(Original blog date: 20/12/09)
I was recently at an event where I experienced what I call an Oscar Wilde moment. You know the kind when you’re at a party and everyone looks like they’re with you, they like you, but you actually feel like you’re a million miles away? Like you’re not even there? And then the waves part when you let slip a word about your ‘real’ self?
I have these moments all the time, I’ve been having them since I was twenty. Far too often, my Oscar Wilde moments have shaded into Christ/McCarthy moments. The kind you don’t want to experience but which tend to determine your character pretty much instantly. To get Foucauldian about it, these moments tend to determine what kind of person you will agree to be: whether you will agree to remain inside the asylum branded as insane, or ‘free’ on the outside, a chronic, forgettable slave.
An Oscar Wilde moment is one where you realize that no matter how much everyone smiles, laughs at your witticisms and claims to like you, they will not lift a finger to help you when things go crazy. By this I don’t mean ‘not giving you money when you’re down and out.’ I mean that if you have the insane audacity to go against the current, to ostensibly throw your life away by challenging convention or authority, well then you will be pilloried, abandoned and finally banished (to your own cell, murmuring hell is other people***). Your friends will say tsk tsk, I told her so and go about their business shaking their heads, adding how sad it is that you turned out so completely (tragically) insane.
Henry Miller describes this lonely predicament far better than myself. The judgments, the I told you so’s, the sense of bitter exclusion felt by artists (and all manner of idealists), all imposed on them by the West in its horrific idolatry of Mammon. My favorite example is Cervantes, who from a debtor’s jail, in bitter self-hatred, wrote the story of his idiot hero, Don Quixote, whose unbearable sufferings he detailed with startling cruelty. Of course, Don Quixote was none other than Cervantes himself, before jail, a man who dared to believe his profligate life would not destroy him, who was foolish enough to think perhaps friends and people (in general) would come to his aid. Like Oscar Wilde. Like me.
Yes, Oscar Wilde was a bit of a Don Quixote, and so am I. He was La Fontaine’s cicada. He was any fool who dares to believe they can survive while being patently unreasonable. Naturally, being unreasonable simply means doing your own thing, giving it away, not wanting to do what everyone else is doing. It means to be ‘crazy,’ to not live to make money as a pill-popping, obedient hack. Cervantes saw rightly that the world had no pity for him. And he had none for his hero, Don Quixote. As far as he was concerned, Don Quixote, the artist-idealist, was so isolated and his ideal so ultimately futile, that in the eyes of the world, he might as well be battling windmills.
The reasonable people, the good banking calculating people, are also cruel that way. They don’t like the weirdos, the profligates, and they delight in their punishment.
Quite honestly, anachronistic patronizing bullshit Hollywood movies about Wilde apart, nothing’s changed since Wilde or Cervantes. The artist’s passion for throwing it away, his prodigality is still despised by the industrially minded, utilitarian ant-souls, who can’t see beyond profit and calculation, who are concerned, above all, with their vacations, their savings, their comforts and interior deco.
And my Oscar Wilde moment? Well it was a dinner. They arrived, they ate, they drank, they laughed and were warm and friendly. But a great unspoken accord hung in the air. ‘Don’t speak of it.’ Her ‘madness.’ The company, her writing, her insistence that book sales don’t make the artist. And (worse!) her embarrassing use of those outdated words: rebel, anarchist, revolution, good lord! Yes it was a silent consensus: our friend of otherwise sound mind, wonderful literary tastes, and excellent party-talents, has essentially lost her mind.
From here to the next level, there was only a small step. And so she will be punished for it. Indeed why shouldn’t she? Not that my friends will say so. If pressed on it, they’ll say they wish me to succeed. It’s the same with everyone I meet. Even folks who say they’re with you, when they meet you, will give you the shifting feet, the embarrassed smiles, the change of subject. Books are books, business is business. To think otherwise is to be cracked in the head. To be stupid. Sheer insanity darling. Do us all a favor. Stop battling those damn windmills and do what you do best: make money with your startling wit and irresistible personality.
Ah yes. It was a fine time. They ate, they drank, they ignored the best parts of me completely. Not for the first time, but this time I saw it with the clarity of a tiger’s eyes. And sure. I am crazy. Prodigal. Shamelessly idealistic, foolishly stubborn. I even have the gall to demand my friends acknowledge me. Indeed, all artists ask for the same despicable thing. Not tolerance, not even acceptance but outright idolatry. We ask for this because we are the few who insist on working not for money (or even fame) but simply because we exist. We also ask that our friends recognize our battle to be a real one. That they believe with their hearts, not with their brains. The heart is an absolutist. The brain is full of side entrances, display fronts , rear exits. Your brain may fool you, the heart never will. When it stops, it stops. The brain spins fantasies, dreams, lies. The heart? It stops and you’re dead.
So I ask my friends to care, to understand, to participate. To see that the windmills are not windmills but evil f*cking giants and that it is not a worthless battle after all.
But yeah. I know. Boo hoo, bla bla, tell me another sister, we all have our own problems.
Compassion? Sh*t, I might as well party with Godot.
***For those who don’t know, this is from Sartre’s play No Exit.