Horst Schroeder

A Chance Meeting of Wilde Importance

To Rojda (‘Sunrise’),
the only begetter of this ensuing note

    ‘Vor den Erfolg haben die Götter den Schweiß gesetzt,’ says a German proverb: the Gods have decreed that sweat shall precede success. Similarly, ‘ohne Fleiß kein Preis’: no prize without industry. No doubt, there are sayings in all languages to the same effect, i.e. nothing that is worth having, in all fields and situations of life (from love to literary criticism), can be had without previous efforts.

    Fortunately, life does not always follow this hard and fast rule, but makes exceptions now and then, awarding a prize where no industry has been applied and no sweat been shed – indeed, where the person concerned is not even aware that something is still missing to make his happiness complete.

    I had such a stroke of luck a short while ago. (In the field of literary criticism, be it noted, not in that of love.) I was returning home when, passing by a wine-shop, it occurred to me that I could do with a few bottles to refill my wine rack. I had not been in the shop before, but I soon found what I was looking for and, with my purchase in a basket, headed for the cash desk. Behind it was the shop-owner himself, a middle-aged man of Turkish descent. I was the only customer at the time, and so we had a short conversation about this and that, when, out of the blue, the shop-owner mentioned ‘Dionysus, the god of wine’. ‘Yes, and the god of the Bacchanalian revels and the idol of the maenads,’ I added. Noticing that I was following him, the man now became quite effusive and told me that he had given many lectures on ‘the god of wine’ and that he had even undertaken numerous excursions to the antique excavation sites in Asia Minor. And in order to prove his point, he fished a digital camera from out the depths of his desk, and – click – the head of the god in black outlines on a red amphora flashed up on the screen; click – a full-length Dionysus, with some nymphs in his train, was seen crossing a mural. Click – click – click!

    I was completely dumbfounded: for here was a man, who had to all appearances been brought up in a different cultural environment, but who was more knowledgeable about Greek art and Greek mythology than most of ‘us’; and what is more, who brought to the subject an enthusiasm which is, sadly, hard to find today in the land which gave birth to Winckelmann, Goethe and Schiller. Still, my lesson in cultural awareness had not yet come to an end: for the man now began to talk about his two children, a young boy and his elder sister, both of whom, he said, were attending a humanistisches Gymnasium, that type of grammar school which, with its emphasis on the classical languages, has unfortunately become almost extinct. This, then, was additional food for thought, which would take me some time to digest.

    Some two or three weeks passed before I dropped in at the shop again. The Dionysus fan was nowhere to be seen. In his place at the cash desk was a dark-haired young woman of about 18 years. ‘This must be the daughter the owner had mentioned,’ I said to myself. I had guessed correctly. She was substituting for her father that day, it being a Saturday and thus no school. ‘And you are learning classical Greek, your father tells me?’ I inquired. ‘Yes,’ the young woman answered, ‘and Greek is one of my favourite subjects.’ ‘Please forgive me,’ I continued, like Kipling’s Elephant’s Child ‘full of ‘satiable curtiosity’, ‘but may I also ask what precisely it is that you are reading at the moment?’ ‘Plato,’ she replied, ‘the speech Socrates makes at his trial: The Defence of Socrates.’ ‘Oh, the Apology,’ I threw in, a little disappointed, since I had hoped that it might have been the Phaedrus, the loveliest of all Plato’s dialogues: ‘of course, I know what the Apology is all about, and I think that I even have a copy of it somewhere. However, I haven’t read it as yet.’ ‘But it’s really interesting,’ the young classicist insisted, ‘you must read it.’ ‘You bet I will,’ I assured her, and with these words I left.

    I did indeed have a copy of the Apology, inserted with the Phaedrus and some other short texts of Plato in one of the volumes of the fabulous bilingual Loeb Classical Library, where the Greek authors are all bound in green, while the Latin authors are bound in red: ‘green for Greek and red for Roman’, as I like to think. And that same night I took it down from my shelves and read Socrates’ speech at one go from beginning to end. It was the familiar story, one crucial element of which, however, I had forgotten: the specificity of one of the crimes Socrates had been charged with, viz. that he was a Sophist, ‘making the weaker argument the stronger’ (18 b: τὸν ἥττω λόγον κρεῖττω ποιῶν). (The charge is quoted twice again [19 b; 23 d], and exactly in the same words, except that 23 d has ποιεῖν for ποιῶν.) This gave me a thrill, because Vivian, in ‘The Decay of Lying’, accuses the Bar – playfully, of course – of just this very practice: ‘The mantle of the Sophist has fallen on its members. […] They can make the worse appear the better cause […].’(The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 4, ed. Josephine Guy, [Oxford 2007], p. 75).

    The discovery of the allusion to Plato’s Apology in Oscar’s ‘The Decay of Lying’ may seem trivial to some readers, and in a way it certainly is. On the other hand, its importance should not be underestimated, as our awareness of the reference to Plato deepens our understanding of Wilde’s text and gives it overtones which it did not have before – at least not for us, though Wilde’s contemporaries will have recognized them immediately.

    A week after this eventful day, I rushed to ‘my’ wine-shop again to tell the young woman of my reading adventure. But she was not ‘on duty’. In fact I have never seen her again. Later I learnt that her name was Rojda, that she had passed her Abitur (A-level examinations), and that she is now studying law. Bless her.

November 2019




zuletzt aktualisiert: 20.11.19