• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Jussie Smollett and the Decay of Lying

March 2019

Society, explained the greatest of socialites Oscar Wilde, must return sooner or later to its lost leader, “the cultured and fascinating liar”. Such a leader-liar is—as only the inimitable Wilde could succeed in convincing us—the very pillar upon whose practiced trickery a society falls or stands. He’s the figure of whom civilization is enamored, the man to whom it turns in awe and in wait. He’s its life blood and its vial essence. He’s not only the straw that stirs the drink, but the very boulevardier itself.

Wilde, inarguably history’s bawdiest, loveliest, and ultimately saddest bon vivant (and the man to whom we owe not only the majority of our epigrammatic debt, but very nearly every morsel of our modernity as well), goes on in his essay entitled The Decay of Lying to say that “Who he was who first, without ever having gone out to the rude chase, told the wandering caveman at sunset how he had dragged the Megatherium from the purple darkness of its jasper cave, or slain the Mammoth in single combat and brought back its gilded tusks, we cannot tell, and not one of our modern anthropologists, for all their much-boasted science, has had the ordinary courage to tell us. Whatever was his name or race, he certainly was the true founder of social intercourse”.

Indeed, apropos of Wilde’s ironically sentimental title, lying as we know it has reached its decadent stage. The age of the decay of lying is most surely at hand and, what’s more, its death knell rings near. One might go so far as to say that in the course of the past two weeks, with all that’s happened in America, it’s gone right out and breathed its last breath.

The practice of perfidy, the art of artifice—both are nearing their respective states of complete and unsalvageable disrepair. Falsity, on the whole, is failing, though it put up a good and dogged fight. So too does chicanery accept its defeat. The dawn of the deceitful is fading and in its absence, the light of the pure and the veracious looks to paint the sky anew. It hopes to illuminate the omnipresent dark in which we’ve long found ourselves immersed. Henceforth, truth—unpoetically banal but encouragingly bright—will be the only color to which our gentle, gullible eyes respond.

But what, then, is to become of the much-celebrated, cultured, and fascinating liar of whom Wilde speaks so highly? Upon what pedigree of influence are we to place him as he embarks upon a descent toward irrelevance and as his craft begins its decay? He is, after all and as Wilde claims, the very tickle by whose touch our society’s curiosity is aroused. He’s the man to whom we sooner or later always return. Better yet is the question of just who exactly is our cultured and fascinating liar? We know of Wilde’s: his liars were his works, but we must learn to recognize our own. Who, then, in this tragicomedy of our own life, plays the role of the liar par excellence? Who is the provocateur of deceit? He’s a man of culture, of this we’re certain; a figure of fascination, about this, nothing could be more clear. These are Wilde’s criteria and doubtless ours as well, but who in the name of heaven is our man? Who is the one who beguiles society so? Who is in possession of these uncharacteristic character traits?

It turns out, Wilde’s criteria were too restrictive. We must expand upon his eloquent list. Adding to this sheet of pre-requisites, the consummate liar responsible for all social intercourse must also be evocative, sympathetic, and unrepentant to the last. In our case, with imagination at our disposal, he’ll also be an actor, a hoaxer, and an unmitigated malcontent. He’ll be unabashedly insincere and thoroughly overwrought. Theatricality, cupidity, anger, and hate—these are the essential virtues of his personality of vice. He’ll be the victim of his own self-injurious assault and he’ll be the man responsible for the besmirching of not only his own name, but of his own city and country as well. He is, as we now all know him, the television star Jussie Smollett.

Smollett, cast in the realm of Wilde’s vivid, atavistic account, would be the clever caveman who set in motion the narrative by fudging his personal tale. He’s the naughty Neanderthal who quite deliberately avoided the “rude chase”, but this to him was no impediment to being believed. You see, he was able under the veil of night to acquire (with remarkably bloodless ease) both the Megatherium and the Mammoth—immense prizes to be had. Dragging the one and slaying the other, he could boast of his conquest without a shade of evidence—save, perhaps, those sparkling, gilded tusks. But while those tusks might be gilded, they wear only a thin and temporary veneer. Sure, the patina of so noble an attack can be alluring to the man to whom the story is told, but can it ever be fully persuasive? Smollett, our age’s manipulative and immoral hunter, hoped to find out. And we, his fellow cavemen awaiting his return, were positively eager to believe in the prophecies written in his gathered bones.

Having circumvented the chase and, in the process, having invented the truth full-stop, Smollett suffered nothing but the time he invested in the conception of his victimization and execution of his fraud. It would prove a small down-payment whose dividend would be great. And great it most resoundingly and profitably was. In the distance he saw us—the far-too credulous and “wandering” cavemen who were ready to pay to our last cent for his tale. We would empty our pockets, even scourge and flagellate our own backs, if only to be sold his bag of deceit. No cost would be too dear, no penitence too demanding.

The word “wandering” used above in every way befits us. What’s unclear, though, if this is a testament to Wilde’s prescience (he’d only visited America once, but his sojourn—at least as it pertained to his journey to the barely-settled west—was artistically formative) or a sad statement of our current, misguided state of affairs. Lately, we as a society—comprising, as it were, nearly half a million cumbersome cavemen of a modern age—have taken to peripatetic apologies and uncertainty of our own shared home. We seem habitually, if not obsessively to be looking for something that may not be there. At least it may not be there as we think. We want to see the frightening Megatherium and the gargantuan Mammoth—what we might call by way of analogy the dual-headed beasts of violent racism and gross homophobia today. We crave their joined existence as odious monsters and systemic entities against which we can all fight. It could be the case though, as it was for those behemoths of an earlier age, that the two things (systemic racism and homophobia, namely) are largely extinct. At the very least, they might not lurk in the white-supremacist streets of Chicago as claimed by Smollett.

America—at her worst—credulous, irreverent, myopic, and crude, is that very wandering caveman of which Wilde speaks. It can be said of America that she’s a frustrated and chronic ambulant, a wanderer desperately seeking her way. Itinerant and insecure, she’s looking for a shelter within whose walls her identify will be made to feel justified, morally defensible, and safe. She’s searching for a home at whose hearth she can lie exposed and forgiven of all past sins. Yet in this endless process of wandering and searching, she’s liable to be misled.

Assisting with this misleading are the “modern anthropologists” to which Wilde acridly refers.

Again, by way of analogy, we understand these anthropologists—these scholars of society and masters of men—to be our journalists, pundits, and reporters. In a word, they are our current news media, our scribblers of scientific pedigree. The “much-boasted science” of the former is the putative and sacrosanct objectivity of the latter. The media prides itself on its fidelity to the facts, on its temperance when it comes to jumping to conclusions it quietly wants reached. The attribute of which it feels itself proudest, therefore, is its distinctively disinterested bent. By promulgating the truth, it defends society. By being shamelessly circumspect, it fights the corruption of biased opinion and slant.

If only this were all so. Like the modern anthologists known to Wilde, the modern reporters known to us are painfully lacking in courage. Rife with knowledge they may well be. So too are they lathered in eloquence and polished with erudition and style—the glittering likes to which we laypeople can only aspire. One thing they’re not, however, is particularly courageous, and the less well-versed have over them this sole advantage. Had they had the requisite courage, our fantastic caveman would’ve been exposed much sooner for what he was—an absolute farce.

Unlike the recent ending that we’ve seen come of Smollett case, Wilde concludes his work, The Decay of Lying, with the triumph of the trickster. Ultimately, it’s the conquest of the beautiful lie over the tedious truth. The victory is that of romanticism (the aesthetic school of which Wilde was so fundamentally a part) over realism. In the case of Jussie Smollett, however, the victories are swapped and altered in ever-so slight a way. It was rather racism than romanticism that engaged in armed conflict with realism this week. And in this case, quite distinct from that of Wilde’s cunningly articulated and mellifluously mendacious ideal, realism has won. The cultured and fascinating liar—indeed none have been so cultured and fascinating as the audacious Smollett—has been defeated. Even the artist must concede from time to time. And so, we beg of society to return later rather than sooner to its “lost leader”, its consummate liar.

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