Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On Bunburying

“Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.”

Bunburying is a neologism coined by Oscar Wilde in his satirical play, The Importance of Being Earnest. The word functions as both a noun and verb and denotes an alias or the act of using an alias to carry on a clandestine double life. Wilde uses the term to symbolize the chameleon-like nature of modern man who wears different masks according to the various occasions of life. In the play, Algernon and Jack create imaginary personas (Bunbury and Ernest respectively) so they may live as they wish in various social spheres and physical settings. Wilde is not only interested in satirizing late Victorian society’s hypocrisies and absurdities, but in promoting a new relativistic and aesthetic notion of earnestness. The playwright seeks to unveil man to himself as a Nietzschean figure who constructs his own subjective reality, in contrast to one who fulfills a role in an objective order. Personally, I think the tortured artist is just trying to validate his own moral failings as a Bunburyist who abandoned his wife and two children for the life of a pederast. At any rate, this Bunburying business is a very real temptation for modern man.

Even if we don’t carry on double lives with subterfuge and verbal sleights of hand, like Algernon or Jack, we sometimes imagine ourselves doing so, or we second guess our decisions in a kind of perverse Socratic self-reflection. For instance, did I make a mistake here or there? What if I had said this or said that? What would life be like if I had done this or done that?  These kinds of internal dialogues and constructed parallel worlds are just as dangerous as real life conversations, if not more so, precisely because they are a variant form of Bunburying within the comfort and security of our minds. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that real life Bunburying begins with a kind of mental play land where we vent our frustrations and entertain other possibilities without actually indulging in them. This is a very real occasion of sin and seems to me to be the first whispers of iniquity by the devil, a la Lewis's Wormwood or Screwtape. What harm could there be in just cavorting in fantasy? Plenty! Just say no to Bunburying.

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