Below the surface
November 25, 2003
"The truth is seldom pure and never simple." Oscar Wilde's famous response at his trial to a lawyer who, exasperated by Wilde's superior intelligence, had demanded that he speak the pure and simple truth makes the point that things are usually more complex than they seem on the surface or at first glance. It leads us to look for an extra dimension in the understanding of people and events. Why do people do and say the things they do?
Is a man who preaches hatred motivated more by some illness, personal deficiency or insecurity than by concern for the people on whose behalf he purports to speak? Do people mean what they say or the exact opposite? Do we listen to our stream of consciousness, that little voice that conducts an ongoing interior monologue within ourselves, that perpetually reviews our own thoughts and actions, that gives us peace of mind or its opposite, fear, despair, torment.
Wilde had the insight to go below the surface of things, to understand hypocrisy and pomposity and dogmatism and to puncture them with his wit.
The point he sought to make is there are no easy answers, no simple prescriptions. Haters sound good because they simplify reality, brush out or ignore all the grey areas, divide the world into good and evil. They ignore or destroy complexity, which is the essence of real life. Each man or woman is a sea of conflicting impulses, often barely apprehended or understood, sometimes masked consciously or unconsciously.
Perhaps because there is a high level of contempt for each other in this ex-plantation society personal judgments tend to be particularly harsh. The inhuman attitudes of the plantation sometimes still prevail.
What we must learn from the Wildean wisdom is to look below the surface, to have a deeper understanding, to be less readily judgmental, to be aware of complexity, of contradictions, of history. To quote from another Irish writer, William Butler Yeats, in his poem The Second Coming:
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."