Nothingness at Power

 

“Lady Bracknell. (….) I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

Jack. [After some hesitation.] I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.” (The Importance of Being Earnest Act 1)

What seems to Jack a nonsensical question to a man, who is facing an interview to be allowed to marry the woman she loves, actually, hides much more sense that we believe. Being puzzled but determined to win Lady Bracknell’s good opinion, he decides to keep a low profile declaring to “know nothing”. Lucky man. He guessed it right, after all he had 50 % odds. For Lady Bracknell such an answer reveals lack of pride, a quality that she cannot but appreciate, but also a humble disposition which is typical of those who actually know something. The more you learn, the more you have the impression that your knowledge is comparable to a mote of dust in the immensity of the universe. Socrates himself said:

“I am the wisest man alive, because I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

Yet, Lady Bracknell could not know that modernity would have brough to life a new category of people, that is, those who know nothing and live under the impression of knowing everything. They are the arrogant who believe that the bits and pieces of information they find grazing on the internet are the ultimate truth. It is the absence of doubt that makes them so. This is what Umberto Eco said about this social phenomenon:

“Social media give the right to speak to legions of idiots who once used to speak only at the bar after a glass of wine, without damaging the community. They were immediately silenced, once, while now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize. It’s the invasion of idiots .”

Once, if you were aware of your intellectual inconsistency, you would have never dared give your opinion on matters, let alone scientifical matters, you knew just a little or nothing about. Not today. Today you find pages and pages that promote, for example,  bicarbonate and even aloe as miraculous cures for cancer, that vaccines are dangerous and, therefore, pages blossoms where parents become in a fell swoop doctors, doctors with no degree of course, who give evidence and claim their right to choose whether to vaccinate or not, and who cares if their offsprings study or play with other children who are immunosuppressed, they are not their own, after all. On other pages you may learn that a hemorrhoids cream may erase your wrinkles and  that if you suffer from bags under you eyes, toothpaste is the remedy you were looking for – don’t do it!! – , but if you are in the mood of a more scientifical debate you may easily bump into people who are ready to give you proof of the fact that man never went on the moon, that the aliens are spying us and the earth is flat . Pages that may boast thousands of followers. So are we not far from the truth if we say that the free access to information has provoked general, arrogant, ignorant disinformation. I know, that at this point, Lady Bracknell, wouldn’t be with me, in fact she believed that:

“Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit, touch it and the bloom is gone” (The Importance of Being Earnest Act 1)

Maybe it was so at your time, my Dear, when there was no universal suffrage yet and the less fortunate envied, of course, but also admired the educated. The latters were a model for their children, which was eventually made attainable thanks to schooling. Today those elites do not represents any longer a model, and those voices who used to be silenced are allowed to vote and elect people exactly like them: ignorant, arrogant, selfish. Somebody who doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable with the inconsistency of their education or propriety of speech. Somebody simple, who speaks simply and is able to fuel minds with unattainable perspectives, envy towards the elites and fear for whatever is perceived different. These people today determine the fate of a country. The greatest revolution of our times would be allowing that delicate exotic fruit of ignorance to be touched by that virus called education, but I fear it is too late as they have already found the antidote.

“The opinion of 10,000 men has no value if nobody knows anything about the subject.” Marcus Aurelius

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What’s in a Name?

“What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title..” (Romeo and Juliet. Act 2, Scene 2)

Dazzled by the darts of love, Juliet speculates on the nature of names. Names are immaterial, yet, they can become insurmountable obstacles. They cannot be touched or seen, yet, they belong to a man and may mark his fate, even if, of course, they cannot change his essence, whatever it may be. Therefore, names matter. If if weren’t so, my mother wouldn’t have opposed so strongly to the one which was destined to me: Rosaria. I should have been named after my grandfather Rosario, and even if the its origin, Rose, may sound evocative and sweet, here it connotes the typical woman of the South of past tradition and my mother, a modern woman of the North, would have never accepted it. That name did not fit the image she had of her daughter, that’s why she chose Stefania. Fortunately, my grandfather, a mild, sensible man, didn’t mind, after all, I was the last of his many grandchildren and some of them had already been named after him.

Names are clearly evocative, they give an impression, often deceptive, of a person. That is why writers have always chosen carefully the names of their most important heroes or heroines. Think about Heathcliff, for example. It is a name that reflects its complex nature. He is heat, that is passionate, hot, but also destructive and dangerous. He is the fire that attracts you like a magnet, but if you touch it, you’ll get burnt. As for that cliff, it evokes harshness and danger again, in fact, waves move naturally towards cliffs and inevitably break. It is their fate. Would that character have worked likewise, had he been called, Jack, for instance?

I’ll leave Gwendolen to give the answer to this question in the “Importance of Being Earnest”:

“Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.”

It is a no. Gwendolen believes that names reflect the essence of men, and she wishes that the appropriate title for her future husband should be Earnest:

“…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”

Of course he is a liar, with a charming name, of course.

Even Walter Shandy, in Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy”, believes that names are as important to a person’s character as noses are to a person’s appearance. As Dr Slop had flattened his child’s nose in performing a forceps delivery, Walter Shandy believes that a solution to compensate him from what he believes to be a clear mark of loss of masculinity, would be to give him a grand name like Hermes Trismegistus, that is, “Hermes the thrice-greatest”. So, he needs a name “three times the greatest” to make things even. Trismegistus was also the name a legendary character: the greatest king, lawgiver, philosopher, priest and engineer ever. After all, isn’t this what all parents dream for their children? A grand, successful future and a good name may be a good start. Unfortunately, Mr Shandy’s hopes are definitively crushed, as his child is accidentally christened Tristram, which comes from the French “triste”  and from the Latin “tristis,” that is “sad” in English, with a final effect which is not exactly what Walter Shandy had hoped, but, quite the reverse. Tristram himself believes that this event has radically changed the course of his fate. So, what’s in a name?

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”(L.M.Montgomery)

 

My lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.

wi.1

Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie, was a young aristocrat and poet, the youngest son of the Marquess of Queensberry. He looked like an angel: fragile, with a very pale complexion, blonde hair and blue eyes, but often appearances can be deceptive and this case was no exception. The story of his relationship with Wilde began in 1892. Bosies’s  cousin, Lionel Johnson, had lent him a  copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray“, and after reading it  fourteen times in a row” he wished to be introduced to the author and so at the end of June 1891 Lionel Johnson accompanied his cousin in Tite Street and introduced him to Oscar Wilde. At the end of June 1892 Douglas needed Oscar’s help, because he was being blackmailed. Oscar, thanks to his lawyer George Lewis, solved all and since then they started to date and by the end of December 1893 they had become inseparable. The rumors about their lives ran all over London. The writer had little desire to hide that relationship and Bosie was even more eager to show it, as he wanted everyone to know that he was Oscar Wilde’ s “favorite”. In a letter to his friend Robert Ross Oscar writes:”My dearest Bobbie, Bosie has insisted on stopping here for sandwiches. He is quite like a narcissus – so white and gold (……..)Bosie is so tired: he lies like a hyacinth on the sofa, and I worship him”. Oscar was even introduced to Bosie’s mother, Lady Bracknell, and he made her one of the characters of his most popular comedy: “The Importance of Being Earnest“.

wi.3However, Bosie was not that “angel” he apparently seemed to be,  but rather,  he was usually described by his closest friends as spoiled, reckless, insolent and extravagant. He used to spend money on boys and gambling and expected Wilde to contribute to his expenses. It was Bosie who introduced Oscar to the circles of young  male prostitutes, rent boys who were readily available in spite of (or perhaps because of) the moral climate of the straight-laced Victorian Period. Wilde did nothing but follow him dispensing money, gold or silver cigarette cases and other gifts. He once said that attending these young guys was like feasting with panthers. Alfred Taylor (son of a manufacturer), Sidney Mavor (future priest), Maurice Schwabe and Freddy Atkins, Edward Shelley for a short time and Alfred Wood, a boy of seventeen, who blackmailed him obtaining 30 pounds, were some of those “panthers” who crowded Wilde’s chamber.

wi.5Since 1893 Wilde preferred to stay in a hotel to avoid scandals in order to meet freely and secretly his young lovers, but Douglas, instead, was not interested in hiding at all: he always entered from the main entrance. His friends were concerned and disappointed mainly because Bosie’s imprudent behavior exposed Oscar to very serious risks: it openly violated the “Criminal Law amendment Actof 1885 , an amendment which made “gross indecency” a crime in the United Kingdom. His friend Pierre Louys visited Wilde in the hotel with his wife Constance, who tearfully pleaded her husband to come home, but it was a failure.

wi.2Wilde’s first serious risk was the case of Philip Danney, a sixteen year old son of a colonel who on Saturday went to bed with Douglas, with Wilde on Sunday  and on Monday with a girl at Douglas’s expense. When the young man then returned to school, he was not able to produced a justification for the school days he had missed, the whole thing was discovered. His father went immediately to the police, but on the advice of his lawyer, as the guy seemed unwilling to make the name of Wilde, he realized that it was better not to act, even because his son risked to be imprisoned. After a furious fight with Oscar, Alfred Douglas left for Cairo, while Wilde hid in Paris and somehow he regained a certain serenity and he also went to applaud  the poet Paul Verlaine, who had recently been released from prison after his troubled vicissitudes with Rimbaud. At that time he also found his creativity back, as he wrote among other things The Canterville Ghost“, but the sudden return of Douglas ended his desire to write. Once again everything was as it used to be.

wi.12Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had tried in vain to convince his son to end the relationship, furthermore he was disappointed as Bosie had left Oxford without achieving a degree and he could not see any prospect of his taking up a proper career. He threatened to “disown [Alfred] and stop all money supplies” and to “make a public scandal ” if he continued his relationship with Wilde. Alfred ‘s answer was  “I detest you” on a postcard. It was clear that he would take Wilde’s side in a fight between him and his father. Queensberry also planned to throw rotten vegetables at Wilde during the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest, but, forewarned of this, the playwright was able to deny him access to the theatre.Queensberry, now exacerbated, publicly insulted Wilde by leaving, at the latter’s club, a visiting card on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite“–a misspelling of “sodomite.”

wi.11Against the advice of his closest friends, Wilde was convinced by Bosie to sue the Marquess for libel in a private prosecution. It was the wrong choice.  Queensberry was arrested, but he not only avoided conviction demonstrating in court that the charge was not true, but Wilde found himself involved in a new trial with the accusation of “gross indecency”. Witnesses, private letters, it had not been difficult to find evidence. Three days after the beginning of the trial, on April 29, Wilde wrote from prison a moving letter to Bosie, who had gone to Paris in the meanwhile. On 25 May 1895  Wilde was sentenced to two years and three months of hard labour, first at Pentonville, then Wandsworth, then in the famous Reading Gaol

wi8The prison regime was tough: the poet had serious health problems and by the way, falling awkwardly because of a collapse, he got himself a wound in his right ear that probably would cost him his life five years later, because the infection degenerated and turned into meningitis. Meanwhile, Wilde had vainly hoped for solidarity and support from his beloved Bosie, who instead had turned away from him proving coldness and callousness; the boy  even told him, during his illness, that when (he) was not on (his) pedestal (he) was not interesting.”Hurt and disgusted by the attitude of his lover, Wilde wrote from jail a very long letter entitledDe Profundis, in which he expressed his sorrow and his contempt for the vanity and the inconsistency of Lord Alfred, repudiating him formally. Wilde was not authorized to send it, so when he was released, he gave the manuscript to his friend Robert Ross, with the  instructions to send a copy to Bosie, who however denied for life to have received it.The letter was published only in 1905, five years after the poet’s death.
wi.10The prison experience had affected him deeply, since then he cultivated the dream of escaping from the world that had sentenced him and refused his way of being. He moved to France and lived in Paris for four months trying to rebuild his life and trying to forget the man who had brought him to ruin. But love is stronger than reason. He got back in touch with Douglas and  they decided to spend the winter together in Naples.The two lovers lived on Posillipo hill, at Villa Giudice. Although Wilde was traveling as Sebastian Melmoth, his arrival in the city became public soon, the news was even reported by the newspaper Il Mattino” in an article by Matilde Serao.
wi.9When they were in Capri, at the Quisisana, as soon as they sat down to dine, the owner invited them to go somewhere else as some fellow countrymen, who had recognized the poet, did not  tolerate to be in his proximity. The incident did not remain confined in the island and the two were again on everyone’s lips and the scandal forced the relatives of both to find a remedy. The British Embassy was involved and the two were deprived of their income. Wilde was thus dispossessed of his small income granted by his ex-wife, while Bosie’s funds were cut by his mother. Bosie‘s mother paid the bills of the couple, and forced him to go back home, while Wilde went to Taormina with the little money received from the mother of his lover. In February 1898 he left for Paris.

wi.6The relationship with Lord Douglas was now finished. Bosie had finally abandoned Wilde, probably for fear of being disowned by the family. In 1902, Douglas married Olive Eleanor Custance, heiress and poet. They had a son, Raymond, who suffered from a severe form of schizophrenia and died in a nursing home in 1964. The marriage ended soon in a legal separation, but there was no divorce. In the last years of his life, Douglas lived mainly thanks to his maternal inheritance. His father, in fact, had squandered much of his fortune. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he left London and took refuge with a couple of friends in Lancing, West Sussex, where he died of heart failure in 1945.

 

True lies

The-Importance-Of-Being-Earnest

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.