Being EarnestMarch 04, 2020 in Personal
“I don't like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.”
I first learned about Oscar Wilde through his fairy tales.1 At a time when I was devouring kid’s books and graphic novels, his stories, with their tragic undertones, stood out to me among the likes of Cinderella and Thumbelina and especially Snow White, whom I absolutely despised because I thought she was useless and had no skills besides talking to animals. On the other hand, the Happy Prince with his jewels ripped away, blind and alone in the winter cold, the Nightingale with her chest pierced, dying of blood loss — their suffering resonated with me and inspired me.
As you can see, my inclination for tragedy emerged at a young age. In fact, I’ve always dreaded comedies: they’re shallow and boring and provide no insights nor wisdom. I like books that make me feel wistful and ashamed and stupid and sad, but definitely not happy, because happy endings do end up depressing me so much. To this day, I still don’t get the point of Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that generates no profound reflections and (not that I’m proud of this in any sense) remains the sole production that brought me to sleep in a packed auditorium. I enjoy Macbeth much better, for it not only warns against power and ambition, but also teaches important life lessons from the legendary Lady Macbeth herself, such as “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.” Chris McCandless is a wandering legend because he dies on his travels, Madame Bovary is a cautionary classic because Emma fails her romantic endeavors at self-reinvention. A story without misery is a soulless one, I thought.
All of this means there was no logical reason for me to read The Importance of Being Earnest because, let’s be honest, few plays are more comedic. Yet, as fate would have it, I had just finished Long Day’s Journey into Night, and although I appreciated O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece immensely, I found myself needing something to overturn the desolate cloud of hopelessness that would otherwise surely launch me into a depressive episode. That’s how I picked up this play. At the time, it did the job. I found it to be genuinely funny and incredibly witty, and it reminded me of the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey (whose roasts and comebacks I idolize), but that’s as much as I thought about it — upon finishing, I went straight back to my marathon of depressing literature with The Glass Menagerie.
“I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”
On a rare, serene, work-free night, I finally watched The Talented Mr. Ripley. During the film, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Matt Damon’s impersonation of the rich playboy and pretending to be Ernest, so I made the midnight decision to read The Importance of Being Earnest again. This time around, no longer the palate cleanser between two dismal plays, it brought me, in addition to subdued chuckles as I tried not to wake my roommate, considerations of my own hypocrisy.
I hated the first couple of weeks of college. I hated being herded like cattle in our froco groups (please, we just graduated and know how school works). I hated never having the time to collect my thoughts since we were either at some random workshop or on the way to a random workshop. I hated the fact that all of this mandatory socialization has a name — “Camp Yale” — as if it’s so glorious. Now, after two semesters of refamiliarizing myself with the fast-paced cycle of lectures-homework-exam which reminds me, more than anything, of the terrors of high school, I miss it and think I was an idiot for hating weeks of having no work whatsoever.
“To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”
What I have only recently noticed, as I started reminiscing the good old days, is how social I had been during Camp Yale. I was eager to meet new people through childish scavenger hunts and enthusiastic to introduce myself in awkward icebreakers, and it’s not until my introverted and passive self began to show, as the cordiality receded like an ebb tide, that I realized it might have been nothing more than a grand façade— the outgoingness grossly unrepresentative of me in my natural habitat. In retrospect, it was exhausting to seem naturally versed in social functions. Talking to people was mentally frustrating, going out was physical exhausting, and having people forget your name every time you see them was frustrating and exhausting. It was all an overwhelming burden on my less-than-expressive self.
How I survived those weeks as a high-spirited creature remains a mystery to me, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I was constantly surrounded by such an illustrious and gregarious crowd (some of them believers of once a week is quite enough to dine with one’s own relations),2 that I felt like I needed to change myself to conform, to blend in, to seem like I belonged and deserved to be here, as if socialness equated cleverness. (Although after rereading The Importance of Being Earnest, I will now say: “I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays.”)
I wouldn’t exactly term it “imposter syndrome,” but I feel like one sometimes, when I pretend like I care, or that I’m nice, or that I’m actually interested in what the person sitting across from me in the dining hall is saying. One life lesson I’ve learned over the years is that once in a while, you have to “fake it till you make it.” Not exactly a positive idea, but one that has worked, one that has earned me labels of being nice and social and helpful. The side effect, however, is becoming addicted to pretense. You lose focus, because for as long as you haven’t made it, you would be faking it, because lies lead to lies lead to more lies.
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
The truth is, a lot of times, people don’t see you for who you are, rather, they see you for who they need you to be. Consequently, masking yourself in protective veneers is not going to be bothersome for other people as it would be for you: they don’t have the time nor the effort to discover the real you. Other people may never know that I was introverted, or that I loathed socialization— I was the one under pressure. You cannot decide what other people think of you, or what they see in you, but you can change how you act. It is our own responsibility to lead a genuine life, to be earnest.
That said, I imagine it would be quite boring if someone looks back at the end of his life and realizes he has always told the truth. It makes a terrible story. In the play, Jack has two identities, and Algernon has the perpetually unwell friend Bunbury, both of which ploys to help them escape their responsibilities. To an extent, we are all hypocrites — nobody can assure that he behaves exactly the same in front of his buddies at a bachelor’s party and his parents at his grandma’s birthday. We are inherently capricious creatures: our thoughts and actions depend greatly on our company and surroundings. Sometimes we are honest, other times we pretend like we are honest. The diametrically opposed concepts of truth and untruth coexist in our psyche, and that is how we survive.
Nowadays, I am less social and more sincere. I don’t force myself to attend superfluous events. I don’t go out of my way to talk to people. I don’t fear missing out. I don’t pretend like I care. I choose when to be blatantly truthful and when to keep my silence. I might not be more honest, but I think by doing what makes me comfortable, I have discovered a fine world worth being earnest for.
- Fun fact: at the time, I thought he was Chinese, since his name was Wang Erde (phonetic) according to the stories in translation I read in my childhood, and it wasn’t until later, when I looked up the author of The Importance of Being Earnest on the internet that I realized they are the same person.↩
- This is my favorite line from the play, but I never realized there are people who live by it, until I came to Yale, that is, where there are people who are simply too busy to have more than one meal with their friends every week, and people who always cancel dinner plans last minute because of matters of graver importance. To those people, especially, I would like to quote Oscar Wilde: “I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.”↩