Saturday, May 24, 2014

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "Criticism"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 4: Criticism: Historical Criticism, Intentions, The Soul of Man. Ed. by Josephine M. Guy. Oxford University Press, 2007. 0198119615. xcviii + 604 pp.

This is the fourth book in the Oxford English Texts edition of Wilde's collected works. It includes some of Wilde's essays: Historical Criticism, Intentions and The Soul of Man.

Of all Wilde's works, I think I find his essays perhaps the least interesting. This was my impression when reading Wilde's more-or-less collected works for the first time a few years ago, and now reading the essays in this OET edition has just confirmed it. When reading his other works, I hardly ever find myself glancing at the page numbers and wondering how many pages there are left before it's finally over, but here with the essays I was doing this quite a lot.

I guess the problem is that I'm simply not part of the intended target audience for these essays; Wilde was writing these things with a more sophisticated audience in mind, people with the sort of educational and cultural background that I lack. As a consequence, these essays aren't particularly accessible to an outsider such as me. What makes the problem worse is the style. This sort of things could be made more accessible if Wilde took the trouble to write more clearly and explicitly. He could say “I'm going to talk about X, which is important because of Y. Now my claim regarding X is P, and the arguments in favour of P are A, B, and C.” And he would follow it up with three sections arguing A, B, and C, respectively. But in these essays he (deliberately no doubt) refuses to provide any explicit structure; they aren't divided into helpful sections (preferrably with titles), or if they are these sections are arbitrary and meaningless (e.g. in Historical Criticism, where they simply correspond to the notebooks in which he wrote the manuscript). As a result, a reader like me keeps wondering what exactly this or that essay (or part of an essay) is actually about; what is Wilde's point here, why exactly is this current paragraph included here and how does it fit into the big picture (assuming there even is a big picture)? In fact, calls like mine for more explicit structure would probably be scorned by Wilde as pedantic and philistine. He wants to make these essays all elegant, as if “look! I can put pen to paper and keep writing this fancy stuff for fifty-odd pages without so much as pausing for breath! What? You want section breaks? You'll get section breaks when the kid next door walks on the moon! And be grateful that at least you got your paragraph breaks!” And the elegance works at first, I must admit; his prose is nice, just like in his fiction; and it lures you in, you start reading as you would if it were a bit of fiction; but there something would happen eventually, a story would take place, while here in his essays you soon start wondering what this is all about (apart from the rather obvious fact that it's about Wilde showing off his skillz).

So, anyway, I didn't enjoy reading this book very much, but that's just my problem, for the reasons explained above. Or rather, let me rephrase this a bit; it's not so much that I didn't enjoy reading the book, but that it required an effort to read it. Once I forced myself to put in that effort, the reading was not really uninteresting.

Apart from that, the book is excellent. The editor's introduction is, as always in this series, interesting and informative. It discusses the role of essays and criticism in Wilde's work; through essays such as these he aspired to become an influential critic like Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater, and accordingly the audience he had in mind consisted of sophisticated, educated people knowledgeable about art and such things. In fact the editor says that many passages of what seems to us nowadays very impressive erudition would probably strike Wilde's contemporaries as not-all-that-impressive, being simply allusions to things with which they themselves were familiar (p. lxxxiii). Apparently, in many cases there is also reason to believe that Wilde's references to various more or less obscure continental authors (German philosophers and the like) are ‘second-hand’, i.e. Wilde didn't necessarily read those authors' works directly but rather read what other (and better-known) authors wrote about them.

Another interesting part of the introduction was on p. xxi, which discusses Wilde's aspirations for an academic career. His essay, Historical Criticism, was written near the end of his student days; he hoped it would win a prize at a certain competition and bring him to the attention of the faculty, who might then offer him a fellowship. However, nothing came of this, so he eventually moved to London and went into literature instead. I suppose that Wilde was unhappy about this failure at the time, but, if we look at it from a wider perspective, how fortunate it is that he failed! If he had succeeded, he would quite possibly have become just another boring don, studying the classics and writing pedantic and erudite works; at best, he would be remembered nowadays in the same way as e.g. Walter Pater and John Ruskin, who are to the wider public little more than names (if that). But by becoming a writer instead, Wilde achieved a huge success; a hundred years after his death, he is undoubtedly one of the most widely-known (and read) English authors of his period.

The editor's introduction is also very thorough in describing the various extant manuscripts of Wilde's essays, and how they differ from one another and from various early printed editions. Well, this part wasn't terribly interesting, to me at least.

After the text, as usually, there come the editor's notes and commentary, which are extremely copious. I think this is the first volume in this series where we can safely say that the amount of editor's comments is significantly greater than that of the author's text itself. Wilde's essays are littered by allusions and references to all sorts of things, authors both classical and contemporary, ancient myths or subjects that were matters of heated debate in the 19th century, and the indefatigable editor mercilessly hunts down each and every reference, no matter how obscure, and explains it at length, often quoting whole paragraphs of the original sources in the process. This is really impressive and I have the greatest admiration for the amount of effort that must have gone into such a work. For serious students of Wilde's essays it will no doubt be extremely valuable. But for someone like me, who am after all really just a casual reader, this was overkill.

In the previous volumes of this series, I enjoyed the editors' notes, but here I was bored. If you want to read the notes at the same time as you are reading the text of the essay itself, you will spend so much time on the notes that you'll forget what the essay was about. If, on the other hand, you finish the essay first and then move on to the notes, you'll forget what exactly a particular note refers to, and how it's supposed to illustrate your understanding of the essay. If Wilde divided his essays into shorter sections, this would be a bit easier; it worked very well when I was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray: I would read a chapter of the novel, then the notes to it, then another chapter, and the notes to that, etc. But here each essay is a monolith, and is often much longer than a chapter of Dorian Gray.

I eventually found that the approach that works best for me is to read the notes to an essay first, in small amounts over several days so as to avoid getting too bored, and then read the essay itself; when reading it, I found I often still remember that there was a note to this or that passage, and vaguely what it was about.

Historical Criticism

This is the first essay in the book, and it already exemplifies all of my problems with reading Wilde's essays. I don't even have a clear idea of what historical criticism is supposed to be. He never stoops to defining it explicitly, of course. As far as I can understand from the examples he discusses, he is interested in the different ways that ancient Greek historians approached history; how they looked at it, how they tried to understand and interpret it, how they eventually tried to figure out general laws and principles out of the individual historical facts. He starts with some interesting examples of how this same evolution also took place in their understanding of mythology; initially they simply believed in their myths, but eventually, already in classical times, they grew rather embarrassed at these myths' silliness and often even outright immorality (p. 5). As a result they tried to interpret them metaphorically, as allusions to meteorological phenomena, or as overblown stories about real human rulers that came to be regarded as gods after their deaths (Euhemerism, p. 8), etc. Regarding ordinary real-world history, Wilde's main examples of the progress of ‘historical criticism’ are Herotodus, Thucydides and Polybius. Herodotus was often inclined to report the myths, although he sometimes tries to rationalize them (pp. 10–12). Thucydides was quite the rationalist and would simply ignore the myths, or, if possible, believe that when stripped of everything supernatural they may reveal a kernel of historical truth underneath (p. 15). Polybius, on the other hand, went a step further and tried to understand the myths and explain how people got to invent them in the first place (p. 44).

In a way, all this is quite nice and interesting. But at the same time, I often couldn't help wondering ‘so what?’ and the whole thing occasionally felt like so much rambling and academic masturbation — Plato this, Polybius that, Aristotle something else, season liberally with Greek words and phrases (and ocassionally an entire sentence), and, for special smoke effects, mention Hegel and his dialectic every now and then.

Needless to say, none of these complaints of mine should be taken the least bit seriously. To be honest, one should probably regard this essay as a piece of technical writing from the field of classical studies. It would be silly to take seriously the complaints of an outsider to that field. Incidentally, I think this is a problem from which authors in the humanities and perhaps the social sciences often suffer: their work often talks about things that we all think we are (or should be) familiar with, and often at least on the surface they also use words that we think we are familiar with; and so we are deceived and start reading, and soon find that we understand nothing — and then we rail against the authors. But if I took up a technical work from e.g. mathematics or some field of hard science, it would not occur to me to complain against the author for my own inability to understand the text: the mathematical formulas and the impenetrable jargon would make it clear on the very first page that it isn't intended for me to read it. The humanities authors often don't drive away their nontechnical readers away quite so quickly and brutally, and the reward they get for this is my grumbling and complaining when I don't understand what I shouldn't be reading in the first place. It really isn't fair to them. Well, I guess that's why they say that no good deed goes unpunished :)

I was amused by the mention on p. 19 of a “theory of the respectable character of piracy in ancient days [. . .] the question ‘Are you a pirate’ is a common feature of primitive society as shown in the poets”. I think the question would sound best if pronounced in a pirate accent: Arrrrrr you a pirate? :)

A very interesting remark from p. 46: “Polybius resembled Gibbon in many respects. Like him he held that all religions were to the philosopher equally false, to the vulgar equally true, to the statesman equally useful.”

And on p. 50 he mentions “D'Alembert's suggestion that at the end of every century a selection of facts should be made and the rest burned” :)) But I think most facts march towards their oblivion naturally and quickly enough, there's no need to try speeding up the process by burning them.

The Decay of Lying

I'm not quite sure what to make of this essay. At least it's considerably shorter and less boring than Historical Criticism. Wilde's main point here seems to be to protest against realism in art (p. 102 is a good summary of this). This, I guess, is reasonable enough in a way; after all, the essay was written exactly in the period when realism was being replaced by the ‘new romanticism’ of the late 19th century. But I was annoyed with the general tone and approach of this essay. Wilde isn't in the least bit interested in seriously arguing about the subject. The essay has the form of a dialogue in which the main speaker, Vivian, is horribly affected and keeps on saying the most outrageously ridiculous things with the straightest face this planet has ever seen:

  • “Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity.” (P. 74.)

  • Lawyers “have been known to wrest from reluctant juries triumphant verdicts of acquittal for their clients, even when those clients, as often happens, were clearly and unmistakeably innocent. [. . .] Newspapers, even, have degenerated. They may now be absolutely relied upon.” (P. 75.)

  • “The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.” (Pp. 75–6.)

  • “But in the works of Herodotus, [a long list of other historians and their works follows], and in the works of our own Carlyle, whose French Revolution is one of the most fascinating historical novels ever written, facts are either kept in their proper subordinate position, or else entirely excluded on the general ground of dulness. Now, everything is changed. Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything.” (P. 87.)

Yes, yes, I know that these epigrams are supposed to be hilariously funny and entertaining. Well, they are fun in a way, especially on the first reading, but they do start to get on one's nerves after a while. Wilde here seems to be using the style rather than the content of his essay to speak in favour of his proposals. It's as if he was saying “ooo! look how witty, how clever this is! how much more fun than boring old realism!” And it is, of course; but I still can't help feeling that this is in a way a dishonest approach to arguing in favour of one's points. Instead of honestly stating what you feel are the arguments in favour of your ideas, you try to disrupt and sabotage the whole idea of arguing. I suppose that postmodernists must love this essay, but I personally didn't like it very much. Vivian in the essay derides the realist writers at considerable length, but never in a way that would say anything concrete — all that those oh-so-arch witticisms of his amount to is nothing more than “I don't like these realists, and they have smelly feet”. Which is fair enough, but hardly a very weighty argument.

Another subject that Wilde deals with in this essay, especially in the second half or so, is the relationship between art on one hand and life and nature on the other. (Of course Wilde takes a great joy in spelling all these things with capital letters.) Traditionally one would be inclined to say that art imitates nature and life, but Wilde of course famously took precisely the opposite point of view:

  • “Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? [. . .] The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art.” (P. 95.) Well, he does continue slightly more soberly a bit later: “There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis.” (Ibid.)

  • “That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pissaros.” (P. 95.)

But frankly, I don't understand what Wilde is trying to accomplish here. Surely, taken at face value, the idea that nature imitates art is ridiculous. The idea that life (by which he largely means the life of people) imitates art is only very slightly less ridiculous; art can influence people to some extent, but even to say that it can significantly affect some larger social trend would be a silly exaggeration; to say that life imitates it is completely silly. Anyway, surely Wilde knew these things just as well as everyone else. So why did he assert them? What did he intend to achieve thereby? Vivian in this essay expounds the idea that life imitates art at length, but he never presents any justification for this claim. (Of course he doesn't — after all, he can't, since no such justification exists.) He just asserts it, of course with a suitable overdose of epigrams and all-round affectation. But why? What is the purpose of all this?

Now admittedly, there is a slightly milder and saner claim behind all this, as can be seen in the first one of the two passages cited above: art may make people notice something in nature that they hadn't been noticing until then. That may be possible, but I still doubt that it's really common (it's more likely that they eventually started noticing it in nature and then it quickly began to also appear in their art), and anyway it's silly to express this relationship as ‘nature being influenced by art’ rather than ‘people's perceptions of nature being influenced by art’.

Anyway, perhaps I'm simply wrong in trying to understand this essay as if it were trying to coherently convey some information. It would be better to approach it by acknowledging that Wilde is just trying to convey a mood and an attitude. Something like: ‘Artists rule! Common sense is for losers! Realism and bourgeois philistinism are out! Rah me!’ This is fine with me; after all it's exactly the sort of attitude that we are always taught is typical of fin-de-siecle artists; it's nice to see one of them exhibit it so clearly and explicitly. And I'm sympathetic to this point of view myself; I much prefer it to the alternative, which would be to assert that human fancy is subordinate to stodgy boring old reality, etc. But I wish that Wilde had chosen to convey this attitude through a work of fiction rather than an essay. (Well, in a way he did; a lot of these ideas seem to also inform The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance.)

Incidentally, the fact that this essay is in the form of a dialogue might seem unusual now, but according to the editor's introduction (p. xliii) this was not uncommon in the 19th century.

Pen, Pencil, and Poison

This is a short biography of T. G. Wainewright, a painter, minor literary figure, and somewhat notorious poisoner from the early 19th century. His writing seems to consist mostly of short articles written for newspapers and magazines; some of these things were art criticism but many were just self-promotional ‘what-I-did-today’ type of things that raised some eyebrows at the time they were written (although e.g. by Wilde's time, in the late 19th century, this kind of journalism became much more widespread; see p. 114). In fact Wilde goes so far as to comment, after mentioning that Wainewright was found guilty of murder and sentenced to transportaton, “There is, however, something dramatic in the fact that this heavy punishment was inflicted on him for what, if we remember his fatal influence on the prose of modern journalism, was certainly not the worst of his sins.” (Pp. 118–9.)

Wainewright's most notable crime is probably the poisoning of his own sister-in-law, which he did in the hopes of collecting the £18,000 of her life insurance money (according to, this is equivalent to almost 900,000 present-day pounds). However, the insurance company disputed his claim for some kind of technical reason; he even went so far as to bring a lawsuit against them, but he lost (pp. 116–7). Without the insurance money he was unable to repay various debts to his creditors and had to escape from Britain. He lived for some time in France, where among other things he poisoned his sister-in-law's father after inducing him to insure himself for £3,000: “He himself did not gain any monetary advantage by doing this. His aim was simply to revenge himself on the first office that had refused to pay him the price of his sin.” (P. 117.)

Eventually he returned to Britain because of a woman he fell in love with (p. 117) — an imprudent move, which Wilde comments in his trademark paradoxical style: “by returning to England he was imperilling his life. Yet he returned. Should one wonder? It was said that the woman was very beautiful. Besides, she did not love him.” (P. 118.) He was soon recognized and brought to a trial, not for his murders but because of a power-of-attorney that he had forged many years ago. Fortunately for him, the Bank of England, who were the plaintiffs in the case, “did not desire to shed blood” (p. 118), so they dropped some of the charges and he ended up being sentenced to exile in Tasmania instead. There he continued his artistic work for a while and supposedly also tried to poison two more “people who had offended him. But his hand seems to have lost its cunning. Both of his attempts were complete failures” (p. 120); still, apparently they weren't the sort of failures that would get him e.g. tried and possibly hanged for attempted murder — at least Wilde doesn't mention anything of that sort; so I guess they must have been very complete failures indeed. Wainewright died, still in Tasmania, in 1847.

I guess that for Wilde, Wainewright was an interesting subject for an essay because he was both an artist and a criminal. A more conservative biographer would probably hasten to lambast Wainewright the poisoner and would feel that his crimes inevitably reflect poorly upon Wainewright the artist. Wilde, on the other hand, makes full use of this opportunity to exhibit his ‘art and artists are superior to (or at least orthogonal to and independent of) everything else’ philosophy by scrupulously avoiding any serious condemnation of Wainewright as a murderer as well as any implication that Wainewright's crimes may lessen his value as an artist. In fact he goes so far as to say that Wainewright's “crimes seem to have had an important effect upon his art. They gave a strong personality to his style, a quality that his early work certainly lacked.” (P. 120.)

Wilde ends this essay with a few excellent remarks against the interference of morality with historical research: “I know that there are many historians, or at least writers on historical subjects, who still think it necessary to apply moral judgments to history, and who distribute their praise or blame with the solemn complacency of a successful schoolmaster.” [Yes indeed, and a hundred years after Wilde's death this is still true.] Wilde continues: “This, however, is a foolish habit, and merely shows that the moral instinct can be brought to such a pitch of perfection that it will make its appearance wherever it is not required. Nobody with the true historical sense ever dreams of blaming Nero, or scolding Tiberius, or censuring Cæsar Borgia. These personages have become like the puppets of a play. They may fill us with terror, or horror, or wonder, but they do not harm us. They are not in immediate relation to us. We have nothing to fear from them. They have passed into the sphere of art and science, and neither art nor science knows anything of moral approval or disapproval.” (P. 121.) He concludes that eventually, Wainewright too will become a sufficiently remote historical figure that it will be possible to discuss him “in that fine spirit of disinterested curiosity to which we owe so many charming studies of the great criminals of the Italian Renaissance” (ibid.).

The Critic as Artist

This essay seemed to be much in a similar style as The Decay of Lying, although it's quite a bit longer. Ostensibly it's a dialogue, but really the vast majority of the talking is done by only one of the two characters (Gilbert — the other one is named Ernest and he is really, well, a bit earnest :)). Nearly every other sentence is an epigram in Wilde's usually outrageous style. I have no idea to what extent Wilde really meant the things he says here, and to what extent he's just trolling us.

In a way, the idea behind this essay is interesting; Wilde is arguing that the critic is also an artist in a way; while the ‘regular’ artists use nature and life as their materials, the critic uses works of art as his materials (p. 159). From this it is of course not far to the idea that the critic is in fact somehow higher, better and more important than the artists themselves.

I'm a bit of two minds about this. In one sense, I can't help feeling that he's on to something. His critic is sort like an idealized gentleman, a person whose existence is built around being rather than doing; a person who has refined his taste to such a point that he can now simply contemplate works of art, think subtle and exquisite thoughts about them, and really understand things in a certain deep fundamental way that mere mortals can't even begin to aspire to.

This is certainly an alluring ideal, at least for someone who is lazy like me. I always thought that any bloody idiot can accomplish something if he puts an effort into it and works at it; that doesn't impress me much; whereas if someone managed to be sophisticated and awesome without doing anything at all, that's something I would consider highly impressive and admirable. (Similarly, anybody can jump by using the muscles in his legs; but to jump without using any muscles — that would be something impressive; too bad it isn't possible.) Wilde's critic seems to me to be an ideal of exactly that sort of person. He doesn't have to get his hands dirty the way a painter or a sculptor would, he doesn't have to spend hours practicing like a musician or an actor would, etc., and yet he is fancier and deeper than all of them. How could you not admire him?

And yet, at the same time I can't help feeling how thoroughly absurd this all is. Ultimately, hardly anybody remembers the critics of a hundred (or a thousand) years ago, but we remember many artists from back then. We still enjoy their work, but we don't read or care much about the work of the critics from those periods. It's obvious enough who has really made a lasting impact: the artists, not the critics; and Wilde, by trying to present the critic as a kind of artist, is just trying to usurp the sort of glory that doesn't rightfully belong to critics.

In fact this whole argument strikes me as a bit self-serving; Wilde, while writing critical essays such as the ones in this book, was trying to establish himself as a critic, and I can imagine it would suit him very fine if the public thought as highly of critics as he does in this essay. And I think Wilde was to a certain extent deliberately trying to cultivate a public image of himself as just the sort of refined (and affected) contemplator of the arts as Gilbert is shown to be in this essay.

Maybe I'm doing injustice to his views; I'm not used to thinking of critics as terribly important or terribly influential, but maybe that's simply because I'm out of touch with those parts of culture; and perhaps it's also a matter of history — the impression I got was that in Wilde's time, or a little earlier, there really existed critics (such as Arnold, Ruskin, and Pater) that had a big influence on the culture of their day — on how the entire country felt and thought about certain matters of art and culture. I don't know whether such people with such an influence no longer exist today, or I'm just not aware of them; but if they really existed in Wilde's time, then perhaps his high ideas of critics aren't quite as preposterous as they seem at first sight (although they are preposterous anyway).

And admittedly, he seems to have an unusually broad idea of what a critic is in the first place; at some point, he refers to “Darwin and Renan, the one the critic of the Book of Nature, the other the critic of the books of God” (p. 205). And on p. 165 he says that “[t]he actor is a critic of the drama [. . .] The singer, or the player on lute and viol, is the critic of music” etc.

“Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning. He used poetry as a medium for writing in prose.” (P. 131. So far as I can tell from having read The Ring and the Book some time ago, Wilde is on to something here.)

There are some interesting remarks on p. 137 that since reading became more widespread, “there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more and more to the eye, and less and less to the ear which is really the sense which, from the standpoint of pure art, it should seek to please [. . .] The Greeks, upon the other hand, regarded writing simply as a method of chronicling. Their test was always the spoken word in its musical and metrical relations. The voice was the medium, and the ear the critic.” (P. 137.) He goes on to suggest that Homer's and Milton's blindness might have in fact helped them compose better poetry by forcing them to focus on the sound of their words; p. 138.

A beautiful aphorism from p. 149: “When man acts he is a puppet. When he describes he is a poet.” It reminded me of Hölderlin's “when man thinks he is a beggar, when he dreams he is a god”.

There is a fascinating and very Aesthetic discussion on the subject of Life vs. Art on pp. 166–7, 172–3. He proclaims life to be a failure from an artistic point of view because we cannot fully control what emotions it gives us and when. “Life is terribly deficient in form. Its catastrophes happen in the wrong way and to the wrong people. There is a grotesque horror about its comedies, and its tragedies seem to culminate in farce. One is always wounded when one approaches it. Things last either too long, or not long enough.” (P. 166.) “And the chief thing that makes life a failure from this artistic point of view is [. . .] the fact that one can never repeat exactly the same emotion. How different it is in the world of Art! On a shelf of the bookcase behind you stands the Divine Comedy, and I know that, if I open it at a certain place, I shall be filled with a fierce hatred of some one who has never wronged me, or stirred by a great love for some one whom I shall never see. There is no mood or passion that Art cannot give us, and those of us who have discovered her secret can settle beforehand what our experiences are going to be. We can choose our day and select our hour.” (Pp. 167–8. This seems to tie in nicely with the earlier idea of the musician as a critic of music. Here the critic uses his own emotional capacity as if it was a kind of musical instrument, and Art provides the score for playing it.) “It is a strange thing, this transference of emotion. We sicken with the same maladies as the poets, and the singer lends us his pain. Dead lips have their message for us, and hearts that have fallen to dust can communicate their joy.” (P. 172.) “Don't let us go to life for our fulfilment or our experience. It is a thing narrowed by circumstances, incoherent in its utterance, and without that fine correspondence of form and spirit which is the only thing that can satisfy the artistic and critical temperament. It makes us pay too high a price for its wares, and we purchase the meanest of its secrets at a cost that is monstrous and infinite. [. . .] Art does not hurt us. The tears that we shed at a play are a type of the exquisite sterile emotions that it is the function of Art to awaken. We weep, but we are not wounded. We grieve, but our grief is not bitter. [. . .] It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realize our perfection; through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” (P. 173.)

Now admittedly much of this is, in the memorable phrase I have once heard said of Nietzsche, ‘argument by bug-eyed assertion’, but I found it curiously appealing and enchanting anyway. It strikes me as a perfect epitome of the Wildean attitude to art.

Incidentally, I was intrigued by the use of the word ‘monstrous’ in the above-quoted passage; it seems to be quite a favorite word with Wilde. I was wondering if it was a peculiar feature of his time, and then it occured to me that nowadays we have an easy tool for checking that sort of things: Google's n-gram viewer, and as we can see from it, the word was certainly much more common in Wilde's time than it is now, but it was even more common earlier in the 19th century. I was reminded of another similar word which I associate with a specific time period, namely ‘beastly’, which I seem to only encounter in the inter-war period, in writers such as Orwell and one or the other of the Lawrences (T. E. and D. H., or perhaps both of them). And indeed Google n-grams show that this word had a big spike in usage around 1920.

The Truth of Masks

This essay turned out to be more interesting than I expected based on my (very) vague memories of the previous time(s) I had read it. It was originally published as Shakespeare and Stage Scenery (p. lvii), and this title in fact gives a better idea of what it's about, namely: when performing a play, how much effort should be put into making the costumes (and, to a lesser extent, scenery) look realistic?

Apparently this was a topic of considerable debate at the time. In much of the 17th and 18th century, the prevailing custom was to just use the fashions of the age in which the play was performed; so you might have a play that took place in the ancient Rome but the actors in it wore the costumes of 18th-century soldiers, noblemen etc. (p. 218). In Wilde's time there was an increasing interest in using more realistic costumes, appropriate to the time and place in which the story of the drama is set. Wilde supports this trend, which he refers to as ‘archaeology’, and defends it against the complaints of those who argued that it was just unnecessary pedantry.

Wilde points out that Shakespeare himself paid a lot of attention to to the costumes of his characters (pp. 209–14), and that theatres of his time made a lot of effort to use a diverse and realistic set of costumes. On pp. 214–5 Wilde cites a long list of costumes from an inventory of a “costume-wardrobe of a London theatre in Shakespeare's time”, including “a robe ‘for to goo invisibell,’ which seems inexpensive at 3l. 10s. [. . .] It is true that there is a mention of a bodice for Eve, but probably the donnée of the play was after the Fall.” :)

In fact he says that an interest in ancient costume was widespread in the Renaissance, and went hand in hand with its interest in ancient literature and architecture (p. 215). “Archaeology to them was not a mere science for the antiquarian; it was a means by which they could touch the dry dust of antiquity into the very breath and beauty of life, and fill with the new wine of romanticism forms that else had been old and outworn.” (Ib.)

He has some interesting remarks about how perfectly suited the theatre is for this sort of ‘archaeology’; if a novelist puts that much effort into historical realism, the reader will be overwhelmed by detailed descriptions and antiquated terminology, whereas in a play the viewer will simply see the results on stage without any special effort (p. 216). He can't resist adding a bit of his usual stuff about how Art is above everything else: “indeed archaeology is only really delightful when transfused into some form of art” (p. 217). But on p. 218 he says a bit more fairly: “archaeology, being a science, is neither good nor bad, but a fact simply. Its value depends entirely on how it is used, and only an artist can use it. We look to the archaeologist for the materials, to the artist for the method.”

Wilde praises Shakespeare's high level of commitment to historical accuracy in general (pp. 219–21). “Indeed if it be really necessary that the School Board children should know all about the Wars of the Roses, they could learn their lessons just as well out of Shakespeare as out of shilling primers, and learn them, I need not say, far more pleasureably.” (P. 220.) “[A] dramatist who laid such stress on historical accuracy of fact would have welcomed historical accuracy of costume as a most important adjunct to his illusionist method.” (P. 221.)

“The Greek dress was the loveliest dress the world has ever seen, and the English dress of the last century one of the most monstrous;” (p. 225). “[I]t is time that a stop should be put to the idea, very prevalent on the stage, that the Greeks and Romans always went about bareheaded in the open air—a mistake the Elizabethan managers did not fall into, for they gave hoods as well as gowns to their Roman senators.” (P. 227.)

A few nice quotes explaining why he argues in favor of historical realism here: “what I have tried to point out is that archaeology is not a pedantic method, but a method of artistic illusion, and that costume is a means of displaying character without description, and of producing dramatic situations and dramatic effects.” (P. 228.) “Perfect accuracy of detail, for the sake of perfect illusion, is necessary for us.” (P. 222) I wonder what he would think about movies, where present-day technology allows them to achieve an unprecedented level of realism in presenting historical scenes.

One thing that surprised me about this essay is how soberly it is written. For the most part there isn't any trolling and outrageous epigrams of the sort that we saw in several earlier essays in this book. Only at the very end does Wilde add a few sentences of this sort, almost as if he suddenly felt embarrassed about having expressed an idea plainly and honestly :) “Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything. For in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradiction is also true.” (P. 228.) Maybe he hoped this mumbo-jumbo would help deflect any criticism from people who might disagree with him — it's like a pre-emptive ‘oh, I didn't really mean that’ — but after the sober tone of the rest of the essay, it's hard to take this disclaimer very seriously. But see also vol. 7, p. 491, where the editors point out that Wilde later distanced himself from ‘archaeology’ and that these concluding remarks should be seen in that light as well.

Wilde mentions an interesting anachronism in Shakespeare; apparently, he has Hector mentioning Aristotle at some point (p. 219; according to the editor's note on p. 541, this is in Troilus and Cressida).

The Soul of Man

I was used to thinking of this essay as “The Soul of Man under Socialism”, and indeed this was its original title when it was first published in a magazine; the last two words were dropped when it was later republished as a standalone booklet. For me, the original title is more intriguing; as an ardent fan of leftist political ideas, the more extreme the better, I was naturally very curious what Wilde had to say about socialism, especially since he doesn't strike me as the sort of author that would be particularly preoccupied with the plight of the poorer classes of society.

At the very least one would expect him to have a highly idosyncratic view of socialism, and in this I was not disappointed. That doesn't mean that I disagree with his views here (just the opposite), but the things he focuses on are the last things I'd expect to see in a discussion of socialism. Wilde's main interest in socialism comes from the idea that in such a system, people will no longer be forced to work for others to make a living, doing things they don't like to do. Instead, they will be able to develop their own interests and potential (to “realize” themselves, as Wilde likes to say, e.g. on p. 237; though I have to admit that this way of using words like ‘real’ and ‘realize’ strikes me as odd), mostly in the way of creating, or contemplating, beautiful things; this is now available only to a few rich people, but in a socialist society it would be equally accessible to everyone (pp. 233, 237). “Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.” (P. 233.)

There's more or less nothing about how a socialist society might function or even how it might be brought about (apart from a bit of hand-waving about how machines can now do all the boring and hard work); but then, this isn't really the topic of the essay, given its title. Wilde isn't really concerned with any sort of ideological details here, as you can see from phrasing such as “Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it” (p. 233). And indeed the range of ideas what were being discussed in the 19th century under the umbrella term of ‘socialism’ was pretty broad; see e.g. the note to 231.2 on p. 551.

Wilde does point out that “no Authoritarian Socialism will do. [. . .] It is to be regretted that a portion of our community should be practically in slavery, but to propose to solve the problem by enslaving the entire community is childish. Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be exercised over him. [. . .] And by work I simply mean activity of any kind.” (P. 236.) You might even say he moves from socialism into what is practically anarchism with remarks like this: “Of course authority and compulsion are out of the question. All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.” (P. 237.) By the way, I also like how he uses the word ‘fine’ here; you would expect a socialist writer to point out how people will be free, or happy, or prosperous, or something like that, but Wilde's focus is more artistic and aesthetic. I suppose in a way it amounts to the same thing, what with the hierarchy of needs and the like; but the difference in emphasis is interesting, and shows us how Wilde approaches socialism from a different perspective than typical writers do.

He goes even further in the anarchist vein on p. 244: “Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain to. As a natural result the State must give up all idea of government. [. . .] All modes of government are failures.” (He goes on to argue this in detail against each system of government separately, of course with particular emphasis on democracy.) “The State is to be a voluntary association that will organize labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful.” (P. 246.)

There are some very good observations on the progress of technology. On the one hand, it is absolutely necessary if the socialist utopia is to be realized, because we need the machines to do the dirty work: “a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading.” (P. 246.) “The fact is, that civilization requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.” (P. 247.)

On the other hand, he also points out how under the present system of private property, technological progress actually causes harm: “One man owns a machine which does the work of five hundred men. Five hundred men are, in consequence, thrown out of employment [. . .] The one man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it [. . .] Were that machine the property of all, every one would benefit by it. It would be an immense advantage to the community.” (P. 247.) Nowadays this warning is more timely than ever before, as we see more and more jobs being lost to technological progress while a handful of rich people reap all the benefits of that progress.

Along the way, Wilde makes many other good remarks that I entirely agree with. On p. 232 he has a discussion about how charity doesn't really solve anything, just prolongs the problems (not that I think it should therefore be abandoned — it just isn't enough): “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good”.

And on p. 235 he remarks on the unfortunately widespread phenomenon of people supporting the very system that oppreses them: “a poor man who is ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented, and rebellious, is probably a real personality, and has much in him. [. . .] As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy [. . .]. They must also be extraordinarily stupid. I can quite understand a man accepting laws that protect private property, and admit of its accumulation, as long as he himself is able under those conditions to realize some form of beautiful and intellectual life. But it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiesce in their continuance.”

There's an interesting discussion on private property on p. 238. One would imagine an argument against private property to chiefly be based on the fact that some people have unfairly little of it; but Wilde goes from the completely opposite direction and argues against private property on the basis of the fact that it's too much burden on those who have it. He even tries to interpret Christianity in this light: “What Jesus meant, was this. He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don't imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your perfection is inside of you. If only you could realize that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. [. . .] Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.’ ” (Pp. 240–1.)

I'm usually a big fan of Wildean paradoxes but in this particular case I found it unconvincing. Nevertheless I liked his concluding remark there: “With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” (Pp. 238–9.)

There's a beautiful discussion of crime and punishment on p. 245; it would still be remarkably progressive now, more than a hundred years after it was written: “a community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occurrence of crime. [. . .] The less punishment, the less crime. When there is no punishment at all, crime will either cease to exist, or if it occurs, will be treated by physicians as a very distressing form of dementia, to be cured by care and kindness. [. . .] Starvation, and not sin, is the parent of modern crime. [. . .] When private property is abolished there will be no necessity for crime, no demand for it; it will cease to exist.” Incidentally, he expressed a similar idea in Pen, Pencil and Poison as well. (“Crime in England is rarely the result of sin. It is nearly always the result of starvation.” P. 119.)

About half-way into the essay, the topic changes rather abruptly and from that point on mostly consists of the usual artist's complaining about how the public doesn't appreciate new ideas in art. “When they say a work is grossly unintelligible, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is new; when they describe a work as grossly immoral, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is true. The former expression has reference to style; the latter to subject-matter.” (P. 251.) He goes on to argue that the only way for someone to actually be an artist is to follow is own ideas and ignore what the public says. “The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all. Authority over him and his art is ridiculous.” (P. 261.) For me this second half of the essay was less interesting than the first half, but I guess that for Wilde it was in fact the main source of motivation: he wants socialism because it would lead to individualism, and he wants individualism because artists could actually be themselves rather than having to pay attention to the whims of the public.

In terms of style, Wilde is in excellent form in this essay. It's full of delightful epigrams in his usual paradoxical style, but what is even better, here they are deployed in a way that supports his arguments rather than making the whole thing an exercise in frivolity and mental masturbation like The Decay of Lying and to a smaller extent The Critic as Artist were.

“There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor.” (P. 241.)

“There are three kinds of despots. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the body. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul. There is the despot who tyrannizes over soul and body alike. The first is called the Prince. The second is called the Pope. The third is called the People.” (P. 261.)


As always, the editor's introduction and commentary are a treasure-trove of interesting observations and factoids.

I was happy to find the word ‘gnomic’ in the editors' introduction on p. xviii, and again ‘gnomically’ on p. xxvi. I like this word and wish it were used more often. I thought of it as meaning something like “obscure and unclear, probably deliberately so”, and the way it's used here seems to agree with this; but now I see that the dictionary explains it simply as “like or containing gnomes or aphorisms”, where a gnome is of course not the one with a red cap in your garden, but a Greek word for “a short, pithy expression of a general truth; aphorism”.

The editor's introduction mentions on p. xxvii that Wilde didn't pay much attention to punctuation and was quite willing to let his editors sort out the punctuation in his works. “Likewise, structuring long pieces of prose also proved a consistent problem for him, one in which (once again) he was often willing to defer to more experienced judgments.” (Ibid.) Apparently he also made a few common spelling errors, such as “valueable”, “independant”, and confusing “it's” and “its” (p. xc).

There are a few interesting remarks on Wilde's “tendency to capitalize (in Intentions) abstract nouns such as ‘nature’ and ‘art’.” (P. lviii. And it isn't just in Intentions, I remember it from Dorian Gray too.) “Wilde's handwriting can make it difficult to be certain when he is using capital letters” (ibid.).

There's a very interesting discussion about a paragraph that ended up being printed in the wrong place in The Soul of Man: “In fact it was not until 1993, when the letter quoted above was published for the first time, that anyone apparently became aware of the problem—a cirumstance which in turn says much about the sorts of expectations readers have brought to Wilde's essay.” (P. lxxv.)

I was interested to learn, from a note on p. 321, that the term ‘cloud cuckoo land’ originated in one of the plays of Aristophanes; see its wikipedia article for more. And from a note on p. 574 I learned that the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” is from Bulwer-Lytton's 1839 play Richelieu; it seems like such a well-known phrase that I thought it was of much older origin. Or maybe the phrase would have seemed like utter nonsense in days when people would still routinely stab each other with swords, so it could only be invented after this practice began to decline :)

On p. 329 there's an interesting discussion of the British attitudes to Napoleon in the 19th century: “British attitudes towards Napoleon became increasingly sympathetic following his fall from power and imprisonment. Carlyle, for example, saw him as a Promethean figure [. . .] as early as the 1830s [. . .] ‘he could be listed in song alongside British heroes, and hailed on the stage by British soldiers. The notion that a British patriot might admire Napoleon, once voiced only by radicals, had become a commonplace’ ”. To be honest, it never even occurred to me that the British must have presumably seen Napoleon as a hated enemy at the time when they were actually at war with him, although of course in hindsight it is only logical that they would have done that. In any case, I found this development inspiring; I don't have the impression that such a magnanimous attitude towards former enemies has been commonplace after 20th-century wars.

A very interesting observation from p. 438: “W[ilde] almost certainly reached a wider readership through his journalism than through any of his literary works (with the possible exception of the society comedies).”

My obligatory whine

By now I got sadly used to the fact that the books from this series have uncommonly many typos, and this one is no exception. I still can't understand how they can be selling the book for so much money (I paid £85 for it back in 2007 when it was published; as of late 2013, it costs £131 on OUP's website) and yet not be able to afford a proofreader. Have they no sense of pride at all?

Here's a non-exhaustive list of typos: “had would have prepared” (p. lxxx, n. 116); “on one has ever” (p. 100, l. 31); “stayrs” (for ‘satyrs’, p. 213, l. 23); “one of the statues omitted a sound” (p. 278); “over-weaning’ (p. 283); “Mycenaen” (p. 351); “ex-patriot” (p. 368; referring to F. Marion Crawford, they surely meant ‘expatriate’); “in a dual fought” (p. 415); “simpy” (p. 532); “earlir” (p. 543); “laws,. But” (p. 566); “the formal of style” (p. 581).

There is an odd remark on p. 285. Wilde uses the German phrase “ein edle und gute natur” on p. 7, and the editor comments: “the phrase, one word of which W misspells (it should be ‘edel’ rather than ‘edle’), translates as ‘a noble and fine nature’.” Now admittedly my German is extremely rusty, but surely Natur is a feminine noun, so “edle” should be just fine; if anything, we should be complaining that Wilde says ‘ein’ instead of ‘eine’, and that he doesn't spell Natur with a capital N.

In a note on p. 298, the editor mentions that “Herodotus claims that Melampus taught the Greeks the name of Dionysus and the way to make sacrifices to him, especially what Herodotus calls the rite of ‘phallic progression’.” I was greatly intrigued by the concept of phallic progression, but unfortunately my google search resulted in only around 20 unrelated mentions, mostly from postmodernist essays. It seems that the phrase is simply a mistake for “phallic procession”; this latter form occurs e.g. in the Wikipedia, and similarly the translation of Herodotus on refers to it as the “procession of the phallus”.

In a note on p. 339 we hear about “Perseus (c. 213/2–170 BC), king of Macedonia 179–168”. So they had a dead king for two years :) To be honest, I can imagine many advantages of having a dead king, and it would probably have been better if they hadn't bothered to inaugurate a new living one.

A note on p. 385 describes Thomas Malory as the “author of the prose romance, Le Morte D'Arthur, a poem which has little basis in historical fact”. I wonder why anybody would refer to it as a poem (especially just after saying, quite sensibly, that it's in prose).

A note on p. 463 describes the satyr Silenus as “the son of Hermes and Pan”. I *so* don't want to know what happened there :P


  • Philip E. Smith II, Michael S. Helfland (eds.): Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks (1989). Mentioned here on p. x., n. 2, and on p. xx, n. 6, as one of the few books that argue in favor of the importance of Wilde's early critical writings, especially his Historical Criticism.
  • Nicholas Frankel: Oscar Wilde's Decorated Books (2000). Mentioned on p. xv, n. 10.
  • Robert Seiler: The Book Beautiful: Walter Pater and the House of Macmillan (1999). P. xv, n. 11.
  • Karl Beckson: Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage (1970). Seems to contain early reviews of Wilde's work; p. lxvi, n. 86.
  • Horst Schroeder: Oscar Wilde, ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’—Its Composition, Publication and Reception. P. xvi, n. 12.
  • Philippa Pullar: Frank Harris (1975). P. lxxii, n. 100.
  • George Woodcock: The Paradox of Oscar Wilde (1949); and Cristopher Lasch: The Revolt of Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995). Mentioned in a discussion of The Soul of Man, p. lxxx, n. 117, as examples of “[p]olitical historians and theorists who have taken Wilde seriously”
  • Lawrence Danson: Wilde's Intentions: The Artist in his Criticism. (1996). P. xxx, n. 27.
  • Driftwood from Scandinavia (1884) by Wilde's mother, who was “much interested in Swedish and Scandinavian literature” (p. 386).
  • William Jones: History and Mystery of Precious Stones (1880); A. H. Church: Precious Stones Considered in their Scientific and Artistic Relations. Mentioned on p. 388 as the source of Wilde's information about gems, e.g. in Dorian Gray.
  • John Nichols: Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century (9 vols., 1812–15). P. 413.

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