I would like, in the brief space consented me, to put forth a reading of “The Remarkable Rocket” based upon what was suggested to us earlier in the course about the affinity between Wilde’s ideas and those of the 19th century critic Walter Pater.
It will help to recall Pater’s peculiar theory of aesthetic experience, informed by his perhaps somewhat idiosyncratic empiricist commitments. For Pater, works of art produce powerful and unique sensations of pleasure in the beholder, as though the artwork itself contained in each and every atom some quotient of pleasure that was, as it were, shot in the direction of the beholder who, transfigured, receives that dose of pleasure as sense-data through his or her perceptual apparatus. Since, as Pater thought, this is, as a matter of fact, how art works its magic on us, it is natural enough to think, as he did, that art should strive to become, as he puts it, “a matter of pure perception.” One can see how, misunderstanding this idea and reducing it to mere hedonism, contemporary detractors of Pater’s found in him the sensibility of a wayward aesthete. Setting aside for a moment the validity of his ideas, however, I will try to offer a breathless overview of Wilde’s story “The Remarkable Rocket” around these roughly Pater-inspired lines.
It is amply clear in Wilde’s story that one of the persistent themes in it is, to put it as simply as possible, the way that things can be like other things, and, as would follow, the way that seemingly different things can elicit and provoke similar reactions and effects, at least, similar enough so as to warrant comparison in the first place, often for the sake of establishing distinction.
The examples are various and are scattered throughout the story – “you are more beautiful than your picture,” “it’s quite clear that they love each other (…) as clear as crystal,” “(fireworks) are like the Aurora Borealis,” “the King’s garden is not the world,” “(romance) is like the moon,” “he actually burst into real tears, which flowed down his stick like rain-drops,” “the moon rose like a wonderful silver shield,” among others. Some of you may not be impressed by this selection of examples; after all, all literary writing is littered with similes and metaphorical language of all sorts. In this story, however, it seems clear to me they play not just a decorative or illustrative role but participate in the story’s chief concern.
To employ a metaphor is always to make up and break down a distinction (philosophers of language, in particular, have argued a great deal over what this distinction amounts to). It is, to put it crudely, both to put two things near one another, often surprising things, and to underscore the extent to which they are and will remain separate. Nonetheless, to see things as close enough, or to see them as warranting being brought closer, requires a kind of sympathetic eye to reality and to those things that are revealed to be less distant to others than they may at first seem.
Sympathy, needless to say, is an important part of Wilde’s story. Some of the characters seem to be lacking it; the one who most explicitly claims to possess it in spades, the titular Rocket, says of himself, “I have imagination, for I never think of things as they really are; I always think of them as being quite different.” This sort of thinking leads to a number of situations that are, for the reader, a source of some humor, such as when Rocket mishears and misinterprets pejorative words at his expense to bear a rather more flattering message.
Of course, thinking of things as being different than what they really are might make one a greater purveyor and appreciator of metaphors, though also a dangerous and potentially alienated individual, depending on the community in which one’s purveying and appreciating takes place. If we think of metaphors along Pater’s lines, being a more “sympathetic” viewer of the world encourages one (and, presumably, those around one) to think of things as being different than what they are, thusly encouraging metaphorical thinking, which, in turn, if one thinks of metaphors as small works of art – and some do – exposes one and others to greater pleasurable pulsations shot from these mini-artworks.
What happens to poor Rocket, after all? Well, for one, his emotion – that is, his crying – rids him of his proper function. Rocket’s use-value, so to speak, is lost. Surely a Paterian reader would look upon this approvingly, for what is the stripping of art to pure perception but the shedding of its ancillary functions, uses, and values?
The Rocket’s persistence in the face of everyone else’s having given upon him and no longer finding him valuable or useful could well be read as emblematic of an aestheticist’s stubborn refusal to accept irrelevance in a world whose fickle trafficking seems to refuse it a place within its folds. Perhaps Wilde is poking a bit of fun, via Rocket, at this stubbornness; after all, Rocket is a bit of a hypocrite, quite a bit of a narcissist, and abides by no one’s rules but his own. As Rocket puts it, “I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.” Those who have had negative thoughts regarding the insularity of certain forms of avant-garde exploration will no doubt chuckle with satisfaction at Rocket’s disingenuousness. Clearly he refuses all societal cues; “a person of my position is never useful,” he says, adding that he has “no sympathy for industry” and that he is of the opinion that “hard word is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do.” A true aestheticist inevitably holds attitudes antagonistic to the rest of society and those of which the society is composed. Yet, Wilde seems to suggest, the aestheticist, in the form of Rocket, also cannot do without society altogether, as evidenced by Rocket’s professed need for it.
What the aestheticist risks is total, tragic misunderstanding – Rocket thinks he is being used for what he is, a rocket, while he is actually being mistaken for an utterly banal stick, as good as any other, of secondary importance to the fire to which it contributes. In the face of it, however, Rocket is undeterred. “I shall go on like this for ever. What a success I am!” He flies into the air, finally having become the true Rocket he is. He feels “a curious tingling sensation all over him” (I, for one, find it hard not to think of Pater’s empiricist aesthetics here) and proclaims that he “shall set the whole world on fire.”
In the end, ignored by those who set him ablaze, and picked up by an animal, a Goose, still being mistaken for a stick, Rocket is put to uses he does not recognize in himself and hardly appreciated by those who end up using them. Though it may be a cautionary tale, however, it is hard not to read the ending as, ultimately, the redemptive moment of art gone right, in Pater’s terms, and perhaps Wilde’s terms, too, an art gone right by having created, as Rocket’s last line reads, “a great sensation,” perhaps the only thing that ultimately matters. Rocket may be a fool, but one for whom being a fool requires a kind of perverse courage it is not unthinkable to surmise Wilde admired.