The Art of Othering

This week during class I couldn’t help but keep coming back to when we talked about Orientalism. Talking about religion and how society tends to over emphasize the characteristics that suit its needs seemed very similar to the idea of the other and the Orient, which is simply the created version of the culture as perceived by the Occident. Society tends to do this to anything that doesn’t fit the traditional constructs of the culture as we have constantly seen this occur with Wilde. What I kept coming back to was Wilde’s own artistic style that strove to bring these elements that society desperately tried to hide, and put them at the forefront of his works no matter how veiled they were. We see it in Salomé with the perverse depiction of Salomé and Herod being absurdly driven by their desires leading to the climax of the play. It is also explicitly confronted in De Profundis where Wilde takes the conventional approach to Christ and Catholicism and turns it on its head. The upper class of England obsessed with their own perfection were being called out for their dirty little secrets hiding behind the mask of a happy marriage and decadent lifestyle. 

Wilde himself is a perfect example of someone obsessed with presenting himself as the norm in high society. As we discussed, though Wilde is an Irishman through and through, he was always obsessed with hiding that side of himself because he would be alienated by those in the upper echelons and unable to rise to the status he achieved. Beyond the fake accent and the fancy British values, lied a homosexual Irishman desperate to hide the truest parts of himself behind a quick wit and beautiful art. After being convicted of gross indecency and having the mask violently ripped away from him, Wilde eventually comes to terms with his true self and lays everything out in his letter to Bosie. Since the curtain is split, the only option was death or true acceptance. Writing this confession to Bosie, the one who ruined his life, highlights his shedding of the past and embracing his otherness despite the stereotypes surrounding it. Just like with Christ, who we assume was this perfect person who did no wrong, but in reality, he was a rebel who constantly challenged the rules and hierarchy of society to save us from our sins. Wilde similarly challenged the status quo, although his comparison to Christ is quite narcissistic. Catholicism is integral with the Irish identity, and although Wilde was not a practicing Christian, he obviously knew much more than the average member of the Church. He uses that knowledge to set the average member on edge and question their black and white perceptions of their religion. This is apparent in Salomé because the story of John the Baptist’s death is perverted into a tale of a child’s naive romantic fantasies. Salomé is determined to love John and kiss him, even if it means severing his head from his body to have total control over him. It is already a tragic story of a saint’s death, but taken to a new level by giving Salomé her own manipulative voice in the matter. Society wants to assume a simple story where good always wins, but here we see a complex and messy end with no one winning because of hatred. I believe this was a veiled argument by Wilde to highlight the destructive nature of assumption of character and the pressures of society.   In the same way society stereotyped the Orient, we see homosexuality and Catholicism characterized in a way that suits the constructs of society. Since same sex attraction is not biologically compatible, society decided it was disgusting and tried to hide these feelings from the public eye. Wilde revealed the nature of these attractions and normality of being caught up in those feelings beginning with Dorian Gray as the impressionable young lad with an acute narcissism attracted to anyone who fueled those feelings and piqued his interest. There was nothing inherently wrong with him or Basil Hallward. They were simply interested in creating or experiencing beautiful things, which led them to their own demise. Furthermore, Wilde delves into the double lives these others are forced to lead with The Importance of Being Earnest when he created Jack’s Earnest and Algernon’s Bunbury, which allowed them the freedom to live as they wanted, although this is veiled at the end when everything works out for them to keep their happily ever after. In De Profundis, even though Wilde never admits to his homosexuality, it is obvious he has come to terms with society’s view of him. But he does not care about that anymore and wishes simply for the acceptance of his friends, which is a true development of character because these differences should not be ostracized, but celebrated.

One thought on “The Art of Othering”

  1. I don’t really think anymore that Wilde was necessarily trying his hardest to hide his Irishness or homosexuality. I don’t think he wanted to put them on display, but I think that it was more that he was who he was, and as long as he wasn’t overly explicit, he wouldn’t be questioned by society who was too concerned with expecting the conventional from everyone. But you are right, once the mask is ripped off in the trial, Wilde can be completely straight-up with his relationship with Bosie and talk about it all.

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