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Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde: One Hundred Years After Hard Labor

Although for some fifteen years Wilde enjoyed celebrity and critical acclaim, he became anathema to the world before his death—and posterity has been only a little kinder. Wilde’s development of Walter Pater’s aestheticism was discredited, just as Wilde was relegated to the “minor-figure” bin in literature, perhaps more from reaction to his flamboyant personality than from a rational evaluation of his ideas.

Wilde’s public shame culminated when the British courts sentenced him to two years of hard labor for his homosexual activities. The trend in academe, no less than in society at large, was to discount his intellectual contributions as invalid, coincidentally, after the British courts found him immoral. Such a response could well be a manifestation of conscious or subconscious assumptions that art is at least partly a moral product. Public assertions of what is moral and what is immoral, combined with an insistence on associating art with morality, undermined Wilde’s critical and artistic reputation as well as his social one.

Another reason academe did not duly regard the contribution of Wilde may be that he was simply ahead of his time. The reconsideration of Wilde’s theory of art given in this paper proposes to establish Wilde as 1) having been judged at least partly on religious grounds, 2) having suffered from an unfortunate turn in linguistic and literary semiotics, and 3) having anticipated contemporary aesthetic theory. Wilde created a body of thought that fits well into the framework of later aesthetic semiotics.

T. S. Eliot enjoyed a massive influence covering most of the twentieth century. He was regarded as one of the most, if not the most, authoritative literary critics of his generation. We find an interesting study in religious assumptions at work in Eliot’s literary criticism. In fact, we will find a distinctive tone of condescension and presumed superiority over the likes of Pater and Wilde. We look first at an essay entitled, “Arnold and Pater.”

There is both direct and oblique reference to Wilde, though references to Pater also serve our purpose. There is no question that the aestheticism referred to in Eliot’s essay is that of both Wilde and Pater. Eliot begins in very scholarly form, “If, as the Oxford Dictionary tells us, an aesthete is a ‘professed appreciator of the beautiful,’ then there are at least two varieties: those whose profession is most vocal, and those whose appreciation is most professional. If we wish to understand painting, we do not go to Oscar Wilde for help” (Arnold and Pater, p.353). Eliot makes the assumption that the “two varieties” of aesthete he delineates must be mutually exclusive. One invalid; one valid. We do not go to Oscar Wilde. Even as aesthete, Wilde is invalid. Then Eliot refers to “aestheticism” as something to be “accused of” (Arnold and Pater, p.354). He discusses Pater and Wilde’s age as suffering a “dissolution of thought” (Arnold and Pater, p.356). In discussing The Renaissance, Pater’s most influential book, Eliot proceeds, “I do not believe that Pater, in this book, has influenced a single first-rate mind of a later generation. His view of art...impressed itself upon a number of writers in the ‘nineties, and propagated some confusion between life and art which is not wholly irresponsible for some untidy lives. The theory (if it can be called a theory) of ‘art for art’s sake’...never was and never can be valid for the spectator, reader or auditor” (Arnold and Pater, p.356).

Such pronouncements were of no help to the survival of Wildean aesthetics. From the vantage point of moral superiority, Eliot has decreed that Wilde, a known moral fiend, or, as Eliot suggests, “untidy,” is also an intellectual failure. One suspects Eliot has forgotten his own criticism of critics, “The critic, if he is to justify his existence, should endeavor to discipline his personal prejudices and cranks...in the common pursuit of true judgment. When we find that quite the contrary prevails, we begin to suspect that the critic owes his livelihood to the violence and extremity of his opposition to other critics” (Function of Criticism, p.69). Indeed, how Wilde would agree! As Wilde’s character Lord Henry Wotton points out, “We are not sent into the world to air our moral prejudices” (Picture, p.88).

To draw a clearer picture of Eliot’s vantage point, we look elsewhere in his writings on the relationship between religion and literature. What we find is fairly illuminating, “Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint...[and]...moral judgments of literary works are made only according to the moral code accepted by each generation” (Religion and Literature, p.97). “Only”?! How the combined moral codes of multiple generations could have been employed as criteria for judging literature is unclear. So it is difficult to tell how “only” functions in the above sentence. However, the message is clear: literary works are subject to the moral judgment of their generation. Eliot continues as if writing a sermon, “It is a commonplace that what shocks one generation is accepted quite calmly by the next. This adaptability to change of moral standards is sometimes greeted with satisfaction as an evidence of human perfectibility: whereas it is only evidence of what unsubstantial foundations people’s moral judgments have” (Religion and Literature, pp.97,98). Eliot says he is concerned here, “with the application of our religion to the criticism of any literature” (Religion and Literature, p.98).

One wonders who is included in the “our” of “our religion,” and why it must be applied to those not included. Perhaps Wilde helped shock Eliot back into orthodoxy. Wilde rejects morality as a criterion for judgment of literary works altogether. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” (Picture, p.3). One concludes that T.S. Eliot considered such a view subversive. In fact, we know that Eliot considered Matthew Arnold subversive to the religious foundations of criticism (Arnold and Pater, p.350). By comparison, Wilde’s views must have inflicted unprecedented violence upon Eliot’s sensibilities. It is not surprising that moral judgment would be pronounced against Wilde. And this is all we find against Wilde: moral indignation. Without any critical argument against, or analysis of, Wilde’s theory of art, Wilde is relegated to insignificance.

Moving to more technical-philosophical considerations, a brief review of the unfortunate (for Wilde) turn in early twentieth-century semiotics will help show additional possible reasons for the delay in recognizing the beauty of Wilde’s theory of art. These developments, initiated by Ferdinand de Saussure, moved towards positing an objective structure behind all expressions of literature. “Language is a well-defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts” (Saussure, p.14). Wilde valued subjective experience with idealized beauty—not objective studies of grammatical structure. The only meaning available in literature, for Saussure, would be in that underlying structure, not in the content, phrasing, etc., of the expression itself. This highly objective trend discounted the text itself almost completely.

Saussure’s, Course in General Linguistics, lays the groundwork for nearly a century of concentration on an unutterable structure behind the text as being the only place in which meaning could reside. The silent structure he calls the langue, the text itself, the parole. The parole is an incomplete, heterogeneous manifestation of the homogenous structure. The parole could never embody the whole structure, and therefore never embody its own true meaning. Hence, “Language is a garment covered with patches [the patches being the text] cut from its own cloth. Four-fifths of French is Proto-Indo-European if we think of the substance that constitutes sentences...” (Saussure, p.172). So this “substance that constitutes sentences” is pure structure; the text itself is trivial.

However, the meaning in the langue can only be discerned, or inferred, through a study of the parole. The idea of the langue as structure-behind-the-text came from an analogy between sentence structure and the group of sentences that make up a text, or the “sentence-text analogy” (Sheriff, p.3). As grammatical structure determines meaning of sentences, so a larger textual structure must govern meaning in a text. Since Wilde’s meaning lay completely in subjective experience with the text itself, derived after the fact of the text, the foundation of his theory of art would be obliterated by Saussure’s influence. This influence reached over generations, into the late twentieth century, perhaps until the advent of Derrida.

Derrida does not specifically endorse anything like Wilde’s theory of art, nor does Derrida endorse anything contrary to it. He is concerned with showing that all interpretation, all meaning, is derivative of the text. One searches in vain for a meaning or cause of meaning preceding the text. Before the text, there is nothing but free play of signs for potential use in endlessly fluctuating possibilities, an endless deferring of meaning. Signs are in continuous supplementation of each other. This is a free play of difference in relations between and within the use of signs, that is, the use of language. Any interpretation of any text is a closure of the free play, a suspension of possibilities. The outcome of this suspension is ideality. Meaning resides in a text only inasmuch as meaning has been idealized from the use of signs in the text. There is no a priori meaning, no a priori truth: theological, literary, aesthetic, or otherwise. If beauty exists in literary art, it is only by virtue of people idealizing a concept of beauty, by closing off and excluding the possible relations of signs that might have effected an ideal other than beauty.

Thus Derrida’s free play of difference makes meaning only possible for an individual in a particular experience with a text. This experience with language, as used, can produce ideality. Idealized meaning follows after an experience with the text. Saussure’s mistake was to claim that idealized meaning (such as in his langue) was a priori to the text and the experience. As an obstacle to aestheticism, Saussure’s influence was contravened by Derrida’s. The semiotic path was cleared on which Wilde’s theory of art would have room to advance.

“As Jonathan Culler has pointed out, ‘Derrida...has not dealt directly with topics such as the task of literary criticism, the methods of analyzing literary language, or the nature of literary meaning’” (Sheriff, p.45). Derrida need not say a word about aesthetics. Meaning as subjectively idealized in language in general is the key to aestheticism.

Wilde’s perspicacity lay in understanding that ideality does not exist on its own, does not precede, but rather is produced by, the making of and the experience with a text. The crux of Wilde is in attitude towards this process. Beauty exists in literary art because people idealize qualities that appeal to their sensibilities and then call it “beauty.” That is what makes art. Wilde recognized the idealizing process and relished in it.

To show current-day aesthetic semiotics’ similarities with Wilde’s aestheticism, we first look at those tenets in Wildean epigrams. “The object of art is not simple truth, but complex beauty...[and]...when art surrenders her imaginative medium, she surrenders everything” (Decay, p.302). “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated.... They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty...[and]...No artist desires to prove anything....All art is quite useless” (Picture, pp.3,4). “Art never expresses anything but itself” (Decay, p.319). “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life....At twilight, nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect...” (Decay, p.320).

To find the specific critical reaffirmation we seek, we will look at another branch of literary criticism: phenomenological aesthetics, and the phenomenologist Roman Ingarden.

Ingarden presents a picture that ties in closely with Wilde in a number of ways. “The literary work of art is an aesthetic object” (McCormick, p.11). This idea links Ingarden with Wilde immediately, as the idea has not attracted many proponents since Wilde until recently. Ingarden’s aesthetic object is not a so-called real object. Yet the aesthetic object is none-the-less real. It is real in our experience, because our aesthetic experience has nothing necessarily to do with the “real” object, only with the aesthetic object. Ingarden, in setting aesthetics apart from physical or linguistic investigation, notes, “Hence, one who begins with a purely investigating cognition of a work of art as a real object, [e.g., grammatical structure] instead of constituting this object in an aesthetic experience and experiencing its peculiar visage, will never succeed in obtaining for himself a knowledge of aesthetic values” (Ingarden, p.128). The key phrase is “and experiencing its peculiar visage.” An aesthetic object cannot be studied as an archaeologist studies a dig to gather data. The value resides in the experience with beauty (or ugliness). Further, “The matter...presents itself quite differently [from experience with real objects] in the pretty complicated process which will be here called an ‘aesthetic experience’” (Ingarden, p.110). So it seems that to overlook the “complex beauty” of the aesthetic experience is to overlook the “imaginative medium,” to “not succeed.”

An archaeological dig, for instance, is a real object from which physical evidence provides data. However, “The reality of an object isn’t thus necessary for the accomplishment of an aesthetic experience, because the occurrence of reality as a particular moment of the object perceived does not influence our aesthetic delight or aversion in any way” (Ingarden, p.108). Indeed, a “real” object need not even initiate the aesthetic experience: “...it is not in every case of aesthetic perception that one must start from the perception of a real object” (Ingarden, p.108).

Ingarden speaks of various ways in which a “...harmony of qualities is obtained. The harmony of qualities...[in an aesthetic experience]...is the final principle of the creation and of the existence of an aesthetic object” (Ingarden, p.125). For Wilde, what follows from discounting real objects as being irrelevant, to valuing idealized beauty in art, is a general discounting of the real world. And indeed, we find in Ingarden, “...though we continue feeling in the world, the conviction of the existence of the real world, which constantly colours all our actuality, withdraws somehow into shade, loses its importance and strength,” and in the “aesthetic experience there may occur a peculiar...phenomenon of a quasi-oblivion of the real world” (Ingarden, p.116).

Wilde’s theory of idealized beauty and subjective experience with art surfaces more as we look further into Ingarden’s phenomenology. “One has to grasp the qualities aesthetically valuable and to bind them synthetically with one another in order to succeed, in this way, in grasping the whole of the harmony of those qualities, and, at that time only—in a peculiar emotional contemplation—to give oneself up to the charm of the beauty of the constituted ‘aesthetic object’”(Ingarden, p.112). We find in Ingarden the idealized object, and thus, idealized beauty.

Even Ingarden’s tone seems at times imitative of Wilde. Ingarden speaks of the aesthetic experience depending upon the percipient’s “emotional and intellectual type, his aesthetic as well as general culture,” and; sounding almost a quote from Wilde; “his aesthetic susceptibility” (Ingarden, p.132). These might be the cultivated and elite “to whom [as Wilde notes] beautiful things mean only beauty.” Ingarden goes on to what Wilde’s contemporaries might have viewed as a competitive extravagance with Wildean sensation: “...the preliminary aesthetic emotion is full of dynamism—eagerness for satiation...that we could be ‘ravished’ by it” (Ingarden, p.115). He goes on to describe, in the percipient’s interaction with the aesthetic object, “a moment of ‘intoxication’—almost similar to getting intoxicated with the smell of flowers” (Ingarden, p.119).

Perhaps as good a statement as Wilde himself ever made (though not as nicely phrased) to summarize his view of art for art’s sake is made by Ingarden, “The value of an aesthetic object is not the value of a means leading to an end” (Ingarden, p.127). The value of the aesthetic object is the end in itself. In response to anticipated criticism of passive contemplation of qualities, Ingarden argues, “On the contrary, it is a phase of a very active, intensive, and creative life of an individual, that these activities do not evoke any changes in the surrounding real world, nor are they ‘calculated’ to do so” (Ingarden, p.118). As Wilde put it, “Quite useless.”

However, Ingarden is not in “extravagant competition” with Wilde. From vastly different intellectual milieus, the two have arrived at strikingly similar theories of art. Phenomenological aesthetics provides a useful setting in which Wildean aestheticism can be developed. We might profit by recognizing, in both, an accurate account of the aesthetic experience. Phenomenology strictly as method has the advantage of indifference to morality. When used to critique aesthetics, it reveals by omission what is not inherently relevant to aesthetics.

We are now in a position to allow Wilde to shed the baggage that has adhered to his name as a result of moral prejudices, cranks, and outdated semiotics. We are in a position to evaluate Wilde’s contribution on its own merits. That it required one hundred years to let the dust of moral umbrage settle is perhaps a fact with which Wilde would not be entirely displeased.


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Ingarden, Roman. “Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Object,” in Selected Papers in Aesthetics, Ed. Peter J. McCormick, pp.107-132. The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1985.

McCormick, Peter J. “On Ingarden’s Selected Papers in Aesthetics,” in Selected Papers in Aesthetics, by Roman Ingarden, pp.7-16. The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1985.

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Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist,” in The Artist as Critic, Ed. Richard Ellmann, pp.340-408. Vintage Books/Random House, New York, 1970.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying,” in The Artist as Critic, Ed. Richard Ellmann, pp.290-320. Vintage Books/Random House, New York, 1970.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Signet Classic, Inc., New York, 1962.