In the first part of my dissertation, I have shown that the reception of The Picture of Dorian Gray was, to say the least, various and usually negative because of its ambivalence. Most Victorian critics could not handle Wilde's relativism in a positive way and therefore often disparaged his literary achievements. As I have suggested in the previous part with respect to the reception of his writings, Wilde's relativist way of thinking and the ambiguity of his work can be largely ascribed to his disbelief in an a-historical essential human nature (every identity is a temporary social and historical construction), a relativist view of morality which is inspired by Epicureanism (cf. the moral of The Picture of Dorian Gray), his dandyism (life as a work of art) and his decadent aestheticism. In the next chapter, I intend to outline Wilde's relativist way of thinking against the background of postmodernist relativism. I situate Wilde's dandyism in its historical context and treat it from a postmodernist viewpoint. In the second chapter, I discuss Wilde's concept of beauty from a poststructuralist viewpoint and I hope to explain the subversiveness of his and Walter Pater's literary criticism. In the last chapter, I shall argue that Wilde did not varnish his style with witty paradoxes, but that these paradoxes are part of a consistent method of inversion which resembles the current strategy of deconstruction. Wilde's decadent aestheticism shall be examined in the third and final part of my dissertation in relation to postmodernist art.
In this section, I intend to demonstrate that Wilde's relativism is related to the collapse of Victorian values at the end of the nineteenth century, whereas postmodernist relativism coincides with what Lyotard has called la condition postmoderne or the dismantling of all ideological systems (by Lyotard called "meta-narratives") as myths. It is my thesis that Wilde's inconsistency and posing cannot be explained by a defect in his personality. Indeed, they were necessary strategies to construct his own values and identity, since the weakened Victorian value system failed to offer him an identity which satisfied him. By the same token, I assume that the deconstruction of identity in postmodernist literature and philosophy correlates with a distrust in all ideological systems which used to define one's identity. A good example of the postmodernist doubt of any ideological definition of identity can be found in Stefan Hertmans' recent essay "Religieus renouveau: design of brocante":
Misschien moeten we meer dan ooit aan de nieuwe generatie , die blijkbaar weer behoefte heeft aan profeten en massarituelen, voorhouden dat de enige garantie voor een leefbare samenleving schuilt in het individueel leren leven (wat is iets anders is dan egocentrisch), met de niet vervulbare begeerte in het centrum van la onze handelingen en speculaties over onszelf en de anderen. Geen God, geen natie, geen ras of sekte kan ons afhelpen van wat we zijn -of van wat we filosofisch zijn geworden in de afgelopen eeuwen: subjecten die door schade en schande hebben moeten leren al te simplistische invullingen van hun identiteit te weerstaan.
Hertmans, one of the main spokesmen of postmodernism in Flanders, cautions his readers against the so-called 'natural' identities and 'universal' truths which religious sects and fascist parties offer them. Although demagogues pretend that their ideology is rooted in an objective higher truth (religious or nationalist), they construct these 'truths' in order to serve their own interests.
Postmodernist relativism is reflected in a paradigmatic shift from 'essentialist' to '(de)constructivist' thinking. Of course, this did not happen in one century, but it was a gradual process which reached its climax in the postmodernist period. 'Essentialism' is a form of thinking which denies its construction by mystifying its presuppositions as evidences or essences. It thus belongs to the domain of metaphysics and claims the status of absolute, objective or universal truth. In contrast, '(de)constructivism' is a way of thinking which takes into account that it has been constructed. It claims the status of relative, intersubjective truth in so far as it has not been falsified. It should be noted that the opposition between essentialist and (de)constructivist thinking is not original and can be found throughout the history of ideas. Socrates could be called an essentialist for he asserts that absolute truth exists, whereas the sophists are (de)constructivist since they view truth as relative. According to them, a standpoint is true provided that the rhetoric can convince the hearer of its validity. The discussion between the Nominalists (influenced by Aristotle) and the Realists (followers of Plato) in the Middle Ages also reflect these two opposite forms of thinking.
Umberto Eco presented the ongoing dispute between Nominalists and Realists in his best-seller The Name of the Rose. In her discussion of The Name of the Rose, Elisabeth Dipple remarks that "there can be no doubt that the medieval Nominalists were the ancestors of our relativist world of whirling symbols and constantly realigned models." The Nominalists believed that knowledge could only be gained through models which were based on our experiences (hence the influence of Aristotle). These models were therefore constantly altered according to new experiences. The Realists, on the other hand, asserted that knowledge is based on a pre-existent Truth which belongs to a higher reality such as the Platonic world of forms or the divine Logos of God (in a Christian perspective). This Logos is eternal and transcendental (existing outside our world of empirical experiences). The notion of Logos can still be found in the work of the conservative literary scholar George Steiner, for instance in his essay Real Presences in which he attacks the deconstructivist approach of literature.
A number of evolutions in modern science illustrate this shift from essentialist to (de)constructivist thinking. They all have in common that they reject the existence of absolute truth and take into account that every truth is affected by its context. In semiotics, Derrida expounded a theory of language in which the meaning of a word is not pre-existent as an essence, but is constructed by the context or by its relation to other signs. In literary criticism, postmodernist scholars do no longer look for the essence of a text, but they investigate how the text may receive a myriad of interpretations according to its context. In postmodernist literature, metafiction affirms the fictionality (to have been constructed) of the text by foregrounding its literary code (for instance by means of parody) or by thematising the role of the reader who constructs his or her interpretation of a text.
With respect to the originality of literary postmodernism, I do not want to withhold that in their search for universal or objective truths, modernist artists discovered the impossibility of expressing absolute truths in art. The modernist deconstruction of essentialist systems, however, differs in its intensity from the postmodernist one. According to Brian McHale, modernist works often foreground 'epistemological' questions such as "How can we know the world of which I am part?" and "What am I in it?", while postmodernist literature mainly comments on 'ontological' issues and asks questions like "Which world is this?", "What has to be done?" and "Which of my selves is to do it?". McHale's distinction between an epistemological modernism and an ontological postmodernism may indicate a progressive evolution of (de)constructivist thinking. Whereas modernism started to examine the transparent representation of truth in language and the acquisition of knowledge through language (epistemological issues), postmodernism has given up its belief in an objective world and is now confronted with a variety of subjective worlds or -what McHale calls- a "heterocosm" (hence its ontological interest). In other words, postmodernism has continued a radical version of modernism.
Finally, in science, this new (de)constructivist paradigm was marked by Popper's innovative theory of knowledge in The Logic of scientific discovery and Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach. Popper rejects an essentialist science of certainties and objective truths. In contradistinction, he defines science as a form of problem solving in which each solution is an assumption which may be falsified. In this way, the scientist admits the fictionality of his thinking and does not naively believe that 'his theoretical fictions' automatically grasp an ever-changing reality. The scientist is forced to check whether his or her theoretical models relate to reality. Popper also substituted the scientific demand of objectivity (an essentialist term for it presupposes that reality exists on itself without any relation to the mind of the observer) for the condition of intersubjectivity in science. Intersubjectivity takes into account that reality does not exist on itself, but is perceived according to the presuppositions of the observers. It is therefore a (de)constructivist term, since it relates reality to our perception (it could be called a contextualisation of reality). In his article "Het Putje van Milete", Stefan Hertmans calls every pretended objectivity a form of hidden ideology which unconsciously affects one's viewpoint:
Ideologie wordt in de filosofie wel vaker beschreven als precies het ogenblik waarop je denkt objectief te zijn: daar heeft ze je pas goed te pakken, als je het over 'natuurlijk' en 'evident' begint te hebben.
In this article, Hertmans notes that thinkers are tempted to turn their ideas (constructions) in absolute truths (essences) so that they blind (ideology) themselves for the real complexity of reality. It seems to me that the relation between ideology and objectivity as described by Hertmans, may also explain the substitution of the term "objectivity" for "intersubjectivity". As long as one ideology dominated, everybody had the same view of reality so that subjective reality seemed to be objective. Once different ideologies started to compete with each other, no dominant viewpoint existed anymore so that reality could differ according to the ideology. As a result, the notion of "intersubjectivity" was coined to take into account the subjectivity of our perception.
I assume that the (de)constructivist paradigm is reflected in all aspects of postmodernist culture. Even so, I admit the limitations of any explanation of literary codes through the history of ideas. The shift from an essentialist to a (de)constructivist paradigm may create the ideal conditions for a postmodernist literature which focuses on the way literature is constructed by the writer and by the reader, but it cannot explain the concrete literary forms which express this new paradigm.
Concerning the limited influence of the history of ideas on literary history, I would like to refer at this point to Mario Praz's introduction to The Romantic Agony. In his exposé, Praz comments on Benedetto Croce's explanation of late Romanticism. Croce ascribed the decadent aberrations of late Romanticism (like the cult of corruption) to a metaphysical crisis. The mal du siècle had to be sought in a period of transition in which religious faith had collapsed and the new liberal and philosophical ideas had been only partially digested. As Croce expounded: "This malady [the degeneration of Romanticism] was due not so much to breaking away from the traditional faith, as to the difficulty of really appropriating to oneself and the living of the new faith, which to be lived and put into action, demanded courage and a virile attitude." In Croce's view, only "the robust characters" (clever enough to grasp the changes) and "the simple minds" (stupid enough to be undisturbed by any change) could overcome this transition from an ancient to a new faith without many problems. Yet, when "the feminine, impressionable, sentimental, incoherent, fickle minds" had lost sight of the true God, they made themselves false idols which they deified. As a result, a transvaluation of values took place and a whole range of perversions emerged: "lust and voluptuousness put in place of ideals, cruelty and horror flavoured with sensual pleasure, a taste for incest, sadism, Satanism and other amusements of that kind -altogether monstrous and stupid."
Praz rejects Croce's view of Decadent Romanticism, arguing that, although the history of ideas and art affect each other, both remain autonomous systems with distinctive laws. Like Wilde, in The Decay of Lying, he points out that nature sometimes imitates art. It was art that gave form to this religious crisis, and not the other way around. A religious crisis might account for the intensity of the Decadent period in literature, but the emergence of particular literary manifestations like the cult of Medusean beauty has to be explained through the study of the literary tradition. Likewise, postmodernist art is giving form to the (de)constructivist paradigm and not vice versa. Postmodernist characteristics such as parody and reader involvement can therefore only be fully understood through a study of literary tradition.
In Radical Tragedy, Dollimore defends an anti-essentialist or materialist reading of Jacobean tragedies. He argues that "during that period [the renaissance] the essentialist conception of man was in a vulnerable state of transition being, roughly speaking, between its Christian/metaphysical formulations and the later secular/Enlightenment mutations of these." Furthermore, he points to anti-essentialist thinkers such as Machiavelli, Hobbes and Montaigne. Machiavelli, for instance, demystified the divine origins of political power (the king as appointed by God) by separating politics from morality and a divine prescription. Like these thinkers, Jacobean tragedies started to undermine the concept of a universal human nature and demonstrated that the actual identity of people is rooted in historical and social circumstances instead of a universal human nature. As Dollimore attributed the anti-essentialist tendencies in Jacobean tragedies to a transitional period after the Middle Ages, I hope to reveal that Wilde's anti-essentialist relativism (as reflected in his anti-essentialist concept of the self and in his dandyism) proliferated in a period of transition after the breakdown of Victorian values.
In the following paragraphs, I shall outline Wilde's dandyism and his concept of the self in relation to its historical background. In this way, I want to modify the myth that his dandyism was but a form of commercial self-advertisement. Ellen Moers, for instance, viewed Wilde's dandyism in this way:
These clothes, and the accompanying mannerisms, were neither mask nor embellishment to Wilde's individuality, and they had nothing to say about his social superiority or his "gentlemanliness". They were an expression of his willingness to sell his privacy and let himself be laughed at for the achievement of (as Lord Douglas put it) notoriety before fame. ... If Frank Harris is for once to be believed, Wilde was always ready to discuss his scramble after fame. He would compare himself to the best-selling Pears' soap and enumerate the qualities on which self-advertisement rested. (my italics)
I do not deny that at the beginning of his literary career, Wilde was wearing extravagant clothes for self-advertisement. Yet, his dandyism also took a more serious form in his ideas about self-development as the aim of life. Moreover, Wilde was financially obliged to advertise himself in order to be able to sustain himself through his writings. Like Moers, Goedegebuure remarks that Oscar Wilde was the first dandy who earned a living by his dandyism. Wilde as a young dandy, for instance, lectured on aestheticism in the United States in order to promote Gilbert and Sullivan's satirical operetta Patience which ridiculed the aesthetes. Yet, unlike Moers, Goedegebuure points out that, whereas the dandy Beau Brummell had been protected by the prince of Wales, Wilde was obliged to promote himself, since the aristocratic maecenas had been replaced by the press and a middle class audience. Wilde, consequently, found himself in an impossible position. As a dandy, he was committed to protest against the vulgarity of the middle class values, but it was the same middle class public which he needed to earn a living as a journalist and writer.
According to Hielkema, Wilde's dubious position of an elitist artist in a mass culture is reflected in the two opposite tones of cynicism and idealism which can be found in his writings. On the hand, he amused the middle class audience with his cynical pose and Wildean wit (particularly in his comedies of manners), but on the other hand, he expressed his idealism for a select public in his poetry and essays. Hielkema refers in this context to Gagnier who in Idylls of the marketplace, notes that "[t]his doubleness constituted Wilde's response to the modern bourgeois artist dilemma between private art and the need for a public."
Not only are Wilde's writings usually a mixture of cynicism and idealism, but both tendencies also correlate with two different styles which Richard Aldington distinguished in his work. While Wilde mainly expressed his idealist ideas in an "aesthetic or symbolist style, gorgeous and poetic, full of allusion and reminiscence and jewelled words (the purple patch, as it is so aptly called)", he tried to attract a large audience with a "light, worldly, cynical and paradoxical" style.
To begin my historical explanation of Wilde's dandyism and concept of the self, I would like to mention San Juan's casual remark in his introduction to The Art of Oscar Wilde that the breaking down of Victorian values compelled Oscar Wilde to adopt and to create for himself different masks and roles. As he puts it:
They [Wilde's ironical pose, the shifting of perspectives and the playing up of multiple senses of words] result from the attitude that masks or personae are necessary to the task of embodying a person's philosophy of life in a time when commonly agreed standards of valuation are lacking.
Not only does San Juan (unlike Moers) see Wilde's dandyism as a whim or form of advertisement, but also as a strategy to deal with the crisis of standard conventions which existed at the end of the nineteenth century. He notes that, at the outset of the 1870s and 1880s, scepticism grew, the Victorian moral was under pressure and an economic crisis threatened the social order.
Roland Marx in his discussion of Jack the Ripper's atrocities in 1888 affirms that Victorian society was under pressure. He attributes this growing instability of Victorian society to economic conditions. Jack the Ripper could provoke so much sensation and anxiety because of the general atmosphere of insecurity in Victorian society. People felt so uncertain in the last quarter of the nineteenth century because of the rapid social changes, which followed the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution had undermined the three main corners of Victorian society (namely religion, family and duty) without offering ready-made alternatives. In Marx's view, the stability in Victorian society had not to fear the rise of emancipation movements, but the first economic world crisis which took place from 1873 to 1896. New industrial powers like the USA had emerged with the newest technology and know-how, while the traditional English industry dropped behind. Especially the cheap import of American agricultural products ruined many English farmers who flocked to the new industrial cities. Consequently, unemployment increased and the old social structures were undermined. He concludes that the real degenerates were not social reformers or women's rights activists, but those conservative Victorians who stubbornly refused to adapt themselves to the new economic circumstances:
Curieusement, industriels et commerçants, au lieu de réagir et d'innover, s'enfoncent frileusement dans leurs traditions, font preuve d'un orgueilleux esprit de supériorité, se font battre sur les marchés par plus entreprenants qu'eux-mêmes, s'endorment, au pire moment, dans un esprit rentier. Est-ce le fruit de l'éducation des jeunes bourgeois dans des écoles d'esprit aristocratique. On ne manque pas de théoriciens pour le croire, même si, du commerce de detail à la presse à sensation, de la métallurgie de transformation à la jeune automobile des années 1890, les innovateurs n'ont pas manqué.
When the central governing standards of Victorian society were challenged by the first economic crisis and by emancipation movements like the Women's Rights Movement and social reformers like the Fabians, the avant-garde of artists and intellectuals were forced to realise the bankruptcy of the old values. They were confronted with all kinds of existential questions without having the answers which had before been provided by sound Victorian values. Orthodoxy and the 'natural' laws of society, which most Victorians took for granted, were exposed by artists and thinkers like Wilde and Shaw as outdated ideological constructions. In his fictional autobiography of Oscar Wilde, Peter Ackroyd captures this loss of divine laws, as follows:
I [Oscar Wilde] was reading Balzac then, and I can still recall the chilling interview of the criminal Vautrin with Lucien de Rubempré, when he saves Lucien from an impulsive suicide by instructing him in the invisible laws of society; by persuading Lucien, ..., that he could work those laws to his own benefit. 'There are no longer any laws', he whispers to him with ineffable sweetness of true evil, 'merely conventions: nothing but form.' ... What had before been an instinct with me became a principle. ... Everything seemed to me to be like its own parody - I do not speak of society, for that was its only truly remarkable attribute. But I believed then that almost all the methods and conventions of art and life found their highest expression in parody. I have made that clear in all my work, just as I announced it in my dress and in my behaviour.
Because of the loss of standard answers to the great questions of life, all solutions to the great questions of life became ambiguous. No central ideology provided any longer the right answers, but all kinds of contradictory views coexisted. The contradictory tendencies in the literature of the 1890s, presumably, correlates with this increasing ideological chaos. As San Juan writes about the characteristics of decadent literature:
... we perceive the presence of antithetical features existing side by side: a cult of action and of inaction, diabolism and evangelism, artificiality and naturalism, and so forth. There is, in sort, a massive and complex structure of dispositions, attitudes, and values which defy any simple categorical accounting in the ordinary literary histories.
While one central ideology had before dictated the absolute truth, a variety of doctrines at the end of the nineteenth century made modern truth ambiguous and relative. Because of this ideological confusion, Wilde characterises modern life as "complex and relative". The absence of absolute truth manifests itself in modern art by taking into account the importance of perspective and context. As he observed in De Profundis:
Modern life is complex and relative. Those are its two distinguishing notes. To render the first we require atmosphere with its subtlety of nuances, of suggestion, of strange perspectives: as for the second we require background.
In a similar manner, Wilde remarked in his lecture "The English Renaissance of Art" at the United States:
In the work produced under the romantic spirit it is no longer the permanent, the essential truths of life that are treated of; it is the momentary situation of the one, the momentary aspect of the other that art seeks to render. (my italics)
For Wilde, modern life meant that one faces the absence of essences, i.e. that the outworn absolute truths of society are rejected and personal relative truths are created instead. Like a Romanticist artist (for instance William Blake), he saw the individual consciousness as a creative power for inventing new standards. Our own experiences had to guide us. Aesthetic dandyism offered him the necessary detachment to experiment with new modes of life and to create new experiences and views.
According to Nassaar, Wilde was indebted for his view of modern art to Walter Pater. Pater had interpreted modernity as a new attitude towards life. He believed that humanity had gradually matured and had lost its innocence in this evolution. This maturity involved a recognition of the evil side of human nature. As a result, humanity needed a new art which could express the ambivalence of human nature. Pater, therefore, recognised Leonardo's La Gioconda as the prototype of such modern art for the Mona Lisa seemed to embody all moods of human history:
The presence [Mona Lisa ] that rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. ... this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. ... The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one: and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought of life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.
The beauty of the Mona Lisa does no longer represent a higher truth or a moral message, but this sensuous picture captures human experience in all its shades. The picture mirrors both the good and the evil sides of human nature. Of course, I do not subscribe to Pater's theory about the progressive maturing of the human race. Yet, it seems to me that, each time when a former dominant ideology fails to determine the differences between good and evil in a convincing way, human nature will be perceived as both good and evil in philosophy and art.
Although Wilde, like a modernist writer, wanted to abandon the outworn conventions of society and to create his own value system through personal experiences in life and in art, he differs from modernists like William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and T.S. Eliot by -what Victorian reviewers called- his "flippancy" or "his aesthetic disengagement from life". It seems to me that this "flippancy" is the strategy that he followed to avoid turning his personal ideas into dogmas. In other words, he attempted to elude the dangers of essentialist thinking. This is linked to Wilde's anti-essentialist concept of the self. While modernist writers wanted to discover a universal human nature (essentialist) through their art, Wilde considers human nature to be essentially ambivalent. He is therefore more interested in creating himself different identities or masks which he refuses to take serious. Similarly, he played with all kind of systems without adopting a definitive one.
Wilde shares his resistance against the constraints of any political or religious system with postmodernist writers. This means that like postmodernist authors, he refuses to submit himself to any intellectual, philosophical or religious system, even to his own personal systems. To illustrate the postmodernist view of identity and ideology, I can refer to Stefan Hertmans who cautions the readers against too simplistic definitions of their identity by dogmatic ideologies like nationalism, racism or religious fundamentalism which all claim the authority of absolute truth. In his article "Het geweld van zuiverheid", Hertmans argues:
Maar alleen wanneer ik niet bekommerd ben om het dogmatisch omschrijven van die identiteit, kan ik weerstand bieden aan de verlokkingen om me te laten 'positioneren', dat wil zeggen om me te laten voorschrijven waar ik volgens allerlei manipulaties eigenlijk moet thuishoren.
For Hertmans, a natural identity is an ideological ploy which is used to impose an oppressive way of life on people. He noticed that this idea is particularly explored by commonwealth authors like Salman Rushdie, Stuart Hall, Anil Ramdas and Taslima Nasrin. They are using the theory of deconstruction to define themselves as persons without an imposed identity. Their writings expose the dangers of the strictly defined, "natural" identities which nationalists and fundamentalists are offering to the masses. The awareness that each identity is a cultural construction, is not surprising in their work, for these emigrants were forced to redefine themselves through their contact with another culture. Since they were, thus, forced to create a new identity for themselves, they understand the relativity of cultural identity.
If these authors were destined to construct new identities as an emigrant, Wilde had been socially coerced in creating his own personality not only because of the ideological turmoil at the end of the nineteenth century, but also because of his homosexual inclinations and his Irish background. Since no positive social roles existed for a homosexual, he had to create his own role. Furthermore, Melissa Knox notes with regard to Wilde's iconoclastic attitude towards the English mores that "[a]s an Irishman and especially as the son of a volcanically patriotic mother, he was indoctrinated from birth to be negative to anything British." Even Wilde's middle class origins (a Dublin surgeon home with a non-hereditary title for his father) may explain his viewpoint of an outsider when he entered the aristocratic circles of Victorian society.
In my discussion of Wilde's contribution to homosexual emancipation, I have already pointed out that Wilde refused to confine his gender identity to the narrow constraints of a homosexual identity which society demarcated. A homosexual identity would have closed his development as an individual. Interesting in this respect is a passage in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Wilde described Dorian Gray's personal development:
It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. ... But he never fell in the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night, or for a few hours of a night in which there are no stars and the moon is in travail. (my italics)
The continuous development of identity is preferred to the achievement of a fixed identity. 'Becoming someone' replaces 'being somebody'. As Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist:
It seems to me that with the development of the critical spirit we shall be able to realise, not merely our own lives, but the collective life of the race, and so to make ourselves absolutely modern, in the true meaning of the word modernity. For he to whom the present is the only thing that is present, knows nothing of the age in which he lives. To realise the nineteenth century, one must realise every century that has preceded it and that has contributed to its making. To know anything about oneself, one must know all about others. There must be no mood with which one cannot sympathise, no dead mode of life that one cannot make alive.
In this excerpt, Wilde defined modernity as coming to terms with all sides of one's human nature or "the collective life of the race". Since every identity is determined by its social and historical context, one had to assume all possible roles which have existed in human history in order to understand human nature. Not only was Wilde aware that tradition and conventions of the past partially shape the present, but also that they are changing throughout history. From this relativist cultural standpoint (even before cultural anthropology came into existence as a science), he urged the critic to make use of the history of cultural values in order to recreate his or her own relative personal values. The idea of adopting various roles to discover oneself, can often be found in the work of modernist writers. Take for instance Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) who assumed different personae (called "heteronyms") like Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis or Alvara de Campos. Each of these fictional persons had a different viewpoint and style and represented a part of Pessoa's protean personality.
The ideal of intellectual disinterestedness (called by Max Beerbohm Wilde's "aesthetic disengagement from life") was part of Wilde's project to develop his personality without being caught in essentialist conclusions. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian Gray also makes use thereof in his search for sensations:
... in his search for sensations that would be at once new and delightful, and possess that element of strangeness that is so essential to romance, he would often adopt certain modes of thought that he knew to be really alien to his nature, abandon himself to their subtle influences, and then, having, as it were, caught their colour and satisfied his intellectual curiosity, leave them with that curious indifference that is not incompatible with a real ardour of temperament, and that indeed, according to certain modern psychologists, is often a condition of it.
Like Dorian Gray, Wilde could suddenly abandon systems or theories to which he had passionately adhered. With respect to Wilde's inconsistency, Richard Ellmann observed in his biography that he did not write out of one doctrine, but many contradicting doctrines:
He began by stirring his conscience with Ruskin and his senses with Pater; these worthies gradually passed into more complicated blends of Catholicism, Freemasonry, aestheticism, and various styles of behaviour, all embraced fervently but impermanently. Initially, his letters reveal, he tried to resolve his own contradictions and berated himself for being weak and self-deceiving. But gradually while at Oxford he came to see his contradictions as a source of strength rather than of volatility. ... His paradoxes would be an insistent reminder of what lay behind the accepted or conventional. ... As a result, Wilde writes his works out of a debate between doctrines rather than out of doctrine.
Like an eclectic postmodernist, Wilde did not follow one system, but selected what he could use. He also refused to be enslaved by his own statements and theories since this consistency would arrest the development of his personality. As a result, he often contradicts himself, thus constantly irritating his Victorian reviewers. A notorious example thereof can be found in The Truth of Masks:
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 contradictory is also true. ... The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.
Similarly, Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray even deconstructed his own cherished decadent aestheticism by pointing to its dangers. As I have pointed out in the first part of my dissertation, The Picture of Dorian Gray demonstrates that beauty or art is not just sterile but demonic (or ambiguous) in its moral effects.
Because of Wilde's detachment from his own beliefs, the Victorian literary press accused him of posing, insincerity and a lack of earnestness. Wilde, however, considered insincerity to be a way of examining the possibilities of his personality. Likewise, Dorian Gray argues: "Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities." Wilde believed in the truth of masks or in "truthfully lying". In a world where absolute truths are unmasked as ideological lies, only the mask is sincere by the recognition of its own artificiality.
Wilde's tragedy was that he could never fully detach himself from his masks. Max Beerbohm alluded to this in his short story The Happy Hypocrite that parodies Wilde's obsession with posing. This fairy tale narrates the story of Lord George Hell who transforms into Lord George Heaven after wearing the mask of an angel. According to Beerbohm, the face always changes into the mask that one wears or a person always turns into the role that (s)he plays.
Despite all posing, Wilde's ideal artist and critic had always to be sincere in their devotion to beauty. To be able to enjoy the beauty of art, critics had to abandon their prejudices, as Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist:
The true critic will, indeed, always be sincere in his devotion to the principle of beauty, but he will seek for beauty in every age and in each school, and will never himself to be limited to any settled custom of thought, or stereotyped mode of looking at things.
Wilde in his work used the paradoxical epigram as the strategy par excellence to avoid "any settled custom of thought or stereotyped mode of looking at things". A paradox puts prevailing truisms into perspective by turning them upside down.
In Pen, Poison and Pencil and The Critic as Artist, Wilde also recommended sinning or the violation of rules as a strategy to free the individual from social constraints. In The Critic as Artist, he called sin a condition for progress:
What is termed Sin is an essential element of progress. Without it the world would stagnate, or grow old, or become colourless. By its curiosity Sin increases the experience of the race. Through its intensified individualism it saves us from monotony of type. In its rejection of the current notions about morality, it is one with the highest ethics.
Like the criminal, the artist is opposed to the ordering principles of society, but, while the criminal sins for material profit, the artist-criminal violates social conventions to attain a higher morality.
In sum, Wilde's posing and concept of the self relates to the gradual breakdown of Victorian values at the end of the nineteenth century. Since the materialist values of the middle class could not satisfy him, he had to create his own values and identity. His Irish middle class background and his homosexuality may also have coerced him in detaching himself from the values of a British, class-conscious and homophobic community. While Wilde's disengagement from the conventions of its time reminds one of the rebellion of later modernist writers, he differs from them by his anti-essentialist or (de)constructivist concept of the self. Unlike the modernist artist who tries to discover the essence of human nature through his art, Wilde sees every identity as an artificial construction or a mask.
In her article "The Castrating Gesture in Wilde and the Post-Structuralists", Judith Weissman calls both Wilde and the poststructuralists dangerous utopian revolutionaries whose subversive relativism is threatening the world economy and the procreation of the human race. Moreover, their revolutionary scientific utopianism goes hand in hand with a murderous violence. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian Gray, for instance, murders a father figure like Basil Hallward and Lord Henry's epigrams explode every certainty. In a similar manner, the poststructuralist discourse is aggressive and undermines all our certainties without offering alternatives. In all seriousness, Weissman asserts that every revolutionary is a pathological case who suffers from an Oedipus complex, of which the symptoms are narcissism, fear for castration and rage against patriarchal father figures.
Obviously, I do not agree with Weissman that poststructuralism would be pathological and is proclaiming a new world revolution. The theory of deconstruction is a radical method of analysis rather than a political manifesto. Of course, I myself might be a pathological case, but poststructuralist political action would be a contradictio in ipsis terminis. Poststructuralism aims at putting the authority of former ideologies in perspective, but its own relativism also paralyses any political action in favour of a 'poststructuralist ideology'. Deconstruction does not imply the destruction of ideology, as Weissman claims, but it is a form of radical analysis which makes us conscious of ideological presuppositions.
In his essay "Het geweld van zuiverheid", Stefan Hertmans, for example, complains about the political immobility caused by postmodernist relativism. As a result, postmodernist intellectuals remain politically passive against rising fascism. Likewise, Lord Henry cannot be called a political revolutionary. When he is asked by a politician what he would like to change in England, Lord Henry bluntly replies: "I don't desire to change anything in England except the weather." Lord Henry is not a man of action, but of contemplation.
Interestingly enough, Weissman's wild attack on poststructuralist literary criticism reveals a connection between Wilde's relativism and that of poststructuralists like Roland Barthes and Derrida. Yet, whereas the theoretical basis for postmodernist relativism is a new theory of semiotics (Derrida's De la Grammatologie), Wilde's concept of beauty indicates his relativism. Beauty is the key term which he is always avoiding to define precisely in his critical writings. To define would be to limit, as Lord Henry notes in The Picture of Dorian Gray. As a fervent disciple of Walter Pater, Wilde thinks that beauty is always a concrete form which may never be reduced to an abstract formula. As Pater puts it in The Renaissance:
Beauty, like all other qualities presented to human experience, is relative; and the definition of it becomes unmeaning and useless in proportion to its abstractness. To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics.
Each new manifestation of beauty evokes its own definition or concept of beauty. Applying the terms of modern semiotics, each concretisation of beauty behaves like a Derridalike signifier which always escapes a definite signified or a determinate definition of beauty. According to Wilde, the meaning which is given to a beautiful form is determined by one's moods or the context:
Beauty has as many meanings as man has moods. Beauty is the symbol of symbols. Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing.
Not an essential signified, but the reader constructs the meaning of the work of art. As a result, a literary work does not only reflect life and its author, but also the reader. Wilde's and other aesthetes intuitive conception of the reader's role anticipated the twentieth century reception theories of Hans-Robert Jauand Wolfgang Iser.
According to Ian Small, the novelty of Pater's and Wilde's literary criticism does not lie in its content, but in its method of subversion. Pater and Wilde do not try to replace the authority of dominant figures like Matthew Arnold. Instead, like the deconstructivist, they dismantle the grounds upon which any authority may be established. The critical writings of, for example, Wilde thwarts the reader's expectation to find qualities such as consistency, originality and authority, which are precisely the very categories of thought upon which every textual authority depends. Small has tried to characterise the pre-avant-garde movements of the 1890s by this method of subversion which he has called "literary radicalism".
Wilde's deconstruction of nineteenth century traditional realism may illustrate his strategy of subversion. In The Decay of Lying, Wilde undermines the credibility of realism by reversing the relationship between life and art. In The Decay of Lying, he declares that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. The remarkable increase in London fog during the last ten years was, according to Wilde, entirely due to impressionist paintings. Since art offers new ways of perception, it can disclose new aspects of reality. As Wilde elaborates in The Decay of Lying:
For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. 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.
Once Wilde has pointed out that the relationship between art and life is not the hierarchical order of 'life above art' as postulated by realism, the authority of realism loses the stability of meaning upon which it is based.
As opposed to a traditional critic like Matthew Arnold who takes textual authority for granted, Wilde and Pater expose the rhetorical devices whereby textual authority maintains itself. By claiming authority for a text, one actually presupposes first that a text can be transmitted without any problems, secondly that the intended message of the author corresponds with the reader's interpretation of the text and, finally, that the audience is homogeneous.
Each of these assumptions are under attack by the literary radicalists. Ian Small finds the issue of textual transmission modified in Pater's writings. Pater uses fictional texts as factual records and reads historical texts as fiction. He, thus, denies that the nature of a text (in this example, fictional - historical) is fixed when transmitted. Secondly, Wilde calls into question that the meaning of a text coincides with the author's intentions. For him the text does not reflect the author, but mirrors the reader. In The Critic as Artist, he urges the critic not to content himself with one interpretation of a work of art. No absolute meaning can be imposed on a text:
You see, then, how it is that the aesthetic critic rejects those obvious modes of art that have but one message to deliver, and having delivered it becomes dumb and sterile, and seeks rather for such modes as suggest reverie and mood, and by their imaginative beauty make all interpretations true and no interpretation final.
A consequence of the denial that a text can have only one true interpretation is the concomitant denial of the possibility of consensus. Wilde once quipped about this consensus: "To disagree with three-fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first elements of sanity, one of the deepest consolations in all moments of spiritual doubt."
Wilde's emphasis that the reader participates in the creation of the literary work, also freed him more of censorship. In the previous chapter, I have pointed out that he restricts his godlike omniscience as a narrator in The Picture of Dorian Gray in order to invite the reader to construct his or her own meaning. By this narrative strategy, Wilde is able to suggest certain Victorian vices like homosexuality without being held responsible for them. He wishes to coerce the readers in projecting their own sins in Dorian Gray's unmentioned vice and not to look for the sins of the writer.
Finally, Wilde rejects the existence of a homogeneous audience and discriminates between his audiences. The Picture of Dorian Gray seems to contain various coded references to a homosexual subculture. To exemplify this, one might refer to the passage where Dorian Gray thinks about the "noble and intellectual love" which Basil bore him:
The love that he bore him -for it was really love- had nothing in it that was not noble and intellectual. It was not that mere physical admiration of beauty that is born of the senses, and that dies when the senses tire. It was such love as Michelangelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself. Yes, Basil could have saved him.
Names like Winckelmann and Michelangelo must have evoked a homosexual or at least a homosocial milieu to the initiated.
The variety of codes which Wilde made use of in The Picture of Dorian Gray explain why one reviewer referred to the homosexual scandal of perverted telegraph boys, while some clergymen praised Oscar Wilde in their sermons for having written a laudable parable about the corruption of an innocent youth. As there is no longer a homogeneous audience, we learn that textual authority only applies to a small élite of initiated and can, therefore, not claim universality.
'I do not understand you,' said Sir Thomas,
growing rather red.
'I do Lord Henry,' murmured Mr. Erskine, with a smile.
'Paradoxes are all very well in their way . . .' rejoined the Baronet.
'Was that a paradox?' asked Mr. Erskine. 'I did not think so. Perhaps it was. Well, the way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test Reality we must see it on the tight-rope. When the Verities become acrobats we can judge them.'
The Picture of Dorian Gray, chapter 3, p. 42
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton delights in transforming trite truisms into outrageous paradoxes by reversing the presuppositions on which they are based. Though Wotton never openly attacks social conventions, he exposes the hypocrisy of Victorian values by turning them upside down. Like Sir Thomas in the cited passage, many Victorian critics could not handle Wilde's paradoxical style and iconoclastic thinking. They often disparaged Wilde's style of "showy paradoxes" as a boring, mechanical trick, as this anonymous critic did in the following excerpt:
... he spoils his style by making it mechanical. To call Mr. Wilde's favourite rhetorical figure by the name of paradox is really too complimentary; he carries the joke too far, and makes paradox ridiculous. ... His method is this: he takes some well-established truth, something in which the wisdom of centuries and the wit of the greatest men have concurred, and asserts the contrary; then he whittles his assertion down, and when at his best arrives at the same point which might have been reached by starting at the other end.
I would like to see Wilde's paradoxes not as a cheap rhetorical figure for varnishing his writings, but as an evidence of his relativist way of thinking. As Ernest Newman observed with regard to Wilde's epigrams, the writing of a paradox could be described as "seeing round corners". A paradox compliments a truth with its opposite. In this way, paradoxes expose the one-sidedness of each prevailing truth. The light-heartedness of Wilde's paradoxes conceal a strategy of inversion which succeeds in revealing the relativity of every so-called 'universal' or 'natural' truth. Indeed, Wilde's seemingly frivolous, nonsensical inversions of hackneyed clichés undermine the 'natural' truths of Victorian values by disclosing their ideological bias. However, it should be noted that he rejected absolute truths only with respect to the interpretation of works of art and moral conventions, but did not give up his belief in the objective truths of science.
Wilde's method of inversion resembles Derrida's strategy of deconstruction. Jacques Derrida invented the term deconstruction as a neologism which puns on destruction and construction. By exposing every metaphysical truth as a ideological construction (by revealing its hidden presumptions), deconstruction destroys the foundation of any transcendental truth. In On Deconstruction, Jonathan Culler gives Nietzsche's radical analysis of the concept 'causality' as an example of Derrida's strategy of deconstruction. Traditionally, it is taken for granted that the cause produces the effect. The concept of causality is based on this fixed sequence of cause and effect. The cause dominates its effect, for the origin of every effect is a cause. Yet, in The Will to Power, Nietzsche reverses this hierarchical relation between cause and effect. According to him, the effect is first experienced, for instance pain, and then one looks for an explanation, for example a pin. In this way, the effect, paradoxically, precedes the cause in time and becomes itself a cause. The chain of cause and effect, thus, loses its starting point, since Nietzsche's analysis turns the cause in an non-originary effect. By reversing the relation between cause and effect, he showed that causality is not an objective concept, but is determined by our perception of reality.
In Practising Postmodernism/Reading Modernism, Patricia Waugh describes deconstruction as "a set of strategies whose operations expose and subvert the unarticulated presuppositions of metaphysical thought which, in remaining unexposed, maintain dominance within Western culture." She sums up the following techniques of deconstruction:
... reversal of binary oppositions which appear equal but where one term has a negative or secondary relation to the first; displacement, which renders the first term dependent on the second; parody, which subverts the myth of pure origin; forms of repetition with difference, which have a similar effect; and the demonstration that truth is always a metaphor.
As I have suggested in my discussion of literary radicalism, Wilde's method of subversion largely corresponds with the first technique in which the terms of a binary opposition are reversed.
In his article "Different desires: subjectivity and transgression in Wilde and Gide", Jonathan Dollimore contrasts Wilde's method of inversion in relation to the homosexual emancipation with André Gide's rebellion against the (hetero)sexual prejudices of his time. Gide diverges from Wilde by his view of homosexuality as natural and authentic. Unlike Wilde, he attempts to legitimate homosexual desire in an essentialist way by replacing the 'natural' heterosexual norm by a 'natural' homosexual standard. In Corydon, he, for instance, insisted that his homosexuality is intrinsically natural and "that heterosexuality prevails merely because of convention". Wilde, on the other hand, sees same-sex passion as unnatural and he rejects every form of natural behaviour, sincerity and authenticity as posing. Wilde's paradoxes can be called anti-essentialist and anti-humanist as they undermine the notion of a universal human nature which would ground morality. Instead, every 'natural' identity is revealed as a mask or ideological construction. In this way, an authentic heterosexual and homosexual identity are reduced to equal ideological lies.
Although Wilde's paradoxes seem arbitrary at first sight, they all disrupt the importance of depth in favour of surface. Like a deconstructivist, Wilde appropriates the binary terms of the dominant culture, but he reverses the hierarchy between the superior (content = depth) and inferior term (form = surface). I have borrowed the following scheme of foils from Dollimore and have added a number of oppositions to it:
In Wilde's paradoxes, the left term turns up as the superior term, while an essentialist approach to life prefers the right notions. From an essentialist view of the world, human life (form) reflects a universal truth (content) which transcends history so that content (a divine order) rules over form. Dollimore calls this "the depth model of life". From Wilde's (de)constructivist perspective, life (form) does not refer to a transcendental truth, but every truth is rooted in its historical and social context and turns out to be formal.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, form or surface is systematically celebrated above content and depth. Dorian is, for instance, not attracted by the content of Lord Henry's panegyric of youth but by his musical voice. To illustrate the importance of form I would like to refer to the next extract in which the effect of Wotton's words on Dorian is described in terms of music:
Music had stirred him like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terribly they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything as real as words?
Furthermore, Dorian Gray later explains to Basil Hallward that "[i]t is simply expression, as Harry says, that gives reality to things." While an essentialist thinker believes that a universal order gives meaning to the chaos of reality, Dorian Gray, like a poststructuralist, sees truth as merely the rhetorical effect of words.
To conclude, I shall give examples of aphorisms in The Picture of Dorian Gray which correspond with Dollimore's pairs of inverted oppositions:
surface or beauty/depth or morality: "I admit that I think that it is better to be beautiful than to be good. But on the other hand no one is more ready than I am to acknowledge that is better to be good than to be ugly."
persona or role/ essential self: "Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know." and "I love acting. It is so much more real than life."
insincerity/sincerity: "Now, the value of an idea has nothing to do whatsoever with the sincerity of the man who expresses it. Indeed, the probabilities are that the more insincere the man is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be coloured by either his wants, his desires or his prejudices."
facetious/serious: "Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world's original sin. If the caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been different."
Obviously, Wilde also wrote epigrams which do not fit in Dollimore's scheme of foils. Witty phrases such as "My dear fellow, she tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant [saloon]." or "Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners." merely attest to Wilde's joy in punning on words.
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The Picture of Dorian Gray, chapter 3, p. 41.