Oscar Wilde, the Numa Numa Kid, and Undergraduate Celebrity
I was thinking about Oscar Wilde the other day. Years ago, I heard Stephen Fry give a wonderful tribute to Wilde’s skill as a writer, but Wilde’s influence began long before his celebrated literary career. In short-form, Wilde was a public figure as early as his college days. In 1878, the year he graduated, his poem “Ravenna” won the Newdigate Prize for “best English verse composition,” but even more than his academic achievements, he was known for his personality. Wilde was a pioneer of the Aesthetic Movement; known far and wide for his wit and unique style of dress. Gilbert and Sullivan even wrote a satiric operetta in response to to the Aesthetics, basing the character of Bunthorne on Wilde himself. Wilde, honestly, was the original collegiate non-conformist; a well-known personality before he ever left college. Once again, Stephen Fry said it best:
He became a famous undergraduate. Internationally famous. It’s an extraordinary idea, isn’t it? Even in the days of Web 2.0...I don’t think there’d been cartoons of undergraduates or skits or lampooning essays in Punch as there were of Wilde.
Being well-known simply for being himself makes Wilde remarkable, both for his day and in modern remembrance. In all seriousness, if you contrast the limitations of mass communication in the Victorian era against the present day's instantaneous transit of images and sounds via the internet, it’s astounding. Wilde didn’t lip-sync a Romanian love song in a cry for attention; he was a scholar who explored ideas of beauty and philosophy in both theory and practice, while still finding the time to distinguish himself academically. Wilde makes me wonder: do students revolutionize the world with their ideas any more?
Culturally, the latest trend in spreading ideas seems to be crowd campaigning, for "Arab spring” movements which celebrate the power of group activity. And to be fair, this method is not without merit. But the problem with collective ideas that lack designated leaders (and go out of their way not to have them), is that their true intentions risk never being communicated clearly and succinctly for the benefit of others. The power of the masses cannot be denied, but when individual voices are exchanged for communal shouts of protest, even the most powerful and eloquent communicator can be drowned out by the louder voice of the village fool.
The modern achievements of young individuals seem easier to find in the realm of business. Every couple of years, a student drops out of an ivy league school to pursue an idea with the goal of making a profit. These ideas tend to become startups which makes headlines for a year or two before being absorbed into golems like Facebook and Google, for obscene dollar amounts. These young idea people might be billionaires before they can legally purchase alcohol, but in the wake of their earnings, will they be remembered for their personalities or the strength of their principles? I doubt it. I suspect that they will be remembered as names and salaries on boards of directors; because, in the end, they have not fostered any lasting ideas; they capitalized on an idea and pocketed their returns.
I recently graduated college. I didn’t distinguish myself at school as anything beyond being a student. I kept good grades and earned scholarships on my ability to use my skills outside of the classroom (and write compelling letters about my experiences to the board)...but I never wrote a “Ravenna,” and I can’t recall anyone else who did, at my school or anywhere else.
Do college students still change the world, or have they settled for making grades and earning their awards within the tedium of academia?
In an era when “mass communication” meant “book” or “printed leaflet,” Oscar Wilde set trends and broke molds. He grasped the helm of the Aesthetic Movement against the uniformity and lack of edification provided by the culture of Victorian establishment. And by proxy, Wilde and his fellow aesthetes took a stance against industrialism. In Wilde’s own words concerning the values of the movement: “the mark of all good art is not that the thing done is done exactly or finely, for machinery may do as much, but that it is worked out with the head and the workman's heart.” Wilde said this not long after a famous American writer who said that “there is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide."
Whether he was much aware of Emerson and the American Transcendentalists or not, Wilde embraced that philosophy as a personal credo. Wilde’s was lifestyle which bucked black-clad Victorian sameness and obstinately refused to imitate that which was modeled for him. In a famous quote, which is incredibly profound despite its frequent reduction to a Monday morning hurrah on Facebook, Wilde summed up his life in a single sentence: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
To be fair to my modern counterparts, it was much easier for Wilde to stand out in the Victorian era of blacks, pinstripes and class constructs. A wardrobe of colored satins and a devotion to art for its own sake would create much more of a sensation when they represented the exception to the norm. Today, it is much harder to be different, even for those of creative, non-conformist or artistic temperaments. It seems that, with no Aesthetic Movement to speak for them, it is the burden of the artist carry on the mission of beauty in the world for its own value.
Wilde could be identified in a crowd for his unconventional clothing, much like the artists of today. But while Wilde’s fashion sense was wholly new at the time, there is a stigma of tiresome sameness associated with artists who, for all practical purposes, look like artists in their stained, shabby clothing, vintage eyeglasses and tendency to worship at the literary altars of Kerouac and Bukowski. For all practical purposes, in their headlong attempts to be different, many self-proclaimed artists end up looking alike, and are grouped in with other subcultures which the mainstream loves to make fun of, like hipsters or Trekkies.
But this is unfair. Legitimate artists, those who actively work to pass on a reflection of themselves or society through the creation of something new, are often identifiable by a nebulous, uncertain quality. Tempura-stained clothes and unwashed hair aside, expressive artists have often known some form of personal hardship in life, and the resulting awareness of the contrast between happiness and sadness, difficulty and ease, gives them a unique perspective on the world. This is a strictly personal observation, but I have always seen a marked physical difference between the eyes of artists and those of the people around them. In the eyes of artists I’ve spoken to, from my hometown to Germany and back again, there is clarity, a capacity to perceive and interpret detail. This trait is foreign and sometimes unsettling to the rest of us.
The position of the true artist in a society is sadly undermined by imitators who undertake art for selfish reasons. In one of his podcasts (the exact episode escapes me), Stephen Tobolowsky remarked that the problem for artists is that many people want to identify themselves as “artists,” but do not generate the creative output necessary to validate their claims. As a result, the value of true artists and their contributions to society are cheapened by those apply the title of “artist” to themselves.
This brings us back to the question pondered by Mr. Fry:
Do college students become famous or change the world any more?
Is it possible for anyone to be unique when being a non-conformist is automatically perceived as conforming to a type?
Oscar Wilde set an uncomfortable precedent. Whenever I read about his life or his accomplishments made as an undergraduate student, I am unsettled. In 2009, I watched on television as Juan Martín del Potro defeated Roger Federer in the US Open at the age of twenty. I was about to turn twenty at the time, and I remember updating my Facebook status that afternoon to say “Juan Martín del Potro just defeated Roger Federer at the age of twenty. I turn twenty in three weeks. I better get busy.”
Wait..did I just stumble over my generation’s problem?
Potro’s athletic win was not in a college environment. His accomplishment was totally different than those of Oscar Wilde, but was nonetheless achieved early in life and to international fame. Outside of college, Potro set a goal, and through blood, sweat and tears, he won. Maybe it’s the college environment that has changed. It was my experience that college set its agenda for my personal time as well as my academic time, and instead of having the space to create ideas, I was forever trapped within the processes necessary to parroting lecture notes back to my instructors. Not being a complete slacker, it crossed my mind several times to attempt standout achievements, but I was always hampered by thoughts of "if I do "A" for me, that will leave me without time to do "B" for school, and if I fail to accomplish "B," I’ll lose my grade and my scholarship.
And that’s my generation. We are typified by expressing outrage on Facebook until enough people with signs start running in the same direction. Then we join the mob.
Sorry, Oscar, but you set the bar just a little too high.