QOTD (2010-10-09)

From Tom Stoppard’s highly-recommended play The Invention of Love, a dramatization, basically, of all sorts of Oxford drama surrounding Greek love, with a focus on AE Housman. Here is Stoppard’s Wilde talking to Stoppard’s Housman in the Underworld, where they’re both reflecting on their lives; Housman has just told Wilde that he wishes Wilde had been able to live in ancient Greece, that his life was “a chronological error.” Wilde replies thus:

Dante reserved a place in his Inferno for those who wilfully live in sadness—sullen in the sweet air, he says. Your ‘honour’ is all shame and timidity and compliance. Pure of stain! But the artist is the secret criminal in our midst. He is the agent of progress against authority. You are right to be a scholar. A scholar is all scruple, an artist is none. The artist must lie, cheat, deceive, be untrue to nature and contemptuous of history. I made my life into my art and it was an unqualified success. The blaze of my immolation threw its light into every corner of the land where uncounted young men sat each in his own darkness. What would I have done in Megara!?—think what I would have missed! 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 charge of my own myth. I dipped my staff into the comb of wild honey. I tasted forbidden sweetness and drank the stolen waters. 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?

AEH At home.

In Stoppard’s telling of the story, my sympathy comes down unequivocally on Housman’s side. I don’t know much about Housman’s life—only dimly recall that when we did oral reports on classic poems in high-school English, we dwelt on the martyrdom evident in “Reading Gaol,” while “To an Athlete Dying Young” passed us by without very much imputation of the love that dare not speak its name. But Stoppard makes me think as if Housman has a nobility to be matched against Wilde’s admittedly ostentatious vulgarity; even as both we and Housman admire Wilde for standing up in public, and feel some sympathy for his confession that he still loves Bosie after all that, I find myself thinking that I have much more in common with Housman than I ever will with Wilde. Those of us who are scholars, who make our lives out of quibbling close-readings and maybe write a bit of poetry here and there, who do not make spectacles of ourselves in witness-boxes to be read years later as champions of free expression and martyrs to a cause that did not yet have a name, much less a name like “gay liberation,” I think must sometimes struggle to find in our lives the proof that it was worth it—because we must find something, as Stoppard’s Housman must, to make conversation about with Charon on the ferry ride, and general audiences tend to find the minutiae of Latin philology, or its equivalent, pretty boring.

But Wilde had to start somewhere. He had to be taught Latin and Greek and philosophy and things. And, I suppose, if you were the one who taught Oscar Wilde to scan Virgil—or, better yet, if you were the tutor for whom Wilde wrote his first essay about Plato—I think you could give yourself a pat on the back all the same, even if you spent most of a very exciting period in intellectual and cultural history very much at home.

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