Monday, April 10, 2006

Week 11, Pater and Wilde

Pater’s “Preface” and “Conclusion” to The Renaissance, “Style” from Appreciations

Pater’s argument regarding the prosaic excellence of some poetry and the poetic qualities in fine prose, as well as his remarks about historiography, partially anticipate very modern notions. With the advent of structuralism and so-called post-structuralism from the 1960’s onward, it has become difficult for critics simply to assert that this or that literary genre should be rigidly defined and that individual works should then be judged on how well (or badly) they adhere to generic conventions. Neither would most 21st-century historians claim too boldly that they are “simply telling us how things actually happened.” That sort of objectivism has gone out of style, and has come to seem presumptuous: history, as Pater suggests with his mention of Livy, Tacitus, Gibbon, and Michelet, is as least as much a “story” or narrative as it is a recounting of actual events. In this sense, the historian’s task resembles that of a fiction-writer – he or she must arrange a set of incidents and thereby tell a credible and compelling story about certain events and characters. Hayden White makes that point very well in his book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe.

Pater’s point, however, is hardly what some take to be the lesson of postmodern literary theory– he isn’t offering us an almost nihilistic pronouncement on the impossibility of making judgments about literary works or historical events. (That view of contemporary literary theory is not very perceptive since, after all, the best work in the field doesn’t so much celebrate “indeterminacy” as explore the potential for harm by those who boast of a premature and unearned self-certainty in matters of literature, historical discourse, or politics. Humans have been destroying themselves and others for millennia, it might be argued, in part because they have a perpetual and almost infinite capacity to dupe themselves and then to act upon their false suppositions.) Instead, Pater offers us a sophisticated model of the impressionist critic – his critic is someone whose temperament and sensibilities are finely attuned to making relevant distinctions and discovering the various excellences in any medium of art, or in any kind of non-fiction work, for that matter.

The “aesthetic critic” he favors is sometimes considered rather an elitist and rarefied purveyor of literary comments – a person who sees art as something far removed from ordinary life. Pater himself was, of course, a quiet Oxford Don whose secluded and relatively uneventful life exemplified that quintessential British quality, “reserve.” Even so, we might make a case for a kinder reading of Pater’s critical emphasis – his insistence that prose and verse, fiction and real life, are not so far apart as some would make them can be read as a call to extend a sensitive, yet critical glance across the full spectrum of human experience. The sharp perceptual abilities and refined powers of discernment of the art critic, that is, might serve us well in matters extending beyond art.

Notes on Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

The structure of Shakespearean romantic comedy according to Northrop Frye and M. H. Abrams:

Leave the corrupt city > go to the forest, the magical “green world” > return to the city

As You Like It Arden >

The Tempest Island >

In tragedy, things start out well and then decline. The aim for the protagonist is that he or she should gain some perspective on the tragedy that has occurred and what brought it on.

In comedy, whose basic aim is to amuse the audience, things start out badly and end well. The deeper aim is broadly social: the kingdom or other city space is at first badly ruled or in turmoil for some reason—perhaps the values and institutions of the citizens and/or rulers are in need of some re-examination. What is the basis of those values and institutions—can people live comfortably or at all within them?

Next, the main characters leave (willingly or otherwise) the city setting and wind up in the countryside, in a pastoral setting. This setting is often a kind of enchanted, magic space that allows for the necessary reexamination of values and social roles. Magical transformations of characters occur; they are put in situations that could not occur in the city or the kingdom; the forest or countryside’s magic opens up new possibilities to them. Abrams 25: “The problems and injustices of the ordinary world are magically dissolved, enemies reconciled, and true lovers united.” After this reappraisal and readjustment period has been completed, the main characters come together—the young by marriage, the foundational institution of the civil order and its only hope for regeneration.

Finally, the characters return to the kingdom proper or are about to return when the play ends.

The key to Shakespearean comic structure is political and social regeneration, continuity for the ruling order. The question to be explored is, “How does a given society preserve order and its values from one generation to the next?”

Satiric Comedy: “Ridicules political policies or philosophical doctrines, or else attacks the disorders of society by making ridiculous the violators of its standards of morals or manners” (Abrams 25). Greek playwright Aristophanes is the first great satiric comedian, while among the Elizabethans Ben Jonson, especially in Volpone, is perhaps the greatest satirist in comedy. Things end badly for Volpone, the play’s main character, but the play as a whole is still comic because Jonson has (after some initial identification) made us despise Volpone, not sympathize with him. So the aim in satiric comedy is mockery of a given society or of those who break its rules.

Comedy of Manners: This kind of comedy is the one that best describes The Importance of Being Earnest. The original proponents of this “New Comedy” were the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence, and later versions of it occur in Shakespeare (cf. Much Ado and Love’s Labour’s Lost) and in the comedies of the Restoration after 1660. Molière also excelled at this kind of play--see Tartuffe, for example. The Roman comedies “dealt with the vicissitudes of young lovers and included what became the stock types of much later comedy, such as the clever servant, old and stodgy parents, and the wealthy rival.” English comedies deal with “the relations and intrigues of men and women living in a polished and sophisticated society, relying for comic effect in great part on the wit and sparkle of the dialogue—often in the form of repartee, a witty conversational give-and-take which constitutes a kind of verbal fencing match—and to a lesser degree, on the ridiculous violations of social conventions and decorum by stupid characters such as would-be-wits, jealous husbands, and foppish dandies” (Abrams 26). Some major authors of English comedy of manners are Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Arthur Pinero.

Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. This play follows the basic structure of romantic comedy (as do many other comedies of manners) in that the play begins with the characters in the city, moves them toward the countryside to straighten out the mess they’ve got themselves into, and points them toward city life once again by the play’s end. As usual in comedy, events turn upon the attempts of the play’s lovers (there are three couples in this one) to get together and on the many obstacles they must first overcome. So the structure of Wilde’s play is traditional.

As for the play’s subject matter and dialogue, they certainly meet Abrams’ criteria for comedies of manners: IBE takes for its most basic subject “the relations and intrigues of men and women living in a polished and sophisticated society”—indeed, Lady Bracknell calls the late Victorian Era “an age of surfaces.” The dialogue also largely fits the bill: the play is full of “wit and sparkle,” and it has its fair share of what Abrams would call repartee: “a witty conversational give-and-take which constitutes a kind of verbal fencing match.” Many of the characters box their way through the play with quick linguistic jabs, some of them sounding suspiciously like the kind of sharp, opportunistically intelligent remarks that made Wilde himself London’s social lion until his downfall in 1895.

Structurally, the play is traditional in yet another sense: it follows the basic setup of a Terentian drama in general, whether comic or tragic:

a) first comes the protasis, in which the basic characters and situation are established

b) then comes the epitasis in which events and characters are interwoven and complicated

c) next comes the catastasis, in which the plot reaches a false climax—comedy is deceptive.

d) last comes the real climax, the catastrophe.

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