From The Record, May 12th
I know I should be a better person, but I must confess to a fleeting moment of satisfaction when Kevin O’Leary’s bid for the Conservative leadership crashed and burned just over a week ago. Especially amusing was one of the headlines—“ O’Leary cites ‘selflessness’ in ending leadership bid”—which gave rise to a chortle or two…. O’Leary? Selfless? (This glee almost counterbalanced my disappointment at never hearing him at least take a stab at the language of Molière!)
And further, I must admit that each Trumpian gaff fills me with an almost stifling smugness as I think back on his BEST-PRESIDENT-EVER assertions, and my conservative friends who thought that come what may he was at least better than Hillary….
You see, I am a narcissist watcher, and I have been from a very young age. This pastime was initiated perhaps by an Eastern Townships acquaintance whose fields I used to help clear of hay. One day he said of a certain person, “The higher up the monkey climbs the more he shows his hiney!” This expression I immediately lit upon as one to live by. (I subsequently tracked it back to 13th-century theologian, St. Bonaventure, who wrote on the evils of pride: ”Exemplum de simia, quae, quanto plus ascendit, tanto plus apparent posteriora eius”. )
Which brings us to today’s reading selection, “The Remarkable Rocket,” a short tale penned by Oscar Wilde around 1889, at the very start of his success and notoriety.
One could say that Wilde wrote the book on narcissism, or at least contributed to the early chapters! As a character in one of his plays quipped, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance”. And Wilde certainly lived by this maxim. He undertook a tour of the United States in 1882 on the strength of very slim credentials, and conquered the continent as a shill for the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience and at the same time a real-life representative of the Aesthetic movement… His was an extraordinary success. In fact, he was to the United States of the 1880’s what the Beatles and other pop stars were almost a hundred years later. Great throngs of people jostled at train stations to catch a glimpse of the famous Oscar Wilde. He, in the 1880’s, had discovered “spin,” an awareness of the power of image and of dominating the news cycle. As he said in an interview, “The truth about the life of a man is not what he does, but the legend which he creates around himself. I have never paraded the streets of London with a lily in my hand; for any caretaker or coachman could do the same. That legend merely indicates the impression I have made on the masses, and it indicates the nature of my temperament better than what I have (actually) done.”
Ostensibly “The Remarkable Rocket” is about a king’s son who is betrothed to a Russian princess, and Wilde obligingly trots out all the trappings of a typical fairly tale. But he quickly transforms the story into a case study in narcissism. Fireworks are set up to mark the nuptials, and an animated discussion soon breaks out amongst them. (Think the early scenes in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, but instead of talking feather dusters, teapots, and candlesticks, we are introduced to lively exchanges between squibs, Roman candles, Catherine wheels, crackers, and rockets!)
The Rocket is quick to assert his superior pedigree: “My mother was the most celebrated Catherine wheel of her day, and was renowned for her graceful dancing”…. Then, “My father was a rocket like myself, and of French extraction….The newspapers wrote about his performance in very flattering terms. Indeed, the Court Gazette called him a triumph of the Pyrotechnic art.” If you know of any bona fide narcissists, you can relate to the depiction—how the conversation relentlessly gets drawn into the black hole of their egos—“Yes, but I, just the other day, and I surmised that I could not help notice that I and then I, so I for I yet I or I because finally I…” At any rate, the Rocket, because of an excess of imagination and over-refined sensibilities, weeps and wets his own powder. He fizzles at the critical moment, is subsequently discarded, chucked into the moat, befriended by a frog, discovered by young boys, and only at the very end finally undergoes a modest ignition but, but, but—no-one notices… not a soul. Sic biscuitus disintegratum! There lies the way of all narcissists! No matter what happens, the Remarkable Rocket is possessed of an inveterate conviction of his own superiority and mastery of circumstances. It is in the nature of a Trump or an O’Leary or a Remarkable Rocket that the world will invariably disappoint.
Wilde wrote most of his short stories and fairy tales in the period from the birth of his sons (1885-1886) until 1890, paving the way for his better known works such as A Picture of Dorian Gray and his plays. His other short tales are equally delightful, among them “The Happy Prince,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Canterville Ghost,” and they all have in common the focus on Wildean themes of narcissism, egoism, selfishness, individualism, and aesthetics.
The details of Wilde’s infatuation with Lord Alfred Douglas and his ill-fated lawsuit against the Marquis of Queensbury are the stuff of history. His subsequent disgrace and his incarceration for acts which today seem commonplace add poignancy to these stories.
If you haven’t read any of Wilde’s works they are fairly easy to come by. Lennoxville Library has a few of his children’s stories, and most of his major works are available via interlibrary loan. “The Remarkable Rocket” is, if all else fails, available on line as both text and animated cartoon.
P.S. We find ourselves again in hiring mode as our coordinator has been called to other challenges. Please check the ad in today’s Record or consult our website for more information. We are also seeking a university-level student (with degree in progress) to animate our Toronto Dominion Summer Reading Program. Again, check our website!