I guess everybody is familiar with the old story of the three Wise Men who had ventured to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. After a long, tiring journey, the Magi seemed to have lost their way, but they eventually succeeded in reaching their destination thanks to the help of the comet star that had lighted up and pointed them the right direction. At the end of that journey they were recompensed by the sight of the physical manifestation of the son of God on earth: Jesus. This event is called Epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia: manifestation, striking appearance), that is a moment of a sudden revelation. We can actually give that narration a non-religious interpretation, as the journey of the Magi may also well represent the crisis of the modern age, where men seem to have lost all their certainties and desperately need a focus, represented by the divine illumination of the comet, to direct them to that truth they need to give meaning to their uncertain lives. James Joyce makes his alter ego Stephen Daedalus lecture on the nature of epiphanies during a discussion with his friend Cranly on Aquinas’ interpretation of beauty. An epiphany is ” a sudden spiritual manifestation” which may be provoked by “the vulgarity of speech or a gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself“(from Stephen Hero), it is a moment of claritas that leads to the truth, the quidditas, as Aquinas would say. Joyce experimented the epiphanetic kind of writing especially in his early production and particularly in Dubliners to abandon it gradually. In Dubliners each character experiences one or more epiphanic moments, but Joyce seems to say that this is not enough to awake them from the state of paralysis that dominates their minds, they are all destined to fail. Eveline, for example, the very night she has to leave with her lover, hears an air that reminds her of the last day her mother was alive. She suddenly understands that she has to abandon any hesitation and escape(claritas) if she doesn’t want to end up miserably like her mother(quidditas). When Eveline arrives at the docks, the illuminated ship that would take her to Buenos Aires for her is a black mass (claritas) and the joyful whistle of the boat becomes a mournful lament (claritas), she feels that if she left the sea would engulf her(claritas), therefore overwhelmed by a paralyzing fear she refuses to leave (quidditas) and prefers a hopeless present to a hopeful, even if uncertain, future. She just couldn’t do it.
When fools leave the familiar setting of a theatre to seek maybe a better fortune, they seem to suffer from a curious disease: the “all world is a stage” syndrome. Its symptoms are easily recognizable: they keep on acting or speaking freely without realizing that in the real world acts and words have consequences on people. This happens because they can’t perceive the difference between the fictitious and real life. Problems arise when one of these fools happens to have received the responsibility of ruling a country or anyhow making or sharing a political project with the elected non-fools. He will inevitably have to face an identity crisis, because his job has been for years that of ridiculing, attacking those he is supposed to work with. A fool is very good at destroying, but once he is demanded to reconstruct,his mocking laugh fades away and he starts to display a certain agitation and becomes even aggressive, because all of a sudden he realizes that he just cannot keep on playing his favourite game off the stage. But the question is: can we expect a fool to be responsible and decide the destiny of a country? Only real fools would give him such a mission.This is the point.
Aestheticism and Romanticism have a lot in common, rejection of the material world and materialism in general, emphasis on sensibility and imagination, the quest for that striking, unforgettable emotion that gives meaning to your life. There are many similarities, but one thing is certainly different: the role of the artist. For Wordsworth the artist was the super sensitive genius, that has a mission to accomplish: defending man’s innate, natural sensibility which was about to be worn away by the values expressed by the new industrial society. On this purpose he had created a new “bourgeois poetry”, purged of all classic refinements, a new artistic language accessible to everybody which should have made the poet’s message easily attain man’s soul. They were great communicators and dreamers: art may change the world and its message should be available for all people. But for the aesthetes all the beautiful people of the world were just like the crew of Baudelaire‘s Albatros: hopelessly rude, ignorant, insensitive.The artist had nothing to say these people, whatever his choice of language was; they couldn’t and wouldn’t have understood. Therefore he decided interrupt the Romantic communicative effort and kept on flying in their sky made of taste and beauty. Art is for art’s sake and not for the sake of morality. The two opposite communicative intents can be clearly seen if we just compare the layout of the preface of the Lyrical Ballads to Wilde‘s preface of the Picture of Dorian Gray. The former is an extensive text, where Wordsworth explains his poetical project outlining methods and objectives, the latter is only a list of thought that don’t aim at being discussed. The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Full stop. The critic should judge the form rather than the content of an artistic product. Full stop. An artist should not have a didactic or moral aim. Full stop, All art is quite useless. The end.
The Importance of Being Earnest, at the very beginning, seems to follow the usual morality play canvas: good vs evil. Algernon Moncrieff, one on the two main male protagonists, is the bad guy: a penniless aristocrat devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and particularly fond of muffins. This is the Victorian society and appearances have to be saved, therefore, when he wants to have a good time he pretends to go and visit an invalid friend called Bunbury, who lives in the country, whose bad health seems to require Algernon’s loving care. He is indeed a liar. His friend Earnest should evidently play the role of the good guy, in fact his name evokes seriousness, trust, assurance. Wilde reinforces this effect giving him the surname of Worthing. emphasizing that the man is also a “worth” “thing”. Actually, Earnest seems to have a good head on his shoulder,in fact everybody regards him a trustworthy, upright man. But also respectable men need to have a night out sometime, therefore he has invented a wicked younger brother, who needs to be looked after, who lives in town and whose name is… Earnest. We may believe that our good guy lacks imagination since he has given his name to his fictitious brother, but here is the trick, his real name is actually Jack at home and becomes Earnest every time he is in town. A double liar in fact. This is actually Wilde’s canvas: nothing is what it seems. He considers the old fixed categories of drama surpassed, and inadequate to mirror the complexity of the modern contemporary society. He continuously shuffles his cards throughout the play, thus depriving his audience of every certainty and when at the end every character seems to have been unmasked and every single lie crushed there is the coup de théâtre: Algernon is Jack’s younger brother and Jack’s name is actually Earnest. “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth” he will say. Among the many adaptations of the Importance of being Earnest I particularly enjoyed that of Oliver Parker with Colin Firth playing Jack/Earnest and Rupert Everett in the role of Algernon, however, some of the adjustments in the script were, in my opinion, quite unnecessary. Algy in the movie is Jack/Earnest’s elder brother and Jack’s real name is actually Jack rather than Earnest. These choices add nothing to the story but rather they make it trivial, thus missing the essence of the play. Anyway, the movie is worth watching.