Imitation, the sincerest form of mockery

From a talk given by Terry Eagleton, the Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford to the Royal Society of Literature
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The Independent Online

A truth in art, Oscar Wilde once remarked, is one whose contradiction is also true; and of nothing is this truer than of Wilde's own brilliant, blighted career. Wilde came from the city which his literary compatriot James Joyce spelt as Doublin, and most things about him were doubled, hybrid, ambivalent. His name, for a start, which yokes the Gaelic Oscar to the English Wilde. He was socialite and sodomite, victor and victim, upper-class and underdog, a darling of English high society whose enchanting fables for children are almost all secret revolutionary tracts.

A truth in art, Oscar Wilde once remarked, is one whose contradiction is also true; and of nothing is this truer than of Wilde's own brilliant, blighted career. Wilde came from the city which his literary compatriot James Joyce spelt as Doublin, and most things about him were doubled, hybrid, ambivalent. His name, for a start, which yokes the Gaelic Oscar to the English Wilde. He was socialite and sodomite, victor and victim, upper-class and underdog, a darling of English high society whose enchanting fables for children are almost all secret revolutionary tracts.

There are thus almost as many Oscars as you'd find at a Hollywood awards ceremony, not all of them mutually compatible.

The English remember Wilde as the gay, the wit, the dandy, the bohemian, but tend to be puzzled by his Irishness, and indeed are in some cases simply ignorant of it. When my play about Wilde, Saint Oscar, opened in London with Stephen Rea as Wilde, I heard a woman in the bar during the interval ask her partner: "Was Wilde really Irish, or is Eagleton just making that up?"

She said it with mild indignation, as one might, I suppose, if someone presented Shakespeare as a Zulu or Wordsworth as Bulgarian. Since Wilde tried often enough to forget about being Irish himself, having mislaid his native accent somewhere in the precincts of Magdalen College, Oxford, this is hardly a punishable offence.

Like many an Irish émigré washed up on the shores of England, Wilde set about the business of becoming more English than the English. He would show the natives that he could handle their conventions even more dexterously than they could themselves, like the circus clown who nips off cheekily with the suitcase the strongman has been struggling to lift.

But whether this was flattery or mockery, parody or conformity, was never very easy to say, least of all perhaps for Oscar himself. Or perhaps, as he himself would say, imitation is the sincerest form of mockery.

If Wilde was one of the first literary modernists, it's partly because he grasped the point that all identity is a kind of fiction, and that being oneself is really just the final form of play-acting. When Michael McLiammoir played Wilde on stage, one had the curious spectacle of an Englishman playing an Irishman playing an Irishman playing an Englishman.

All this, to be sure, can sometimes be overdone. There are times when his writing is too lush, cloying and exotic, too precious and perfected in the worst fin-de-siÿcle way; and there are other times when his prose is too mannered, facetious and overbred.

But if Wilde is superficial, he's profoundly so. He believes in form, style and appearance with all the fervour with which others believe in substance, depth and reality. Whereas others celebrate the monumental and imperishable, Wilde delights in the transient and the trifling, whatever is fleeting, impalpable, on the move.

Wilde proved to be a doubled, self-contradictory figure. For he was in real life (if that's a phrase one can use of him) a gentle, compassionate man, whose sympathies were easily stirred by poverty, and who once gave away his coat to a shivering beggar on London Bridge.

He treated the rent boys who betrayed him far too considerately, and was much too kind-hearted to his chinless wonder of a lover, the appalling young Bosie. He had inherited the social conscience of his great father, Sir William Wilde, along with the political nonconformism of his nationalist mother.

But his own children were to be removed from him forever, in punishment for whatever crime it was he had committed. That crime was not, perhaps, bedding young Bosie; it was a combination of being too clever by half, to which the English are especially allergic, being too funny about what they took seriously, and being too extravagantly, unashamedly himself.

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