Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Living at the Turning Point of the World: Stoppard and Wilde

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Living at the Turning Point of the World: Stoppard and Wilde

Article excerpt

TOM STOPPARD'S PLAY THE INVENTION OF LOVE (1997) begins with the poet and classical scholar A.E. Housman standing on the bank of the Styx, watching the dreaded ferryman, Charon, coming towards him. Housman says: "I'm dead, then. Good. And this is the Stygian gloom one has heard so much about" (1). But nothing is ever quite what it seems in the uncertain, slippery world of Stoppard. "The audience gradually discovers that Housman is not quite dead yet. "The 77-year-old Housman is in a nursing home, in a bed which be may, or may not, have wet. It is night. He is "[n]either dead nor dreaming, then, but in between," as he puts it towards the end of the play (101). The entire work represents the bewildering weaving and unweaving of a mind that is fading away. But before Housman fades out completely, he meets the debonair ghost of Oscar Wilde on the bank of the Styx in the strange play of his dying brain. Wilde tells the repressed closet-homosexual Housman:

   I awoke the imagination of the century. I banged Ruskin's and
   Pater's heads together, and from the moral severity of one and
   the aesthetic soul of the other I made art a philosophy that can
   look the twentieth century in the eye. I had genius, brilliancy,
   daring, I took change of my own myth.... I lived at the turning
   point of the world where everything was waking up new--the
   New Drama, the New Novel, New Journalism, New Hedonism,
   New Paganism, even the New Woman. Where were you when
   all this was happening? (96-97)

This is not the first time Stoppard has celebrated Wilde's daring brand of aestheticism. Until now the most obvious example of Stoppard's kinship with Wilde has been his 1974 play Travesties, whose themes and structures are a playfully affectionate variation on The Importance of Being Earnest (see Sammells, "Earning Liberties" 376). This essay examines the subtle cultural resonance between Stoppard's postmodernist poetics and Wilde's turn-of-the-century explorations of aesthetic surfaces. Lady Bracknell's famous line from The Importance of Being Earnest seems even more apt today than when the play was performed in 1895: "We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces" (3:164-65). As we enter a new century, a time in which the whole world often appears like one continual turning point, it seems particularly fitting to study writers like Wilde and Stoppard. Both authors explore what Michel Foucault calls an "aesthetics of existence" (Use of Pleasure 12), which is a crucial aspect of the relevance of their work to our time, for at the same time that they acknowledge the problems of modern life, they show how nimble aesthetic strategies can be used to face the flux of the world with insouciant style rather than dour angst.

While some might acknowledge certain links between the playful dramas of Wilde and Stoppard, they may be uneasy about the claim that Stoppard's postmodernist poetics has much in common with nineteenth-century aestheticism with its doctrine of art for art's sake. This is an understandable concern. For instance, Steven Connor writes that certain shifts in attitude from modernism to postmodernism "constitute an assault on the ways in which the realm of the aesthetic has been defined since Kant." (1) Hence, he continues, "postmodernism may be said to be defined, at least in part, as a refusal of the aesthetic as such. Characteristic of much postmodernist art and theory is an impatience with the separation of art and its effects from the social and political world which is effected in modernism" (292). But is postmodernism as anti-aesthetic as this suggests? This leads us to the paradoxical ways in which postmodernism is viewed. While those who view it favourably, like Linda Hutcheon and Jean-Francois Lyotard, praise it for undermining the very notion of the aesthetic, critics of postmodernism, such as Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, berate it for being too aesthetic, for seeing history, identity, and truth as nothing but arbitrary fictions, aesthetic surfaces, and glittering simulacra to be experimented with, reconstructed, and deconstructed at the amoral postmodernists whim (see Hutcheon 15-21). …

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