I was trying to get my students interested in Oscar Wilde’s peculiar position as a late Victorian celebrity avant la lettre, and before I really knew what I was saying I blurted out that his celebrity status then was not so different from that of Venezuelan import Boris Izaguirre today. That surely got their attention (poor things, it was 15:30…) and a good laugh. Once more I chastised myself for adlibbing instead of sticking to my notes… oh, well, it’s that pressure to keep them entertained all the time!!
On second thoughts, however, my boutade may have some grounds, at least it is making me consider in more depth the difficulties of presenting historical characters as real, living people as not just that – wooden, stiff characters in history, understood as Hayden White taught us: just an agreed upon fiction. The lurid details of Oscar Wilde’s unfortunate life stick out so prominently that it is harder in his case to reduce him down to just being a writer. One of my students really got a serious case of bad vibes when I mentioned that Wilde died as the fictional Ernest that Jack invents does in his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest: destitute, alone and in Paris… Yet, whether you read about him in the Wikipedia or in any proper academic source (say Richard Ellman’s biography), or even if you see the film Wilde with comedian Stephen Fry in the title role, there is always a mist surrounding Wilde’s real person, as happens with all the dead authors we’ll never see on TV, only in photos. This is silly, I know, but my guess is that what is shocking about comparing Wilde and Izaguirre is not so much that they’re very different men but that they live in very different times, the latter one when writers can have if they wish a prominent media presence. Just imagine what it would be like to have Wilde (or Shakespeare!) as a talk show guest and you can, perhaps, see what I mean.
Having said that, Wilde and Izaguirre share much if you think about it: a flamboyant dress style, a flippant repartee, a wish to shine as a celebrity no matter what it takes, their condition as homosexual men, their making a living primarily as journalists. I don’t know if Wilde would ever have accepted pulling down his pants as often as Izaguirre did on TV (remember Pepe Navarro’s late night shows?) but I can certainly picture him presenting Channel nº 4 with Ana Siñeriz. After all, Wilde was the editor of popular magazine The Woman’s World, which he rescued from financial ruin with great doses of glamour. No, I’m not forgetting in this comparison the fact that whereas Wilde was a brilliant scholar, Izaguirre did not attend university. I haven’t read any of Izaguirre’s novels (yet) and I can’t say how the two men compare as authors but they do have in common their good nose for the media that pays best: Izaguirre wrote soap operas for TV, Wilde took up playwriting for money (with great business acumen, he preferred a box office percentage over a flat fee).
Happily for Western society things have changed in a most significant front, and while poor Oscar was sentenced to two years hard labour for his homosexual liaisons, which led ultimately to his sad end, Boris is happily married to the love of his life: a man, Rubén. I’m aware of how controversial Izaguirre is as a gay man, with his often annoying mannerisms and his sharp tongue, but when I think of him and Wilde I’m very glad that Izaguirre can enjoy full citizenship rights in our time and very sorry that Wilde had to suffer so cruelly and, above all, so unnecessarily.