Working with Wilde

Sitting down to write this final post, I was thinking about how the idea of a dedicated course to Oscar Wilde almost necessarily belies his own adage that the art is separate from the artist. The project of studying one author, for a whole semester and over the course of their work and its changes and nuances over time, begs questions of context, continuity, and change in the life of the artist himself — what developments in their life changed and influenced their work?  For Wilde in particular it feels extremely hard to separate the two, thinking, as we have in class, about the way the course of his life feels prefigured in almost every work we read. I of course have been most interested in Wilde’s complicated identity as an Irishman in Victorian England. For me Dorian Gray, “The Happy Prince,” and “The Nightingale and the Rose” index his complicated understanding of himself as an Irishman, from a particularly Anglo-Irish vantage point and informed by the consolidations of Irish culture being performed by the Ascendancy class at the time. But there are so many facets of his identity to read into these works and each allows us to stake some different claim on how they influenced, changed, or structured his work. 

My favorite part of class then was totally separate from any of the work I did on my own; I loved learning how everyone thought of Wilde differently and read his texts differently. And, of course, that is true for most of literature, that each person has a unique and personally subjective reading, but it feels especially poignant in a class on Wilde — his person and works were calculated to defy definition and be contradictory, despite the fact that everyone wants to put Wilde in particular boxes. To then have a class dedicated to sharing, discussing, and perhaps disagreeing on what versions and readings of Wilde they see, feels like the best way to tease out the fullest vision of Wilde you could, to try on all the various Wildes for a text. Returning to the preface to Dorian Gray, because Wilde always seems to be contextualized by his own text, Wilde writes that “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” (Wilde, 17). To take Wilde at his word for once, our engagement with and diversity of opinions about the works we read for class seems indicative of the lasting influence, interest, and vitality of Wilde’s works. That they continue to ask interesting questions of us and the author. That, to Professor Kinyon’s framing of the class towards Modernism, they seem to help usher in an era of text that grounds itself in subjectivity and that exact difficulty of definition. They are as complex and interesting as the author himself. 

So by way of an inconclusive conclusion, I think the best way to read Wilde is to allow for contradiction, to let that be an organizing thought, rather than trying to pin him to one thing. Then, instead of frustration, you can marvel at the multiplicity, allow yourself to be confused, allow his works to be classist and attune to prison reform (and be critical of that), see how they critique Bosie and not himself, and allow his work to be both funny and biting, charming and tragic, without losing either. Holding all those together is the balancing act of reading Wilde to his fullest, and from this class and with everyone in it, I think we’ve been able to accomplish something pretty close. It’s been a wonderful, stimulating semester.

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