• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Tom Cotton And The New York Times

June 2020

Though enviably educated, and in possession of our country’s most desirable university degrees, our journalistic class—that group so instrumental in the formation of our national wisdom, that eloquent cadre in whose image we fancy mirroring our own—hasn’t yet come into acquisition of that which Oscar Wilde called the Oxford Temper. Seemingly haughty, prohibitively distant, and, for those reasons, inaccessible to all but the elect and privileged few, this Oxford Temper about which Wilde spoke (and of which, with little competition among the men of his age, he was the most ostentatious and perfect exemplar), is actually not so off-putting as it might first sound.

One need not, as it were, have spent his young adult life in the halls of that antique institution, that palace of learning of which, to the great merit of his native genius, Wilde was but one of a select few Irish alumni. Nor, for that matter, need he have regaled himself in the azure of an Oxonian hue—a color to which, in the life not only of Wilde, but in that of any modern scholar by whom he’s since been followed, so much deference is still to be paid.

One need not have spoken with the high affectation of a non-rhotic tongue, a style of speaking of which we Game of Throne-loving, Anglophone-enthused Americans are still so very much enamored. Nor need he have been versed in the tragedies of Greece or the epics of Rome, subjects in which, classicist as he was, Wilde was so uniquely fluent. Nor need he have been the progeny of some ancient and forgotten renown, a family capable of tracing, from the branches of its sprawling tree to the depths of its Norman roots, the pulsing veins of aristocratic blood.

No—none of this was needed in the pursuit of that Oxford Temper, that grand and sophisticated manner of which Wilde was so inimitable a promulgator. And while not everyone could hope to ascend to the heights of Wilde’s peculiar genius, the Oxford Temper ought to have been, and, to my encouragement, conceivably still is, exportable to all. It is a democratization of the aristocrat’s mien, a patrician’s code made for the plebeian’s lot. If not in the financial circumstance in which the latter resides, then it’s certainly to be found in the wealth and elegance of his conversation; if not in the clothes and the jewels in which his body’s attired, then doubtless it rests in the acquired opulence and culture of his mind.

The Temper, the Oxford demeanor, required only that its practitioner play, in Wilde’s own words, “gracefully with ideas”. That’s all. I don’t think this is too demanding an intellectual endeavor—certainly not one from which the majority of us, strivers all, is barred. Anyone with an honest mind and a venturesome spirit can do it, can play gracefully with any assortment of piquant ideas. Yet, in so doing, he must avoid at all costs the arrival at a “violence of opinion” merely. Such a disposition is neither to be permitted, nor sought. It would be intemperate, narrow, and crude, and the Oxford Temper condemns it.

Our commentariat, our journalists, our media pundits and personalities in whom, for so long and unprofitable a length time, we’ve invested so large and valuable a share of our attention, have lost their hold of Wilde, have forsaken their movement toward the Oxford Temper. The former, now long forgotten, would lament the neglect with which the latter’s been treated. They care for neither temper nor man, and, in so doing, they further damage the cracked shell of their own intellectual prestige.

Very few of the aforementioned, if any at all, have the ability to tolerate, much less gracefully to play, with that variety of ideas by which, as a natural consequence of their chosen profession, they’re supposed to be confronted each and every day. Still fewer lament the recognition of this fact. Instead, they’re unwilling to handle the sharp edges of the keen opinions with which, with open palms and nimble dexterity, they ought eagerly to come into contact. They should do so with the bare and supple flesh of their hands. These are the objects over whose surfaces their fingers should gleefully run, the toys by whose unexpected points and turns, by whose smoothed edges and dagger corners, they should be titillated and forever tempted.

Empty of hand, emptier still of mind, they’re careful to step between the open fissures on the ground, the holes above whose smoke-filled depths this gaping culture of ours has begun its dying quake. They choose their paths, with contemptible timidity and slowness of gait, so as to avoid having to chart those many unexamined and unpaved roads. They want nothing better than to elude the rugged instability of those unmarked journeys, those rock-strewn tracts onto which they might unpreparedly turn. Those daunting curves, those passages of gravel, are new and startling thoughts of whose course they’re so uncertain. Pursued with tact and curiosity, inquisitiveness and mirth, they might lead to unexpected places, spots from which they’ll not soon want to return. They might lead to forests of ideas, mountains of knowledge, between whose barb-laden thickets and cloud-scraping summits they might sooner discover themselves oh-so happily lost.

All the better, says I, if they’re not so soon to be found. After all, to be so stationed, in so darkened and perilous a wood, or at so breathless a height, isn’t always so undesirable a condition. I rather like it, but they like it not. They avoid the delights of that intellectual abyss in which I feel interminably comfortable to float. They’ll not risk the dipping of a toe, while I prefer completely to jump in, awash in what’s to come.

They want terra firma. They want soil that they know. They want earth atop which, with little fear of molestation and intellectual bother, they can gather and complacently sit. They want to talk amongst themselves about themselves and for themselves, and they want to do so to the exclusion of all others. After all, these “others” for whom they hold such deep and abiding contempt, by whom they’re so shamelessly “triggered”, are, in their opinion, nothing but a disreputable and a faceless mass—an ill-educated group for which they’ve neither respect nor time. It’s certainly not a group with which they’ve any intention to engage. They want intimacy and affirmation, but only with themselves. This leads not to a healthful accouchement, but to an ugly and still-born birth. They want an incestuous cross-pollination of sterile ideas, a thrust of the mind from which, as we know, nothing great is ever really begotten. All is masturbatory, yet all is tidy and clean.

And that’s what they really want—that by which their hygienic thoughts and their enlightened sentiments can be globally espoused. They want that which is anodyne, unpolluted, and inoffensive. They don’t want to feel the dirt whose turning is needed when one proceeds sincerely to dig for the truth. They want purity of opinion, homogeneity, and unblemished agreement. They want that by which, mentally, they can never be sullied, and never hurt.

Yet that’s not the Oxford Temper, not the reason for which we were made. There must be ambiguity. We mustn’t be afraid to get our knees in the dirt, nor stain the porcelain finish of our elbows. Wilde knew this and, while we’ve since forgotten his lesson, we shall be reminded of it again.

We’re far sturdier than that manner of thinking by which our journalists have been so utterly subdued, far more resilient and admirably robust. We were, I’m convinced, made to be intellectual adventurers, a people fearless of the wood before whose impenetrable depth we now stand. We were made to be dialectical warriors, a cohort ever-equipped for the sallies of hostile tongues. We are brave and undismayed in their presence, and we know how to absorb and return their lash. We were crafted, after all, with one part steel in our bones and, with the other, sapience in our hearts. We are adamantine and philosophic, unconquerable and wise. We are tough and contemplative—Spartan and Attic—yet we have in our bodies still more: we possess the unmatched, brilliant creativity of a distinctive American light. It flickers in us still, despite the influences by which it might be darkened.

With it, we see nothing in the supposed “might” and “violence” of conflicting opinions. They diminish in our view. We’re not frightened by the weighty shadows of alternative thoughts. We don’t retreat from them. We don’t cower in their presence. Rather, with them, we play gracefully and we respond eloquently, as Wilde and the Oxford Temper would have us do.

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