June 30, 2004

Wilde

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in the novel whose success made him Fitzgerald (I'm referring to This Side of Paradise, has his hero, Amory Blaine, commit a faux pas in a literary discussion. Asked if he's read Oscar Wilde, he replies that no, he hasn't read it, not realizing that Wilde is a writer rather than a book. When I read Fitzgerald's novel at the tender age of 16, I had little inkling of who Wilde was -- I too might well have made the same mistake.

My silent obsession continues -- I read a review of Alla Nazimova's 1922 film Salome (not to be confused with the lost Theda Bara version), and learned that Nazimova's Salome was based on the play by Wilde. I picked up the DVD and watched it Saturday night -- the silent film seems faithful to both Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, who illustrated the work.

While I was in the bookstore, I picked up a volume of Wilde's journalism. Reading these old pieces, I was reminded of an astonishing assertion of Jorge Luis Borges:

Reading and rereading Wilde through the years, I notice something that his panegyrists do not seem to have even suspected: the provable and elementary fact that Wilde is almost always right.

Borges cites some of Wilde's essays and dialogues, as well as his journalism. Judging from what I've read so far, Borges' assertion is apt, even in small matters. Here's Wilde in 1884, responding to a letter to the editor from a woman who criticized his criticisms of women's fashion:

She makes two points: that high heels are a necessity for any lady who wishes to keep her dress clean from the Stygian mud of our streets, and that without a tight corset 'the ordinary number of petticoats and etceteras' cannot be properly or conveniently held up. Now it is quite true that as long as the lower garments are suspended from the hips, a corset is an absolute necessity; the mistake lies in not suspending all apparel from the shoulders. In the latter case a corset becomes useless, the body is left free and unconfined for respiration and motion, there is more health, and consequently more beauty.

The Wilde wit is also in evidence, particularly in this reaction to a cookbook that faults English food for its blandness:

...the British cook is a foolish woman who should be turned, for her iniquities, into a pillar of that salt which she never knows how to use.

In his essay on Wilde, Borges goes on to write,

His perfection has been a disadvantage; his work is so harmonious that it may seem inevitable and even trite. It is hard for us to imagine the universe without Wide's epigrams; but that difficulty does not make them less plausible.

Indeed.

Posted by Ideofact at June 30, 2004 11:59 PM
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