Commentary Magazine


Oscar Wilde, by Richard Ellmann

The Aesthete

Oscar Wilde.
by Richard Ellmann.
Knopf. 632 pp. $24.95.

In recent decades Oscar Wilde has enjoyed a run on the intellectual exchange like no other Victorian. “With each passing year the figure of Wilde becomes clearer and larger,” Lionel Trilling wrote in 1972, not going quite so far as Harold Bloom, who recently included Wilde on his short list of writers who will be crucial to postmodern culture, the others being Emerson, Nietzsche, Pater, and Freud. Dismissed by the first generation of literary modernists as a relic of the Yellow 90’s, Wilde has since been proclaimed the patron saint of Camp by Susan Sontag and identified as an early, brilliant avatar of the “therapeutic” by Philip Rieff. His rehabilitation has been all the more remarkable in that among his works only The Importance of Being Earnest still has currency. The play is Wilde’s masterpiece, the most sublime stage farce ever written; but Trilling put it correctly: it is the figure of Wilde which commands our attention, and we are apt to depend on Wilde’s biographers in a way that we do not in the case of the other writers on Harold Bloom’s list.

The shelf of Wilde biographies is long and, on the whole, unsatisfactory. Some of the early ones confirm Wilde’s own remark that among a great man’s disciples, it is Judas who writes the biography. For sheer pleasure, Hesketh Pearson’s 1946 portrait remains unsurpassed. Pearson’s idea was to reconstruct Wilde as delightful personality, “to take him out of the fog of pathology into the light of comedy . . . to revive the conversationalist, not the convict.” This is perfectly reasonable. Wilde’s most brilliant creation was himself, and a biographer may be excused for approaching his personality like a drama critic who is not obliged to dwell on the messy sketches and drafts behind the polished work at hand. With the possible exceptions of Doctor Johnson and Sydney Smith, Wilde was the most engaging company in the history of English letters, and the first task of a biographer is to depict those qualities which enabled him to dominate the best dinner tables in London.

Wilde was endowed not only with extraordinary wit, but also, as W. H. Auden remarked, with qualities which are singularly lacking in witty people; he was tolerant, gracious, and extraordinarily kind. He possessed in particular a childlike quality noted by Yeats, “the enjoyment of his own spontaneity,” which makes a good Wilde anecdote tonic for the spirit. Even on his deathbed, he could lift the mood of those around him: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” The grace and exuberance of the man made his lecture tour of America in 1882 one of the most charming things ever to happen to this country:

I have also lectured at Leadville [Wilde wrote to a friend], the great mining city in the Rocky Mountains. . . . My audience was entirely miners. . . . I spoke to them of the early Florentines, and they slept as though no crime had ever stained the ravines of their mountain home . . . unluckily I described one of Jimmy Whistler’s “nocturnes in blue and gold.” Then they leaped to their feet and in their grand simple way swore that such things should not be. Some of the younger ones pulled their revolvers out and left hurriedly to see if Jimmy was “prowling about the saloons.” . . . Their enthusiasm satisfied me and I ended my lecture there. . . . I had to open a new vein, or lode, which with a silver drill I brilliantly performed, amidst unanimous applause. The silver drill was presented to me and the lode named “The Oscar.” I had hoped that in their simple grand way they would have offered me shares in “The Oscar,” but in their artless untutored fashion they did not.

One of the few times Wilde ever deliberately stung anyone was when he told the Victorian actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree that his Hamlet was “funny without being vulgar.” The actor’s feelings were a small price to pay for the best putdown in literary history.

The extrovert side of Wilde is not the only concern of the biographer, however. We all come down to dinner, wrote the Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot, but each has a room to himself. In Wilde, the fissure between public performer and the man who took counsel with himself in solitude is a serious problem. Beneath the resplendent shell there was a sick and perverse man. Wilde had such charm that it is easy to lose sight of the blackness inside him. But we need only look at his contemptible treatment of his wife and children to get an idea of his perversity. Auden called Wilde’s marriage his one unpardonable act, but that is surely being generous to one who acted on a provisional creed of seeking “perfection in sin” and who was bent on his own destruction no matter what the consequences to those around him.

The lessons we learn from Wilde’s life are almost too pat: turn over a brilliant and destructive epigram and you find spiritual squalor; scratch the merry pagan and you find a corrosive melancholy. Literary history is full of examples: Gautier, Swinburne, Rossetti, Samuel Butler; they were all, like Falstaff, as melancholy as gib-cats. Wilde was no exception. He styled himself a Hellenist, and there was in him that combination of sadness and restlessness which settled on the late classical world like a noxious ether.

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The late Richard Ellmann gives us many wonderful things in his new biography of Wilde. The research is exhaustive and the writing, often condensing to epigram, is elegant. Most modern academic biographies are torture chambers for their subjects, but Ellmann approaches Wilde with exquisite literary tact. He is equal, moreover, to the formidable task of presenting Wilde’s personality in all its glory in a way that Wilde’s last major biographer, H. Montgomery Hyde, was not. Ellmann’s account of Wilde’s 1882 tour of America could make a small and perfect book in itself.

But nowhere in the six hundred pages of Oscar Wilde do we find a bridge spanning the enormous gulf that opens before us the more we consider Wilde’s personal history—the gulf between the happy temperament on the one hand and the sick soul on the other. The book is “definitive” about everything except the elusive moral center of its subject. What led Wilde to seek out the lowest life in London and “feast with panthers”? Why did he get such pleasure out of corrupting others? The answers are barely implicit in Ellmann’s account. He does not go much into Wilde’s dark side, but rather reports its manifestations with an academic neutrality. As a result, Wilde’s grotesque behavior comes across as a flaw in the persona rather than as the result of an evil whose only cure may well have been radical rather than palliative.

Ellmann maintained a similar polite distance from the pathological center of his earlier subject, James Joyce, which is manifest in everything Joyce wrote after Dubliners (Evelyn Waugh remarked that you can see Joyce going mad sentence by sentence). It was left to Leon Edel to show persuasively in a series of essays that Joyce was a kind of monster who believed that the practice of his art justified any degree of parasitism and selfishness. Reading both Ellmann biographies, one cannot help concluding that Ellmann subscribed to the notion of the moral autonomy of the artist which has flourished since Flaubert and which has had its share of responsibility for so many messy lives.

Ellmann does not explicitly stake out his position until the last words of the book; he judges Wilde finally as “. . . so generous, so amusing, and so right.” The last adjective is presumably an endorsement of Wilde’s thinking, which Ellmann limns with great authority. But what are we to make of Wilde’s doctrine of art for art’s sake, of his championing of the aesthetic over the ethical?

Under the influence of Walter Pater and the French decadents, Wilde set up as his ideal the aesthetic man who drifts from mood to mood, whose goal is to recreate himself (“The first duty in life is to assume a pose”) and to experiment with new sensations. The aesthete is beholden to no moral law, and if a frisson can be had from the practice of some evil, then evil is to be indulged. (In the English fin de siècle this usually meant passing a few hours with a dance-hall girl or with boy “renters”; the English were amateurs in this department compared with their counterparts across the Channel.) Wilde seems to have first experimented with homosexuality at age thirty-two out of aesthetic caprice; we can almost say that it was an intellectual pose, and not biology, which started the chain of events that ultimately landed him in Reading jail.

In its most refined form, and after many permutations, the doctrine of art for art’s sake produced Yeats’s best poem, “Sailing to Byzantium”; but its general influence has not been salutary. In various guises, it still permeates our culture. Norman Mailer’s famous essay “The White Negro,” which celebrates criminal violence as a means of procuring extraordinary sensations, is a piece of portentous Wildeanism. Andy Warhol, whose phrases and gestures have been internalized by a generation of young artists, was a minimalist rendition of Wilde. Rock stars, sexual propagandists, and the cultural leftists who write for the Village Voice are also late disciples.

If the center of Wilde’s philosophy should be approached with caution, however, there are innumerable passing remarks at the periphery which can still be quoted with profit. Wilde’s most fervent protest was against the incessant “doing” of Northern Protestant civilization, and his epigrams stand as a mild corrective. His observations about literature, moreover, are extraordinarily suggestive; he could compress whole monographs into a sentence or two. “Wordsworth went to the lakes, but he was never a lake poet. He found in stones the sermons he had already put there.” “Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.”

But Wilde and the other cultural rebels who flourished in England between 1870 and 1914—Walter Pater, Samuel Butler, George Bernard Shaw, and E.M. Forster—finally have little to say to us because the targets of their rebellion, the norms of Victorian society, were so limited. Instead of rebelling against God, they were fighting the Reverend Theobold Pontifex. (The English, as Walker Percy has noted, have been behaving decently for the last four hundred years in order to prove that they can get by without God.) They imagined they were assaulting two thousand years of Judeo-Christian culture when in reality they were teasing Mrs. Grundy. The Victorian who practiced philanthropy rather than charity, who was priggish rather than prudent, and whose moderation was really a fear of exuberance, was a just target of epigrams; but the mistake of the rebels was to let him, rather than some wider objective standard, set the terms of the debate.

The same was true in art as in morals. The high Victorian was unaesthetic to the core of his being and deserved to have his nose tweaked by a handful of intellectuals who had read Baudelaire. One of the more satisfying moments of Ellmann’s biography occurs during the trial of Wilde’s disastrous libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry (who had denounced Wilde as a “somdomite” [sic] for his dalliance with Queensberry’s son, Alfred Douglas). The ferociously philistine Sir Edward Carson cross-examines the plaintiff:

Carson read a passage from Dorian Gray and demanded, “Did you write that?” Wilde said he had the honor to be the author. Carson laid down the book with a sneer and turned over some papers. Wilde was lost in thought. Presently Carson read aloud a piece of verse from one of Wilde’s articles. “And I suppose you wrote that also, Mr. Wilde?” Wilde waited till you could hear a pin drop and then said, very quietly, “Ah, no, Sir Edward, Shakespeare wrote that.” Carson went scarlet. . . .

It was understandable why Wilde and the other writers of the 90’s wanted to set up the aesthetic against the ethical when the ethical meant Sir Edward Carson. But the result was an art devoid of moral substance, and the literature of the Yellow Book period is little read today. Ellmann clearly sides with Wilde against the grim custodians of Victorian virtue, but neither side should be allowed to have the last say.

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