Last week in class, I enjoyed discussing Wilde’s Phrases and Philosophies For the Use of the Young. I had initially enjoyed reading it, but, if I am being totally honest, did not sit with what he wrote in that section for a long time. I read, was often amused, and moved on. For that reason, I felt particularly engaged by this part of our discussion last Wednesday.
In particular, we emphasized the fact that many of Wilde’s phrases seem to contradict each other. For example, in the first phrase, he writes that there is no wickedness, but, later, he discusses the presence of sin. On its face, these two statements cannot exist together. Sin is wicked, so if there is no wickedness, there is no value in sin. We spent a lot of time breaking this concept down, and ultimately came to the conclusion that when Wilde discusses sin, it is not in a religious or moral context. His entire focus is on art and how to make art beautiful, so it would be “sinful” to treat art as anything less than beautiful. If one approaches the Phrases and Philosophies from that point of view, they are not contradictory because they are all devoted to art for art’s sake.
I have found myself challenged by Wilde in these last few weeks. At the same time as I started reading The Critic As Artist for class, I was reading The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis because a friend recommended it to me. The Screwtape Letters resonated with me and has impacted my outlook on life, and Lewis has a drastically different perspective from Wilde. To Lewis, everything is moral. He sees God in every part of life, so everything we do must be with God’s will in mind. For Lewis, there is no “art for art’s sake.” On a gut level, I agree more with Lewis than I do with Wilde. I believe that all art is a response to the artist’s world, even if that is not the artist’s intention, which makes art for art alone feel like an impossible goal. For that reason, I have had a hard time reading Wilde and trying not to look for deeper meanings, but to read his work as he thought it should be read. Our discussion on the Phrases and Philosophies will serve as a good reminder of where Wilde’s “morality” comes from in art, even as I continue to be challenged by my insistence on reading through my own morality.