Monday, 12 January 2009

Life as art. Control of existence. The thrill of the individual.

'One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.'
Oscar Wilde, 'Phrases and Philosophies for the use of the Young', first published in Chameleon in December 1894

'What is abnormal in Life stands in normal relations to Art. It is the only thing in Life that stands in normal relations to Art.'
Oscar Wilde, 'A few Maxims for the instruction of the Over-Educated', first published in the Saturday Review in November, 1894

'To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.'

'It will be a marvellous thing - the true personality of man - when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, it will help all, as a beautiful things helps us by being what it is. The personality of a man will be very wonderful. It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child.'

'The message of Christ to man was simply 'Be thyself.' That is the secret of Christ.'

'There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men.'

'Man has sought to live intensely, fully, perfectly. When he can do so without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever, and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilised, more himself.'
Oscar Wilde, 'The Soul of Man under Socialism', first published in the Fortnightly Review in 1891

'I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art. I altered the minds of men and the colours of things; there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder: I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet, at the same time that I widened its range and enriched its characterisation; drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty: to truth itself I gave what is false no less that what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase and all existence in an epigram.'

'At every single moment of one's life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been.'

'It is tragic how few people ever 'possess their souls' before they die. 'Nothing is more rare in any man,' says Emerson, 'than an act of his own.' It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation.'

'...every moment should be beautiful, that the soul should always be ready for the coming of the Bridegroom, always waiting for the voice of the Lover.' (NB the references here are to the The Song of Songs)

Oscar Wilde, 'De Profundis', the letter written from Reading Gaol to Lord Alfred Douglas in the spring of 1897

'Preventing oneself from dying is not living.'

'Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting.'

'I am among those to whom the superfluous is necessary.'

Théophile Gautier, from the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, published in Paris in 1835


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley, 1849–1903

I'm tired today. I suspect some people will read the Wilde quotations especially as displaying a great arrogance in the man, which they do, out of context. But he was a great artist and an incredible man. What's the difficulty with him realising that? He was in enormous pain of the soul when he was writing 'De Profundis', and died not a great deal later. These quotations are, to me, about the relationship between living, truth and art. Ways I would like to be able to be, I suppose.

Here is the opposite, to the optimism of 'Invictus' above. We've moved on by more than half a century, and I suspect the pride and might and strength that was Britain in the late C19 has given way to post-war, post-colonial modernist and post-modern loneliness. I almost feel like writing a piece of comparative practical criticism, there's so much that could be taken from the two of them. If I ever have to set an essay for an English student of any sort...

Both poems express the isolation of humanity, but 'Invictus' imbues the solitary state of man with a proud dignity, whereas in Gunn's poem the 'individual' is resolute, guarding and wary. Both figures are soldiers, and imagery of war is present in both. The soldier of 'Invictus', though, is stalwart, proud, almost optimistic in the face of the enemy. Gunn's soldier is a guard; suspicious, alert - surrounded by mercenaries whose motives and intentions are not to be trusted. The figure is cut off and waiting for things to happen. He seeks, but does not find. 'Invictus' is much more engaged with his world - things happen to him. He is a victim of chance and circumstance, and suffers the buffets of time. But whatever menace the years bring, this man is certain of himself and his mastery of that. Despite the undoubted influence of chance, he himself has control. Gunn's speaker is not certain of himself, he tells us that he 'must/ Find out the limitation/ Of mind and universe.' He does not even suggest why, just that he does not know. There is no mastery here. This is the point at which the dates of the two poems can most clearly be felt; post-Freud and psychoanalysis, the self has become a frail thing. Before the 'discovery' of the subconscious, a man could be certain of his own mind. He need not be scared of it. Undoubtedly, many people in the C19th did feel scared of their own demons, but it was a much more nebulous and less universal thing than it became with the modernists.

The two endings are interesting, partly for their similarity. The epigrammatic two lines at the end of 'Invictus' must be some of the most oft-quoted in all English poetry. Their triumphant air in the face of the adversity of life is uplifting. But it is unrealistic. We know that we are not masters of our fates or captains steering the unknowable course of the soul. The Gunn ending is far more enigmatic but far more realistic, it seems to me. We are born into an unknowing, unformed, vaguely sinister existence - a fog, perhaps a barren wasteland or the possibility of a wasted existence - walk without assistance and alone through all the might-bes and the might-have-beens - all the hypotheses. The final line could be read bitterly, decrying the fate which cuts us off from the world with moats and sentries and darkness, or it, too, could have an element of triumph about it. By the end, the poem has moved past the point where the speaker is 'condemned' to individuality. It is recognised that no problem must be faced until it has occurred. Therefore, with eyes open, despite the fog, which echoes the darkness that Henley recognises in the other poem, we walk through our lives for ourselves - individual, in control, with nobody else responsible for our path. The thought is comforting and terrifying, and the two pieces catch the nuances.

Human Condition

Now it is fog. I walk
Contained within my coat;
No castle more cut off
By reason of its moat:
Only the sentry's cough,
The mercenaries' talk.

The street lamps, visible,
Drop no light on the ground,
But press beams painfully
In a yard of fog around.
I am condemned to be
An individual.

In the established border
There balances a mere
Pinpoint of consciousness.
I stay, or start from, here:
No fog makes more or less
The neighbouring disorder.

Particular, I must
Find out the limitation
Of mind and universe.
To pick thought and sensation
And turn to my own use
Disordered hate or lust.

I seek, to break, my span.
I am my one touchstone.
This is a test more hard
Than any ever known.
And thus I keep my guard
On that which makes me man.

Much is unknowable.
No problem shall be faced
Until the problem is;
I, born to fog, to waste,
Walk through hypothesis,
An individual.
Thom Gunn, something like the 1950s (I WISH I could find better references for this poem, I'd love to read the rest of whatever collection it's in)


  1. I love the way you write, and think.

    'Human Condition' is in a collection he wrote called The Sense of Movement. Looks as if it was first published in an edition of Poetry Review, then printed in this which is essentially a 'best of' he collated.

  2. Thank you my dear! I wish I had more time to construct some of this better, rather than just dumping quotations on the screen. I shall try and instill some discipline in my posting...

    Thank you for the reference, I will have a hunt...I could break into the English faculty library again now term has just about started!

  3. is a very poor response (sort of)

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