unknown

The tardy bell buzzed as if somewhere in the educational firmament a student contestant had incorrectly answered a $ 100 question.   It was the autumn of my junior year of high school and according to my older brother, the elective class – Creative Writing, would deliver an easy A for students who could string together a few coherent sentences and devour five novels of their own choosing over the course of the semester. He simply referred to it as “Creative Cake”.

The distorted grading curve of this class was not a well-kept secret and the faculty mistakenly perceived its popularity to be a function of its ancient educator, Mrs R.  I surveyed the crowded class – an entire back row was filled with football players – joking and shifting awkwardly in desks that could barely withstand their weight.  Unlike other classes that tended to filter students into a hierarchy of ability – electives did not seem to distinguish between those who were serious about English and those who spoke and wrote it as a second language.

Our teacher, Mrs. R, was missing in action.  She was well past her educational buy/sell date and was playing out her final years teaching a few elective courses.  She was a slow-moving creature whose sentimental detours and sepia fascination with the past, all but ensured that we would could pass notes and do homework while she waxed poetically about the Hemmingway or Melville.

Our classroom door opened and a plain young woman with hornrimmed glasses replete with thick celluloid frames moved to the closet.  Removing her overcoat (it was 90 degrees outside), she advanced quickly to the board and proceeded to decisively inscribe her name in chalk: Miss S – Creative Writing. A great panic swept the room as we realized that our sloth-like octogenarian with the benevolent grading curve had been relieved of duty by someone who appeared to be a refugee from the TV show, “Leave It To Beaver.”

She turned and stared at the befuddled knot of muscles, hair, dolphin shorts and surfer tee shirts.  “Je sais, mais une liberté et c’est la liberté de l’esprit.” We hesitated, hoping that she was the new French teacher lost and asking for directions.

She smiled and translated  “I know but one freedom, and that is the freedom of the mind. Ladies and gentleman that was written by Antoine de Saint-Expury, the author of The Little Prince.”

Having established her utter and complete intellectual prowess, this Bodleian Library refugee gathered up our mongrel band of misfits — verbally challenged and uninspired teens and marched us through a millennium of creative writers who had succeeded in transforming their pens into instruments of social and political change.

Miss S would scold us in French and quote the great writers like an evangelist might conjure scripture.  I once cut class and attempted to lie my way into avoiding detention.  She stared at me expressionless – enjoying my grand fabrication.  “ Facts and truth really do not have much to do with each other, do they Michael.  Wasn’t that William Faulkner brilliant?  Why he could have been your older brother the way he seems to understand how your devious mind works.”  She was particularly fond of Faulkner -a writer I found tedious.  She seemed to know this and would barrage me with his verse.  Others might recieve lessons from Steinbeck or Kerouac.  Why belittle me with this pedantic Southern bore?

She was blunt, unadorned and as plain as a museum curator. She chose long conservative dresses and a signature rain- coat irrespective of the temperature.  It was as if a seam in time had opened from the 1950s where she had been dispatched to ignite creativity in a flagging generation that could no longer see the rich garden of verse that lay before them like an endless fertile plain. She opened our eyes to writers who had moved before us like great shadows across the American landscape.

“ Oh, men do change.” she once confided to the female members of the class, “and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. John Steinbeck knew men…He understood that men evolve.”  The girls would sigh and then give us each a dirty look seeing us for what we were – a less developed species that could only transform with time and rigorous cultivation.

It was during that autumn of 1977 that my passion for English Literature was ignited like a grass fire. Over the course of the semester, we became poets, writers of mystical Haiku, authors of our own epitaphs and O’Henry novelists attempting to chronicle our sacred and profane tales of suburban life. She was our captain and like a Dead Poets Society, we were bound in leather and verse.

Each night, I would watch Miss S climb into her ’68 Ford Galaxy, the kind of vehicle that is never purchased but handed down until the day it simply dies.  She would disappear presumably into a spinster’s life of flickering televisions, 60 watt bulbs, poorly written papers and pop quizzes.  Our curiosity about our leader was never satisfied.  She was a shadow that one would easily pass by without understanding the riches that hid beneath its simple veneer.  She had no partner choosing to live with her adult brother and her parents.  She deflected all attempts to color in the bland lines of her own life.  It was as if we were her reason to exist.

A year later, I would win an award for English at our senior honors assembly.  I saw her later and she explained her preoccupation with Faulkner.  ” I will not use Faulkner on just anyone, Michael. You are intelligent enough to understand what he is trying to say.” The fire was now a conflagration that carried into college and a richer journey into the litturgy of man.  I would occasionally stop by the high school and she would be there – chirping in French and leavening an otherwise boring 5th period class with humor and perspective. 

It would be years later that my mother would call me across 500 miles to share tragic news. “Hon, there was a double homicide/suicide in an adjacent town.  Apparently, it was Miss S’ brother – he killed his parents and then homself.  I guess all these years she had been caring for her elderly parents and her brother who suffered from severe schizophrenia.  She found them all – – dead.  I am so, so sorry.  I know you were close to her.”

I remember sitting in that numb, angry, out of body purgatory where it is impossible to wrap your mind around senseless tragedy.  I could not understand a cosmos where dark deeds were allowed to reach in and savage such an innocent light.

She never did return to our school and vanished like so many of life’s refugees of tragedy.  I’d like to think she found a small town, nestled in a safe, cradled valley filled with kind neighbors who delivered food in times of trouble and who’d check in on you every so often just to be certain that everything is fine.  I imagine her starting another fire in the mind of some awkward teen, spoon-feeding him morsels of Faulkner and Hemmingway.

I stare out my window.  I am now gray and have seen the harder edges of life.  I cannot recall who won the 1977 Superbowl, World Series, NBA Finals or Daytona 500.  I cannot recall who held key public offices or even who appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.  But I can remember that teacher.  I see her face every day and I can hear her lilting voice as she perfumes the room with perfect French. I imagine every aspect of her intelligent and sympathetic countenance.  I hear her chastise me, “ Michael!” in exaggerated disappointment as I fail to answer a question.  And then I wait – – for a quote – a golden nugget harvested from the deep river of Harper Lee, or the gentle streams of William Shakespeare.

I like to think she is out there – – with that silly raincoat and those horn-rimmed, docent glasses.  Somewhere she is smiling at a student and quoting De Exupery. 

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Isn’t It Ironic ?

Bob Dylan performing at St. Lawrence Universit...
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“A traffic jam when you’re already late

A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break

It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

It’s meeting the man of my dreams

And then meeting his beautiful wife

And isn’t it ironic…don’t you think

A little too ironic…and, yeah, I really do think…

It’s like rain on your wedding day

It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid

It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take

Who would’ve thought… it figures…”

Ironic, Alanis Morrisette

“….And then there is ‘Acc-is-mus.’” My literature professor purposefully enunciated this term and then hesitated as if we were apprentices in some Masonic society and he was waiting for the customary due guard response. He carried on like a farmer feeding filet mignon to his prized swine. “This form of irony might reveal itself in the shape of feigned indifference when in fact, the exact opposite sentiment holds true – – underneath there lies extreme prejudice.”  I scribbled the cryptic words in the margins of a note pad already crowded with strange literary terminology and countless doodles that betrayed my disinterest.  Beside several unevenly spaced words, there were drawings of surfers cutting out of perfect pipeline waves and a baseball hitter pivoting on his back foot to make perfect contact with a rotating fastball.  My class notes would be useless to any other human and a harbinger of my failure to achieve an acceptable grade in Literature 101.

Next to my perfect sketch of a feathering wave, I had penned the words “contradiction”, “hyperbole” and “malaprop.” A half hour earlier, I had also absent mindedly written the word “anti-phrastic” but had been distracted by an attractive coed from an adjacent college that was walking by our lecture hall.  Having no idea what anti-phrastic meant or who this Helen of Troy was, I fell further behind in the lecture.  I suddenly had the disconnected feeling that I was watching ancient Athenians converse in Greek.  This led to more introspection and resulted in my missing the final two terms: “synecdoche” and “metonymy”.  My professor droned on. “These tropes are the essential building blocks of literary irony.  Irony, my aspiring wordsmiths, is a vehicle by which all effective writers and communicators can engage and enlist their audience.”

What the hell was a trope?  I thought.  I strained to catch a glimpse of the mysterious girl who had floated like a cloud past my window.  Alas, she had vanished, stealing my attention, diverting my inspiration and perhaps sealing my fate in this class.

Before taking the notoriously humbling Lit 101 course – the equivalent of combining sixteen weeks at Marine boot camp and a colorectal exam, I had always considered myself a skilled prospector of irony.  I was an acolyte of Woody Allen and appreciated the dry, acerbic wits of Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce and John Updike. I could separate the fool’s gold of camp-fire story irony from the timeless cunning of  Charles Dickens who excelled at situational and dramatic irony.  Whether it was his jilted bride that purposely raised a daughter incapable of love or an simple act of charity that led to a life-altering event, Dickens possesed an uncanny ability to divine irony out of the bleakest and hardened of places.

I grew up searching for meaning and irony in everything – history, television shows like the Twilight Zone and every song on the radio.  When you are young, everything is profound and ironic.  When you encounter irony as a child it is as if you have personally discovered some hidden message left exclusively for you – – a clue that might help unlock the mysteries of life. I remember memorizing the militant lyrics of Bob Dylan’s  “ When God’s On Your Side”:

But now we got weapons

Of the chemical dust

If fire them we’re forced to

Then fire them we must

One push of the button

And a shot the world-wide

And you never ask questions

When God’s on your side.

As a teen, my view of irony became cynical and agnostic.  Life was a Greek tragedy.  As a young literature major, irony was simply the Fates sadistically plucking at the gossamer strands of our mortal webs to remind us that we were mere pawns in some random cosmic chess game.  The universe offered no order or control.  When you are twenty years old, there is no shortage of conviction that you are the one who is in control and life is made or broken by your own best efforts.

Years later, when Alanis Morissette would paint her dark picture of life’s random injustices, critic Jon Winkour took exception to her ballad in an essay on Irony. In his tirade, he tried to dispel her notion of life’s ironic conditions. “Morissette’s situations purporting to be ironic are merely sad, random, or annoying. It is of course ironic that ‘Ironic’ is an unironic song about irony. Bonus irony: ‘Ironic’ is widely cited as an example of how Americans don’t get irony, despite the fact that Alanis Morissette is actually, Canadian.”

Fortunately, as with many things in life, we get older and learn from irony with the benefit of hindsight and perspective.  For many of us, wisdom comes when we finally begin to accept the cunning symmetry that is the universe.  Irony finds its way into your life like smoke under a door.  Instead of an empty cosmos inhabited by Gods who loathe mortals and toy with them like plastic figurines, we begin to see irony as a sign that there is a higher order to everything.  God indeed does exist and possesses a very warped and highly evolved sense of humor.   Perspective is not found in neon-lit classrooms or in a comfortable chair but in dark alleys and face down in a muddy street.  A gift is often wrapped around a brick and tossed through your window. A win is often disguised as failure.

Historical irony haunts us as we look back to see the most ecologically human of all people – – indigenous natives – become genocide victims at the hands of “civilized“ nations determined to fulfill their manifest destiny. There is irony in our present day foreign policy where it seems we are financing both sides of a war – – funding the enemy through fossil fuel dependence while fighting for our security to protect our right to stay addicted to the black opiate.  Some argue gunboat diplomacy can lead to peace. We keep rediscovering the painful irony that war is easy to begin and very hard to end. Closer to home, we are struggling to fix a system called “healthcare” that is desperately sick.

Even closer to our core, is the irony of materialism. It seems that the more you have, the more you fear losing and the less secure you feel. It seems those who have very little are often happier than those who have very much. It is ironic that one must try to live like they are dying to understand how to live.  Why is it that sinners make the best saints?  Why are there no atheists in fox-holes?

Yes, we can always agree to disagree. And of course, irony is the essential DNA of humor.  Why is it that men drive faster when they are lost?

Irony flits all around us like little celestial fireflies at twilight reminding us of a higher purpose.  It is the beauty of Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last professional at bat. It is Haley’s Comet appearing at the birth and death of one of America’s most brilliant literary lights- Mark Twain.  It is the simple contradiction of thorns on a rose.

Irony after all is not random coincidence or accidental contradiction. It is divine design.  It is a celestial yin and yang that stretch far beyond our mortal horizon line – – an imaginary barrier that only exists because as humans, we can only see so far.

I eventually did discover the identity of that perfect girl who left me in an attention deficit during my lecture that indian summer day–and no, I did not marry her.  However, I did hear, years later, that she went on to become an English professor at a midwestern college.  Ironic?  Perhaps. I squeaked by Lit 101 with a passing grade but not without a reproach from my professor for my verbal incontinence.  His note scribbled on my essay like a doctor’s prescription read,  “Michael, an antiphrasis to live by:  Less is more.”

I still don’t know what the hell he was talking about.

A Writer At Rest

A Writer At Rest

 

And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market-the quips, the witticisms, the slant adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears, their warm pooled breath in and out with your heart beat, their response and your performance twinned. The jokes over the phone. The memories packed in the rapid-access file.  The whole act. Who will do it again? That’s it: no one; imitators and descendants aren’t the same.  Perfection Wasted — John Updike

 

My hero John Updike died last month of lung cancer at a hospice in suburban Massachusetts. A master narrator, he was a skilled oarsman meticulously ferrying his passengers across a dark river to wander the dimly lit bayous of Middle America.

He prowled the back streets and alleys of Anglo-Saxon America for five decades – gently tending the fires to illuminate the unfulfilled underbelly of small towns and small thinkers. He once told Life magazine that his subject “ is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”  His magnificent writing existed in that rare literary greenbelt that separates poetry and fiction.  His characters were often flawed Greek tragedies – mortals stumbling through a universe of moribund marriages, failed dreams, invisible constraints and electric sexual tension.

 

To a young English major who could not yet properly identify the profound that lay hidden within the prosaic, Updike was an inspiration.  He had been to the mountain top and descended with a stone tablet that deciphered the strange alchemy of the human condition – a mixture of larceny and compassion, adultery and dogged faith, black desires and noble aspirations.  In the Rabbit series of novels, Updike injected the genomes of human frailty into a small town, former basketball star named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom whose serial restlessness and inability to understand his deepest needs condemned him to a potholed road of detours, disappointments and desperate liaisons. Yet, Rabbit captivated us and was Updike’s foil to simultaneously cuff and embrace the American way at the same time.  James Woods described Updike as “ a prose writer of great beauty…that described the aching gap between God and his creatures”.

 

Critic Adam Gopnik related, “ Updike’s great subject was the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. He documented how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation. For Updike, this effort was blessed, and very nearly successful. Unlike his European contemporaries, who saw the same space and the attempted filling as mere aridity and deprivation, Updike was close enough to, and fond enough of, the source of postwar material abundance to love it fully, and for itself. (And he knew enough of the decade of deprivation that preceded the big blossoming never to be jaded about plenty.) He viewed the material culture of American life with a benign, appreciative ironic eye. But he had no illusions, either, about its ability to cover the failure or wish away mortality.”

 

While he viewed America through a sober lens, he never stopped loving it.  It was as if he saw the nation for what it was – a stumbling adolescent whose life lessons must be learned the hard way and whose serial inability to learn from the past would condemn it to center stage as an endearing moral and social recidivist. Updike once barked that “ most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.”

 

Updike offered conditional emancipation for Middle America tangled in lives of self -righteousness and repressed temptation.  His liberation was not in the condoning the behavior of his conflicted protagonists but was instead expressed in the absence of formal reproach.  He was our mirror and cheerleader.  Instead of whisking his readers to far off places populated by strange characters and imaginary misfits, he drove us right back into our own neighborhoods, peering through silk drapes and the soft light cast from other rooms to gaze on souls leading lives that fell into the unimaginative seams that separated the uninspired and the inspired. He offered us a life that was an uneven box, deep and dark with broad possibilities but never tied neatly with a bow or wrapping. He celebrated our “enigmatic dullness”.  He was our champion and our critic all at the same time.  Updike became the treasured spokesperson for the Silent generation who grew up unevenly under the repressed, filtered light of Depression maturity only to burst into the wild excesses of an adolescent society in full rebellion.

 

In his Bech series of books, he created his own alter ego – a cynical Jewish American novelist who stumbles through amorous liaisons and the thick twisted forest of the literary world.  Bech offers us a glimpse into Updike and his unforgiving patriotism, sardonic sense of humor and relentlessly delicious need for venal satisfaction – revenge, sexual desire and love. 

 

He won two Pulitzer prizes – only one of three American authors to ever achieve such an honor.  He loved golf and endlessly pursued the redemption that could only be found pushing a dimpled ball recklessly along green manicured fairways. He advocated for human rights and helped America come to grips with its own shadows.  He was our burning bush.  Ever the optimist, Updike’s characters muddled through every possible storm that life could throw at them.  They weaved their way across life and were celebrated if for no other reason than for just being.

 

“We do survive every moment after all “, he said ” except the last one.”