Author Archives: Ancien Regime

Addiction and Onanism

What part of a gambler’s long-buried childhood is it that forces its way to repetition in his obsession for play? The answer may be divined without difficulty from a story by one of our younger writers. Stefan Zweig, who has incidentally devoted a study to Dostoevsky himself (1920), has included in his collection of three stories Die Verwirrung der Gefohle [Confusion of Feelings] (1927) one which he calls “Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau” [“Four-and-Twenty Hours in a Woman’s Life”]. This little masterpiece ostensibly sets out only to show what an irresponsible creature woman is, and to what excesses, surprising even to herself, an unexpected experience may drive her. But the story tells far more than this. If it is subjected to an analytical interpretation, it will be found to represent (without any apologetic intent) something quite different, something universally human, or rather something masculine. And such an interpretation is so extremely obvious that it cannot be resisted. It is characteristic of the nature of artistic creation that the author, who is a personal friend of mine, was able to assure me, when I asked him, that the interpretation which I put to him had been completely strange to his knowledge and intention, although some of the details woven into the narrative seemed expressly designed to give a clue to the hidden secret.

In this story, an elderly lady of distinction tells the author about an experience she has had more than twenty years earlier. She has been left a widow when still young and is the mother of two sons. who no longer need her. In her forty-second year, expecting nothing further of life, she happens, on one of her aimless journeyings, to visit the Rooms at Monte Carlo. There, among all the remarkable impressions which the place produces, she is soon fascinated by the sight of a pair of hands which seem to betray all the feeling of the unlucky gambler with terrifying sincerity and intensity. These hands belong to a handsome young man–the author, as though unintentionally, makes him of the same age as the narrator’s elder son–who, after losing everything, leaves the Rooms in the depth of despair, with the evident intention of ending his hopeless life in the Casino gardens. An inexplicable feeling of sympathy compels her to follow him and make every effort to save him. He takes her for one of the importunate women so common there and tries to shake her off; but she stays with him and finds herself obliged, in the most natural way possible, to join him in his apartment at the hotel, and finally to share his bed. After this improvised night of love, she exacts a most solemn vow from the young man, who has now apparently calmed down, that he will never play again, provides him with money for his journey home and promises to meet him at the station before the departure of his train. Now, however, she begins to feel a great tenderness for him, is ready to sacrifice all she has in order to keep him and makes up her mind to go with him instead of saying goodbye. Various mischances delay her, so that she misses the train. In her longing for the lost one she returns once more to the Rooms and there, to her horror, sees once more the hands which had first excited her sympathy: the faithless youth had gone back to his play. She reminds him of his promise, but, obsessed by his passion, he calls her a spoil-sport, tells her to go, and flings back the money with which she has tried to rescue him. She hurries away in deep mortification and learns later that she has not succeeded in saving him from suicide.

The brilliantly told, faultlessly motivated story is of course complete in itself and is certain to make a deep effect upon the reader. But analysis shows us that its invention is based fundamentally upon a wishful phantasy belonging to the period of puberty, which a number of people actually remember consciously. The phantasy embodies a boy’s wish that his mother should herself initiate him into sexual life in order to save him from the dreaded injuries caused by masturbation. (The numerous creative works that deal with the theme of redemption have the same origin.) The “vice” of masturbation is replaced by the addiction to gambling; and the emphasis laid upon the passionate activity of the hands betrays this derivation. Indeed, the passion for play is an equivalent of the old compulsion to masturbate; “playing” is the actual word used in the nursery to describe the activity of the hands upon the genitals. The irresistible nature of the temptation, the solemn resolutions, which are nevertheless invariably broken, never to do it again, the stupefying pleasure and the bad conscience which tells the subject that he is ruining himself (committing suicide)–all these elements remain unaltered in the process of substitution. It is true that Zweig’s story is told by the mother, not by the son. It must flatter the son to think: “if my mother only knew what dangers masturbation involves me in, she would certainly save me from them by allowing me to lavish all my tenderness on her own body.” The equation of the mother with a prostitute, which is made by the young man in the story, is linked up with the same phantasy. It brings the unattainable woman within easy reach. The bad conscience which accompanies the phantasy brings about the unhappy ending of the story. It is also interesting to notice how the façade given to the story by its author seeks to disguise its analytic meaning. For it is extremely questionable whether the erotic life of women is dominated by sudden and mysterious impulses. On the contrary, analysis reveals an adequate motivation for the surprising behaviour of this woman who had hitherto turned away from love. Faithful to the memory of her dead husband, she had armed herself against all similar attractions; but–and here the son’s phantasy is right–she did not, as a mother, escape her quite unconscious transference of love on to her son, and Fate was able to catch her at this undefended spot.

If the addiction to gambling, with the unsuccessful struggles to break the habit and the opportunities it affords for self-punishment, is a repetition of the compulsion to masturbate, we shall not be surprised to find that it occupied such a large space in Dostoevsky’s life. After all, we find no cases of severe neurosis in which the auto-erotic satisfaction of early childhood and of puberty has not played a part; and the relation between efforts to suppress it and fear of the father are too well known to need more than a mention.

Sigmund Freud, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” 1928

 

Aesthetic Value

We need to teach more selectively, searching for the few who have the capacity to become highly individual readers and writers. The others, who are amenable to a politicized curriculum, can be abandoned to it. Pragmatically, aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those who are incapable of grasping its sensations and perceptions. To quarrel on its behalf is always a blunder.

Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994

Silent Running

Edvard Munch

The analysand’s demand is in fact a means of getting rid of this desire. Unconsciously, she wants to stop being unsatisfied and turns to a therapist in the hope that he will be able to heal her pain and remove the lack that torments her. The problem, however, is that in the long term this solution will not work. The analyst will never be able to give the analysand what she desires; all he can give her is desire as such. In other words, the analyst will only be able to help her to the extent that he leaves the analysand’s demand painfully unanswered. . . .

This strange therapeutic starting point of psychoanalysis has far-reaching implications for ethics. The “good” the analysand demands henceforth means a satisfaction of her desire. But since we are nothing other than our desire, since desire is our very being, our demand in fact aims at extinguishing desire, which is to say that it aims at our death. This is what Freud’s concept of the “death drive” already had its sights on. What we desire, whether we call it “well-being,” “good,” or the “highest good” is in fact, in the final analysis, nothing other than death, Lacan concludes. What an age-old and still valid tradition names the “good”—that is, something humankind is made for and at which our desire naturally aims—would really, were it to be realized, kill us. It would be pure evil. What one unconsciously demands in the psychoanalytic cure is in fact an “evil” that would destroy us, Lacan says, and one lives only by grace of the fact that one’s demand never gets fully answered. It is just as well that the “good” the analysand demandingly and desiringly searches for is an illusion. Complete satisfaction would simply be fatal.

Marc De Kesel,  Eros and Ethics, 2009

Miser-y

Frans II van Francken

The idea that a miser would miss his treasure most if it were lost is indeed not that certain. In fact, he already misses it. This is precisely why he is a miser: he not only denies everyone else the enjoyment of his treasure, but also himself. No matter how attached to it he is, he leaves it untouched. And if deprived of it, even he himself would not be able to say what precisely he is missing. In this sense, the miser’s treasure strikingly illustrates what Lacan defines as the “object of phantasm.” The treasure makes up the center of a scenario to which, at the most fundamental level, the miser owes his identity as miser. It indicates the level at which he no longer seems able to maintain himself as the subject (the bearer) of his narrative. For as soon as he is confronted, either consciously or unconsciously, with the fact that he does not know who he is and precisely what he seeks in his riches, he slides away into his phantasm. He sinks down into a scenario of signifiers in which he (as subject) completely forgets himself and “merges” with his beloved treasure. However, he doesn’t “really” merge with his treasure; he only merges with the scenario crystallized around that object. He merges with a signifying scenario from which the treasure remains at distance. As object of desire, the treasure is not to be reduced to one of the signifiers that constitute the miser’s life. Rather, it is located where the signifiers always fall short and, in this way, maintain the miser’s desire (or, what amounts to the same thing, the object relation he “is”). The object is to be sought at the place of the “phallus,” that is, the place where that pure (phallic, symbolic) lack is covered up by the scenario of the phantasm. Keeping everyone (including himself) from his treasure, the only experience he has of it is that of a lack. In the final analysis, his treasure coincides with that very “lack,” which is the ultimate reason why he keeps it above all away from himself.

Marc De Kesel,  Eros and Ethics, 2009

Greek Love

Kouros

Greek love, you have to get used to this idea, is the love of beautiful boys. And then, hyphen, nothing else. It is quite clear that when one speaks about love one is not speaking about something else. All the efforts that we make to put this in its place are destined to fail in advance. I mean that in order to see exactly what it is we are obliged to move the furniture around in a certain way, to reestablish certain perspectives, to put ourselves in a certain more or less oblique position, to say that this was not necessarily all there was… obviously… of course…

It nevertheless remains that on the plane of love there was nothing but that. But then on the other hand, if one says that, you are going to tell me that love for boys is something which was universally accepted. Well no! Even when one says that it nevertheless remains that in a whole part of Greece a very poor view was taken of it, that in a whole other part of Greece—Pausanias underlines it for us in the Symposium—it was very well regarded, and since it was the totalitarian part of Greece, the Boeotians, the Spartans who belonged to the totalitarians (everything that is not forbidden is obligatory) not only was it very well regarded, it was what was commanded. One could not stand apart from it. And Pausanias says: there are people who are much better. Among us, Athenians, it is well regarded but it is prohibited all the same, and naturally that reinforces the value of the thing. This is more or less what Pausanias tells us.

All of this, of course, fundamentally, does not teach us very much, except that it was more credible on a single condition, that we should understand more or less what it corresponds to. To have an idea of it, you must refer to what I said last year about courtly love. It is not of course the same thing, but it occupies an analogous function. I mean that it is quite obviously of the order and of the function of sublimation, in the sense that I tried last year to contribute to this subject a slight rectification in your minds about what is really involved in the function of sublimation.

Let us say that there is nothing involved here which we [cannot] put under the register of a kind of regression on a collective scale. I mean that this something which analytic doctrine indicates to us as being the support of the social bond as such, of fraternity among men, homosexuality, attaches it to the neutralisation of the bond. It is not a question of dissolving this social bond, of returning to the innate form, it is quite obviously something else. It is a cultural happening and it is also clear that it is in the milieu of the masters of Greece, amongst people of a certain class, at the level at which there reigns and at which there is elaborated culture, that this love is put into practice. It is obviously the major centre for the elaboration of interhuman relationships.

I recall in a different form, the thing that I already indicated at the end of the last seminar, the schema of the relationship of perversion with culture in so far as it is distinguished from society. If society brings with it by its censoring effect a form of disintegration which is called neurosis, it is in a contrary sense of development, of construction, of sublimation—let us say the word—that perversion can be conceived when it is produced by culture. And if you wish, the circle closes in on itself: perversion contributing elements which torment society, neurosis favouring the creation of new elements of culture. However much a sublimation it may be, this does not prevent Greek love from being a perversion. No culturalist point of view should predominate here. We cannot tell ourselves on the pretext that it was an accepted, approved, even celebrated perversion… homosexuality remains nevertheless what it was: a perversion. That to want to tell us in order to arrange things that if, we, for our part, treat homosexuality, it is because in our day homosexuality is something quite different, it is no longer the fashion, and that in the time of the Greeks on the contrary it played its cultural function and as such is worthy of all our respect, this really is to evade what is properly speaking the problem. The only thing which differentiates the contemporary homosexuality with which we have to deal and the Greek perversion, God knows, I believe that one can scarcely find it elsewhere than in the quality of objects. Here, schoolboys are acneed and cretinised by the education they receive and these conditions are not really favourable for them to become the object of our homage; it seems that one has to go searching for objects in out of the way places, the gutter, that is the whole difference. But there is no difference in the structure itself.

Naturally this causes scandal, given the outstanding dignity with which we have invested the Greek message. And then there are the fine sentiments with which one surrounds oneself for this purpose, namely that we are told: all the same you must not believe that for all that women did not receive appropriate homage. Thus Socrates, do not forget, precisely in the Symposium, where, as I told you, he says very little in his own name – but what he speaks is extraordinary – only he makes a woman speak in his place: Diotima. Do you not see that the testimony, that the supreme homage comes back, even in the mouth of Socrates, to the woman? Here at any rate is what right thinking people never fail at this point to highlight for us; and in addition, you know that from time to time he would go to visit Lais, Aspasia – historians collect all sorts of gossip – Theodota who was Alcibiades’ mistress. And as regards the famous Xanthippes, about whom I spoke to you the other day, she was there the day he died as you know, and she even gave out the most deafening cries. There is only one problem… this is attested for us in the Phaedo, in any case, Socrates suggests that she should be put to bed immediately, that she should be got out at quickly as possible so that they can talk calmly, there are only a few hours left.

Except for this, the function of the dignity of women will be preserved. I have no doubt in fact about the importance of women in antique Greek society, I would say even more, it is something very serious whose import you will subsequently see. It is that they had what I would call their true place. Not alone did they have their true place, but this means that they had a quite outstanding weight in love relationships and we have all sorts of testimonies of this. It appears in fact, provided always that one knows how to read—one must not read the antique authors with wire netting on one’s glasses—that they had this role which is veiled for us but nevertheless is very outstandingly their own in love: simply the active role, namely that the differences between the antique woman and the modern woman is that she demanded her due, that she attacked the man. This is something that you can, I believe, put your finger on in many cases. In any case when you have woken up to this point of view on the question you will notice many things which otherwise, in ancient history, seem strange. In any case Aristophanes who was a very good music-hall producer, did not dissimulate from us how the women of his time behaved. There has never been anything more characteristic and more crude concerning the enterprises – as I might say – of women. And it is precisely for that reason that learned love—as I might call it—took refuge elsewhere.

Jacques Lacan, Transference, 1960

Alcibiades

Alcibiades, Capitoline Museum

I would like you to take into account what Alcibiades is. In any case, for the usual version, you should read in the Nine Greek Lives what Plutarch wrote about him, this to help you to take into account the stature of the personage.

I know well that this again is going to demand an effort from you. This life is described for us by Plutarch in what I would call the Alexandrian atmosphere, namely at a funny moment in history, in which all the personages seem to pass to the state of a sort of shadow. I am speaking about the moral accent of what comes to us from this epoch which involves a sort of emergence of shadows, a sort of nekuia as it is called in the Odyssey.

Plutarch’s construction, with what they contain moreover as a model, as a paradigm, for a whole moralistic tradition which followed, have this something or other which makes us think of the being of zombies: it is difficult to see blood flowing through their veins. But try to imagine from this singular career that Plutarch outlines for us, what this man must have been; this man coming here before Socrates, Socrates who elsewhere declares that he was protos erastes, the first to have loved him, Alcibiades, this Alcibiades who on the other hand is a sort of pre-Alexander, a personage no doubt whose political adventures are all marked with the sign of defiance, of extraordinary exploits, of an incapacity to situate himself or to come to a halt anywhere, and wherever he passes upsetting the situation and making victory pass from one camp to the other wherever he goes, everywhere hunted, exiled and, it must be said, because of his misdeeds.

It seems that if Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, it is in so far as it felt the need to recall Alcibiades right in the middle of hostilities to make him account for an obscure story, the one described as the mutilation of Hermes, which appears to us to be as inexplicable as it is ridiculous as we look back on it, but which surely involved fundamentally a character of profanation, of properly speaking insulting the gods.

Nor are we at all able to consider the memory of Alcibiades and his companions as settled. I mean that it is surely not without reason that the people of Athens brought him to book for it. In this sort of practice which evokes, by analogy, some sort of black Mass or other, we cannot fail to see against what kind of background of insurrection, of subversion with respect to the laws of the city, that there emerges a personage like Alcibiades. A background of rupture, of contempt for forms and for traditions, for laws, no doubt for religion itself… This is the disturbing thing that this personage carries with him. But he carries with him just as much a very singular seduction wherever he goes. And after this suit by the people of Athens, he does neither more nor less than pass over to the enemy, to Sparta, to this Sparta moreover that he Alcibiades has some responsibility in making the enemy of Athens, because, previously, he did all in his power in short, to make the peace negotiations fail.

So he goes over to Sparta and he immediately finds nothing better, nor more worthy of his memory, than to make the queen pregnant, something which everybody saw and knew about. It happens to be very well known that the king Agis has not slept with his wife for ten months for reasons which I will pass over. She has a child, and right away Alcibiades will say: in any case, it was not for the pleasure of it that I did this, it is because it seemed appropriate to my dignity to ensure that my descendants would have a throne, and in that way to honour the throne of Sparta with one of my own race. This sort of thing, as you can well imagine, may be captivating for a certain time, but it is not forgiven. And naturally as you know Alcibiades, having contributed this present and some ingenious ideas about the manner of conducting hostilities, is going to change quarters again. He can hardly fail to go to the third camp, to the Persian camp, to the one represented by the power of the king of Persia in Asia Minor, namely Tissaphernes who, Plutarch tells us, was a bitter enemy of Greece. To be frank he hates them, but he is seduced by Alcibiades.

It is from there that Alcibiades is going to set about reestablishing the fortunes of Athens. He does it in conditions whose story of course is also extremely surprising because it seems that it is really in the midst of a sort of network of double agents, of permanent betrayal, all the warnings he gives to the Athenians are immediately reported through a circuit to Sparta and to the Persians themselves who make it known to the specific person of the Athenian fleet who passed on the information; so that at the same time he in his turn comes to know, to be informed, that it is perfectly well known in the highest places that he is a traitor.

Each of these personages sorts himself out as best he can. It is certain that in the midst of all this Alcibiades redresses the fortunes of Athens. After all that, without our being able to be absolutely sure of the details, in the way that the ancient historians reported them, we must not be astonished if Alcibiades comes back to Athens with what we could call a really outstanding triumph which, despite the joy of the Athenian people, is going to be the beginning of a change of opinion.

We find ourselves in the presence of someone who cannot fail at every instant to provoke what can be called public opinion. His death is also quite a strange business. There are many obscurities about who is responsible for it; what is certain, is that it seems, that after a succession of reversals of fortune, of reversions each more astonishing than the other, (but it seems that in any case, whatever difficulties he find himself in, he is never disheartened), a sort of enormous confluence of hatreds is going to culminate in the destruction of Alcibiades by means of procedures which are those, which legend, myth say must be used against the scorpion: he is surrounded by a circle of fire from which he escapes and it is from a distance with javelins and arrows that he must be brought down.

Such is the singular career of Alcibiades. If I have shown you the level of a power, of a penetration of a very active, exceptional mind, I would say that the most outstanding trait is still the reflection which is added to it by what is described not alone as the precocious beauty of Alcibiades as a child (which we know is closely linked to the story of the type of love then reigning in Greece namely, the love of children) but this beauty preserved for a long time which meant that at a rather advanced age it makes of him someone who seduces as much by his form as by his exceptional intelligence.

Such is the personage. And we see him in a gathering which reunites in short learned, serious men (although, in this context of Greek love on which we are going to put the accent later on which already contributes a background of permanent erotism from which these discourses on love are going to emerge) we see him therefore coming to recount to everybody something which we can summarise more or less in the following terms: namely the vain efforts that he made when he was a young man, at the time Socrates loved him, to get Socrates to have sex with him.

This is developed at length with details, and in short with a considerable crudity of language. There is no doubt that he made Socrates lose control, show how disturbed he was, yield to these direct corporal invitations, to a physical approach. And this which is publicly [reported] by a drunken man no doubt, but by a drunken man the whole extent of whose remarks Plato thinks it worthwhile reporting to us—I do not know if I am making myself fully understood.

Imagine a book which might appear, I am not saying in our day, because this appears about fifty years after the scene which is reported, Plato produces it at that distance, suppose that after a certain time, to soften things a little, a personage like for example Mr. Kennedy, in a book composed for the elite, a Kennedy who would have been at the same time James Dean, comes to tell how he did his best while he was at the university to be made love to by … (let us say some kind of professor), you can choose the personage yourself. It is not absolutely necessary that he should belong to the teaching profession, because Socrates was not quite a professor. But he was all the same a rather special one. Imagine that it is somebody like Mr. Massignon and who at the same time is Henry Miller. That would produce a certain effect. It would lead to some difficulties for Jean-Jacques Pauvert who would have published this work. Let us recall this at the moment when it is a question of noting that this astonishing work has been transmitted to us throughout the centuries by the hands of what we should call in different ways different kinds of benighted friars, which means that we have without any doubt the complete text.

Jacques Lacan, Transference, 1960

Arabesque

Samarra stucco Style A (Abbasid era)

There is a curious parallel between the flowering of an art with geometrical motifs like interlacement, double spirals, triple vortices, continuous swastikas and so on in Northern Europe, and particularly in the British Isles, and the almost simultaneous appearance of these same forms in the nascent art of Islam. These two manifestations of art differ in only one respect: in northern countries, it is the stylized animals that seem somehow to be the first element of the ornamentation; they are entwined in spirals, fold into knots and form interlacements of facing pairs, whereas it is the stylized plant, in Islamic surroundings, from which most of the ornamental motifs are fashioned. The analogies are occasionally striking, as, for example, between one page of the Lindisfarne Gospel (698 A.D.) and a certain mosaic pavement in the Umayyad palace of Minya on Lake Tiberias (705 A.D.), but it would be pointless to attempt to explain everything by exchanges that might have taken place on the periphery of a Europe overwhelmed by barbarian invasions, between the Northern Isles and the Near East. The parallel in question is all part of a much vaster phenomenon, namely the emergence at the confines of the Graeco-Roman world of an archaic art whose elements, abstract, rather than descriptive, are linked to a universal and primordial symbolism: These elements lose their immediately symbolic character. on contact with the ‘civilized’ world or, more exactly, this character is suddenly obscured by the flowering of ornamental possibilities inherent in them. This metamorphosis is directly perceptible in the Christian art of Ireland, where it is calligraphy that lays hold of, and transforms most naturally, the ancient heritage of forms; but here, again, there is an analogy and a kind of anticipation of what was to come about in Muslim art.

Christian art in abstract forms was of only brief duration; its extraordinary genius crumbled as the northern islands gradually became reintegrated into the Latin world. The art of Islam, on the other hand, worked out a synthesis between the broad current of archaic forms, which flourish in popular art and that of the nomads, and the more rational requirements of urban art; it assimilates archaic motifs by reducing them to their most abstract, and and general formulae. In a certain way, therefore, it levels them out and, in so doing, takes away every magical quality; but, in compensation, it endows them with a new lucidity, almost, one could say, with spiritual elegance. Let us not forget that Islam is the religion of return to the beginning, and that this return shows itself as a restoration of all things to unity.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, 1976

Honey

Joseph Beuys

Glaucus, while still a child, was playing ball one day in the palace at Cnossus or, perhaps, chasing a mouse, when he suddenly disappeared. Minos and Pasiphaë searched high and low but, being unable to find him, had recourse to the Delphic Oracle. They were informed that whoever could give the best simile for a recent portentous birth in Crete would find what was lost. Minos made enquiries and learned that a heifer-calf had been born among his herds which changed its colour thrice a day – from white to red, and from red to black. He summoned his soothsayers to the palace, but none could think of a simile until Polyeidus the Argive, a descendant of Melampus, said: ‘This calf resembles nothing so much as a ripening blackberry [or mulberry].’ Minos at once commanded him to go in search of Glaucus.

Polyeidus wandered through the labyrinthine palace, until he came upon an owl sitting at the entrance to a cellar, frightening away a swarm of bees, and took this for an omen. Below in the cellar he found a great jar used for the storing of honey, and Glaucus drowned in it, head downwards. Minos, when this discovery was reported to him, consulted with the Curetes, and followed their advice by telling Polyeidus: ‘Now that you have found my son’s body, you must restore him to life!’ Polyeidus protested that, not being Asclepius, he was incapable of raising the dead. ‘Ah, I know better, replied Minos. ‘You will be locked in a tomb with Glaucus’s body and a sword, and there you will remain until my orders have been obeyed!’

When Polyeidus grew accustomed to the darkness of the tomb he saw a serpent approaching the boy’s corpse and, seizing his sword, killed it. Presently another serpent, gliding up, and finding that its mate was dead, retired, but came back shortly with a magic herb in its mouth, which it laid on the dead body. Slowly the serpent came to life again.

Polyeidus was astounded, but had the presence of mind to apply the same herb to the body of Glaucus, and with the same happy result. He and Glaucus then shouted loudly for help, until a passer-by heard them and ran to summon Minos, who was overjoyed when he opened the tomb and found his son alive. He loaded Polyeidus with gifts, but would not let him return to Argos until he had taught Glaucus the art of divination. Polyeidus unwillingly obeyed, and when he was about to sail home, told Glaucus: ‘Boy, spit into my open mouth!’ Glaucus did so, and immediately forgot all that he had learned.

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths,1955

Wilde’s Failings

Wilde and his school professed to stand as solitary artistic souls apart from the public. They professed to scorn the middle class, and declared that the artist must not work for the bourgeois. The truth is that no artist so really great ever worked so much for the bourgeois as Oscar Wilde. No man, so capable of thinking about truth and beauty, ever thought so constantly about his own effect on the middle classes. He studied them with exquisite attention, and knew exactly how to shock and how to please them. Mr. Shaw often gets above them in seraphic indignation, and often below them in sterile and materialistic explanations. He disgusts them with new truths or he bores them with old truths; but they are always living truths to Bernard Shaw. Wilde knew how to say the precise thing which, whether true or false, is irresistible. As, for example, “I can resist everything but temptation.”

But he sometimes sank lower. One might go through his swift and sparkling plays with a red and blue pencil marking two kinds of epigrams; the real epigram which he wrote to please his own wild intellect, and the sham epigram which he wrote to thrill the very tamest part of our tame civilization. This is what I mean by saying that he was strictly a charlatan – among other things. He descended below himself to be on top of others. He became purposely stupider than Oscar Wilde that he might seem cleverer than the nearest curate. He lowered himself to superiority; he stooped to conquer.

One might easily take examples of the phrase meant to lightly touch the truth and the phrase meant only to bluff the bourgeoisie. For instance, in “A Woman of No Importance,” he makes his chief philosopher say that all thought is immoral, being essentially destructive; “Nothing survives being thought of.” That is nonsense, but nonsense of the nobler sort; there is an idea in it. It is, like most professedly modern ideas, a death-dealing idea not a life-giving one; but it is an idea. There is truly a sense in which all definition is deletion. Turn a few pages of the same play and you will find somebody asking, “What is an immoral woman ?” The philosopher answers, “The kind of woman a man never gets tired of.” Now that is not nonsense, but rather rubbish. It is without value of any sort or kind. It is not symbolically true; it is not fantastically true; it is not true at all.

Anyone with the mildest knowledge of the world knows that nobody can be such a consuming bore as a certain kind of immoral woman. That vice never tires men, might be a tenable and entertaining lie; that the individual instrument of vice never tires them is not, even as a lie, tenable enough to be entertaining. Here the great wit was playing the cheap dandy to the incredibly innocent; as much as if he had put on paper cuffs and collars. He is simply shocking a tame curate; and he must be rather a specially tame curate even to be shocked. This irritating duplication of real brilliancy with snobbish bluff runs through all his three comedies. “Life is much too important to be taken seriously”; that is the true humorist. “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life”; that is the charlatan. “Man can believe the impossible, but man can never believe the improbable”; that is said by a fine philosopher. “Nothing is so fatal to a personality as the keeping of promises, unless it be telling the truth”; that is said by a tired quack. “A man can be happy with any woman so long as he does not love her”; that is wild truth. “Good intentions are invariably ungrammatical”; that is tame trash.

But while he had a strain of humbug in him, which there is not in the demagogues of wit like Bernard Shaw, he had, in his own strange way, a much deeper and more spiritual nature than they. Queerly enough, it was the very multitude of his falsities that prevented him from being entirely false. Like a many-coloured humming top, he was at once a bewilderment and a balance. He was so fond of being many-sided that among his sides he even admitted the right side. He loved so much to multiply his souls that he had among them one soul at least that was saved. He desired all beautiful things—even God.

G.K. Chesterton, “Oscar Wilde,” 1909

War Teaches Nothing

Francisco Goya

A number of people remarked at the time that Mother Courage learns nothing from her misery, that even at the end, she does not understand. Few realised that just this was the bitterest and most meaningful lesson of the play.

They did not see what the playwright was driving at: that war teaches people nothing.

Misfortune is itself a poor teacher. Its pupils learn hunger and thirst, but seldom hunger for truth or thirst for knowledge. Suffering does not transform a sick man into a physician. Neither what he sees from a distance, nor what he sees face to face is enough to turn an eyewitness into an expert.

Bertolt Brecht, “Misfortune in itself is a poor teacher,” 1949