Ellis Washington
On Rabelais: A precursor to Oscar Wilde and the celebrity culture
By Ellis Washington
October 11, 2014

It was from Lady Wilde that Oscar learned that identity is a kind of fiction, and that being oneself is a form of playacting. It was from her that Oscar [Wilde] learned that the most important act of creativity is the creation of one's own image. He learned from his mother that the most important act of creativity is the creation of one's own self.

~ David M. Friedman

Prologue and Rabelais Biography

Hucksters, Self-promoters, Bon vivants, "Media Whores" – No matter what you call these insipid, narcissistic people who love to be celebrated for celebrity's sake it begs the question: Where did self-promoters and self-promotion come from? Today we have the so-called "Selfie culture" where tweens and teenagers obsess about themselves on their Facebook, Instagram pages and via Twitter and other social media and delude themselves that they are "famous" for doing nothing other than something outrageous, silly, or unremarkable and posting it online for potentially millions of people to see and gawk about. Hollywood producers, actors, TV lawyers and politicians are no better. What have they done to advance human society to promote and uplift contemporary culture, politics, aesthetics, or history? Have they written a symphony, a ballet, or some great essay, or work of literature, art or architecture? No! Yet these celebrities are making millions playing someone else on TV or in the movies, being someone other than themselves. Being "famous" for essentially doing or being nothing.

This essay will explore the lives of two people – the sixteenth century French writer, François Rabelais and the Irish-English playwright and self-promoter, Oscar Wilde as precursors to the celebrity and selfie, social media culture of the twenty first century. François Rabelais (c. 1483–1553) was an important French Renaissance writer, Greek scholar, doctor, monk, and Renaissance humanist. He was well-known as a writer of the grotesque, fictional, satire, vulgar jokes and songs. His most famous work is The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel – a collection of novels which narrates of the explorations of two giants, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. Because of his literary influence and historical reputation, most literary scholars and critics hold him one of the best writers of world literature and a founding father of modern European writing, particularly writings in French and in the French idiom.

His Use of Language

The early 16th century witnessed an explosion of creativity, inventions and change for the French language, particularly in its written usage. The first book of grammar (1530) and the first French dictionary (1539) were published in the first half of the 16th century. Since spelling wasn't standardized as it is today, each author used his own methodology of writing the language. Rabelais particularly established his own set of somewhat complicated rules. He championed the etymological spelling, denoting the words origins as opposed to writers who preferred a simplified spelling, based on the enunciation of words.

Rabelais' techniques of his using natural language was remarkably original, energetic, and innovative. He adapted dozens of Greek, Latin, and Italian loan-word and direct translations of Greek and Latin compound word and expressions into French. He adopted many dialectal forms and created new words and idioms which have advanced the standard French language over the centuries and are still in use to this day. Rabelais is certainly one of the major writers who has improved the French language in the most substantial way.

His works are also famous for containing numerous sexual double-entendres, off-color jokes and vulgar songs that even shock the sensibilities today. Rabelais' lewd legacy reminds me of a movie scene in The Matrix Reloaded (2003): Merovingian: "I love French wine, like I love the French language. I have sampled every language, French is my favorite. Fantastic language. Especially to curse with. Nom de dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d'enculer ta mère. It's like wiping your arse with silk. I love it." This is the mixed legacy of Rabelais for he is rightly celebrated for reforming and codifying the French language, nevertheless he did this feat by perverting the culture with low brow words, effete mannerisms, effeminacy, and morally degenerate ideas instead of uplifting the language of his culture as Dante did with the Italian language, Chaucer did with the English language and Martin Luther did with the German language. George Orwell was notably not an admirer of Rabelais. Writing in 1940, he called him "an exceptionally perverse, morbid writer, a case for psychoanalysis."

Oscar Wilde: the Founding Father of the cult of celebrity

Following the traditions of Rabelais being the father of French vulgarity, effeminacy and narcissism let us now move to the late nineteenth century cult figure, Oscar Wilde. Larry Getlen recently wrote an article in the New York Post titled, "Blame Oscar Wilde for the rise of Kim Kardashian." What this article demonstrated was how a totally unknown young man from England, without resume, without much education and certainly without accomplishment in the 1880s self-promoted himself by saying and doing outrageous things in fashionable places – "I can resist everything except temptation." "Don't be led astray down the path of virtue." "Only shallow people do not judge by appearance." These statements while on appearance seemed extemporaneous, indeed they were not but were pre-planned, formulaic expressions designed to win Oscar Wilde entrée to all of the rich, fashionable parties in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and across America according to author David M. Friedman's new book, Wilde in America: Oscar Wild and the Invention of Modern Celebrity.

"To ensure he kept getting [invited to parties], he perfected a verbal trick: replacing a word in a sentence with its unexpected opposite," Friedman writes about Wilde's 1882 lecture tour of America while only 27 and still years from writing prominent works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1894) Wilde (with the help of his Lady Macbeth mother, Lady Wilde) devised a scheme to make himself legendary, despite no achievements at that time in his life. "In doing so," says author David M. Friedman writes, "he was the first to become famous for fame's own sake. If you want someone to blame for Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Honey Boo Boo, Oscar is your man."

"It was from Lady Wilde that Oscar learned that identity is a kind of fiction, and that being oneself is a form of playacting," Friedman writes. "It was from her that Oscar learned that the most important act of creativity is the creation of one's own image." At Oxford University, Wilde found a mentor in John Ruskin, a professor of fine art who gave lectures on "the power and meaning of beauty" and inspired the growing aesthetic movement – which assigned aesthetic virtues above the practical – by asserting beauty as "evidence of God's presence on Earth." Motivated by Ruskin, Wilde discovered his own individuality. "He would become the self-anointed leader of Oxford's student aesthetes, preaching to his classmates the Divine Gospel of Beauty and the superiority of decorative handmade goods to ugly manufactured ones."

W.S. Gilbert, the famous librettist of Gilbert & Sullivan musicals and operettas, thought Wilde pompous and outrageous, and wrote an insulting libretto about two rival aesthetes. While the two leads were each composites, when the opera, Patience, premiered in 1881, the audience immediately identified the flamboyant character Bunthorne as modeled after Wilde. Although Gilbert's depiction of Wilde was contemptuous and sarcastic Wilde embraced the character as an artistic representation of his own genius. Wilde attended the opera's opening night and affected as much attention to himself as to the opera itself. Wilde brought Gilbert's opera Patience to America but translated the themes and presented the Bunthorne character wearing the same sort of ostentatious outfits in a series of lectures – then a popular form of entertainment – on subjects related to history, philosophy and aestheticism, such as the nature of beauty and aesthetics in literature.

The fall of Oscar Wilde

Tragically, as meteoric as his rise to fame was his outrageous narcissism and self-promotion would be his demise. Although married with two children Wilde was an overt homosexual during the sexually repressed Victorian era and from 1895 to 1897 was imprisoned for two years of hard labor, for "gross indecency," after having an ongoing affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquees of Queensberry, the man who wrote the rulebook for the sport of boxing. Wilde might have avoided this fate, but after the marquess made his anger public writing on a card that he was a "Sodomite," Wilde sued him, notwithstanding the fact if he lost the case he could go to prison. "The man who had so presciently devised a winning – and lasting – formula for how to become a modern celebrity had failed to see a crucial pitfall of the new culture of self-promotion: the danger of believing the hype, especially your own," Friedman writes.

Carson, a leading barrister, cross-examined Wilde on how he described the moral content of his works. Wilde responded with typical humor and frivolity, asserting that there are no bad or immoral books only bad writers, and that only "brutes and illiterates," whose views on art "are incalculably stupid," would make such judgments about art being immoral. Carson relentlessly emphasized the controversial nature of his numerous male lovers and suggested that the men were prostitutes. Wilde responded that he did not believe in societal taboos, and merely loved the associations of young men. Then Carson questioned Wilde directly had ever kissed a certain servant boy, without deliberation, Wilde arrogantly retorted, "Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it."

In the 1960 movie, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, that pivotal scene was met by loud gasps of revulsion from the audience. Carson pressured him to expound upon his answer, repetitively asking why the boy's ugliness was so relevant. Wilde stumbled and stammered. This moment signaled the end of Wildes' career of celebrity and the end of his freedom. The acerbic wit and outrageous antics that plucked him from obscurity to fame and fortune ironically would now become his own personal hell of public infamy and shame. Friedman writes, "Wilde thought he was too famous to fail – which is precisely why he did." Wilde would be dead in less than three years after his prison sentence. Wilde rapidly fell from public approval and while in prison fainted during a chapel service which caused him to rupture his eardrum and ultimately led to his death of cerebral meningitis in 1900, at the age of 46 and totally bankrupt.

How has the sycophantic celebrity culture devolved today? Hollywood actress and celebrity cult member, Gwyneth Paltrow gushed over President Obama at a recent fundraiser party held for him at her home. She said, "You're so handsome that I can't speak properly... It would be wonderful if we were able to give this man all of the power that he needs to pass the things that he needs to pass." Now I hope you understand why the subtitle of my history books titled, The Progressive Revolution is liberal fascism through the ages.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 6 – Beauty; Chap. 22 – Emotion; Vol. 3, Chap. 68 – Pleasure and Pain; Vol. 24 – Rabelais.

Book Notice

Please purchase my latest opus dedicated to that Conservative Colossus, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Here are the latest two new volumes from my ongoing historical series – THE PROGRESSIVE REVOLUTION: History of Liberal Fascism through the Ages (University Press of America, 2015):
However, before the book is officially released to the public, I have to place 100 pre-publication orders (50 orders per each volume). I need your help to make this happen ASAP. Please place your order today for Volume 3 & Volume 4. Of course, if you can order all 100 copies today, the book will become official tomorrow.

Please circulate this flyer to all your email contacts & Facebook/Twitter followers who may be interested in purchasing this opus which will serve as a ready apologetic against the rampant Marxist-Progressive propaganda taught in America's public schools, colleges, universities, graduate schools, and law schools. Thanks in advance to all my friends, associates and colleagues for your invaluable support! Law and History Blog: www.EllisWashingtonReport.com

Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

© Ellis Washington


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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)


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