“…Lady Brandon treats her guests exactly as an auctioneer treats his goods. She either explains them entirely away, or tells one everything about them except what one wants to know.”
“Poor Lady Brandon! You are hard on her, Harry!” said Hallward listlessly. (The Picture of Dorian Gray)
What discussion of aphorism would be complete without Wilde?
My students and I talked, this week, about how Wilde’s plays pile up aphorisms relentlessly, barely allowing any breathing space. Asked what effect this had on the reader, one student responded – aptly – with a nauseated little ‘ugh’.
Wilde’s style can be sickening. Faced with his flow of aphorisms – constantly, monotonously demanding our attention – we are left feeling as ‘listless’ as Basil Hallward. In A Woman of No Importance, Lord Illingworth talks constantly about being bored. We suspect he may, despite or perhaps because of his aphorisms, be boring himself.
Ben Grant, Sandra Siegel and Umberto Eco focus on whether Wilde’s aphorisms are true or not. Or – in Eco’s case – whether or not they even count as proper aphorisms (he wonders whether they might be ‘paradoxes’ or ‘transposable aphorisms’ instead). What I like best about Wilde’s aphorisms, though, is how clearly they bore his own characters. When I’m feeling cruel I put this down to Wilde’s ineptitude.
JACK …I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.
ALGERNON We have.
JACK I should extremely like to meet them. What do they talk about?
ALGERNON The fools? Oh! about the clever people, of course.
JACK What fools.
ALGERNON By the way, did you tell Gwendolen the truth about your being Ernest in town, and Jack in the country? (The Importance of Being Earnest)
That ‘By the way’ cracks me up. It is such a comically inadequate reply. If that’s how you responded to a witticism in real life, you’d be thought either rude or dense. If that’s how you wrote your film script, for that matter, it would be touted as the worst film of all time…
Why don’t Wilde’s characters laugh? They ignore each others’ aphorisms, or sometimes tell them they talk nonsense. Or they counter with aphorisms of their own, each neutralised by the next. When aphorism follows aphorism, everything is reduced to the same bloodless tonal uniformity. Wilde seems sometimes to be showcasing the failure of humour, in his readers as much as his characters. Characters respond to witty wisecracks with the same banal inconsequence which, we suppose, the aphorisms are satirising.
ALGERNON: Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.
JACK: Ah! I haven’t any relations…
Don’t you, Jack? How interesting. For all Wilde’s satirising of banal social exchanges, the transitions in his plays are secretly, tellingly dull. Which is more damning? Conversations made up of nothing but small talk – or where the wittiest, most sparkling bon mots sink without a trace?
The modernists of course go on to satirise the bleakness of of parlour-talk. And so, a little later, does Stevie Smith:
She does not like the way some of those young girls go on.
The way those girls go on, she says.
Oh yes, isn’t it awful?
Isn’t what awful? says Kathie.
Oh, I say quickly, the way those young girls go on. (Stevie Smith, The Holiday)
There is one point in Wilde, though, where the spell seems to break – very slightly – for a moment. It is in An Ideal Husband. Phipps, one of Wilde’s long-suffering, poker-faced servants, allows a little gleam to shine through:
Lord Goring. Extraordinary thing about the lower classes in England—they are always losing their relations.
Phipps. Yes, my lord! They are extremely fortunate in that respect.
Lord Goring. [Turns round and looks at him. Phipps remains impassive.] Hum! Any letters, Phipps?
Miracle of miracles – Phipps makes a witty remark, and Lord Goring notices. He looks sharply round. But Phipps says nothing. The social surface is maintained. And the play, after just a little pause, moves on as before.