The Irish modernist distrust of words


WILDE said "everyone is good until they learn how to talk", implying that "to talk is to tell many fluent lies", said Dr Declan Kiberd of UCD at the Oscar Wilde Autumn School in Bray, Co Wicklow, yesterday, the final day of the school.

In a lively and wide ranging lecture entitled "Wilde and Synge: the Power of a Lie", Dr Kiberd detected in the readiness of Wilde's characters to tell lies and exchange bored trivialities the beginnings of the modernist distrust of language.

Distrust of language was inherent in the Irish literary tradition due the effects of colonisation, where Irish people were forced to speak a foreign language. The native Irish distrust in the law of the coloniser led also to a tradition where "lying to government officials became a moral action".

The Importance of Being Earnest and Synge's Playboy of The Western World were both about "the noble art of lying". Earnest exposed the fact that society is a tissue of lies and wouldn't function without them, while in Playboy, "Christy Mahon is made a mighty man by the power of a lie".

Both Synge and Wilde were anarchists, radicals and socialists who eschewed realism. Irish audiences did not mind that Wilde's drawing room characters all talked like Wilde himself; but when Synge's peasants did not reflect the idealised image which Irish nationalists had of the west of Ireland, there were riots in the "Words are inadequate to conceal how I feel," said Beckett. Although there was no hard and fast evidence to prove that Beckett was influenced by Wilde, there were notable similarities in their use of language, said Gerry Dukes of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick.

It seemed that Beckett's characters were more "powerless" - than Wilde's. Also, Beckett's characters were increasingly suspicious of the "slippery and unreliable" quality of language. Yet in spite of the confident manner in which many Wildean aphorisms were delivered, this was usually revealed to be a mask, "an oratorical gesture".

Joyce tended to view Wilde as a court jester dependent on the establishment", said Robert Nicholson, curator of the James Joyce Museum in Sandycove, in his lecture on Wilde and Joyce. "When the joke went too far the rug was pulled out from under his feet."

Nevertheless, Wilde was a pioneer in his disruption of the polarisation of sex, class and race in British society, said Nicholson, referring to a theory of Declan Kiberd's in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Ulysses. The Importance of Being Earnest was full of "role reversal" and id entity swapping". This example was followed by Joyce, whose hero Bloom triumphed over the established order by being an all round, womanly man, able to adapt to anything.