The Importance of Being Earnest

camouflage body art cecilia paredesFROM SEQUENCE 2013
March 2013


CECILY: I keep a diary in order to enter the wonderful secrets of my life. If I didn’t write them down, I should probably forget all about them.

MISS PRISM: Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about with us.

 — Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

When Wittgenstein’s first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was being published, Wittgenstein apparently told the editor that the book had two parts: the written part and the unwritten part, “And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.” When I first read this statement, I took it to be a comment of headstrong youth, a comment that later in life would have been duly regretted, with appropriate cringing. But the comment must also be, at least for me, something more than this, as I keep coming back to it in my essays.

During a recent vacation, I found myself on several evenings reading The Importance of Being Earnest to my son, as a way of getting a break from watching “stupid TV,” as we call it with a certain affection. (That is, we think of vacation evenings being well spent watching Disney sitcoms, basketball games or golf, precisely because of the inanity of such shows.) Of course Earnest is, on one level, one of the most masterful pieces of comic fluff ever written, the standard-bearer for Wilde’s view (or pose) that “we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality.”

Critics have wrestled with the play’s seeming lack of import. W.H. Auden called it “a pure verbal opera,” and George Bernard Shaw wrote that Earnest was extremely funny, but “heartless.” A leading London theater critic of Wilde’s time wrote, “What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely willful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality?”

What I will here propose, after Wittgenstein, is that such critics, and many, many theater-goers along with them, skip over the unwritten part of the play, and it is precisely this second part that is the “important” (not trivial?) one. I am not joining those who have tried, without much success, to claim that for Wilde “Earnest” was a synonym for “homosexual” (as if, cruising, one might ask a man, “Are you Earnest?”), or that “bunburying” was a way of referring to “homosexual” (anal?) sex. (But what will you do with Gwendolen’s comment in Act III: “[O]nce a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don’t like that. It makes men so very attractive.”)

In any case, the argument here begins with the observation that The Importance of Being Earnest is what it obviously is, a play about dissimulation, and that dissimulation—not seeming to be who one was—was extremely important for homosexuals of Wilde’s time and place, and thus was an extremely non-trivial matter for Wilde. It was shortly after the play opened, in 1895, that Wilde was put on trial for “gross indecency,” this being a charge used to prosecute putative male homosexuals who had not been caught engaging in sodomy (i.e., anal intercourse). Convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labor, Wilde died shortly after his sentence was up; destitute and just 46. For refusing to meet his society’s demands for dissimulation, a great writer was destroyed mid-career. (“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”)

Yes, George, there is indeed a heartlessness to Earnest. It is the heartlessness of a society that not only stigmatized homosexual behavior and imprisoned people thought to engage in it, but that also, like all societies, insisted that its putative individuals contort themselves into one or another of the shapes recognized by the society. (E.g., witty playwright, homosexual, convict.) A different kind of Wildean than I am being in the present essay could say that the great thing about society is that spares us from having to be who we are. I find myself recalling another favorite text, Al Young’s “Players”:

Theyll let you be Satchmo,
theyll let you be Diz,
theyll let you be Romeo,
or star in The Wiz
but you gots to remember that
that’s all there is

Like “Players” (excerpted here), Earnest does not hide its fascination with dissimulation. Wilde quite clearly lampoons Victorian customs and values. And we theater-goers and resort-hotel-bedroom readers can accept that we would not be laughing if we could not find aspects of our own lives in the satire.

JACK: I beg your pardon, Algy, I suppose I shouldn’t talk about your own aunt in that way before you.

ALGERNON: My dear boy, I love hearing my relations abused.  It is the only thing that makes me put up with them at all.  Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.

But—what I am calling the unwritten part—what Earnest pointedly does not speak about is the import of dissimulating and of the need to dissimulate, the psychological and social effects on individuals, to include on Oscar Wilde. As in a Shakespeare comedy, or a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, Earnest concludes with everyone coupling up heterosexually and reasonably happily.

“But surely another person can’t have THIS pain!” cries one of the voices in the internal monologue that is Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I assume that in writing Earnest Wilde went to great pains to avoid setting down anything close to this, and it is the rigor and desperation of this avoidance that, like the I-beams inside a fancifully clad postmodern building, makes possible the greatness of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Personally I am quite interested in works that attempt to say what had been going unsaid, or that seek a register in which we might speak about the unsayable. I would have a latter-day Wilde or Wittgenstein (or an Eaton) attempt to reveal the links between the personal, the political and the intellectual or artistic, in the hopes that we might thereby better understand why we say and believe the things we say and believe. But Earnest is quite another work. It doesn’t just skirt the matter of such links, it buries it and them in laughter.

It might be said—perhaps this is what Earnest’s critics were alluding to—that such a project lacks courage, and I wonder if this isn’t also a misplaced criticism of comic works more generally. Imagine the strength required—e.g., of Oscar Wilde. It does not matter what “I” feel (what the author feels). It does not matter what I think. It matters that any trace of such things be buried in laughter. In witty phrases that may be repeated and draw laughs long after this I and its troubles are gone. Immanuel Kant or, say, John Rawls or Elizabeth Grosz, might say something similar of their intellectual work.

As for myself, even as I would have intellectuals explore connections between the theories they are advancing and their psychology, biography (social class included) and circumstances (economic and political included), . . . This does not mean my own writing lacks for unexplored or buried sources and feelings. It doesn’t take much spade work for me to see that my texts are responses to, ways of containing anger—rage. From the present perspective, we could say that this is clear given the essays’ calm, controlled, considered style. And working on this segment, it has also occurred to me that something similar might be said about Plato’s Phaedo. This eerily dispassionate, analytical, execution-day dialogue about whether there is an afterlife was the form Plato found for expressing his rage at the death of his mentor, Socrates. This was a wrongful, unnecessary death in two senses: Socrates was made to take the fall for the political and military misdeeds of richer and more powerful friends, and some of his rich friends were prepared to help him and his young family live on in exile, but Socrates insisted on going down with his principles.

Earnest and Wilde’s alter-ego Algernon propose that a double life may be the key to happiness; Socrates: If I cannot be fully and only myself, there is no point in living. In the Crito, Socrates engages in a sort of proto-Wittgensteinian internal dialogue as he considers bunburying—fleeing Athens and the other well-governed city states—in order to save his skin. If I should run, say, to Thessaly, he proposes to his rich friend Crito:

the people will be charmed to have the tale of [my] escape from prison, set off with ludicrous particulars of the manner in which [I was] wrapped in a goatskin or some other disguise, and metamorphosed as the fashion of runaways is—that is very likely; but will there be no one to remind [me] that in [my] old age [I] violated the most sacred laws from a miserable desire of a little more life? . . . [I] will live, but how?—as the flatterer of all men, and the servant of all men; and doing what?—eating and drinking in Thessaly, having gone abroad in order that [I] may get a dinner. And where will be [my] fine sentiments about justice and virtue then?

There is more than one way of talking oneself to death? Unlike Wilde in Earnest, Plato could not present Socrates’s drama, which touched him so deeply, without raising the curtain on his feelings an inch or so on his own feelings. In a rare autobiographical reference near the opening of the Phaedo, he has the narrator say that Plato did not visit Socrates on his final day, and the narrator offers an explanation: “Plato was unwell.”

One nice thing about the argument of the present essay is its untestability; it escapes the maw of our empiricist age. There is no way to be sure what the unwritten parts of the Phaedo or Earnest are or if indeed these plays had any unwritten parts. Nor, I would further argue, would “knowledge” of any unwritten parts shift our understanding of the focus of these works. Rather, the unwritten, I am proposing, intensifies the written, the apparent. If we should recognize (rightly or wrongly) that the unwritten part of the Tractatus is a text about ethics, this perspective does not make the Tractatus a work of ethics; it makes it all the more not a work of ethics. If we should suppose that the unwritten part of the Phaedo has to do with Plato’s rage, and perhaps fear, or more generally with feelings—to include about death!—this does not make the Phaedo an exploration of such emotions. It makes the dialogue all the more a demonstration of how intellectual activity can help us dissociate and escape (or, if you prefer, get out from under, rise above) our feelings. And so with Earnest, its (my?) unwritten part, if acknowledged (taken on faith), makes it all the more intensely not a work about the dangers of self-revelation and of trying not to be a player, an actor, but a flesh and blood individual.

JACK: Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case [on which the name Earnest was inscribed] was given to me in the country.

ALGERNON: Yes, but that does not account for the fact that your small Aunt Cecily, who lives at Tunbridge Wells, calls you her dear uncle. . . .

JACK: My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression.

Further, I am not insisting that every great work (however we might wish to identify or define such things) has to have this quality of obstinately refusing to betray its “unwritten part,” or, more loosely, its core or motivating subject. I am insisting that, while the sources of Earnest’s and Wilde’s brilliance are everywhere, the sources of Earnest’s inner glow can be hard to find either in or between its lines—until one starts deliberately looking for them, whereupon they pop up all over. See the epigraph about Cecily’s diary, or the play’s subtitle, “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” or another bit from Act II:

CECILY: I have never met any really wicked person before. I feel rather frightened. I am so afraid he will look just like everyone else.

[Enter ALGERNON, very gay and debonnair.] He does!

This—more than the glow, its source’s hiddenness—is essential to the play’s charm. (See The Picture of Dorian Gray:I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvellous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it.”)

Recently an old friend of mine, a psychoanalyst, sent me a copy of a case study he had written about a gay man. The central experience of the man’s life appeared to be this: When he was a child his parents had (ignorantly? sadistically? lacking money, space?) nightly sent him to sleep in a bed with his younger brother. During the analysis, the patient (“Mr. E”)

recalled many nights lying in bed surreptitiously watching his brother fall asleep and feeling an intense longing to “touch his chest.” Unable to contain the impulse any longer, one night he gently placed his hand on top of his sleeping brother’s bare chest. The brother almost instantly roused from sleep long enough to knock the hand away and roll over onto his side. In the morning Mr. E’s brother said to him, “Jeez, what got into you last night? You were all over me.”

It is easy enough for me to imagine having similar desires had I been assigned to sleep with one of my sisters. If I had then acted on my desires there would have been guilt and recrimination stemming from the incest taboo, and if I did not act, there would have been an incessant and growing frustration. In addition, my friend’s patient—earlier, when he was a boy—had had the sense that his, homosexual desires were not normal or acceptable (and nor, apparently, were they shared by his brother). I would note, however, that the word “homosexual” could drop out here.  There is a sense in which the incest taboo—for all it may be valuable for expanding our descendants’ gene pools; for building alliances through sex and marriage with non-family members; for promoting the “free, fair exchange of biochemical technology for parasite exclusion,” in biologist W.D. Hamilton’s phrase . . . Still, on the negative side, the taboo communicates to a child that sexual desires are not normal or acceptable; they need to be repressed.

We return to, and to conclude with, The Importance of Being Earnest. Unlike the young Mr. E. with his brother, Wilde managed to not even once give in to his feelings about the subject of his play. Again, therein lies the play’s greatness, its terrible greatness: in the strength of its self-denial, a kind of pure and awful strength. The core subject of the play is not given the least cause for complaining that the playwright had been “all over him,” though he had.

Credit & Links

Image at the top of this post is from the Peruvian wallpaper artist Cecilia Paredes.

The full text of Al Young’s poem Players appears in The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, edited by Arnold Rampersad (Oxford University Press, 2005), 118-19.

Mr. E’s case is discussed in S.H. Phillips, “The Overstimulation of Everyday Life: I: New Aspects of Male Homosexuality,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 49(4): 1235-67.

For a fuller discussion of dissociation and the Phaedo, see William Eaton, Philosophy and Death, Zeteo (CUNY). Also recommended: Ann Hartle, Death and the Disinterested Spectator: An Inquiry into the Nature of Philosophy (State University of New York Press, 1986).

W.D. Hamilton’s proposal that sex was for “parasite exclusion” appeared in “Pathogens as Causes of Genetic Diversity in their Host Populations,” in Population Biology of Infectious Diseases: Report of the Dahlem Workshop, edited by R.D. Anderson and R.M. May (Springer, 1982), 269 -96.

Finally, as best I recall in 2019, this essay was a precursor for The Unsaid, an essay of mine published by Agni in 2014.

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