Sunday, May 20, 2018

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "Historical Criticism Notebook"

Oscar Wilde's Historical Criticism Notebook. Transcribed and edited by Philip E. Smith II. Oxford University Press, 2016. 9780199688012. xxxiv + 255 pp.

I think I first heard about Wilde's Historical Criticism a few years ago when I read volume 4 of the new Oxford edition of Wilde's works, edited by Josephine Guy (see my post from back then). It's a relatively little known essay that he wrote towards the end of his student years, entering it into a prize competition in the hope that it might be a stepping-stone towards an academic career, but this didn't work out so he ended up becoming a famous writer instead. Nor did I care terribly much for the essay itself, as I found it a bit too technical for my liking.

The present volume was published a few years later and contains the text of a notebook kept by Wilde while he was working on that essay. (I couldn't help but think of the phrase ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ when I heard about this book. A notebook kept while writing a student essay? Let us hope and pray that Wilde's shopping-lists have not been preserved.) It's fairly rough, mostly consisting of incomplete fragments of sentences, occassionally things being crossed out or inserted, etc. Whoever has typeset this book has gone to a lot of trouble to imitate the arrangement of things in the manuscript by a careful use of spacing, various rules and lines, etc.; and they even included the photographs of a few pages to give you an idea of what the original looks like.

Reading Wilde's text in this book was an odd experience because it's so fragmentary. It gave me a feeling of vagueness, perhaps something like one might get from reading something very (post)modern and avant-garde where even the finished product is deliberately maintained in a fragmentary state :) I guess that this stuff is interesting not so much for the sake of the contents themselves but as a chance to see the writer at work, take a peek behind the scenes so to speak. He seems to have initially generated very rough and incomplete fragments of sentences, disjointed and with major parts missing, and then gradually connected them into normal prose in subsequent passes through the essay. I remembered reading a few years ago in the very interesting book Oscar Wilde's Profession that “[i]t's as if Wilde's very creativity itself was manifest via the composition of small, discrete units” (see my post from back then). The fragmentary nature of the text in his notebook here seems to be a good confirmation of this.

I was wondering if there is some way I could profit from his example, but I doubt it. When I write these blog posts for example, I mostly write normal sentences from the start, even if I sometimes go back to them later and try to improve something. I can't quite see how I would generate such rough fragments first and then use them to form sentences later. But clearly his system was well suited to how his creativity worked, since the result, as we can all see, is that he wrote a lot of very lovely prose.

What I found more interesting than Wilde's notebook itself was the commentary by the editor, Philip Smith. I couldn't help admiring the obviously enormous amount of effort that he must have put into this book. Judging by the photographs of the manuscript pages, deciphering Wilde's handwriting can't have been all that easy to begin with; and then he has gone to the trouble of identifying, for each fragment in the manuscript, which passage of the finished essay it corresponds to. The contents of this notebook cover about half of the material in the finished essay, suggesting that Wilde may have had a second notebook that has been lost (p. xix). Sometimes several separate passages in the notebook correspond to the same passage in the finished essay, as Wilde reworked his initial rough fragments into something more closely resembling normal prose such as would eventually appear in the essay. There are also a few things in the notebook that Wilde did not include in the final version of the essay, e.g. a discussion of Tacitus (p. xxvi).

The editor has also identified the exact sources of various quotations that Wilde includes or alludes to in his notebook. In this sense his commentary could be seen as a supplement to Guy's commentary to Historical Criticism, and in a few cases he even points out things that Guy's commentary has missed or got wrong (see e.g. notes 8, 14, 150). At times I couldn't help thinking that it would have been better if, instead of publishing this notebook as a separate volume, Guy and Smith had joined forces and published the notebook and the finished essay together. In its present form, the notebook published as a standalone volume will probably be of interest to very few people. I would certainly never dream of buying it or reading it if it wasn't for my determination to read the Oxford edition of Wilde's works, to which the present volume could perhaps be thought of as a sort of supplement (although formally it isn't a part of that edition).

One thing I found interesting is how heavily the editor's commentary relies on digital resources — scanned copies of 19th-century editions on Google Books and the Greek classics from the Perseus digital library. One downside of this is that a lot of very long, very ugly Perseus URLs are included in the text here. I don't think there's any way around it, but URLs do look hideously ugly in print. After all, they were never meant to be printed much — in a normal HTML document you usually only see them when you move your mouse over a link or something of that sort.

This book also has a lovely light blue dust jacket. I'm pointing this out because the volumes from the Oxford edition of Wilde's works do not have dust jackets. I'm so disappointed. Clearly the publisher is still capable of producing dust jackets, so why don't those other volumes get them? . . .


There's a very interesting remark from Horst Schroeder quoted on p. xvi, arguing that Wilde might not have submitted the Historical Criticism essay to that competition at all, because it is “such a manifestly incomplete paper and in such a poor outward form at that”.

An interesting quote from Ernest Renan's Vie de Jésus: “One is of one's century and one's race even when one protests against one's century and one's race” (p. 150, n. 8).

A wonderful quote Historical Criticism, included here on p. 155, n. 39: Wilde mentions the “spirit of exclusive attention to form which made Euripides often, like Swinburne, prefer music to meaning, and melody to morality”. I haven't read any Euripides, but how very well this description suits Swinburne! And I loved his poetry for just these reasons :)

As an example of the attention to detail in this book, the editor has even provided footnotes describing Wilde's doodles in the margins of the manuscript. “In the center of the double space below the line Wilde has drawn a cartoon side view of a banded snake.” (P. 14.) I couldn't help chuckling at the thought how it would have been if someone edited some of my college notebooks in the same way. I'm still rather proud of that drawing of a mouse screwing a cat... :P

There is one odd detail on p. 133. Wilde, discussing Plutarch, says that “[h]e trusts not to mere rumour, for no historian is more careful than he in making use of ancient monuments and inscriptions of Greece with which if except Persians, no one was more familiar than himself”. Why would you expect Persians to be unusually familiar with Greek monuments and inscriptions? Did the Persian army feature a prominent contingent of antiquarians when they fought in Greece? By coincidence, this passage occurs on one of those few pages of the notebook of which this volume includes a photograph, also on p. 133. Wilde's handwriting seems to me to be a bit unclear at this point, but I can't help wondering if the word in question isn't meant to be Pausanias rather than Persians. You would expect the famous geographer and travel writer to be more familiar with monuments and inscriptions than a bunch of hairy foreign soldiers.

Wilde refers several times to the idea that the task of historical criticism is to discover some sort of general laws and principles that govern history (p. 109). He mentions that “while the conceptions of Law and Order have been universally received as the governing principles of the phenomena of nature in the sphere of physical science, yet their intrusion into the domain of History, and the life of man, has always been met with a strong opposition” (Historical Criticism, quoted here on p. 199, n. 321).

I think he's on to something here. In one of the first history classes in secondary school, when we learnt what history as a branch of enquiry is trying to do, discovering laws of the development of human society was definitely mentioned there as one of its main goals. I suspect that the ancient historians whom Wilde discusses in his essay would also agree that this is an important goal.

But on the other hand, I later got the impression that historians nowadays mostly shrink from actually doing this like vampires from sunlight. They used to do this — Toynbee comes to mind — but nowadays it's only outsiders to the field of history that dare to attempt it, people like Jared Diamond or Steven Pinker, and whenever anybody tries anything of that sort, a hundred thousand angry pedants rise up, each with his “well, actually”, eager to point out this or that of the countless little inaccuracies that one is bound to commit if one attempts to generalize history, deduce any sort of general laws or observations from it, and treat it as anything more than just one damn random contingent thing after another.

I suppose that this is a sort of immune reaction to the tendencies of airy-fairy generalists to spin whatever theory they fancy and shoehorn actual historical facts into it as needed, but I can't help feeling that the reaction goes too far into the opposite direction. If you aren't allowed to generalize from history, why on earth would you even investigate it? You might just as well read a novel then — or the phone directory.


  • Philip E. Smith II, Michael S. Helfand (eds.): Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of a Mind in the Making (1989). Mentioned here on p. xvi. A similar book containing some of Wilde's other notebooks. Apparently there is also a “Philosophy Notebook” that is still in the process of being edited for publication, at a speed that strikes me as not merely glacial but positively geological (p. viii here).
  • Julia Brown: Cosmopolitan Criticism: Oscar Wilde's Philosophy of Art (1997). Mentioned here on p. xxix, n. 11.
  • Iain Ross: Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece (2013). Mentioned here on p. xxxii.
  • John Addington Symonds (tr.): Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti and Tommaso Campanella (1878). Wilde quotes from one of Campanella's sonnets (p. 207, n. 364).

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