Ideas On Trial

During Wilde’s cross-examination in the first trial, Wilde’s work seems on trial more than Wilde himself. Each time the opposing attorney references Wilde’s artistic allusions to homosexuality, Wilde flips the narrative to address the craftsmanship and artistic beauty rather than the content. He champions the message that resonates throughout his work: art cannot be moral or immoral, but it can be artistic or crude. He is focused on style. 

Wilde does not seem to care what people think of the content of his work except in denying that it incriminates him. Instead, he urges the audience- for this seems to be a performance- to appreciate the beauty he creates. Regarding a letter he wrote to Bosie, which the cross-examiner presents as evidence of an improper relationship, Wilde states: “This is a beautiful letter. It is a poem. I was not writing an ordinary letter. You might as well cross-examine me as to whether King Lear or a sonnet of Shakespeare’s is proper.” Wilde maintains that even his letters are artistic rather than purely functional. When he brings up another homosexual story, The Priest and the Acolyte, Wilde refuses to address the content but condemns it for poor writing. Each time the cross-examiner attempts to address homosexuality in various written works, Wilde returns to form. 

However, this reframing does not deter the cross-examiner, who shifts his focus away from homosexuality and instead on Wilde’s artistic philosophy. Instead of looking for what he calls “perverted content,” he briefly attacks Wilde for his amoral view of literature. He presents Wilde’s philosophy as dangerous because it does not condemn immoral content; thus, a perverted book might be “good.” There seems to be underlying anxiety that if people consume art merely because it is well written, its content may corrupt them. Society presents a rigid sense of what is unacceptable, and Wilde’s flippant attitude about content rattles that construct, at least as it appears in art.

I think that the first trial was a fight over artistic ideals and ultimately came down to the questions that Wilde himself poses in Dorian Gray: Can art corrupt? Can art be dangerous? Should those who view art only look at the surface? Wilde seems to anticipate the controversy over his work years before it is brought up in court. 

2 thoughts on “Ideas On Trial”

  1. I agree with your depiction of Wilde’s trial, and your questions resonate with me, especially considering the current flux of book bannings that are occurring in many schools across the U.S. Many of the books being banned are about queer people and characters, and the reasoning behind their banning is similar to the public’s reaction to Wilde’s work in that many fear that queer children’s books will somehow ‘corrupt’ children into queerness. When taken in this modern context, the answer to your question seems easy: it is as impossible for art to corrupt, there is no way art can make you queer. However, while I still fully believe that statement, I complicated this question for myself by thinking about YouTube videos (which may or may not be considered art) and the alt-right pipeline. Because of YouTube’s algorithms, certain videos will lead watchers to more and more bigoted content. This, to me, would be art that corrupts. Long story short, this question is still keeping me thinking.

  2. I completely agree with your point that Wilde’s works are on trial just as much as his behavior. However, I think that we see this in the third trial as well, especially as the English monarchy becomes involved. Wilde’s trial becomes exemplary of the wide-spread resistance of authority against aestheticism and the decadent movement. His trial serves a political purpose, to re-instate the social norm. Right before the beginning of “The Third Trial,” Lockwood says, in regards to the liberal party being removed from power if a guilty verdict against Wilde was not decided, “It would be seen as an act of weakness. Besides, many people in this government are said to be implicated in similar affairs. It would be said that it is because of those people that we are forced to abandon the case. We must go on till the end.” This is immediately followed by an excerpt from Douglas’s letter: “It is a degrading coup d’état — the sacrifice of a great poet to save a degraded band of politicians” (118). Wilde’s acts of “gross indecency” receive such public scrutiny to set an example for the rest of society regarding both the type of behavior that is acceptable and what subject matter in literature is acceptable. Douglas’s use of the word sacrifice is especially interesting here because it brings to light the fact that Wilde was not the only man in England engaging in “gross indecency,” but he was the most public figure punished for it.

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