97. (Oscar Wilde)

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon quips: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” The actors must have paused for laughter, because the next line turns the joke upon the audience. Jack asks: “Is that clever?” And Algernon saves the audience from the embarrassment of satire: “It is perfectly phrased! And quite as true as any observation should be.”

Algernon’s original quip makes sense: as bad as it is to be like one’s mother, the alternative facing men is worse: becoming like their fathers. And his quip has the form of wit: perfect phrasing, compactness, detachment, and the purported recognition of the comic in the tragic…but the joke is that the audience might not have laughed at the sense, and have responded to the expectation and appearance of wit where even the substance was lacking.

Wilde knows that the false-face of wit is indifference to sincerity, truth, and meaning. Genuine wit is refusal to sincerely adopt a single attitude, but depends on the awareness that the attitudes are there to be adopted.

As I’ve written about in a few posts, wit represents an attitude between attitudes; it lopes between the four major genres, taking the high path of detachment between the valleys of comedy, tragedy, pastoral, and satire. These differ in the assumptions they make regarding two essential characteristics of the world: the isolation or connectedness of individuals in it, and the world’s fragility or resilience (it’s potential for imbalance or dissolution). Tragedy views individuals as isolated, the world as fragile; satire, individuals as isolated (especially the satirist) but the world as essentially resilient (so he can afford to laugh and elicit laughter); comedy, individuals as connected to one another and the world, in a world that is resilient; pastoral, individuals as connected fundamentally in a world that is frail (often fleeting; inescapably and painfully wasteful).

But so static a view of wit, though accommodating the quip in a play by Wilde (or a lyric poem) fails to do justice to what makes the plays genuinely witty: their plots.

I will propose here an alternative set of axes by which the four modes of literature, the four attitudes towards the world, can be distinguished, based not the direction of action and the consequence of that action. One set of poles: plots that converge and plots that converge. The other set of poles: the place of individuals in the world’s categories and structures is muddled and the place of individuals in world’s categories and structures is reinforced/set right.

In comedies, plots converge and categories and the place of people in the world’s structures is reinforced; in tragedies, plots diverge (isolating individuals) and the place of individuals in the world’s categories and structures is muddled (the fall from power; the loss of meaning); in satire, plots converge but the place of individuals in the world’s categories and structures is muddled/goes wrong (people are shown to be not what they were); in pastoral, plots diverge but the place of individuals in the world’s categories and structures is reinforced/goes right.

Once again, wit walks a ridge between the valleys; the witty plot is one which any two poles are honored; when the recognition of the muddle is seen in the reinforcement, or the reinforcement in the muddle, or (in what admittedly seems to me a very unlikely scenario) when the recognition of the divergence is seen in the convergence or vice versa.

The temptation is to say that The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy. And the tempting counter-argument, if we feel that instinctively it does not quite seem a comedy, is to call it a satire. But neither holds; the play is instead witty. The plots do converge, and by its end the place of individuals in the roles of society, and the categories of society, have been reinforced. But along the way, and even by the end, the place of individuals in the categories is made to seem arbitrary, and the categories themselves are felt to be poorly defined and not very sturdy than they are usual; and the structure into which individuals are firmly, clearly, and, in their eyes, naturally slotted to live their lives holds together by whim and chance association; all while people do end up in the “proper” places. Muffins and marriages; names and traits; these are made to feel interchangeable, their differences inconsequential, or serving only immediate ends; and they are made to feel so by the progress of the narrative itself. It is not difficult to see the near relation between Wilde’s wit and the wit of the Alice books: not in the quotable instances only, but in the effect of the action—not on the configuration of the world, and not only the place of people in it—on the weight and properties of the categories by which the world is configured, by which people are sorted. There is surely something queer in it.

 

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