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Published: Tue Apr 15 2014
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
The Unsaid

GWENDOLEN: Do you allude to me, Miss Cardew, as an entanglement? You are presumptuous. On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.

CECILY: Do you suggest, Miss Fairfax, that I entrapped Earnest into an engagement? How dare you? This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners.

—Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest


When Ludwig Wittgenstein’s first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was being published, Wittgenstein told an editor that the book had two parts, the written part and the unwritten part: “And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.” Years ago, when I first read this statement, I took it to be a comment of headstrong youth, a comment that later in life would have been duly regretted, with appropriate cringing. But it must also be, at least for me, something more than this, as I keep coming back to it in my essays.

During a recent vacation, I found myself on several evenings reading The Importance of Being Earnest to my son, as a way of taking a break from watching “stupid TV,” as we call it with a certain affection. (That is, we think of vacation evenings as being well spent watching Disney sitcoms, basketball games, or golf, precisely because of the inanity of such shows.) Of course Earnest is, on one level, one of the most masterful pieces of comic fluff ever written, the standard-bearer for Wilde’s view (or pose) that “we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” Critics have wrestled with the play’s seeming lack of import. W. H. Auden called it “a pure verbal opera,” and George Bernard Shaw wrote that Earnest was extremely funny, but “heartless.” A leading London theater critic of Wilde’s time wrote, “What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely willful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality?”

What I will here propose, after Wittgenstein, is that such critics, and many, many theatergoers along with them, skip over the unwritten part of the play, and it is precisely this second part that is the “important” (not trivial?) one. I am not joining those who have tried, without much success, to claim that for Wilde “earnest” was a synonym for “homosexual” (as if, cruising, one might ask a man, “are you Earnest?”), or that “bunburying” was a way of referring to anal sex. (But what will you do with Gwendolen’s comment in act III: “[O]nce a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don’t like that. It makes men so very attractive.”)

In any case, the argument here begins with the observation that The Importance of Being Earnest is what it obviously is, a play about dissimulation, and that dissimulation—not seeming to be who one was—was extremely important for homosexuals of Wilde’s time and place, and thus was an extremely non-trivial matter for Wilde. It was shortly after the play opened, in 1895, that Wilde was put on trial for “gross indecency,” a charge used to prosecute putative male homosexuals who had not been caught engaging in sodomy (i.e., anal intercourse). Convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor, Wilde died shortly after his sentence was up, destitute and just forty-six. For refusing to sufficiently meet his society’s demands for dissimulation, a great writer was destroyed mid-career. (“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”)

Yes, George, there is indeed a heartlessness to Earnest. It is the heartlessness of a society that not only stigmatized homosexual behavior and imprisoned people thought to engage in it, but that also, like all societies, insisted that its putative individuals of all persuasions contort themselves into one or another of the shapes recognized by the society (e.g., witty playwright, homosexual, convict). A different kind of Wildean than I am being in the present essay could say that this is the great thing about society: it spares us from having to be who we are. I find myself recalling another favorite text, Al Young’s “A Poem for Players”:

they’ll let you be Satchmo,
they’ll let you be Diz,
they’ll let you be Romeo,
                or star in*   *The Wiz
   but you gots to remember that
that’s all there is

Like “Players” (excerpted here), Earnest does not hide its fascination with dissimulation. Wilde quite clearly lampoons what we can call the Victorian (and post-Victorian) obsession with seeming rather than being. And we theatergoers and resort-hotel-bedroom readers can accept that we would not be laughing if we could not find aspects of our own thoughts and feelings in the satire.

JACK: I beg your pardon, Algy, I suppose I shouldn’t talk about your own aunt in that way before you.

ALGERNON: My dear boy, I love hearing my relations abused. It is the only thing that makes me put up with them at all. Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.

But what Earnest pointedly does not speak about—what I am calling the unwritten part—is the import of dissimulating and the need to dissimulate, the psychological and social effects on individuals, including on Oscar Wilde. As in a Shakespeare comedy, or a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, Earnest concludes with everyone coupling up heterosexually and reasonably happily.

“But surely another person can’t have THIS pain!” cries one of the voices in the internal monologue that is Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I assume that, in writing Earnest, Wilde went to great pains to avoid setting down anything close to this, and it is the rigor and desperation of this avoidance that, like the I beams inside a fancifully cantilevered and foil-clad postmodern building, makes possible the greatness of The Importance of Being Earnest.


Personally I am quite interested in works that attempt to say what has been going unsaid in the culture to which they respond, or that seek a register in which we might at least approach the unsayable. I would have a latter-day Wilde or Wittgenstein (or an Eaton) attempt to reveal the links between the personal, the political, and the intellectual or artistic, in the hopes that we might thereby better understand why we say and believe the things we say and believe. But Earnest is quite another work. It doesn’t skirt the matter of such links, it buries them in laughter.

It might be said—perhaps this is what Earnest‘s critics were alluding to—that such a project lacks courage, and I wonder if this isn’t also a misplaced criticism of comic works more generally. Imagine the strength required—think about Oscar Wilde’s strength. It does not matter what “I” (the author) feels. It does not matter what I think. It matters that any trace of such things be buried in laughter. In witty phrases that may be repeated and draw laughs long after this “I” and its troubles are gone. (Immanuel Kant or, say, John Rawls or Melanie Klein might say something similar of their intellectual work. It should not matter that “I” wrote it or why.)

As for me, even as I would have intellectuals explore connections between the theories they are advancing and their psychology, biography (social class included), and circumstances (economic included), this does not mean my own writing lacks for unexplored or buried sources and feelings. It doesn’t take much spadework for me to see that my texts are responses to, ways of containing, anger—rage. From the present perspective, we could say that this is clear given the essays’ calm, controlled, considered style. And working on this segment, it has also occurred to me that something similar might be said about Plato’s Phaedo. This eerily dispassionate, analytical, execution-day dialogue about whether there is an afterlife seems to be the form Plato found for expressing his feelings—his rage, more than likely—at the death of his mentor, Socrates. Underneath the discussion of whether Socrates or any of us might in any sense live on after our deaths seem to lie feelings that Socrates’s death was wrong and unnecessary. He was made to take the fall for the political and military misdeeds of richer and more powerful friends, and some of his rich friends were prepared to help him and his young family live on in exile, but Socrates insisted on going down with his principles.

Earnest and Wilde’s alter-ego Algernon propose that a double life may be the key to happiness, and so, we might say, does the internal-dialogue structure of Wittgenstein’s Investigations. Socrates is at the other end of the spectrum: If I cannot be fully and only myself—if I must be “wrapped in a goatskin or some other disguise” and (like Algernon) “gone abroad . . . to get a dinner”—there is no point in living. Unlike Wilde in Earnest, Plato could not present Socrates’s drama, which touched him so deeply, without raising the curtain on his feelings an inch or so. In a rare autobiographical reference near the opening of the Phaedo, he has the narrator say that Plato did not visit Socrates on his final day, and the narrator offers an explanation: “Plato was unwell.”


One nice thing about the argument of the present essay is its untestability; it escapes the maw of our empiricist age. There is no way to be sure what the unwritten parts of the Phaedo or Earnest are, or if indeed these plays had any unwritten parts. (And we might say, too, that the possible unwritten contents of any work are potentially infinite.) Nor, I would further propose, can “knowledge” of any unwritten parts shift our understanding of the focus of these works. Rather, the unwritten intensifies the written, the apparent. If we should recognize (rightly or wrongly) that the unwritten part of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is about ethics, this perspective does not make the Tractatus a work about ethics; it makes it all the more a work not about ethics. If we should suppose that the unwritten part of the Phaedo has to do with Plato’s rage, and perhaps fear, or more generally with feelings—to include about death!—this does not make the Phaedo an exploration of such emotions. It makes the dialogue all the more a demonstration of how intellectual activity can help us dissociate and escape (or, if you prefer, get out from under, rise above) our feelings. And so with Earnest, its (my?) unwritten part, if acknowledged (taken on faith), makes it all the more intensely a work not about the dangers of self-revelation and of trying not to be a player, not an actor or a bunburyer (or, say, a cleverly dissembling diplomat), but about trying to be a flesh-and-blood individual. (“My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression.”)

Further, I am not insisting that every great work (however we might wish to identify or define such things) has to have this quality of obstinately refusing to betray its “unwritten part,” or, more loosely, its core or motivating subject. I am insisting that, while the sources of Earnest‘s and Wilde’s brilliance are everywhere, the sources of Earnest‘s inner glow can be hard to find either in or between its lines—until one starts deliberately looking for them, whereupon they pop up all over. See the play’s subtitle, “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” or these two exchanges in Act II:

CECILY: I have never met any really wicked person before. I feel rather frightened. I am so afraid he will look just like everyone else.

[Enter ALGERNON, very gay and debonair.]

He does!

And, from an earlier scene:

CECILY: I keep a diary in order to enter the wonderful secrets of my life. If I didn’t write them down, I should probably forget all about them.

MISS PRISM [imagine her reading this with an exaggerated sadness]: Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about with us.

More than the glow, its source’s hiddenness is essential to Earnest‘s charm. See The Picture of Dorian Gray: “I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it.”


Recently an old friend, Sidney Phillips, a psychoanalyst, sent me a copy of a case study (“The Overstimulation of Everyday Life”) that he had written about a gay man. The central experience of the man’s life appeared to be this: when he was a child his parents had (ignorantly? sadistically? lacking money, space?) nightly sent him to sleep in a bed with his younger brother. During the analysis, the patient (“Mr. E”)

recalled many nights lying in bed surreptitiously watching his brother fall asleep and feeling an intense longing to “touch his chest.” Unable to contain the impulse any longer, one night he gently placed his hand on top of his sleeping brother’s bare chest. The brother almost instantly roused from sleep long enough to knock the hand away and roll over onto his side. In the morning Mr. E’s brother said to him, “Jeez, what got into you last night? You were all over me.”

It is easy enough for me to imagine having similar desires had I been assigned to sleep with one of my sisters. If I had then acted on my desires there would have been guilt and recrimination stemming from the incest taboo, and if I did not act, there would have been an incessant and growing frustration. In addition, my friend’s patient—earlier, when he was a boy—had had the sense that his (homosexual) desires were not normal or acceptable (and nor, apparently, were they shared by his brother).

In The Importance of Being Earnest, unlike the young Mr. E with his brother, Wilde managed to not even once give in to his feelings about the subject of his play. Again, therein lies the play’s greatness, its terrible greatness: in the strength of its self-denial, a kind of pure and awful strength. The core subject of the play is not given the least cause for complaining that the playwright had been “all over him,” though he had.


I would tarry a moment (or two) to re-declare my attachment to the coterie of Wittgenstein readers who believe the Investigations’ greatness is owing in no small part to the fact that Wittgenstein is not completely self-denying; his text offers glimpses of his pain, of how hard life was for his “I,” and can be for all our I’s more generally. Living in England, a refugee from an unhappy family and an unhappy country, Wittgenstein writes:

We also say of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is even more, even given a mastery of the country’s language. We do not understand the people.

It was Wittgenstein who italicized “understand” (or versteht in the original German). We can add that other people do not understand us either. And indeed Wittgenstein appreciated this all too well. In a letter to a “friend” or former friend (the Italian economist Piero Sraffa) with whom he’d apparently had—as was usual for him—a trying, alienating relationship, Wittgenstein wrote:

I have very slowly in my life come to the conviction that some people cannot make themselves understood to each other, or at least only in a very narrowly circumscribed field. If this happens each is inclined to think that the other doesn’t want to understand, and there are ENDLESS misunderstandings.  . . . [W]hat misleads one is the fact that [we] all look so much like each other. If some people looked like elephants and others like cats, or fish, one wouldn’t expect them to understand each other and things would look much more like what they really are. [Emphasis apparently Wittgenstein’s own, in the original letter.]

And thus we may find a despondence glowing at the heart of the Investigations:

Wer in ein fremdes Land kommt, wird manchmal die Sprache der Einheimischen durch hinweisende Erklärungen lernen. Who into an alien country coming, gets sometimes the language of the inhabitants from ostensive definitions learning. [D]ie sie ihm geben; und er wird die Deutung dieser Erklärungen oft raten müssen und manchmal richtig, manchmal falsch raten. And will the meaning of these definitions often have to guess, and sometimes right, sometimes wrong guess.

At birth (or with conception) we come into the strangest country we will ever come in to. And not just in infancy but throughout our lives we are, like Wittgenstein’s stranger, pointing and groping and guessing—and attempting to impose our (mis)understandings on others. גרהייתיבּארץנכריה Moses said, perhaps to his wife, perhaps to the great no one to whom we often speak. He was explaining (beautifully, touchingly) why he had called his son Gershom (which we might loosely translate as “just passing through”). “I have been a stranger in a strange land,” Moses said. But we might ask—or my son Jonah might ask—why was this name, this feeling imposed on a newborn child?

Beginning at birth, or in the womb, we are colonized, inter alia, by verbal language, which offers us a remarkable means of communicating feelings and ideas, fears and wishes that, inevitably, are not quite ours, or that are “ours” rather than “mine.” And few of us realize and even fewer of us can long hold in our minds the fact that we have been colonized and that this is not quite “my” language, but rather my “mother tongue,” my national language. To adapt the conclusion of Al Young’s poem, your language, your languages, let you play anybody but you. They let you be Ludwig, they let you be Bill (or William—William Eaton, the name of one of my ancestors).

Wittgenstein again:

[H]ow does a human being learn the meaning of the names of sensations?—of the word “pain” for example. Here is one possibility: words are connected with the primitive, the natural, expressions of the sensation and used in their place. A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences. They teach the child new pain-behaviour. [this is part of what I have called “colonization.”] “So you are saying that the word ‘pain’ really means crying?” on the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it.

(Nicely, this “it”—the pain or the crying—that is not being described is as ambiguous in the German as it is in the English.)


The only further work to be done in the present piece is to stress again that The Importance of Being Earnest is hardly the only work whose greatness is linked to abstinence and to its resistance to raising the curtain on what we might call the primal scene, the original actors of its play. The corollary proposition of this essay is that it is on account of the unsaid that some or perhaps many works have become “classics,” speaking, however ironically, to generation after generation of dissimulating humans. Kant’s dense texts keep coming to my mind in this regard, and Marx’s too. “Poverty is the passive bond which leads man to experience a need for the greatest wealth, the other person,” Marx wrote (or something like this, in German). This can be read as less a comment about economics or even about the fact that we are social animals, than about the feelings of a man who cared so greatly for so many people, for all classes of people, and who had such great hopes for us—as day after day in a soot-dimmed city he sat by himself in a library pouring over government reports and trying to make sense of and find a cure for human coldness and cruelty, and what we might call his homelessness.

Even in a Disney sitcom, with its seemingly interminable recycling of the same three laugh tracks, which begin to take on a machine-gun-like quality, and with the teenage characters struggling endlessly to enjoy something like friendship while also trying to become successful pop musicians and actors . . . well, “unexpressed” would not be the right word. The sitcoms are, if you will, bursting at their seams with a vision of human life and of the entertainment business as hollow, calculating, and cold. We are not surprised to learn that, back in the 1940s, one of Walt Disney’s business practices was to accuse his union-organizing, higher-wage-seeking workers of being traitors/communists, thereby helping to set the stage for the McCarthy era.

If Earnest had spoken earnestly about its underlying subject, it would have been the kind of serious work that Wilde scorned. But because the underlying subject in fact was or seemed of such import, to the author above all—Wovon man nicht sprechen kann—it could not be spoken about. Resistance in an electrical circuit can, while invisible, create heat and light—and so Earnest glows.


In January 1842, Henry David Thoreau’s older brother John died in his arms, in the violent spasms of lockjaw, the result of a little cut. At first, Henry, too, got (psychosomatically) the symptoms of lockjaw, to such an extent that people thought he would soon die of the disease. Two weeks later another person to whom the writer was attached, Emerson’s five-year-old son Waldo, died of scarlet fever. For more than a month, Thoreau wrote neither letters nor journal entries. But by March he was writing in his journal in an almost Wildean vein about “the trivialness of the whole scheme of things . . . my own cheap and trivial moment.”

In March he wrote to Mrs. Lucy Brown, Waldo’s aunt,

Soon after John’s death I listened to a music-box, and if, at any time, that event had seemed inconsistent with the beauty and harmony of the universe, it was then gently constrained into the placid course of nature by those steady notes, in mild and unoffended tone echoing far and wide under the heavens. But I find these things more strange than sad to me. . . .

As for Waldo, he died as the mist rises from the brook, which the sun will soon dart his rays through. Do not the flowers die every autumn? He had not even taken root here. I was not startled to hear that he was dead; it seemed the most natural event that could happen. His fine organization demanded it, and nature gently yielded its request.

In the summer of 1845 Thoreau began building the cabin next to Walden Pond, and in 1854 the book was published. John and Waldo are not mentioned. In the chapter entitled “Solitude,” Thoreau writes such things as

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

We have long admired Thoreau for expressing these sentiments (and in his engaging style, with such beautiful prose; a verbal opera, Walden, too, might be called). We have wanted to believe Thoreau and so we do, and we certainly do not doubt that he believed he was setting down what he truly believed, what he thought he had learned from his unusually careful observation of life. And we can say, too, that if the merest cut or fever can take from you, from the world, those you love, then indeed solitude may be a better companion. Solitude, along with death, is one of the few things in which a human being might place all of his or her faith.

In one of my favorite Walden passages, Thoreau writes:

This was my curious labor all summer,—to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse [pod-bearing plant]. What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work.

Much as I cherish these words, and particularly “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?,” I believe that Walden would be a deeper and more honest, truth-seeking—none of which means “better”— work if, in discoursing on his two years in his little cabin, two miles from his family home, Thoreau had at least found moments, a paragraph or two, for mentioning his other, larger labor—grieving—and for recalling his brother and that terrible January of 1842 which had marked him so deeply. (After Plato: “Thoreau, when he decided to go to Walden, was not well”?)

This matter can be viewed another way. To bend a line from Stanley Cavell (The Senses of Walden): it is hard to keep in mind that the hero of this book is a writer, spending his best hours at Walden writing. While living on Walden Pond, in addition to keeping his extensive journal, Thoreau wrote the first draft of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the book about, or taking flight from, a trip he and his brother had gone on a few years earlier. The book begins with these verses:

Where’er thou sail’st who sailed with me,
Though now thou climbest loftier mounts,
And fairer rivers dost ascend,
Be thou my Muse, my Brother—.

…when I remember where I have been,
And the fair landscapes that I have seen,
THOU seemest the only permanent shore,
the cape never rounded, nor wandered o’er.

What I am proposing is that underpinning Walden is the strength, we might call it the superhuman strength, of Thoreau’s refusal to speak of the mourning, the clinging to the past, in which he was so fully engaged while living in his little cabin. Like Earnest, Walden is a work that refuses to speak about what mattered most (writing included) to its author. Or should I rephrase this: what mattered most to Thoreau when life—life as opposed to writing?—still mattered to him?

Walden can hardly be called an enigmatic book, but the first chapter includes one famous enigmatic paragraph:

I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.

As with homosexuality, earnest, and bunburying, there have been scholars to try to solve the riddle of Thoreau’s hound, horse, and dove. Alternatively, in “Thoreau: Mourning Turtle Doves,” the philosopher and Thoreau scholar Edward Mooney asks if Thoreau might rather be evoking “an existential condition of abandonment and loss, evoking [his] presence as a writer intimate with separation and loss.”

What I am proposing is that this line—I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail—is Thoreau’s equivalent of Mr. E once gently placing his hand on his sleeping brother’s chest. Thoreau is letting down his guard in a way that Wilde, in Earnest, avoided. Can we imagine that, as compared to the risks of ostracism and prison confronting Wilde, the risk to Thoreau—of revealing, to himself first and foremost, how abandoned and lonely he felt—was less great?

The lines before the enigmatic paragraph are:

You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men’s, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature. I would gladly tell all that I know about it, and never paint “No Admittance” on my gate.

This from a man who did paint on his gate, if unwittingly, or against his will, a kind of “No Admittance” sign. I’ll let you help raise the roof, I’ll let you stop by for a chat, but you gots to remember that that’s all there is.


I might adapt the following comment so that it applied to Walden as well, but, here concluding, I will dance only with the girl who brought me. What is most extraordinary about The Importance of Being Earnest is how it, and seemingly so effortlessly, paints its locked gate in such bright colors that, even should we notice it, we do not care that it’s there.

See what's inside AGNI 79

William Eaton is an award-winning journalist, novelist, and writer of philosophical essays and dialogues. Surviving the Twenty-First Century, a collection of his essays from Montaigbakhtinian.com, was published last year by Serving House Books. One of Eaton’s dialogues, The Professor of Ignorance Condemns the Airplane, was staged in New York in 2014. He is editor of Zeteo, an online journal for generalists. (updated 4/2016)

William Eaton has also published in AGNI as William Eaton Warner.

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