I’d like to consider why it might be that aestheticism, which concerns itself strictly with surfaces, collapses so readily into its what to a lay audience might appear its opposite: symbolism–especially dream or psychoanalytic symbolism, which one might imagine would interest itself primarily in depth, in the not-surface. How is it that decadence and symbolism came to be synonymous, that an interest in surfaces transferred so fluidly into an interest in how surfaces carry meaning (as in the case of The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which surfaces are both deeply meaningful and deeply deceptive)? And can we relate that tension to the paradoxes of Earnest? Why is it that Wilde’s attack on consumerism and petty titles (of all kinds) must also revel in objects and culminate in the ham-fisted fulfillment of the promise of the play’s title itself?
As we discover by the end of the play, Jack really is the person he pretends to be, i.e. Earnest. The undoubling of the doubling seems to suggest that the more we try to distance ourselves from our identity, the more we ultimately reveal it—that we tell the truth when given the mask. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that our most fantastical stories tend to be so sharply, and even embarrassingly, allegorical: the further we alienate ourselves from reality, the closer we come to it, in dreams and in fictions alike. Indeed, in The Importance of Being Earnest a “three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality” is confused with a baby. Miss Prism explains that “[i]n a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the basinette, and placed the baby in the hand-bag.” Abstraction, it seems to me, is hardly an innocent word choice. She is not just absentminded—she abstracts. Her baby becomes a story, and the story becomes her baby. This abstraction from the story to the life in turn creates a story, the story of the play itself. The narrative of therapy becomes as potent as the historical narrative it unravels from the “fiction” of the patient’s original memories. Thus the play’s constant consultation of annals and records (the diaries, the army records) reminds us that objective histories are embedded in subjective histories as much as subjective histories are embedded in the objective—the latter point argued explicitly by the characters, who describe the gossip that makes history “readable.”
The Importance of Being Earnest thus may be understood to illustrate Freud’s concept of the screen memory: the memory that stands in for another memory; the false account that contains the virgin truth. Freud wrote his paper on screen memories in 1899, before he wrote The Interpretation of Dreams (the work that was to make him famous), and it’s readily apparent how the former contributed to the latter: both suggests that we must reconsider the utility of fictions and lies, and ultimately reveal them to be true all along. (The only lie the dream tells, we might say, is the claim that it’s a lie.) It’s hard not to read Algernon as an analyst of sorts, a man whose future hinges on his ability to bring about Jack’s self-realization. He also constantly suggests that truth can be gotten at via nonsense and fiction: “Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable. [Sits on sofa.]” He makes other remarks, too, that eerily resemble the shrink joke: “My dear boy, I love hearing my relations abused. It is the only thing that makes me put up with them at all;” “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”
In Jack’s case the screen memory is peculiar because it masks what is most other people’s fantasy: that is, rather than a traumatic episode being blotted out, we discover that he has been blotting out others’ fantasy. Jacks’ story is, in fact, an example of what Freud calls the “family romance:” a boy is taken from noble origins and raised in humble exile, only to triumphantly reunite with his roots when he has reached maturity. Freud believes many children grapple with their parents’ unfriendliness and/or inadequacy by fantasizing about their real parents (which for Freud explains the scenario’s ubiquity in fairytales). Jaack comes, in fact, from noble birth; he was a foundling which only the vagaries of fortune have separated from his rightful inheritance (a woman). Gwendolyn explicitly refers to Jack’s history as his “romantic origin.” The family romance narrative is also utilized in Velvet Goldmine, in which it’s implied that Oscar Wilde was a foundling (which he wasn’t). Why do both of these works play with the family romance? Certainly, the queering of the genealogy has something to do with it—in a sense, the gay men who become alienated from their families and seek family in a constellation of gay icons must think of themselves as foundlings, aliens, forever seeking the secret of their noble birth. But Earnest recognizes a kind of double queerness: Jack is content to think of his parentage as a handbag, but that very literality becomes a way to lie to himself.
Thus the identification of surface rather than root, of individual rather than lineage, creates a depth of its own; new meaning emerges from the imagined orphan as new meaning emerges from the vacuity of camp. Forgetting produces meaning as well as remembering does; “The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.” And, indeed, the healthy man, the man most in touch with the truth, may be the only one capable of lying, if ignorant lies only blindly reproduce the truth. Jack may be fully healed when he finds he can really lie:
Jack. Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?
Gwendolen. I can. For I feel that you are sure to change.