“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:
“ 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”.