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Vol. 17, No. 5, 2018
 
     
 
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OSCAR WILDE AND THE BIRTH OF COOL


by
ROBERT J. LEWIS

___________________________________

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.
Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
Oscar Wilde

Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another
as to remain always cool and unruffled
under all circumstances.
Thomas Jefferson

Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, makes the case that Oscar Wilde has not been given his due as one of literature’s seminal figures, that literary criticism has failed to properly distinguish between the production of great literature – which Wilde did not produce -- and being of great literary and historical importance. Even though Paglia did not fully grasp how the Wilde persona, as especially revealed in his stage characters, would influence the 20th century and beyond. Her penetration into his sexual-psychological makeup and analysis of his work (The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray) remain unsurpassed, and since then it has become increasingly difficult to discount or overlook his critical influence.

Wilde, through his literary personae, is largely responsible for making explicit the attitude or comportment we refer to as “cool,” which significantly predates the “birth of cool,” attributed to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in the 1950s. The archetypes of cool are Wilde’s theater characters, pretty boy Dorian Gray and his mentor Lord Henry Wotton, whose unprecedentedly disengaged manner of being-in-the-world introduces the world to the exciting and contagiously captivating gait and grammar of being cool – a state of mind that functions like a vaccine against hurt and heartbreak, injustice and prejudice.

From ancient Greek tragedy to the late Romantic period, with few exceptions, engaging theatre and literature depended on the interaction of emotionally overwrought personages with whom audiences would therapeutically empathize in order to better grasp or sublimate their own emotional upheaval. The passions were prized above everything else and the price paid (breakdown, depression) was a matter of course and audience expectation.

Enter Oscar Wilde, who dared to snub conventional wisdom and belief that it was one’s duty to wear his/her emotions on the worn out sleeve. In his great novel and plays, Wilde’s below-zero (cool) characters are able to run life’s emotional gauntlets without suffering the usual hard knocks and permanent injury. What sets his characters apart is they are able to rise and then remain above the fray, far from the madding crowd, which is cool’s surprisingly easily won promise. Audiences were immediately drawn to his personages for their teflonic quality and preternatural ability to maintain their equipoise in the most trying of circumstance. Attending a Wilde play was like tuning into an instructional video on how to be cool.

What at once fascinates and distinguishes the main characters (souls on ice) in The Importance of Being Earnest is their aloofness, their resolute calm and cool in the face of what are normally emotionally wrenching conflicts or disappointments. Despite Wilde’s legendary wit and sententious brilliance, it’s not so much what his characters have to say that argues for his importance in the history of literature, but how they say it. Hurts and insults bounce off his personages like arrows off a hard hat.

Once entered into the public domain, Wilde’s cool quickly became de rigueur, the garment of choice: everyone wanted to wear it, to be seen in it. Its pharmaceutical properties created a demand that has only increased in the present age.

Since we have come to rely on especially the arts for premonitions into future cultural and social developments and transformations, it was almost inevitable that the visual arts, in the wake of Wilde, would dramatically break with the past and enter its version of cool into the cultural landscape. In the early 1900s, a mere 15 years after Wilde’s passing, Picasso, Braque and Leger were systematically geometrizing the curves and flesh of the human face and body. Cubist portraiture features figures and faces drained of all emotional content while flesh and body completely disappear in the 2-D flattening out process. This trend achieved its apogee in Mondrian, whose strictly geometrical art would eventually morph into minimalism and monochromatic painting, forms that reject any content. It might have taken 500 years from the wretched figure of Christ cringing on the cross to "Orange and Yellow" (1956) but with the advent of minimalism (Rothko, Newman, Molinari) the emotions are totally purged from the visual arts. Cool art now commands hot prices in the volatile art market.

Art goers seeking calm and repose were richly rewarded by minimalist (content-free) art and looked for more of the same outside the gallery. They found it in the music of Miles Davis in the early 50s, and in the Hammond B-3 organ sound of Jimmy Smith. With the aim of dramatically lowering the temperature, both turned their backs on the frenzied, overwrought, angry explosiveness that characterized Bee-Bop led by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. Davis slowed everything down to a walk and revived the ballads, while the steel, skyscraper-slick, cold metal Hammond B-3 organ sound generated by Jimmy Smith hit the brain like a drug. With those ice-coated notes in the ear, and nothing but the clothes on your back for an asset mix, the music made you feel on top of the world for as long as it lasted. However cool was the music of Miles and company, cool would have to wait for the arrival of New Age music in the 1980s for its coronation. Made up of feather soft sounds and simple melodies that would repeat, listeners looked to New Age for serenity and trance. But as India has long known, there is nothing to compare with endlessly sounding one-note-drone to drown out hopelessness and despair.

In his time, there were good reasons that Wilde would be attracted to the cool, meticulously carapaced, desexed personae we meet in his plays. In the late 19th century, Wilde was a homosexual in a time when one would have liked “not to be.” For appearance’s sake, he married and fathered two children so he could more easily comply with his outlaw nature in the face of public censure and homophobia. To an uncertain extent, he was able to live life on his own terms until 1895 when he was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to two years of humiliating hard labour from which he never recovered. He died a broken man in 1900 at the age of 43.

But if Wilde was unable to escape the Bible-backed, set-in-stone moral constrictions of his time, his most famous character, Dorian Gray, from the novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray, discovers that he can do whatever he wants with impunity since it’s his portrait that suffers the excesses.

Wilde, through his alter-ego, is yet another example of the abused becoming (sublimated through literature) the abuser. Pretty boy Dorian, charming, irresistible to both sexes, treats his conquests with the contempt of indifference. Nothing gets under his skin. In pursuit of beauty, pleasure and power, he shrinks the parameters of empathy to absolute zero: “What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.”

Transferring the hurt and ostracism he endured in real life to the painting, Wilde (Dorian Gray), now authors the pain while remaining preternaturally disengaged, as cold as the ice that runs through his veins. And if towards the end of the book Gray vacillates between being cool and stung with remorse, Lord Henry (Harry), whom the protégé worships, stays the course and quietly earns top billing as cool’s crowning achievement. In the crucible of his callousness, he transmutes every tragedy into a joke or witticism. Lord Henry is so composed we’re not sure if we’re dealing with a living person or a computer generated robot. Either way, whatever it is that he’s got, it registers as cool, and everyone who comes in contact with it (if only subconsciously) wants it. If we measure charisma by the number of people caught in its net, Dorian Gray and Lord Henry (the cool they underwrite) are easily among literature’s most charismatic personality types. With a half-nod to de Sade, whose coolness took on monstrous proportions, Wilde’s articulate, intelligent, gentlemanly characters make cool respectable (marketable). And be as it may that his characters are not so much flesh and blood as literary devices or projections of the author looking to remake the world in his own image, their over-the-top, immaculate style creates the necessary conditions for the birthing of cool and its subsequent influence on world culture.

Since Wilde, cool has evolved into a universal coping mechanism used to combat all manner of adversity and indignity, just as in daily life, from finance to the fine arts, there is no escaping cool's insinuating protocols and prerogatives. In the visual arts, painting has long been a cool medium, as has much of popular music. In the area of consumption, very few products can be successfully marketed without making major concessions to cool. Nike without the endorsement of the world’s top (cool) athletes would be a non-descript running shoe. The same with celebrity fashion.

Of all the myriad aspects and facets of modern life in the 21st century, relationships, more and more of which are conducted digitally, are most susceptible to the influence of cool. In McLuhan speak, and predicted by the path of least resistance principle to which humans are uniquely vulnerable, it is much easier to conduct a cool (digital) relationship, than a hot (person to person) one.

Like any powerful pleasurable drug, once tried, it’s hard not to try it again. Above everything else, cool relieves us of the often punishing and debilitating effects of self-consciousness. Cool is synonymous with reversion to animal unselfconsciousness and it shares the same end-game as drugs and alcohol, which means human beings, existentially, are simply not constituted to be human day in and day out. Or in Freudian terms, all humans entertain an unacknowledged death wish or "wish to return to the inanimate.”

As such, cool now rivals drugs and alcohol as the non-toxic means to the deliberate decommissioning of self-consciousness. And for that, we thank Oscar Wilde whose late 19th century "walk on the wild side" prepared the world for the walk that would change the world. More than anything and in answer to his deepest yearnings, Wilde wanted to escape the world that would eventually crush him. Since “we cannot offend nature” he writes “art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place.” So while Wilde, the founding father of cool, could not save himself through the cathartic act of creation, his gift to the world not only survives him but has found a permanent home in our collective unconscious.

There isn’t a person in the world who wouldn’t rather be rich and powerful, attractive and intelligent – and to those non-negotiables we now include “cool.”

 

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also by Robert J. Lewis:
The Big
Deconstructing Skin Colour
To Party - Parting Ways with Consciousness
Comedy - Constant Craving
Choosing Gender
Becoming Our Opposites
Broken Feather's Last Stand

Abstract Art or Artifice II
Old People
Beware the Cherry-Picker
Once Were Animal
Islam is Smarter Than the West
Islam Divided by Two
Pedophiling Innocence
Grappling with Revenge
Hit Me With That Music
The Sinking of the Friendship
Om: The Great Escape
Actor on a Hot Tin Roof
Being & Self-Consciousness
Giacometti: A Line in the Wilderness
The Jazz Solo
Chat Rooms & Infidels
Music Fatigue
Understanding Rape
Have Idea Will Travel
Bikini Jihad
The Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First Stone
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
Robert Mapplethorpe
1-800-Philosophy
The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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