OSCAR WILDE AND THE BIRTH OF COOL
ROBERT J. LEWIS
is least himself when he talks in his own person.
Give him a mask,
and he will tell you the truth.
Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another
as to remain always cool and unruffled
under all circumstances.
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 overlook his critical influence.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
the cultural landscape. In the early 1900s, a mere 15 years after
Wilde’s passing, Picasso, Braque and Leger were systematically
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.
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.
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, narcosis-inducing one-note-drone to drown
out hopelessness and despair.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
any powerful pleasurable drug, once tried, it’s hard not
to try it again. As a measured response to the human condition,
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.”
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.
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.”
Thought provoking writing as usual, Robert . . . thanks for
your inspirational insights!
Sorry. Wilde produced great literature: his plays, Dorian
Gray, essays on the arts.. If not, you wouldn't have bothered
to write about him.