Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Oscar Wilde's tweets

"All good work looks perfectly modern."

"We should treat all trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality."

It struck me recently that Oscar Wilde would have written the best tweets. I'd been giving some thought to Twitter, which has crept its way into my life and which I feel a little ambivalently about. I like the (constrained) opportunity for self-expression it offers, since that aspect, for better or worse, appeals to my confessional, writerly ways. I also enjoy its triviality; I like that it's a bit of nonsense to break up the day, a series of tiny glimpses into the whims and scattered insights of the handful of friends I follow. When it's used for more serious, structured purposes, like One Book, One Twitter, I find myself annoyed. It's 140 characters, people; let's not pretend we can engage in a substantive literary exchange. (Surely we can think of something more trifling!) Of course, being the relatively serious-minded young man that I am, it's not like all of my tweets are flippant, or that I disapprove of tweets that disseminate important information (the opening of a new vegetarian restaurant in Detroit, say, or the fact that another Golden Girl has died). But even if I attempt to impart something serious in a tweet, I know that the sentiment will be nestled among my friends' friends' jaunty dispatches. It seems impossible, as a result, to take Twitter too seriously, and that's something I can appreciate.

But it's the flip side of these aspects that worry me. Self-expression? Just what I need: more performance space. Triviality? Well, that's OK in moderation, but what happens when all the trivial thoughts of you and your friends are aggregated? How much total time in a day is eaten up by constantly refreshing the feed? This is a legitimate contemporary concern, I think: are too many of us spending too much time tweeting (and facebooking, for that matter)? Should we be worried that our light, frothy desserts might be taking the place traditionally reserved for a nutritious entree? What are the cognitive risks of constantly expending the mental energy it takes to jump from one bit of flotsam to another? Should I be worried about how many times a day I refresh the damn thing? (It's starting to feel a bit like a habit, not a conscious choice, and I find that a little troubling.)

Peggy Orenstein writes eloquently in the New York Times about the distancing of self from experience that's a necessary part of being an active tweeter. She wonders, too, how much her experience of tweeting is shaping her life (rather than her life shaping her tweets), and she worries about the performative aspect of Twitter, about what "encouraging self promotion over self awareness" does to a person. So here we are, tweeting suspiciously, tweeting and wondering if we really should be.

Anyway, back to Oscar Wilde. The more I thought about Twitter and its potential pitfalls, the more it seemed that while it's been adopted by millions of us, it's probably best suited to the talents of a select few: people, that is, with a Wildean sensibility. Wilde, the consummate modern man, is known for building a reputation (in letters and in society) out of epigrams. He had an unparalleled talent for spinning a brief turn of phrase that could delight as immediately as it could give pause or confound. This was his genius. He specialized in the pithy paradox ("My duty is the thing I never do, on principle."), and the platitude turned upside-down and emptied ("Whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid."). He could skewer in seven words ("The best play I ever slept through.") as deftly as he could dash out an incisive truth about art ("It is the spectator, and not life, that Art really mirrors.") or politics ("Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people."). His epigrams are the meat of his work. They're a universe unto themselves; in them, Wilde is wise, flip, callous, hilarious, compassionate, witty, somber, and frequently contradictory. They're the reason his plays soar and his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, can feel clunky and earthbound; surrounding all those elegant bons mots with exposition and description makes them sound a bit stilted and plotted.

What's remarkably modern or, maybe more appropriately, contemporary about Wilde's aphorisms, is how well they stand on their own. Flipping through my copy of Ralph Keyes' The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, I'm dimly aware that each epigram comes from some larger work, whether a play, essay, or even a conversation some acquaintance had the good sense to write down, yet the majority of them feel complete. They don't seem decontextualized; I rarely wonder what the lines were that preceded or followed them in their original circumstance. In this way, they're like tweets, and in this way, they feel contemporary. Wilde was essentially tweeting 130 years before anyone else was; his work prefigures our age of atomized self-expression and fragmented, public self-construction (not to mention an age in which literary works can be divided handily by technology into constituent fragments). It points to us, now, who emulate his style, whether we know it or not. For the literary types on Twitter, it has come to make Oscar Wildes of us all.

Whatever its pitfalls (real or imagined) Twitter is, among much else, a contemporary literary form. And it's a form best suited to a particular kind of literary talent: a flair for brevity and wit that is, delightfully, descended from a man who died before the previous century really even began. Practically none of us are as good at it as he was, but that's because he invented it.