The Aesthetic Retreat

Aestheticism and Romanticism have a lot in common: the rejection of materialism in general, an emphasis on sensibility and imagination, the quest for that striking, unforgettable emotion that gives meaning to life and more. There are many similarities, for sure, but the Romantics had a distinctive optimistic feature: they were dreamers and revolutionaries at the same time.They believed in the power of poetry and in particular in the mission of the artist, a super sensitive genius, whose task was to defend man’s natural sensibility, which they felt was about to be worn away by the values expressed by the new industrial and capitalistic society.

Their ambition was to talk to the heart of men, any man, however, if they wanted to reach a wider public, the dominant taste of the time would not do for the purpose. That is why Romantic poetry became a “bourgeois” sort of poetry, as it was purged of all classic refinements, thus losing its aristocratic trait and with a selection of a new simple language which made accessible to anybody  the poet’s message. As their noble minds were fueled by the inspiring principles of the French Revolution, they aimed at fighting against conformism, indifference, ignorance but very soon, when that revolutionary wind weakened, the artists started to question: must art have a purpose of some kind? Must artists pursue goals different from giving life and form to their creative inspiration? A Romantic poet like Keats had developed pretty soon another opinion about it, in fact, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he had clearly stated that art has only one goal : beauty. He even reinforced the concept adding : “That is all… Ye need to know“, thus anticipating the Aesthetic creed.

For the Aesthetes, in fact, those people, whose hearts the Romantics wanted to touch with their lines, resembled the crew of Baudelaire‘s poem: Albatros, that is, hopelessly rude, ignorant, insensitive. A poet, who, like the Albatross, happens to descend among them, cannot but become the martyr of common ignorance and blindness. In his flight the poet/Albatross is magnificent and elegant with his vast wings, he is “the prince of sky and clouds“, but when the men of the crew catch him and place him on the deck, well, everything changes. The bird has to walk now, seems to have lost all the confidence he had before, thus becoming pathetic,clumsy, ashamed and those beautiful wings which used to take him up to the sky, now seem like oars that drag him down. This fallen angel has become so gauche and weak that appears to be like a cripple.The men show no pity, but rather, they sneer at him.

The poet/Albatross belongs to the sky and he is used to facing the tempest. Only up there he is the king that laughs at the(bow)man, but when he is on the earth, when he is “exiled” among the jeering men, his wings become useless, as they “prevent him from walking“. Modern society, like the deck of that ship is no longer for poets, as it is peopled by men who do not wish to learn anything from them. Any attempt of communicative effort cannot but be destined to failure whatever the choice of language might be; they couldn’t and wouldn’t understand. Poetry, just like the wings of the Albatross, is of no use.That is why the aesthetes chose to keep on flying in their sky made of taste and beauty, thus avoiding the risk of being entrapped by men’s ignorance and violence. Art is for art’s sake and nothing more. On this point they were quite firm, as we understand reading Wilde‘s “Preface” to “The Picture of Dorian Gray“. The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Full stop. The critic should judge the form rather than the content of an art. Full stop. An artist should not pursue a didactic or moral aim. Full stop.  All art is quite useless. The end.

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Oscar Wilde in Naples

Many words can be used to describe Oscar Wilde’s genius and personality, but wise is not one of them, to be sure. Having spent two years in jail after having been charged for “gross indecency”, the echoes of the scandal were not over yet, so he decided that Paris would have been a better place to try and start over again. In those months in Paris he could work on his famous “Ballad of Reading Jail”, but the signs of hard labour on his body and the awareness of the terrible humiliation his family had suffered were not enough to make him ignore the reasons of his heart. Against his better judgement, if he had any, Wilde yielded to his desire to see again Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie, the man who had brought him to a tremendous downfall, so the two decided to spent the winter in Naples as Bosie ‘s relations were already there. Of course, his friends and family were furious for his going back the man who had ruined not only his but the life of those who had been close to him.

Towards the end of September 1897 the two lovers arrived in Naples and settled at Villa del Giudice on the charming Posillipo hill. Even though he used the name of Sebastian Melmoth, his coming to Naples become soon the tittle-tattle of the moment and only a couple of weeks after their arrival Matilde Serao wrote an article about the presence in town of such a famous, irreverent artist on the most popular newspaper: Il Mattino. “The secret of Pulcinella” we would call it  here in Italy and this expression particularly fits, as Pulcinella is a character who belongs to the Neapolitan Comedy of Art. By the way, how Wilde meant to keep the secret, having started soon to attend the Neapolitan literary circles, I cannot make it out, but as I told you before, wisdom has never touched him. Of course, being in reduced circumstances he was trying to have his works translated, but the tittle-tattle could not be stopped when the couple started to be seen in the company of other men, who were not part of any artistic society. A waiter of a hotel said he had seen Wilde with five soldiers and that he had spent the entire night with them.

So very soon rumors became scandals. It was only October when the couple decided to visit Capri and lodged at Hotel Quisisana. When the Swedish doctor and writer Alex Munthe met them the following day, they looked particularly depressed as they were waiting for a boat to go back to Naples. “They denied us even bread” said Wilde laconically and Bosie explained that some Uk customers had recognized them at the hotel and as they could not tolerate their presence there and the two lovers were politely sent away by the property owner. They had tried to find shelter in another hotel but they had received the same treatment. Axel Munthe invited them to dinner and offered them to be his guests at Villa Lysis, for some days. Afterwards, Wilde went back to Naples the 18th of October 1897, while Bosie decided to remain few more days at Munthe’s “Villa San Michele”.

The fact that Wilde and Bosie were a continuous source of scandal, brought both Douglas’s and Wilde’s families first to ask, then to intimate and eventually to force the two to separate. Which was their weakest point? Money. Wilde was deprived of the small income guaranteed to him by his separated wife, while  Bosie’s funds were cut by his mother. Even an emissary of the Embassy of England in Rome came to Naples expressly to see Douglas and make him understand that he would have to separate from Wilde immediately and such a conduct was considered like misbehaving towards the embassy itself.

 

It might be regarded a little harsh, but the cut of the funds worked well, and shortly after, at the end of November 1897, Douglas returned home after having written a warm letter of apology to his mother, who, by the way, had paid the (many) bills left pending by the couple. Wilde even received some money from her, which he used to take a trip to Taormina. Ah, the pangs of love!

 

The aesthetic surrender

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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.

True lies

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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.

Order and chaos

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“What a piece of work is a man”: the noblest of all God’s creatures, the very essence of grace and beauty, “infinite in faculties”, in action how like an angel“,” in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2Yes, a god, this is very likely what Basil Hallward must have seen the first time he had met Dorian Gray. And just like for gods, Basil is ready to worship and adore him, because he instinctively feels that Dorian Gray’s uncommon beauty is the mirror of the innocence and wonder of his soul. This is the real trap, as it is very arduous for anybody to conceive that a beautiful facade might hide an evil nature.This is very likely due to the archetypes we have been fed with in our early age with all the stories, fairy tales, myths. After all fairy comes from fair, that is light and consequently good, all witches are actually dark in fact. However, this is just a childish distinction, because the nature of a man is far more complicated that this. Man is a delicate balance between the world outside and the world inside. Ethics is what keeps him stable. When Dorian Gray realizes that his wish of eternal beauty has been fulfilled, that very moment his ethical world collapses and his balance is lost forever. The unmentionable desires, passions, lust, fear, freedom, that romantic chaos of his soul  will slowly prevail over the classical immutable perfection of his beauty. But if Dorian wants to enjoy fully that chaos he needs to crash definitely anything that might stir any moral process. That’s why he stabs the portrait. He wants to be free from feeling any remorse. But what is a man without ethics? Could he really bear the chaos of his soul? What would become of him? When the servants find the body of Dorian Gray lying on the floor, they can hardly understand who it was.

The scent of beauty

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Eighteenth century France. Grenouille‘s early life had not been easy: abandoned to die by his mother,emotionally abused, exploited; he needs to be loved but the entire world seems to ignore or feel repulsion for him. Grenouille has a peculiarity:he was born with no scent, but at the same time he has the most gifted nose in the world. One day his mind, for the first time, seems to be intoxicated by the most delicious scent he has ever encountered: that of an adolescent girl. He follows it. In the darkness of an alley he strangles her, lays her body down on the ground and smells her scent until it disappears from her body due to death. Pleasure and happiness overwhelm him. There he realizes he might create a fragrance that could stir those emotions in men, he might have made people love him. On this purpose he manages to work for a perfumer, who will teach him everything about distillation. Grenouille will create the best scents Paris has ever smelt from the essences of flowers. But this is not enough. He still keeps in mind the memory of the intoxicating odor of that girl. His obsession will make him kill 24 teenage girls in order to distill their scent. And when eventually he murders the best-smelling girl, Laure, his dream perfume is completed. From now on people will have to love him.  Quite soon Grenouille is apprehended and sentenced to death but thanks to the confounding power of the perfume he will escape execution, Laurie’s father will even offer to adopt him. Just one drop and nobody escapes the magnetic force of its spell. But there are no more scents to be discovered, no more goals to reach. He becomes suicidal. One day he decides to sprinkle the entire bottle of perfume on himself. The inebriated mob, suddenly blinded by passion and love, jump on him with the intent of keeping their object of desire for themselves, but they won’t be satisfied till they end up devouring him. A scent, beauty, love, the power of emotions is so overwhelming because instinctively in the source of those emotions we often see something more, something we believe superior to us and that’s why it may enslave our senses and consequently our mind. Dorian Gray‘ s incomparable beauty for example is worshipped by everybody, but it’s not only the perfection of his remarkable features and youth that is admired, that childish beauty seems to mirror the innocence and integrity of his soul. He is seen as the angel of goodness. Keats‘s knight is slowly entrapped by the sensuality of his “Belle Dame“. She is ” a faerie’s child” for him and quatrain after quatrain he falls under her spell of her and starts to lose the control of his actions. When he wakes up “la Belle Dame” has vanished, just like Grenouile’s scent, and realizes that he is all alone “on the cold hill-side“.

A bitter realism

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Progress can’t be stopped. The fast growing transformations in England  couldn’t be stopped. It was the country of the “dark satanic mills” where the social solitude of Blake‘s chimney sweepers and exploited women emerged. It was Dickens‘s smoky and polluted land where litte Oliver, David or Nicholas struggled to find their dignity in that insensitive world where the dominant creed was that of Scrooge before becoming all generosity and kindness. The bourgeous society was too blinded by the new range of opportunities so that success,social status, money making became the top values of that age everywhere. It is clear that the role of that artist willing to change the world in the pervading materialism had to be re-defined. What was the point of keeping on with the effort of educating to sensibility an ignorant, indifferent, arrogant audience? What for? To end up like Wilde‘s nightingale? To die for nothing? So modern artists decided to turn their backs to their public and ceased any attempt of didactic or moralizing effort. They accepted the course of events. Some of them decided to describe accurately the evil mechanisms of the bourgeous society with cold scientific detatchment just like Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola in France or with a certain sentimentalism with Charles Dickens. Some others openly rejected the vulgarity of the contemporary world and refused to conform  finding a safe shelter in that exclusive place where taste and beauty ruled and art was for art’s sake that is, using Wilde’s own words, “quite useless”. It was the bitter defeat of the Romantic ideals.