Third blog

Looking at the British Isles just before the vote in the Commons about Brexit

Third blog

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it is not unusual for people interested in Oscar Wilde also to be fascinated by politics. Not least since it has become clear that he was more than intrigued by both the Parnell affairs and the movement towards Home Rule for Ireland. More than twenty years after the Belfast Agreement reached on Good Friday 1998, it is certainly clear to the Irish - not including a substantial faction in the North - that what was agreed on then was only possible within the European Union. These days, many commentators both sides of the Channel recall that in general they have always admired and loved the British excentricity while underestimating the problems underlying an inbred skepticism of Europe and the European Union and the very excentricity have always posed for those looking behind the scenes.

If you just think in terms of the relations between the British mainland and the continent, or Europe, as they were always wont to say, things might not be that complicated.

If, however, you take into account what any Irishman since the 19th century has had to take on board, that is, that living in London, for example, meant to assimilate to the larger country's culture and customs as well as to give up one's Irish accent, things quickly become much more complicated.

Oscar Wilde, once his father had died and his mother had moved to London, was unable and perhaps also unwilling to return to Dublin to make his life there. The family had burned their boats - just as many less well-placed Irish families had done before them. The difference, however, was that the Wilde family belonged to the Protestant minority - formerly an elite whose ascendance, however, had been on the wane for some time.

In this respect, Wilde, like his elder brother Willie, was properly educated at Portora Royal School, in the North, before attending Trinity College Dublin and moving to Magdalen College Oxford. All these institutions predestined Oscar Wilde to be a member of an elite wherever he would end up. This needs to be kept in mind if you think of what is going on in Britain today.

When watching the statement of Prime Minister Theresa May about postponing the vote back in December 2018 with my students I had the chance to observe the faces of her fellow front benchers. They did not inspire confidence. They seemed to me to be actors drawn from the cast of an Oscar Wilde comedy - or at least from Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy of post-World-War One novels Parade's End. And most of these call for laughter or for pity.

When I relayed my impressions to an English friend on the phone he burst out, saying: "They're all millionaires." We refrained from discussing that subject any longer.

To return to the present situation in the context of Oscar Wilde. He assimilated to the English culture and was able to comment on it in his comedies of manner, much more so than in his tales and his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

At the same time, by writing comedies, he became much more part of the social game, given that his audiences shared their experiences of Wilde's cast producing laughs at their expense which, through the popular press of the day, were also publicized in the streets of London. This is something Wilde did not appreciate at all, he even feared that a low price charged for any of his books might attract people he would not want to read his works.

Of course, he was right in finding the "mob" would not do for his aphorisms and witticisms. He was all but a fan of "Demos", or of democracy. Nor was Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) whose protagonist Christopher Tietjens in Parade's End shows virtues the English landed gentry and the London High Society had long since given up. It is just in the context of a corrupt social elite that Wilde's fall in 1895 needs to be placed. By commenting on the decadence he as a social outsider had observed Wilde had defined an excentric position for himself. Once his own double life could be pointed out to the general public, he was lost forever. Neither the "people in the street" - whom he had bravely characterized as jealous of keeping their vices to themselves in The Picture of Dorian Gray - nor the elite would ever forgive him.

Unlike Ford Madox Ford who after the First World War was able to choose where to live - on the continent or in America - when he chose forever to leave England, Oscar Wilde had no such choice. He had to leave England once freed from Reading Gaol in May 1897. So he chose France, a country the Irish had always loved for its freedom. WIlde, however, was no longer free. He lacked everything: health, money, and the love of his family. A return to Ireland was out of the question, too. In a recently launched biopic, aptly entitled "The Happy Prince", the protagonist, as did Wilde in real life, asks a woman acquaintance brave enough to address him in the street, for money.

Today's British people who cannot bear to look the state of their country in the face still have other options: first, unlike Wilde, they are not alone and, secondly, they will also be heard if they choose to speak, in all kinds of German media, that is. For example, since 2016, almost 4,000 British subjects descended from German Jews who had fled to Britain before the Second World War and also those descended from the children transported to Britain in 1939, have applied for German citizenship.

According to Article 16 of the Basic Law (dating from 1949), they are entitled to German citizenship if they can prove that they or their ancestors had been deprived of it by the National-Socialist regime. These people no longer speak German, many of them probably have never visited Germany, but still they fear to be isolated on the British Isles after Brexit - with no free movement guaranteed any more - something that stopped immediately after 4th August 1914 - when Great Britain declared war on the German Reich.

One of my students even wrote that descendants of German Jews might be afraid of a food crisis after Brexit. She did mix up something here - the fears in general that Brexit might make sugar and toilet-paper shortages recur which I recall from my first visit in Wales in the rainy summer of 1974, something I fould funny as the twelve-year-old first able to practise his spoken English.

In fact, the student might have perceived something much more essential since even in the third generation people can feel the traumas of being deprived of their home country, mother tongue, fatherland, which may oblige them to go through the motions of applying for German citizenship: looking through documents long believed lost and unearthing haunting memories of flight, homelessness, and hunger for a parent they never saw again.

Wilde who like James Joyce never had an Irish passport was Irish to the core, however. His power of assimilation, another word might be his term "overeducation", was such, though, that neither he nor his detractors nor, later still, many of his "fans", would be able to see through the masks.

Wilde, like many of the present-day British elite, had been educated to wear masks, so as to veil the "real" life he and others were leading. Today, someone like Wilde would no longer fail completely: This applies to the "culprits" in this drama of Brexit: David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Neither would ever be taken to court for what they have done, namely undo the unity of Britain much more in the space of a few months up until the Brexit vote took place in June 2016 than a whole century of politicians running the United Kingdom after the uniting experience the Great War had been able to do.

Still, Cameron and Johnson are the double "culprits" of this play, and in the 1980s, as young students at Oxford, with hindsight they uncannily look like latter-day re-incarnations of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. To see this, however, you need to be interested in the Wilde saga and not only in present-day British politics.

In the context of Ireland, reading Wilde and Ford Madox Ford would have qualified the current politicians to understand that history does indeed repeat itself if you fail to learn the lesson: it seemed to have been learned in April 1998 when all of Ireland was supposed to have found a safe haven within the European Union. Now the odds are that almost one hundred years after the partition of Ireland was the upshot of the botched Easter Rebellion we could be back at square one.

Jörg W. Rademacher, 14th January 2019

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