In this chapter, I am comparing Oscar Wilde's decadent aestheticism with the postmodernist theory of literature. Since postmodernism has many currents, I must specify that I have chosen to confront Wilde's aestheticism in particular with the American counterculture movement of the 1960s, as expressed in the essays by Susan Sontag, and with the general characterisation of postmodernist writings by Linda Hutcheon.
From the outset, I would like to stress that my aim is not to celebrate 'Saint Oscar' as the prophet of postmodernism. Postmodernism is indebted nothing to his writings and insights. By pointing out certain parallels between postmodernism and his poetics I want to show that 'our' trendy postmodernism is less revolutionary than it often presents itself, and that Wilde's writings and ideas are not as extravagant and short-lived as most critics before the 1960s thought them to be.
Literary scholars like Mario Praz have often disparaged Wilde's literary achievements because of his notorious life, dandyism and mannerisms. In an essay of 1925, Praz bluntly called Wilde a second-rate imitator of Lord Byron and charged him with plagiarism, a dated style and a lack of self-respect. It cannot be denied that Dorian Gray's fascination with the corruption of his soul, as revealed by his portrait, reminds one of Lord Byron's perverse pleasure in destruction, which Praz analyses in The Romantic Agony. Yet, Wilde does not just imitate Lord Byron; he gives this theme a decadent flavour. While Lord Byron wrote in a letter to Miss Milbanke on September the 16th, 1813: "The great object of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even though in pain.", Wilde wrote in De Profundis that his desire to experience everything in life except pain and suffering (unlike Lord Byron) had been his main mistake:
... that I wanted to eat the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world, and that I was going out into the world with that passion in my soul. ... My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sungilt side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.
Similarly, Dorian Gray's hedonism was doomed because of his denial of the transitoriness of youth and beauty. As Wilde himself pathetically observed in De Profundis: "Of course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my art. ... a great deal of it is hidden away in the note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray."
As a matter of fact, in The Romantic Agony, Praz can hardly hide his prejudices against Wilde. In his brief discussion of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Praz snaps that "[i]t is rather surprising that a critic as serious as Charles du Bos should announce that Wilde's work ‘n'a jamais reçu le traitement qu'elle mérite: en ce qui concerne The Picture of Dorian Gray, j'estime que l'on a toujours témoigné d'une grande injustice’." In his analysis, Praz condemns the abundance of decorative ornamentation as a "lack of seriousness":
... but he [Wilde] is capable of introducing, right into the midst of a scene which he wishes to make horrifying, an opium-tainted cigarette, a pair of lemon-yellow gloves, ..., which brings the whole edifice to the ground by revealing the fact that the author's real interest is in the decorative. Thus he speaks of events which ‘crept with silent blood-stained feet into his brain’, of death, whose ‘monstrous wings seem to wheel in the leaden air around me’....I must not be accused of indulging in the aesthetic analysis from which I agreed to refrain: these inopportune decorative images are proof of a lack of seriousness in Wilde's conscience and of the superficiality of his hedonism, and show him to be greedy and capricious as an irresponsible child. (my italics)
I agree with Praz that The Picture of Dorian Gray is fraught with mannerisms and decorative elements, but this was characteristic of Decadent art as a whole. It should be noted that Praz himself attributed this same feature of "redundant decoration" in Gustave Moreau's paintings to a sound principle of "Necessity of Richness" in Decadent art. Yet, in Wilde's case, he preferred to ascribe the vice to "a lack of seriousness". Praz (like many other scholars before the 1960s) is clearly biased against Wilde, because of his posing and his aesthetic disengagement from life. No difference is made between the author as a persona practica and as a persona poetica. This bias manifests itself when he makes the following biographical comment, immediately after he decried Wilde's literary capacities:
He accepted even scandal not unwillingly (it has been pointed out that he might easily have left England between the first and the second trial), not so much because of the fascination of disaster -though that undoubtedly contributed- but because of the tragic completeness which it conferred upon his career -for an objective and decorative, rather than a subjective, reason.
As I have pointed out in the first part of my dissertation when dealing with the reception of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde's literary fame suffered a lot from the author's reputation as a poseur. In the previous part, I have argued that from a postmodernist viewpoint, Wilde's inconsistency and posing stood for more than a flaw in his personality as Praz and other critics believed. Likewise, I intend to show in the following pages that Wilde's decadent aestheticism in relation to postmodernism turns out to be more than the decadent aftermath of Romanticism.
Even so, I must insist that Oscar Wilde is, by no means, a postmodernist writer. Such an anachronism cannot be maintained. He cannot even be called a modernist in his writings. I firmly agree with Christopher Nassaar that Wilde's fiction shares more formal elements with Romanticists like John Keats or a pre-Romanticist like William Blake than with twentieth-century modernist authors. In the same manner, in The Romantic Agony, Mario Praz treated fin-de-siècle literature as the final phase of Romanticism. He pointed out a continuity of pathological themes like 'Medusean' beauty ('Medusean' denotes a kind of beauty which is tainted with pain, corruption and death) or the Fatal Woman (cf. Keats's Belle Dame sans Merci) from early to late or Decadent Romanticism.
Dorian Gray particularly resembles Lord Byron's creation of the "Fatal Man" (like Don Juan and Manfred) who destroys himself and the unlucky women who come into his orbit. Wilde's fascination with sin can also be traced down to Lord Byron's satanic "bonheur dans le crime". Yet, Wilde, the Decadent aesthete, remained a man of contemplation like Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray, whereas Lord Byron, the fiery Romanticist, was a man of action like his literary creation of the Byronic hero.
Although Wilde as a writer definitely belongs to the nineteenth century, I have pointed out in the previous part of my thesis that his relativist views of for instance morality, the self, the truth of masks and paradoxes sound dangerously familiar to contemporary readers. Thomas Mann, for example, grudgingly conceded that Wilde's paradoxes can harldly be told apart from Nietzsche's epigrams, who largely influenced twentieth century philosophy. Mann regarded aestheticism as "the first manifestation of the European mind's rebellion against the whole morality of the bourgeois age." Like Nietzsche, Wilde prefers moral ambivalence to the certainty of moral conventions in his writings. In part two, I have demonstrated that Wilde's epigrams exposed the so-called natural moral values of Victorian society as ideological constructions and empty mannerisms. Like Nietzsche's philosophy, his work brings about a transvaluation of values. Wilde changes negative terms like sin and insincerity into positive notions for individual development.
Although Wilde's relativist viewpoint is mostly derived from his classical studies, whereas a new semiotics (Jacques Derrida's De la Grammatologie) in the twentieth century establishes the theoretical basis for the relativism in postmodernist writings, he frequently arrives at the same conclusions. Besides a profound relativism in his thinking, I hope to reveal in this part the literary strategies which Wilde and postmodernists have in common, such as anti-realism, the creative role of both the writer and reader, the birth of the artist-critic and the use of parody.
Postmodernist literature distinguishes itself by the explicit awareness of its own fictionality, its recognition of the reader as a participant in the creation of the literary work and a dialogue with the literary tradition. An important new genre which the postmodernist poetics foregrounds, is metafiction which embodies these three characteristics.
In her introduction to Narcissistic Narrative, Linda Hutcheon explains the paradox of metafiction for the reader and the text, as follows:
... while he reads, the reader lives in a world which he is forced to acknowledge as fictional. However paradoxically the text also demands that he participate, that he engage himself intellectually, imaginatively, and affectively in its co-creation. ... The text's own paradox is that it is both narcistically self-reflexive and yet focused outward, oriented toward the reader.
On the one hand, metafiction demands the reader to admit the artifice of what (s)he is reading, but, on the other hand, the reader is urged to respond to the literary work in an intellectual and affective way with the intensity into which (s)he would react to an event in normal life. Hence, the responses to a work of art are not artificial, but belong to the reader's life experiences.
Unlike those critics who equal postmodernist metafiction with an exhaustion of the novel genre, Hutcheon contends that contemporary narcissistic narratives belong to a literary tradition which is as old as literature itself. Literature was narcissistic (i.e. referring to its form) from the outset. As in poetry, the form of the novel is foregrounded as part of its message. Metafiction has merely expanded the self-awareness of the novel to the role of the reader in the literary process. It is only the imagination of the reader which can bring the text to life. Cervantes's Don Quijote and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy testify to this original narcissism of the novel. Hutcheon wishes to consider traditional realism, which predicates that fiction refers to reality and not to its artistic form, not as the norm but as an aberration in literary history.
In his Poetics, Aristotle already linked the instinct to imitate reality (mimesis) to an equally strong impulse toward ordering (part of diegesis or narrative process). Artistic creation does not restrict itself to copying elements of reality, but it involves the harmonisation of these parts into an "organic" whole. The "reality" to which literature refers, has always been fictional since it is patterned in a way that is hardly experienced in real life. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, traditional realist writers denied the role of diegesis in mimesis. They presumed that fiction directly reflects reality and ignored the author's role in the creation of a fictional, harmonious world. In contrast, metafiction recognises the importance of the narrative process or diegesis. What is new in postmodernist metafiction, is that it also forces the readers to acknowledge their roles in the creation of the literary work.
Wilde's critical writings too reject realism by stressing the creative roles of the writer and the reader. In The Decay of Lying Wilde recognised the creative role of the artist. He undermined traditional realism when defining art as a special form of "lying". The concept of the lie implies that the artist does not merely imitate the world (presupposition of realism), but reconstructs a new reality through language (cf. Aristotle's diegesis) with the purpose of "to charm, to delight, to give pleasure". In contrast to nineteenth-century realism, Wilde's aestheticism postulates the autonomy of art. Art does no longer imitate reality or the author's experiences, but solely refers to itself.
In The Decay of Lying, Wilde even argued that life imitates art far more than vice versa, since art changes one's perception of the world and history. He ascribed the remarkable increase of fog in London not to changing weather conditions, but entirely to impressionist paintings. As he declares in this excerpt of The Decay of Lying:
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.
Like the Russian Formalists (for instance Shklovsky), Wilde believes that art offers a fresh outlook on reality.
Apart from the role of the writer, Wilde was also aware of the creative roles of the reader and the critic. He insisted that art does not reflect reality or its author (presuppositions of realism), but mirrors the reader or the critic who interprets the work of art. One of the maxims in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray states: "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors." Since art has no existence in itself, it can express nothing but itself. It is only through the imagination and interpretation of the reader that art is made alive. As a result, a work of art may have different interpretations according to the reader's "moods" (an old-fashioned predecessor of the contemporary context) and every interpretation remains relative and temporary. In The Critic as Artist, Wilde even holds that the reader may find meanings in the text which the writer has never intended:
... for the meaning of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it as it was in his soul who wrought it. Nay, it is rather the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and makes it marvellous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives, and a symbol of what we pray for, or perhaps of what, having prayed for, we fear that we may receive. ... For when the work is finished it has, as it were, an independent life of its own, and may deliver a message far other than that which was put into its lips to say. (my italics)
Both the beholder "who looks at it" and the artist "who wrought it" give birth to the work of art. This view on art undermines the presupposition of traditional realism that the reader's interpretation of the text necessarily corresponds with the moral message or truth which the author wanted to deliver. Wilde, the novelist, deliberately played with different codes and vague allusions about Dorian's sins in The Picture of Dorian Gray in order to invite the readers to interpret the novel (for instance Dorian's sins) in their way.
Like Wilde, postmodernist metafiction challenges the nineteenth-century concepts of "realism", since it acknowledges the interactivity between the reader and the text by thematising the reader's involvement in fiction itself. Hutcheon calls the theoretical basis of traditional realism "a mimesis of product". Traditional realism believes that words in fiction refer to a recognisable world outside literature:
The reader is required to identify the products being imitated -characters, actions, settings- and recognise their similarity to those in empirical reality, in order to validate their literary worth. Since no codes, no conventions for this procedure are acknowledged, the act of reading is seen in passive terms.
Metafiction asserts that fiction refers not only to the outside world but also to a fictional world which the readers construct in their imagination. It uncovers its literary conventions and disrupts the literary codes, so that the reader must accept the responsibility for the act of decoding. In the realist view of literature, the reader consumes novels as ready-made products. In metafiction, the reader becomes a collaborator in the literary process and the act of reading resembles the creative process of the author. Therefore, Hutcheon would like to postulate a "mimesis of process" for metafiction as opposed to a "mimesis of product" for traditional realist fiction.
In his introduction to a selection of essays about metafiction, Mark Currie notices that metafiction stands for more than fiction which is conscious of its form. When metafiction comments on its own literary conventions, it does not only refer to itself, but inevitably, also discusses a whole literary tradition in which these literary conventions are used. As Mark Currie notes:
There is also something about postmodern fiction, the deep involvement with its own past, the constant dialogue with its own conventions, which projects any self-analysis backwards in time. Novels which reflect upon themselves in the postmodern age act in a sense as commentaries on their antecedents.
Since metafiction starts to place itself within a literary tradition and examines its own literary conventions, it seems as if the author is taking over the functions of the critic. Consequently, the border between fiction and literary criticism is dissolving. The artist annexes the functions of the critic. Currie can, therefore, redefine metafiction as "... writing which places itself on the border between fiction and criticism, and which takes that border as its subject."
The confusion between fiction and criticism increases when certain critics admit that the language of literary criticism does not escape fictional elements, and metafiction explicitly treats philosophical issues such as the relationship between language and the world or between imagination and reality. Most writers are, furthermore, often academics, like for instance Umberto Eco, John Gardner, David Lodge and John Barth. In the Dutch literature the same trend can be found with writers like Stefan Hertmans, Kristien Hemmerechts, Erik Spinoy, etc.
While postmodernist fiction takes over the function from literary criticism, Oscar Wilde turns the critic into an artist (in his essay The Critic as Artist) and ranks him even higher than the artist. The artist needs a creative faculty, whereas the critic combines a creative faculty with a gift for contemplation of works of art. Nowadays, some critics also acknowledge the creative side of literary criticism. In The World, the Text and the Critic, Edward W. Said, for instance, points out that "critics create not only the values by which art is judged and understood, but they embody in writing those processes and actual conditions in the present by means of which art and writing bear significance." This means that Said agrees with Wilde that literary critics create their own values to evaluate a literary work and that they respond to a literary work in the same medium as the novelist used. Like Wilde, he urges the critic to reject common interpretations and to be inventive by "exposing things that otherwise lie hidden beneath piety, heedlessness, or routine."
According to Wilde, the critic must not see the work of art "as it really is" - as Matthew Arnold recommended - or "as it really is in the impressions of the critic" (Walter Pater), but "as it is really not." An interpretation does not reflect the work of art, but the spectator or the critic. The highest form of criticism is, therefore, "the record of one's own soul" and a form of autobiography. As Wilde argues in The Critic as Artist:
That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one's own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague. It is the only civilised form of autobiography, as it deals not with the events, but with the thoughts of one's life; not with life's physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.
If this definition of art criticism would be applied to contemporary Dutch literature, the journals by Leonard Nolens and Stefan Hertmans's collection of poems Muziek voor de Overtocht could be regarded as literary criticism. Leonard Nolens's journals fulfil the requirements of Wilde's definition of "civilised autobiography". His journals do not register the daily events of his family life, but mainly his personal reactions to literary works. Like Wilde, he believes in the power of his personality to reproduce these works of art in an original way. As he writes in Stukken van mensen:
Alles is gezegd? Dat neemt niet weg dat ik dit alles moet overdenken en dat het voor mezelf - en eventueel voor een ander - belangrijk kan zijn dat ik het ben die alles opnieuw zeg. Op die manier word ik de anderen die mij alles hebben voorgezegd.
Finally, Stefan Hertmans in Muziek voor de Overtocht shapes his own portrait of an artist by expressing his views of the lives and works of five artists in poetry. Both Hertmans and Nolens treat art as a starting point for a new creation and, in doing so, are criticising other works.
In a similar manner, art criticism and fiction could not easily be told apart in the nineteenth century. J.-K. Huysmans' À Rebours (1884) often resembles more an essay on decadent art than a novel. In his search for sensations, Des Esseintes discusses the poetry of, for example, Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Baudelaire, etc. Likewise, the subjective art criticism by Walter Pater (1834 - 1894) was so lyrical that W.B. Yeats could print Pater's description of the Mona Lisa (divided in lines) as the first modern poem in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse.
Wilde predicted an increasing influence for literary criticism: "It is to criticism that the future belongs. ... If creation is to last at all, it can only do so on the condition of becoming far more critical than it is at present." He believed that realism would exhaust its subject matter. Nowadays, some critics interpret metafiction as a sign of the exhaustion of the novel. Some even expect that metafiction will destroy the novel by its narcissistic fixation on itself. In my previous treatment of anti-realism in postmodernist fiction and Wilde's work, I have already mentioned Hutcheon's opposite view in Narcissistic Narrative. According to her, literature has always been narcissistic or referring to its own form. Even Aristotle admitted in his Poetics that art does not only reflect the world (mimesis), but that the artist gives to his representation of the reality an artistic, harmonious form (diegesis).
In Hutcheon's view, postmodernist fiction does not reflect itself in a narcissistic way, but it acknowledges the creative role of the reader and the literary tradition. It is consciously recycling past literary traditions by employing techniques like pastiche and parody. For example, John Fowles revitalises in The French Lieutenant's Woman the outdated literary conventions of the Victorian novel so that he can disrupt the expectations of the reader. In this way, readers are made aware of their roles in the creation of the literary work.
It should be noted that Oscar Wilde himself gave his most important critical writings a fictional form. The Critic as Artist or The Decay of Lying are not written as dry academic essays, but as a dialogue between two friends with a lot of witticisms. As San Juan points out, Wilde uses the dialogue so that he can illuminate the complexity of a given subject from as many sides as possible. The best example is Wilde's The Portrait of Mr. W.H. in which he elaborates his theory about the identity of 'Mr. W.H.' to whom Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets. The other way around, Wilde's fiction is not free from poetical declarations. When he published The Picture of Dorian Gray in book format, Wilde added a Preface of epigrams, defending his aestheticism against hostile reviews.
By using frequently quotation and pastiche in their writings, postmodernist authors often indicate that every text is embedded in other texts. This awareness is reflected in the emergence of the term intertextuality in contemporary literary criticism. Yet, this does not mean that every writer is condemned to obey silently the established literary standards. Indeed, parody allows writers on the one hand to subvert the dominant literary tradition, but on the other hand to negotiate their own place in literature. In Narcissistic Narrative, Linda Hutcheon relates the use of parody in postmodernist metafiction to the Russian formalist concept of parody, which she explains as follows:
Parody develops [from a Russian Formalist viewpoint] out of the realisation of the literary inadequacies of a certain convention. Not merely an unmasking of a non-functioning system, it is also a necessary and creative process by which new forms appear to revitalise the tradition and open up new possibilities to the artist. Parodic art both is a deviation from the norm and includes that norm within itself as backgrounded material.
According to Russian Formalists, parody unveils to the readers the trite use of literary conventions and clichés which are otherwise taken for granted through over-familiarisation. Not only do parodic texts criticise literary traditions, but they also produce a new synthesis of literary conventions by rewriting the canonical texts.
Obviously, parody is not a literary strategy which is restricted to postmodernist texts. Take for instance Cervantes's famous Don Quijote, which parodies the chivalric romance, and Henry Fielding's Shamela, which attacks the middle class morality of Samuel Richardson's Pamela or Virtue Rewarded. Yet, the postmodernist era distinguishes itself from other literary periods by an intense exploration of parody. In the following paragraphs, I shall point out how Wilde uses parody to transform the prevailing literary norms of his age according to his own demands. Contrary to postmodernist authors like John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman, whose parody reflects on itself (through a self-conscious I-narrator in the text), Wilde's parody in The Picture of Dorian Gray is not overt and self-conscious, but covert. Furthermore, I shall show that Wilde does not parody a particular novel, but a whole literary tradition.
In Into the Demon Universe, Nassaar assumes that each main character in The Picture of Dorian Gray may stand for an art movement. Although some of his allegorical interpretations seem rather far-fetched, the relationship which he notices between the Vane family and Victorian melodrama cannot be questioned. When James Vane, for instance, swears that he is going to kill Dorian Gray, if he ever does his sister any wrong, Sibyl replies: "Oh, don't be so serious, Jim. You are like one of the heroes of those silly melodramas mother used to be so fond of acting in." Her reaction serves not only to show that the Vanes behave in a very melodramatic way, but also that Sibyl's mother used to act in such theatre productions.
With regard to the surroundings of the Vane family, Walter Pater saw a contradiction between this "intrusion of real life and its sordid aspects" in the Vane episode of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Wilde's aestheticism, as proclaimed in his Intentions. He points to "the low theatre, the pleasures and grieves, the faces of some very unrefined people" which all relate to the Vane family. To support Pater, I quote the following naturalistic excerpt:
She [Sibyl's mother] grumbled at his unpunctuality, as he [James Vane] entered. He made no answer, but sat down to his meagre meal. The flies buzzed round the table, and crawled over the stained cloth. Through the rumble of omnibuses, and the clatter of street-cabs, he could hear the droning voice devouring each minute that was left to him.
Yet, unlike Nassaar or Pater, I would like to consider the Vane episode in The Picture of Dorian Gray not as an allegory or an intrusion of vulgar reality, but as a clever parody in which Wilde ridicules all realist and moralising art. It should be noted that Pater himself is aware that, though "[t]he interlude of Jim Vane, his half-sullen but wholly faithful care for sister's honour, is ... marked by a homely but real pathos", the novel is, however, preaching "anything but a homely philosophy of life for the middle-class".
Like a (post)modernist writer, Wilde is recycling outdated literary codes in The Picture of Dorian Gray (such as Victorian melodrama) to adapt them to his own purpose. Victorian melodrama embodied a view of art and life which Wilde denounced. It was the prototype of Victorian art which claimed to reflect reality and to educate its audience with plain truths. The moral message of each play was that, as long as the hero stuck to the right principles, even in harsh circumstances, God or Divine Providence would recompense him and punish the wicked. Sibyl Vane believes in such a view of the world. This is revealed when she dreams aloud about the future adventures of her brother James, who is leaving her to make his fortune as a sailor:
Yes, there were delightful things in store for him. But he must be very good, and not lose his tempter, or spend his money foolishly. ... He must be sure, also, to write to her by every mail, and to say his prayers each night before he went to sleep. God was very good, and would watch over him. She would pray for him, too, and in a few years he would come back quite rich and happy.
Wilde exposes the shallowness of the traditional view of art and the ideology that it stood for, by transferring the characters of Victorian melodrama to a hostile, naturalistic context. It seems as if Wilde had plucked the Vane family straight out of an old-fashioned piece of melodrama, and dropped them in the middle of one of Shaw's unpleasant plays. When James Vane, for instance, takes leave from his mother to sail to Australia, this young idealist learns that she had never married his father and belongs to the class of fallen women. Indeed, Shaw could have used this passage in The Picture of Dorian Gray in one of his problem plays.
While Victorian melodrama pretended to mirror reality in a sincere way, Wilde points to the theatricality of the Vane family and, as a result, to the artificiality of the middle class values that they stand for. Sibyl's mother, for instance, embraces her daughter "with one of those false theatrical gestures that so often become a mode of second nature to a stage-player" and at another moment, she is pathetically calling her child while she is "looking up to the ceiling in search of an imaginary gallery." Not only does Mrs. Vane literally act in an artificial way like the Victorian caring mother, but also her motherly cares are hypocritical. Indeed, she just allowed her daughter to continue to see her gentleman lover, as she suddenly realised that this mysterious gentleman might be rich. As Wilde sarcastically writes:
Thin-lipped wisdom [Mrs. Vane] ... hinted at prudence, quoted from that book of cowardice whose author apes the name of common sense. ... Then Wisdom altered its method and spoke of espial and discovery. This young man might be rich. If so, marriage should be thought of.
In sum, Wilde suggests that if one follows middle-class values, one will act as badly as some second-rate actor in Victorian melodrama which used to preach this phoney morality. The hypocrisy of these middle-class values is emphasised, when the reader learns in the eleventh chapter that they protect a pervert like Dorian Gray against scandals because of his wealth. As a result, Dorian, the spokesman of decadence, praises the hypocritical formality of Victorian respectability in the following excerpt:
For the canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art. Form is absolutely essential to it. It should have the dignity of a ceremony, as well as its unreality, and should combine the insincere character of a romantic play with the wit and beauty that makes such plays delightful to us.
Moreover, The Picture of Dorian Gray demonstrates the out-datedness of the moral values which Victorian melodrama embodied. James Vane, who sincerely believes in middle-class values and acts like the traditional hero in Victorian melodrama, is placed by Wilde in a meaningless universe in which evil is not punished by God nor by any almighty providence. When twenty years after Sibyl's suicide, James finally meets Dorian Gray, he is deluded by the dandy's mask of "unstained purity of youth". In his naive view of the world, beauty and youth can only be connected with innocence. He does not understand that beauty is ambiguous in the modern world of facts. Though he promised his mother that he would track down Dorian Gray and "kill him like a dog", if he abused his sister, it is James Vane who is accidentally shot like an animal during a hunting at Selby Royal. This meaningless accident stresses the absence of God or a Divine Providence which punishes the wicked and recompenses the good. As Dorian Gray remarks, after he has escaped his avenger:
Actual life was chaos, but there was something terribly logical in the imagination. It was imagination that set remorse to dog the feet of sin. It was the imagination that made each crime bear its misshapen brood. In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak. That was all. (my italics)
By suggesting the absence of a god who takes care of the morally upright, Wilde undermines the religious foundation for Victorian morality which seemed often to favour the wealthy (even when they are as degenerate as Dorian Gray) and to punish poor people like James Vane in real life or "in the common world of fact". Not only did Wilde expose the hypocrisy of Victorian morality in the Vane episode in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but also in his political essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. In this extract, he points to the absurdity of middle-class values for the poor with the example of thrift:
Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly fed animal.
Wilde, therefore, concludes that the poor should be "ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented, and rebellious" while "the virtuous poor" should be pitied since they obey laws which mar and degrade their own life.
In the final analysis, the Vane episode in The Picture of Dorian Gray is not a disturbing remnant of old-fashioned, realist fiction, but Wilde is consciously parodying the traditional dramas of revenge and disrupting the ideology which they recommended. Like a (post)modernist writer, he is able to adapt literary tradition to his own purpose. One could add to this that Wilde does not only parody Victorian melodrama in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but even his own decadent aestheticism.
In this section I shall compare Wilde's aestheticism to the antimodernism of the American counterculture in the 1960s, as expressed in the critical writings by Susan Sontag. Sontag as well as Wilde promoted a literary criticism and an aestheticist art which value sensuousness and the experience of form for its own sake. Even if Sontag did this in another context and from different premises than Wilde, essays like "Against interpretation", "On style" and "Notes on “Camp”" may help to understand Wilde's aestheticism.
In "Against interpretation", Sontag complains that in literary criticism content still comes first. She argues that interpretations of the content are largely reactionary, since critics tend to allegorise away the subversiveness of art. By treating a literary work as a social, religious or psychoanalytical allegory, the subversive elements are turned into symbols and thus neutralised. In the following excerpt, she explains the reactionary side of reducing a work of art to its content:
It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else. Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.
Despite the infestation of art by intellectual analyses, she perceives a new art in the 1960s which is resisting interpretation by turning itself into parody, or by becoming abstract or merely decorative. Cinema is the ideal of this anti-interpretative art, since it eludes the interpreter "by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be ... just what is." To apprehend an art whose form is its content, critics must learn to deal with 'transparence' (which means "experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself") of things being what they are." Sontag, therefore, concludes at the end of her article that an erotics of art is needed in stead of a hermeneutics so that critics may recover their senses in order to experience art in a sensuous way.
In Het postmodernisme in de literatuur, Bertens and D'haen situate Sontag's essays in the American Counterculture of the 1960s. In the new literary criticism which emerged together with the American Counterculture, the first features of postmodernism manifested themselves. American Counterculture reacted to an elitist modernism, which had given a visionary, almost religious status to art but was alienated from the masses. While modernist art had looked for deeper meanings beyond the surface of reality, Sontag's antimodernist art did not want to mean but 'to be'. Sontag's "new sensibility" stood for a celebration of 'transparence' or a spontaneous, anti-intellectual experience of art. Furthermore, the distinctions between elitist and popular art were rejected since art was evaluated for the experiences which it could produce. As Sontag wrote: "The beauty of a machine or of the solution to a mathematical problem, of a painting by Jasper Johns, or a film by Jean-Luc Godard, and the personalities and music of the Beatles [are] equally accessible."
Nearly a century before "Against interpretation" was written, Walter Pater (1839 - 1894) had, like Sontag, been rediscovering (in his famous study of the Renaissance) an immanent art whose content coincides with its own artistic form and does not refer to a higher reality, a metaphysical truth or moral message. In an essay on Winckelmann, Pater distinguished between the immanent art of the Greeks (which was reborn in the Renaissance) and the mystical and transcendental art of the Christian Middle Ages, in which form refers to a higher reality in an allegorical way. Greek art is exemplified by the Venus of Melos:
But take a work of Greek art, -the Venus of Melos. That is in no sense a symbol, a suggestion, of anything beyond its own victorious fairness. The mind begins and ends with the finite image, yet loses no part of the spiritual motive. That motive is not lightly and loosely attached to the sensuous form, as its meaning to an allegory, but saturates and is identical with it. The Greek art had advanced to a particular stage of self-reflection, but was careful not to pass beyond. (my italics)
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, the painter of Dorian's portrait, echoes Pater's view of Greek art, when he explains the secret of his art to Lord Henry:
The harmony of soul [content] and body [form] -how much that is! We in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar, an ideality that is void.
Like Sontag, Pater asked his readers not trouble themselves with the exact relation of beauty (in art) to truth, reality or metaphysical questions. When introducing Rennel Rodd's Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf (1882), Wilde, likewise, noted:
Nor, in looking at a work of art, should we be dreaming of what it symbolises, but rather loving it for what it is. Indeed, the transcendental spirit is alien to the spirit of art.
As a matter of fact, Oscar Wilde adopted Pater's concept of a self-reflexive art, in which form and content are one. Yet, he turned it into the main principle of the art for art's sake movement. In his Envoi to Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf, Wilde (at the beginning of his career) also stressed the primary importance of the sensuous element in art (called art for art's sake by him) which he traced down to Pater's Greek art and Keats's 'sensuous life of verse'. Contrary to Pater who had recognised this aestheticist celebration of form in Greek and Renaissance art, Wilde proclaimed "the English Renaissance of art" during his lecture tour at the United States (1882) since he had discovered the cult of form in the contemporary work of artists such as Whistler and Albert Moore. As he wrote in his Envoi to Rodd's Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf:
For the quality of their [Whistler and Moore] exquisite painting comes from the mere inventive and creative handling of line and colour, from a certain form and choice of beautiful workmanship, which, rejecting all literary reminiscence and all metaphysical idea, is in itself entirely satisfying to the aesthetic sense -is, as the Greeks would say, an end in itself; the effect of their work being like the effect given to us by music; for music is the art in which form and matter are always one - the art whose subject cannot be separated from the method of its expression; the art which most completely realises for us the artistic ideal, and is the condition to which all the other arts are constantly aspiring. (my italics)
As Sontag considered cinema to be the prototype of all arts, Wilde turned music into his ideal art since it merges its form and content. Like Sontag, Wilde also observed that aestheticist art "cannot be described in terms of intellectual criticism; it is too intangible for that." He, therefore, proposed that it should conveyed in terms of visual arts and not be analysed but experienced like "a lovely fragment of Venetian glass" or "an etching by Whistler".
A curious parallel between Pater's and Sontag's aestheticism is that both propagated experience for experience's sake only with respect to the contemplation of art, but that their followers often changed this artistic ideal into a vulgar hedonism outside the spheres of art. Because of charges of promoting a pagan hedonism, Pater dropped his conclusion to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance in the second edition of 1877 since he feared more misinterpretations. In this notorious conclusion, he had declared:
Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. ... How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain his ecstasy, is success in life.
One might enjoy such ecstatic moments of "a gemlike flame" in some high passions. Pater, nevertheless, assumes at the end of his argument that it is ultimately art which gives "nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake." In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton turns Pater's hedonist pleasure of beauty for beauty's sake into a general conduct of life outside the sphere of art, when he urges the young Dorian:
Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing. . . . A new Hedonism- that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol.
After Wotton's speech, Dorian Gray gradually becomes a hedonist who approaches life as a work of art with an aesthetic detachment, pursuing experience for experience's sake. Dorian Gray fulfils Pater's worst fears of misinterpretation, when he rationalises his immoral disengagement from life and Lord Henry's New Hedonism, by quoting partly Pater's conclusion to The Renaissance:
Yes, there was to be, as Lord Henry had prophesied, a new Hedonism that was to recreate life, and to save it from that harsh, uncomely puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival. ... never to accept any theory of system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience. Its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they might be. ... it was to teach man concentrate himself upon the moments of a life that is itself but a moment. (my italics)
In comparison, Sontag's postmodernism of sensations has often been derided by critics like Fredrick Jameson for having fostered a pure aestheticism which promotes the hedonism of a late-capitalist consumer society. Likewise, in Het postmodernisme in de literatuur, Bertens and D'haen point out that the MTV video clip is the offspring of Sontag's pure or erotic aestheticism. In such a video clip, symbols rapidly succeed each other without a real narrative line and are reduced to visual stimuli which must titillate the senses without delivering a message.
In "One culture and the new sensibility", Sontag stresses that the value of art does not lie in its reference to reality or expression of ideas, but in its artistic form which enhances our sensibility:
A great work of art is never simply (or even mainly) a vehicle of ideas or of moral sentiments. It is, first of all, an object modifying our consciousness and sensibility, changing the composition, however slightly, of the humus that nourishes all specific ideas and sentiments.
Moreover, she affirms in "On style" that "the knowledge we gain through art is an experience of the form or style of knowing something, rather than a knowledge of something (like a fact or moral judgement) in itself." Like Wilde, she presumes that every aesthetic experience enriches one's sensibility and perception of reality. In "On style", she even argues that the quality of our moral decisions is determined by our sensibility in general. She, therefore, concludes that every aesthetic pleasure increases our moral consciousness as it nourishes our sensibility. As she explains in the following excerpt:
But if we understand morality in the singular, as a generic decision on the part of the consciousness, then it appears that our response to art is "moral" insofar as it is, precisely, the enlivening of our sensibility and consciousness. For it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice, and prompts our readiness to act, assuming that we do choose, which is a prerequisite for calling an act moral, and are not just blindly and unreflectively obeying. Art performs this "moral" task because the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinterestedness, contemplativeness, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) and to the aesthetic object (grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, sensuousness) are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life.
Like Sontag, Wilde contended that artists should not be judged from a moral standpoint, but according to their use of the artistic medium. As one of his epigrams in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray states: "The moral life of man forms part of the subject matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium." Defending his novel against reviewers who had charged it with immorality, Wilde, pointed out that art and morality belong to separate spheres, as in this letter to the editor of the St James's Gazette, dated June the 25th, 1890:
... I am quite incapable of understanding how any work of art can be criticised from a moral standpoint. The sphere of art and the sphere of ethics are absolute distinct and separate; and it is to the confusion between the two that we owe the appearance of Mrs Grundy, that amusing old lady who represents the only original form of humour that the middle classes of this country have been able to produce.
For Wilde, art and morality are disconnected since art induces contemplation while morality belongs to the sphere of action. Yet, whereas Sontag thinks that every aesthetic experience ameliorates one's moral sensibility, Wilde viewed the contemplation of art as amoral and ambiguous in its moral effects. In The Decay of Lying, he, for instance, pointed to the suicides which were inspired by Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther:
Scientifically speaking, the basis of life - the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it - is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which the expression can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt. Young men have committed suicide because Rolla did so, have died by their own hand because by his own hand Werther died.
Furthermore, in The Critic as Artist, Wilde called the contemplation of art dangerous as it affects one's perception of reality. All art is morally ambivalent in its effects as it depends on the moral standards of the listener, the reader or the beholder whether (s)he can resist to imitate the immoral examples to which art sometimes gives expression. Like a scientific theory, a work of art cannot be judged from a moral viewpoint, but its application or imitation in real life may have moral implications.
This amoral view of art explains why Wilde can maintain in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that "there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book" but that "books are well written or badly written", while Dorian Gray in the eleventh chapter is morally poisoned by a French decadent novel which Lord Henry Wotton had given him. This book does not poison Dorian because of its immoral content (as Dorian himself later claims), but is morally neutral or amoral. Yet, it is Dorian Gray himself who lacks any moral consciousness to resist the temptation to carry out the immoral alternative of experiencing life like a work of art in a detached way, as described in this novel. In this way, Wilde shows in The Picture of Dorian Gray that one's moral standards are not necessarily improved by art since the contemplation of art is even demonic or morally ambivalent in its effects.
well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
In "Notes on “Camp”", Sontag defines the taste of Camp as a certain love of artifice, mannerism, the theatrical and the exaggerated. Like Wilde's extreme aestheticism, Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism in which the world is experienced in an aesthetic way and 'style' triumphs over 'content', 'aesthetics' over 'morality' and 'irony' over 'tragedy'. Camp art, like all other aestheticist art, focuses on its sensuous surface and style at the expense of neutralising its content. Every work of art can become Camp if its pretensions of being serious art are unintentionally undermined by the discrepancy between an abundant form and a silly or outrageous content.
In her 41th note Sontag remarks that Camp dethrones the serious, as one can be in Camp "serious about the frivolous and frivolous about the serious." When she says in her second note on Camp that "the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticised - or at least apolitical", she seems to underestimate the subversiveness of this frivolity. Indeed, her second note is contradicted by her 52th note where she relates the flourishing of Camp among homosexuals to "something propagandistic" which would be inherent to the taste of Camp. Camp would help to integrate homosexuals into society as the aestheticist sensibility "neutralises moral indignation" and "sponsors playfulness".
As a matter of fact, the frivolity of Camp could also be seen as an indirect protest against the norms and standards of serious art and the view of the world for which this art stands. In her 35th note, Sontag considers beauty, truth and seriousness to be the three main features of every 'serious' work of art. In other words, art is labelled 'serious' insofar as its artistic form (beauty) reflects reality or a moral message (truth) in a sincere way (seriousness). Obviously, this view of art corresponds with the poetics of traditional realism. Camp might be called political since its alternative 'frivolous' celebration of style neutralises and even subverts the content and thus the validity of the (ideological) truths which traditional realist art used to propagate.
Sontag's 45th note hints at the subversive potential of Camp. In this note, Camp is called "the modern dandyism" in the age of mass culture. Like dandyism, Camp reacts against the trivialisation of art and offers a cultural critique of mass culture. Dandyism and Camp resemble each other in their attempt to take over the elitist role of the aristocrat as arbiter elegantorium in matters of culture. Like the dandy, the lovers of Camp want to detach themselves from the vulgar taste of mainstream culture and to create a personal, superior taste. Yet, the dandy and the connoisseur of Camp differ from each other in their attitude towards vulgarity. As Sontag states in her 48th note on Camp:
48. The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted. The dandy held a perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils and was liable to swoon; the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.
The old-style aestheticist dandy tried to escape from vulgarity by looking for rare sensations (often with a decadent tinge like Des Esseintes's aesthetic experiments in À Rebours) which were undefiled by mass appreciation. In contrast, the connoisseur of Camp transforms the vulgar pleasures of mass culture by experiencing them in a rare way since (s)he refuses to take these products of mass culture serious. Where the dandy aestheticised life (for instance through the wearing of extravagant clothes or the stylisation of conversation into wit), the lover of Camp has succeeded in aestheticising popular art itself in order to elude the coarseness of popular culture. Camp stands for a good taste which allows somebody to enjoy bad art in an elitist way.
Oscar Wilde is viewed by Sontag as a transitional figure between the old and the new dandyism. Wilde announced the sensibility of Camp by his insistence that beauty can also be experienced outside the spheres of art. As she explains in the following excerpt:
It was Wilde who formulated an important element of the Camp sensibility -the equivalence of all objects -when he announced his intention of "living up" to his blue-and-white china, or declared that a doorknob could be as admirable as a painting. When he proclaimed the importance of the necktie, the boutonniere, the chair, Wilde was anticipating the democratic esprit of Camp.
Wilde anticipated Camp as he aestheticised all aspects of life. In his article "Woman's Dress", he, for instance, campaigned for a reform of women's fashion based on the main principles of ancient Greek dress.
While Sontag's aestheticism reacted to an elitist modernist art, Wilde's art for art's sake rediscovered the Greek ideal of an immanent art in which the form coincides with the content. For once, Wilde seems to have been original in his view of the moral effects of art. Contrary to Sontag who argues that every aesthetic pleasure is morally sterile but indirectly enriches one's moral sensibility, The Picture of Dorian Gray demonstrates that the contemplation of art is not just amoral, but also demonic or ambivalent in its moral effects. Finally, Sontag's casual remark with regard to the propagandistic value of Camp suggests that Wilde's art for art's sake is less disengaged than is often thought.
de siècle,' murmured Lord Henry. 'Fin
du globe,' answered the hostess. 'I wish it were fin du globe,' said Dorian with a sigh. 'Life is a great disappointment.'
The Picture of Dorian Gray, chapter 15, p. 130
Van Gorp defines the historical fin-de-siècle as the mentality of cultural life in the last two decades of the nineteenth century in certain (particularly French) artistic and literary circles. This period was characterised by feelings of languor and ennui, an awareness of aimlessness in life, and a search for new sensations combined with a disgust for moral and religious limitations. Aestheticism and symbolism could develop themselves under these conditions, often with a decadent flavour. Literary Decadence manifested itself in an extreme aestheticism which despised nature, worshipped the artificial and preferred beauty to morality. Decadent art also perceived its time as out of joint. It is an art pervaded by a sense of decay and corruption which is paradoxically celebrated.
The fin-de-siècle epoch in English literature is often called 'the Yellow Nineties' (by Max Beerbohm also baptised 'The Beardsley Period'). Fin-de-siècle literature can be found in the writings of The Rhymers' Club and in magazines like The Yellow Book and The Savoy. The Yellow Nineties were strongly influenced by French writers like Théophile Gautier (Mademoiselle de Maupin), Charles Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal) and J.-K. Huysmans (À Rebours). Though xenophobic Victorian reviewers exclusively ascribed the Decadence of a novel such as The Picture of Dorian Gray to "the leprous literature of the French Décadents", the Yellow Nineties were also indebted to the English literary tradition. John Keats's cult of beauty, Walter Pater's art criticism and the perverse themes which the pre-Raphaelites and Swinburne had explored, influenced Oscar Wilde's work to such an extent that some critics accused him of plagiarism.
Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray undoubtedly belongs to fin-de-siècle art. Lord Henry Wotton preaches the gospel of decadence. He introduces Dorian to cult of beauty and youth and urges him to turn his personality into a glamorous work of art. As Dorian Gray tries to bring Lord Henry's theories of New Hedonism into practice, he represents the decadent type. Like Des Esseintes in À Rebours, he wants to experience the most refined sensations ignoring all religious and moral restrictions. Like the young Parisian in the psychological study (a gift of Lord Henry) which he is reading, Dorian tries
... to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods of thought through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin.
Whereas Des Esseintes ruins his own constitution by such a way of life, Dorian Gray's portrait bears the pathological traces of excess. Though Wilde has often been called a plagiarist, his decadent type differs from Huysmans's creation. The two novels relate more or less the same story of degeneracy, but they treat the relation between suffering and aesthetic pleasure in different ways. In À Rebours, the reader meets a withered Des Esseintes who, after a wild life, cherishes his ruined body and nervous maladies since his degeneracy allows him to experience the most rare sensations. Wilde, on the other hand, starts his novel at the beginning of Dorian's career as a decadent dandy. Unlike Des Esseintes, Dorian Gray hates the idea of any possible bodily decay and he tries to escape suffering by turning his life into a work of art. Like Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian believes that "[t]o become the spectator of one's own life ... is to escape the suffering of life." Only by means of his portrait can he enjoy his degeneracy until he murders Basil Hallward. In contrast, Des Esseintes transforms his maladies into delicate tools for creating more perverse and refined aesthetic sensations.
'Decadence' as a historical term belongs to a view of history as an organic process and was first used to denote the last decades of the Roman empire. This view of history presumes that civilisations develop in a cycle of growth, climax and decay. The literature at the end of the Roman empire was regarded in connection to the decline of Roman civilisation and was therefore called decadent. Not surprisingly, the Decadent artists at the end of the nineteenth century were attracted to the downfall of the Roman empire. Like many other Decadent writers (for instance Huysmans in À Rebours or Louis Couperus in De Komedianten and De Berg van Licht), Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray refers to the excesses of the last Roman emperors. When Dorian Gray is reading the yellow book, which Lord Henry gave him, he immediately identifies himself through the hero of this novel with different, decadent Roman emperors:
... he had sat as Tiberius, in a garden at Capri, reading the shameful books of Elephantis, ... as Caligula, had caroused with the green-shirted jockeys in an ivory manger with a jewel-frontleted horse; and, as Domitian, had wandered through a corridor lined with marble mirrors ... an sick with that ennui, that terrible taedium vitae, that comes on those to whom life denies nothing; and had peered through a clear emerald at the red shambles of the Circus, and then, in a litter of pearl and purple drawn by silver-shod mules, been carried through the Street of Pomegranates to a House of Gold, and heard men cry on Nero Caesar as he passed by; and as Elagabalus, had painted his face with colours, and plied the distaff among the women, and brought the Moon from Carthage, and given her in mystic marriage to the Sun.
References to the decadence of the Roman empire can also be found Symons's definition of literary Decadence in his essay "The Decadent Movement in Literature", dated 1892:
Taken frankly as epithets which express their own meaning, both Impressionism and Symbolism convey some notion of that new kind of literature which is perhaps more broadly characterised by the word of Decadence. ... After a fashion it is no doubt a decadence; it has all the qualities that mark the end of great periods, the qualities that we find in the Greek, the Latin decadence: an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilising refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity. If what we call the classic is indeed the supreme art -those qualities of perfect simplicity, perfect sanity, perfect proportion, the supreme qualities- then this representative literature of to-day, interesting, beautiful, novel as it is, is really a new and beautiful and interesting disease. (my italics)
In his definition of literary Decadence, Symons links the diseased beauty of Decadent art to a cultural decline. From a Decadent perspective he suggests that this cultural decay creates an exceptional refinement in art because of its self-consciousness.
Symons's positive view of fin-de-siècle art as a beautiful disease contrasts with Max Nordau's Dégénérescence (1894). In this pseudo-scientific study, Nordau attributed Decadent art to a biological degeneracy and thought it to be the product of degenerates. He assumed that the human nervous system could no longer follow and adapt itself to the too rapid, technological changes in society. The new stress of modern life thus accounted for an increase of insanity which he found reflected in a diseased art of degenerates. For him, fin-de-siècle art was degenerate since it only portrayed the abnormal and ugly aspects of life and denied the moral side of art. Stokes explains that according to Nordau, everyone "had suffered from the coming of railways, telegrams and newspapers, but the symptoms were most clearly to be observed in art and literature produced by those [artists] who were more susceptible to the pressures because they were more sensitive in their natural organisation." I do not need to mention that I do not subscribe to Nordau's simplistic view of Decadent art, but it aptly gives an idea of the fears of degeneration in the 1890s.
In Sexual Anarchy, Showalter shows that fears of cultural decadence emerge in periods of transition and depend on the point of view. The rise of emancipation movements in Victorian society, for instance, meant for the conservative Victorians "the end of all civilisation", but for the reformers this end of civilisation simply stood for the beginning of a new and more fair society. From the standpoint of the reformers they were not decadent, but the establishment which did everything to jeopardise these necessary changes. Likewise, Herbert Marcuse pointed out in One Dimensional Man that "the term 'decadent' far more often denounces the genuinely progressive traits of a dying culture than the real factors of decay."
In fact, every form of cultural pessimism could be called a conservative strategy to protect a former dominant cultural system against expanding counter-cultures. New cultural values always exist next to old ones in society. If new values are introduced by a social class in the fringe of society, the dominant class will condemn these values as a degeneration of culture in order to preserve their threatened position of power. Through equating the end of the dominant culture with the end of the world, cultural pessimists are denying the possibilities of constructive cultural values outside their cultural system. In this way, they try to protect the cultural system in which they take a privileged position.
In his article "Het fin-de-siècle en het postmodernisme in de literatuur" Stefaan van den Bremt defines "fin-de-siècle" in a typological sense as indicating an awareness of cultural crisis at the end of a century. He asserts that the end of a century and particularly of a millennium provokes an acute sense of the end in our thinking. Take for instance in postmodernist cultural critiques the apocalyptic predictions about "the end of culture", "the end of philosophy", or Lyotard's "end of all ideologies". Patricia Waugh writes about cultural pessimism in postmodernist philosophy:
'Post' [in post-modernism] implies after but with no indication of whither next. The sense of transition is powerful, but inevitably accompanied by the spectre of decadence: the feeling that we are at the end of an era. Postmodernism is Apocalyptic. ... Apocalyptic at least in its sense of crisis. The old verities may be breaking down, but there is no clear sense of what is to replace them.
In his essay "Of an Apocalyptic Tone in Recent Philosophy" (1984), Derrida parodies the lamentations about the coming apocalyptic endings:
It is not only the end of this here and that there, the end of history, the end of the class struggle, the end of philosophy, the death of God, the end of religions, the end of Christianity and morals ... the end of the Earth, Apocalypse now, I tell you, in the cataclysm, the fire, the blood, the fundamental earthquake ... the end of literature, the end of painting, art as a thing of the past, the end of the past ... the end of phallocentrism and phallogocentrism and I don't know what else.
However, this fin-de-siècle sense of an ending does not correspond with a historical reality. It is a myth which people construct in their imagination. According to Kermode, arbitrary chronological divisions (like the end of a century or a millennium) are "made to bear the weight of our anxieties and hopes." Such symbolical dates help one to make sense of one's life by providing beginnings and ends. Because of this apocalyptic thinking, fin-de-siècle crises are more intensely experienced. As Showalter argues in Sexual Anarchy:
The crises of the fin de siècle, then, are more intensely experienced, more emotionally fraught, more weighted with symbolic and historical meaning, because we invest them with the metaphors of death and rebirth that we project onto the final decades and years of a century.
Society and culture are changing all the time, but one is only conscious thereof when these breaks with the past can be attached to a symbolic event (like the fall of the wall in Berlin) or certain meaningful dates like the end of centuries. One could say that a fin de siècle functions like a mid-life crisis for history. As the age of 50 years is a symbolic moment in one's life to think about one's achievements and failures, history tends to evaluate its changes at the end of a century.
Van den Bremt assumes that since the industrial revolution and the failure of the Aufklärung the end of the centuries have been characterised by a more acute sense of crisis than normally. This would explain the coining of the term "fin-de-siècle" at the end of the nineteenth century and a renouveau of fin-de-siècle phenomena in the twentieth century. Goedegebuure affirms that fin-de-siècle art and postmodernism are pervaded by a sense of an ending, but they differ from each other in the reception of this ending. The decadent art of the nineteenth century welcomed the cultural decay as a way to attack the materialist middle class values, whereas postmodernist art seems often to be paralysed by an apocalyptic mood.
In his epilogue to Decadentie en Literatuur, Goedegebuure admits that postmodernist authors are often fascinated by the Decadent heritage of the nineteenth century and cannot resist to recycle certain Decadent motives and themes in their writings. Not only do postmodernist authors recognise their fears of cultural decline in the literature at the end of the previous century, but fin-de-siècle art also consists of rich material for postmodernist pastiche and parody because of its amalgam of different styles and -isms. Postmodernist writers are also attracted to a fin-de-siècle novel like À Rebours, since it employs typical postmodernist structural elements such as quotation and the mixture of fiction and criticism.
Amanda Filipacchi's first novel, Nude Men (1993) represents a good example of a postmodernist parody based on The Picture of Dorian Gray. It tells the story of a young narcissistic man, Jeremy Acidophilus, who poses for a woman painter who calls herself Lady Henrietta. She explains her name to Jeremy as follows:
[The Picture of Dorian Gray] is my bible. There is a character in there, Lord Henry, who is in certain sense my god. I admire his philosophies of life. I decided to take the liberty of making myself the female version of his character. 
Jeremy falls in love with her, but is seduced by her eleven year-old daughter Sara. Like her mother, Sara knows Wilde's novel quite well so that she is able to seduce Jeremy through quoting Lord Henry Wotton when he tempted Dorian Gray:
You know you want me. And you know the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, and sick with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. (my italics)
Besides these overt allusions to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Nude Men borrows different motives and themes from Wilde's novel like the mask (Sara wears a Mickey Mouse mask when she makes love to Jeremy.), the ideal of precociousness, the absence of a divine providence (Jeremy does not understand why he is not punished for his relation with a child.), the connection between decadence and pathology (Sara gets a tumour at the end of the novel), etc. Yet, Filipacchi does not just imitate Wilde. Her novel, for instance, disrupts Lord Henry's hedonist philosophy of life by putting it in the mouth of a premature young girl. Nude men also shows how Wilde's idealist Epicureanism may degenerate into the vulgar hedonism of consumer culture.
In conclusion, The Picture of Dorian Gray manifests all main features of fin-de-siècle art and might be called the bible of decadence in English literature. Fears of cultural decline can be found in the last decades of both the nineteenth and the twentieth century. Whereas the nineteenth century Decadent artists celebrated this cultural decay in their art to oppose the middle class values, postmodernist art is looking for strategies to deal with the contemporary cultural crisis. Although the twentieth century fin-de-siècle art is rediscovering the Decadent literary tradition of the ninetieth century, postmodernist art cannot be called Neo-Decadent, since the nineteenth century Decadent art is but a marginal influence.
In the previous chapters, I have shown how Wilde's aestheticism corresponds with the postmodernist one with respect to the autonomy of art, the involvement of the reader, the use of parody, the emergence of the critic-artist and an anti-realism in general. I therefore go along with Patricia Waugh in that postmodernism is not a radical break in the tradition of Western thought and art. Indeed, the postmodernist Weltanschauung and poetics can be related to "a tradition of specifically aestheticist modern thought inaugurated by philosophers such as Kant and embodied in Romantic and Modernist art." In this last analysis, I intend to outline Wilde's aestheticism and postmodernism in this aestheticist tradition and to point out their differences.
In his definition of decadent aestheticism at the end of the nineteenth century, De Deugd calls the sovereignty of art or "the complete supremacy of literature over human life and nature" a central feature of aestheticism. Not only does the aesthete view art as autonomous, but also as determining one's perception of reality. This is exactly what Wilde meant when he wrote in The Decay of Lying that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life."
While an aesthete like Wilde acknowledged that art may change one's perception of the world, the postmodernist asserts that not merely artistic language but language in general affects one's view of reality. In The Idea of the Postmodern, Hans Bertens summarises the postmodernist view of language and its epistemological consequences as follows:
Like poststructuralism, this postmodernism [the postmodernism of the 1970s] rejects the empirical idea that language can represent reality, that the world is accessible to us through language because its objects are mirrored in the language that we use. From this empirical point of view, language is transparent, a window on the world, and knowledge arises out of our direct experience of reality, undistorted and not contaminated by language. Accepting Derrida's exposure, and rejection of the metaphysical premises - the transcendent signifier - upon which such empiricism is built, postmodernism gives up on language's representational function and follows poststructuralism in the idea that language constitutes rather than reflects the world, and that knowledge is therefore always distorted by language, that is, by the historical circumstances and the specific environment in which it arises.
As aesthetes like Wilde contended that a work of art does not refer to reality but to itself, poststructuralists like Derrida argue that language does not immediately refer to reality but to the language system itself. The meaning of each sign is not determined by its reference to reality, but by its relation to other signs. In Real Presences, George Steiner calls this postmodernist belief in the self-referentiality of language "the broken contract between word and world". Words do not reflect the world in a direct way. Instead, language frames one's perception of reality.
As Waugh notices in Practising Postmodernism, it seems as if the aestheticist approach to life and art has "spilled out of the self-consciously sphere of art into the cognitive and scientific spheres." While Wilde proclaimed in The Critic as Artist that "[s]cience is out of reach of morals, for her eyes are fixed upon eternal truths," postmodernists have altogether given up this belief in objective, absolute truths as well in science as in art. In contradistinction, Wilde's rejection of absolute truths was confined to the sphere of art. He, for example, concluded at the end of The Truth of Masks: "For in art there in no such thing as a universal truth."
Wilde assumed that no absolute truths in art existed because of the self-referentiality of artistic language. As the beautiful forms of art referred to their own form instead of reflecting reality or a higher truth, the spectators had to construct the meaning of a work of art. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde pointed to the dangers when one takes the relative truths of art for empirical facts and vice versa. Like Don Quijote and Emma Bovary, Dorian Gray can no longer tell reality apart from fiction. As Hutcheon remarked with respect to Emma Bovary, he truly believes that art "is a vehicle for experiences which really exist and/or can be made to exist in [his] world." Dorian turns the relative truths of art into absolute dogmas, when he commits himself to put every epigram of Lord Henry into practice. On the other hand, he reduces reality to the status of fiction by treating it as a means for artistic sensations. Dorian, for example, detaches himself from Sibyl Vane's suicide by considering it as an interesting episode in a novel or a dramatic scene in a play:
extraordinarily dramatic life is! If
I had read all this in a book, Harry, I think I would have wept over it.
Somehow, now that it has happened actually, and to me, it seems to me too
wonderful for tears.
* * *
It seems to me to be simply like a wonderful play. It has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded.
Throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian Gray treats events in his life as quotations from a novel and fictions as real events. The confusion between art and life culminates in the novel's central metaphor of Dorian's portrait which becomes more and more human as it depicts his mortal decay, whereas Dorian is turning his personality into a work of art and gradually dehumanises by his artistic detachment from life.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde seems to have explored what could happen if -as Waugh would phrase it- the aestheticist approach to life would spill out of the self-conscious spheres of art into the spheres of real life. The mistake that Dorian Gray seems to have made, was that he thought that reality and art could be treated in the same detached way since both are partly constructed in the mind. Indeed, from a postmodernist view, one can only make sense of the world through theories which are 'fictional hypotheses' or 'constructions'. These theories do not represent reality in an objective way, but are useful fictions which like tools help to order experience. Like literary works in the aestheticist tradition, these hypotheses do not conceal that they are constructed. In The Sense of an Ending, Kermode pointed out that one can only make sense of the chaotic facts of brute reality through fictions. Yet, he warned that such a fiction should be always aware of its fictionality, if it does not want to degenerate into myth:
We have to distinguish between myths and fictions. Fictions can degenerate into myths whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive. In this sense anti-Semitism is a degenerate fiction, a myth, and Lear is a fiction. Myth operates within diagrams of ritual within the diagrams of ritual, which presupposes total and adequate explanations of things as they are and were; it is a sequence of radically unchangeable gestures. Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent.
Postmodernist thinkers have unmasked every metaphysical truth as one of Kermode's myths. Because of the absence of absolute truths, everybody has to create his or her own relative truths (cf. Nietzsche) in order to make sense of the world. Such a relative truth for making sense of the world resembles literary works in that they are fictional. However, this does not mean (as Dorian Gray thinks) that one can make sense of the chaos of reality with the detachment from life which someone experiences when reading and interpreting a literary work.
Unlike a work of art, life cannot be experienced in a detached way because of the irreversibility of time in real life as opposed to the timelessness in art. The interpretation of a literary work can again and again be revised and modified, whereas in life, one has to interpret difficult situations and make choices which cannot be erased by a new choice. The consequences of every choice in real life are irrevocable. Likewise, every experience and crime of Dorian Gray leaves on his picture a trace which he cannot remove despite his aesthetic disengagement from life. At the end of the novel, Dorian finds out that these traces are irreversible. More traces can be added to his portrait, but the original is lost forever. It is the irreversible hideous burden of his past which ultimately coerced him in stabbing his portrait and destroying himself.
Finally, Stefaan van den Bremt suggests in his article "Het ‘fin-de-siècle’ en het postmodernisme in de literatuur" that the aestheticist belief in the self-referentiality of artistic language questioned the position of morality in art, whereas the postmodernist assumption that literary as well as non-literary language refers to itself, has led to a general moral crisis. Indeed, Derrida's view of meaning as constructed by a context has undermined any transcendental foundation of morality, so that every former moral "law" is reduced to a construction of the mind.
Like other aesthetes, Wilde separated art from ethics. In his eyes, morals were but the materials of the artist to create beautiful things. As one of his aphorisms in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray states: "Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art." Furthermore, the moral effect of a work of art depended on the moral standards of the beholder. Wilde, for example, wanted that his readers would project their own sins into those of Dorian's. Even if the author intended to deliver a moral message to his readers, the reader still could interpret the literary work in a different way because of the autonomy of artistic language.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that Wilde shares a relativist view of morality not just in art but also in life with postmodernist thinkers, although he starts from different premises. His moral relativity is based on a cultural and a historical relativism which he probably appropriated as a classical scholar. The postmodernist moral relativity can be traced down to a formalist view of language. Moreover, as I have suggested in a previous chapter, Wilde's position of a homosexual and Irish immigrant in a homophobic, English community may have accelerated his alienation from the moral laws of such a hostile society.
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The Picture of Dorian Gray, preface, p. 17.