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The Aesthetic Beauty of Chaos - Arcadia & The Importance of Being Earnest
Chaos is an enigmatic concept that challenges the conventions of the natural world and embodies a state of disorder and unpredictability. It is the antithesis of determinism, allowing for the exploration of seemingly infinite possibilities, and within it, the beauty of randomness becomes apparent. In literature, satire serves as an instrument for the subversion and criticism of societal norms, thus allowing for potential amalgamation with the notion of chaos. In The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, and Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, satire underlies the conflicts of each narrative, exposing the hypocrisies embedded within various societal norms. Satire permeates both plays, targeting and disrupting the general acceptance of conventional order, but in doing so, reveals the inherent beauty of chaos and the consequent significance of accepting disorder as a necessity of life.
Chaos and the disruption of conventional order ensue from the irony and concomitant satire of each play, made apparent by their settings. The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, is situated in Victorian society, an environment in which rigid social codes are typically upheld. However, the characters in this play maintain these customs to an excessive extent, clearly satirizing the society in which they preside. The play therefore affirms itself “as a comedy of manners. Ridicule and exposure of the vanities, the hypocrisies, and the idleness of the upper classes is, to be sure, the main function of its verbal wit” (Foster 19). The wealthy are persistently derided for their vices and superficiality, developing chaos within the characters’ environment which pervades their decisions and interactions throughout the narrative. Though several characters portray the satire of the Victorian upper class, no character embodies these ideals more thoroughly than the cold-hearted Lady Bracknell. Utilizing Lady Bracknell, Wilde critiques various aspects of the nobility, particularly their obsession with appearances. This is made evident in her discussion with Jack about his engagement to Gwendolen, in which she remarks, “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness” (Wilde 477). In this apathetic statement, Wilde makes apparent the preoccupation of the elites with preserving a consummate image; they feel no remorse in making these grotesque statements and brazen actions so long as their public appearance is sustained. This preoccupation is further satirized in that despite their perpetuation of this hollow facade, in their private lives, these elites regularly engage in scandalous acts of deception, namely Algernon’s Bunburying. Another flawed characteristic of these elites which Lady Bracknell employs is a general shallowness and lack of sincerity, displayed in her dialogue with Algernon when she pronounces, “I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die … Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids” (Wilde 469-470). In this assertion, Lady Bracknell exemplifies a detachment from emotions and reality, demonstrating almost sociopathic tendencies. As an elite, she believes herself to be so superior to common people that she finds herself entirely incapable of relating to their struggles and pain. This private lack of empathy is ironic considering the excessive politeness these nobility reveal in public, displayed by Gwendolen and Cecily. The actions of the upper-class act as “a satiric demonstration of how art can lie romantically about human beings and distort the simple laws of real life with melodramatic complications and improbably easy escapes from them.” (Foster 20). This distortion of the laws of life, which results from satire, can only be described as chaos. Thus, the central figures of the play all act satirically with the notion of chaos driving the plot forward and providing obstacles for their impending marriages. Satire and its ensuing chaos are similarly seen in Arcadia, though chaos additionally acts as an explicit component of the narrative. The setting is established in two distinct time periods, and the superposition of these periods serves as an agent of chaos within the academic realm and the forgotten history it intends to uncover. Here, rather than the upper echelon, academics and their pursuit of knowledge are the vehicles of satire. Bernard, in his quest for fame, disregards the pursuit of veracious knowledge, instead intending to rewrite history in the manner he sees fit. In response to Hannah’s logical arguments against Bernard’s theory, he proposes that “there is a platonic letter which confirms everything–lost but ineradicable” (Stoppard 72). As opposed to admitting the flaws in his reasoning, Bernard wildly asserts the undeniable existence of a document capable of resolving any issues in his claims. By making these false pretenses, Bernard proves himself to be the antipode of a true academic, one who acts for his own sake rather than for the sake of exposing the truth. In the debate, Hannah, despite criticizing Bernard, demonstrates herself to be similarly flawed, incapable of defending her theories and formulating a proper rebuttal. When opposing evidence is found, she instead defaults to indiscretions, simply claiming, “But, Bernard–I know it’s them … It just is. ‘Analysed it’, my big toe!” (Stoppard 79). This further demonstrates the satire of these supposed scholars, as though science is ever-changing and theories must be properly defensible, both let their personal judgments and goals overcome them, leading them to rely on simple “gut feelings.” Satire in Arcadia, perhaps even more consequentially, engenders chaos, as through the false pretenses and failed attempts of these academics to uncover history, they have only clouded it further, manufacturing an environment in which chaos can thrive.
Through this satirically induced chaos, the aesthetic appeal of chaos is illustrated, inciting an acceptance of disorder within the lives of the dramatis personae. With the pervasion of chaos having been established in both plays, chaos manifests itself both as an art form and as an instrument of the aestheticism Wilde so esteemed. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde most clearly articulates this ideal through the voice of Algernon, where in his most primary dialogue with Jack, he declares, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” (Wilde 465). Aestheticism, by definition, is the notion that art is intrinsic to itself and thus exists for the sake of its own beauty. Algernon postulates truth to be innately complex and chaotic and claims that in the absence of this chaos, life would become monotonous and art ludicrous. He thus exemplifies the vitality that chaos brings to life and the inherent and, therefore, aesthetic beauty it delineates. Wilde further expresses this beauty through “the marvels of his deus ex machina,” by which he “parades before their eyes an extraordinary succession of coincidental revelations culminating in Jack’s discovery not only that he is Algernon’s brother but that his name really is Ernest” (Foster 22). The term deus ex machina directly translates to “God from the machine” and is a literary device in which a seemingly improbable solution resolves an otherwise inextricable dilemma. This device serves as a medium for chaotic tendencies, as the abrupt solutions it provides surprise the viewer. Through dramatic shifts in tension and the provision of unanticipated catharsis, the viewer experiences a unique form of aesthetic pleasure. This delirium translates to the characters themselves, exhibited just prior to the deus ex machina when Gwendolen comments, “this suspense is terrible. I hope it will last” (Wilde 537). As a result of the almost illogical progressions beheld to her, Gwendolen acknowledges the beauty of the current situation, resolving to accept chaos as a constituent of her life. Thus it can be seen that the aesthetic beauty of chaos propagates an acceptance of disorder and the excitement it precipitates. Chaos differs in Arcadia in that it is explicitly viewed as an art form, evidenced by Noakes’ transfiguration of the garden from a Capability Brown style to the chaotic Salvator Rosa and his statement that “Irregularity is one of the chief principles of the picturesque style” (Stoppard 19). However, this form of chaos is fallacious in that the Gothic wilderness of the Salvator Rosa style is equally unnatural. Though it is intended to look tumultuous, it is also factitious and therefore reflects order rather than chaos. The true beauty of chaos lies in the discourse about loss that occurs between Septimus and Thomasina. Thomasina displays grief at the idea that knowledge can be lost to history, but Septimus refutes this idea with the claim that knowledge is never truly lost and will invariably be rediscovered. Ultimately, the play does not “support Septimus’s claim that ‘nothing is lost,’ but in fact demonstrates that loss is inevitable” (Wheatley 174). A main focus of the play is entropy, a one-way process that manufactures chaos and will eventually result in the destruction of the universe. In this way, loss becomes inevitable, as all will eventually succumb to chaos. However, in order to controvert this concept, “the play examines a wide range of other aesthetic creations as response to loss and to the lack of control in nature” (Wheatley 172). Here, aesthetic beauty lies in both the opposition and acceptance of chaos. Though chaos and loss are inevitable, creation and the pursuit of knowledge are what give meaning to life and are, therefore, imperative to said lives. This is clearly illustrated in Hannah’s speech to Valentine, in which she exclaims, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter” (Stoppard 94). Solace is found in the pursuit of knowledge; thus, the beauty of chaos resides in mankind’s acceptance of and resistance to chaos and their endeavors for knowledge and creation. Once the characters are capable of understanding the importance of their endeavors, they can also see the aesthetic beauty of chaos, leading them to accept chaos as a necessity of their lives. Valentine portrays this ideal best in his soliloquy, in which he proclaims, “The future is disorder … It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong” (Stoppard 61). Each play illustrates the aesthetic beauty of chaos in a distinct manner, but both propagate the significance of accepting disorder within the characters’ lives.
Within the plays, satire plays a pervasive role, challenging conventional norms and producing chaos. Consequently, the aesthetic beauty of chaos is revealed, and the characters embrace chaos as a desideratum of life. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Victorian society and its customs are satirized, allowing for the resulting chaos to progress the plot. This chaos is viewed aesthetically, allowing for the admiration of its inherent beauty. In Arcadia, academia is satirized, leading to chaotic and erroneous interpretations of history. Understanding the intrinsic quality of chaos, the characters are able to find beauty in chaos by resisting it, pursuing knowledge that ultimately may be futile. Chaos is an alluring concept, and within its unpredictability lies beauty and infinite possibilities.
Foster, Richard. “Wilde as Parodist: A Second Look at the Importance of Being Earnest.”
College English, vol. 18, no. 1, 1956, pp. 18–23. JSTOR, doi.org/10.2307/372764. Accessed 1 June 2023.
Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. New York, Grove Press, 1993.
Wheatley, Alison E. “Aesthetic Consolation and the Genius of the Place in Stoppard’s
‘Arcadia.’” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 37, no. 3, 2004, pp. 171–84. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/44030053. Accessed 1 June 2023.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other
Writings. Edited by Richard Ellmann, Bantam Classics, 1982, 457-541.