Oscar Wilde and Lil Nas X

The discussions we have had in this class have led me to some surprising places, but none more surprising than the number of times I have thought about Lil Nas X, A.K.A Montero Lamar Hill. Although Lil Nas X has not made any mention of Wilde (at least, that I am aware of), his place as a queer black rapper and singer in the contemporary American context does remind me a lot of Oscar Wilde’s place in Victorian society. Of course, Lil Nas X did not serve two years in prison for gross indecency, but he has received his share of criticism for being queer.

This connection is interesting to me because I think it shows us something about queer art in society, particularly art that can be considered ‘mainstream.’ As we have talked about in this class, as much as the ways in which society treats queer people has changed, much of it has still stayed the same. While this is most graphically shown through acts of violence and hate such as what happened to Matthew Shepard, it also shown through pop culture and art. And while representation in these areas is getting better, it is still laughably bad. As a bisexual woman, I am still surprised every time I hear an earnest song about queer love or queer experience on popular radio stations.

But Lil Nas X and Oscar Wilde are both mainstream and both of their art speaks to queerness. Both artists also include an element of subversion in their work: Wilde kills Dorian Gray because he cannot conform to societies heterosexual expectations, and Lil Nas X depicts himself as a sinner descending into hell for just the same reason in his MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) music video. It seems like this subversive element is what allows there art to succeed in the hostile times and spaces it occupies. This leads me to wonder if there is a future for non-subversive queer art in a mainstream context, or if it is stuck on the outside.

Pedestals and Celebrity

In De Profundis, one of the moments that struck me the most is when Wilde described how Bosie told him that “when you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting” (994). Not only is this a really cruel thing to say to someone, let alone someone you are in a deep personal relationship with, but it also reminded me of a line spoken by Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband:

Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. (552).

I remembered this line because it struck me as ironic in the modern world, where it is more common for women to be placed on pedestals and given unreasonable expectations (purity culture, diet culture, division of labor, etc.). But what strikes me now is the repetition of the image of the pedestal, and how much it seems to reveal about Wilde, especially because An Ideal Husband was written before the date Wilde gives for his fight with Bosie.

I see so much of Wilde in this selection of the text. There is justification for his relationship with Bosie, his feelings about his estrangement from his wife later in life, his Catholic sympathies, and his deep insecurities about his place in the world. And what makes it all the more tragic is that for the most part, it is Wilde himself that puts Wilde on a pedestal. He created a persona for himself, spending hours privately studying and perfecting his appearance. And once he did, he received the fame an notoriety he desired, but cursed himself to always be stuck on the pedestal.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol Today

As I read The Ballad of Reading Gaol, it’s dark and hopeless tone struck me. It still has Wilde’s trademark playfulness when it comes to language, but it takes on darker and more somber undertones. It actually reminded me of And Still you Expect Greatness, which is a volume of poetry produced by Michigan prisoners who participate in the Prison Creative Arts Project sponsored by the University of Michigan. I first read this volume of poems when I was thirteen or so, and I have come back to it several times since. I was struck by how similar the tone of the poems in the volume had to Wilde’s work, even though they were separated by over a century. I was even surprised to find a poem that sampled from The Ballad of Reading Gaol that I had forgotten about.

However, one poem really stood out to me in terms of matching Wilde’s style, Buried Alive by Calvin Westerfield:

                            O’ wicked blocks of cement so pale,

              Defiantly make four walls a cell,

              Affix dense bars diverse hands will try,

              Lasting steel mold tombs where hope will die.

                             Conscious corpse to ponder days gone pass,

              The smell of summer’s fresh cut grass,

              That passion once felt of her embrace,

              Abandonment has not took its place.

                            Heartbreak pained to scale a bob-wired cage,

              Pure desperation replaced by rage!

                            Come view the body while it’s still warm,

              Lonely heart in the eye of the storm.

              Souls stolen by lost degenerate thoughts,

              Liberty denied but just-us bought.

                            Few will survive in their names alone,

              Etched in the bricks of immortal stone.

                            O’ wicked blocks, my captors – so pale,

              Great minds will die in these evil cells,

              Where two men share a hell and pure hate thrives,

              To coexist while buried alive.

Both poems describe the physical bleakness of prison, and address themes of death in prison as well as relationships with other prisoners. Particularly, “To coexist while buried alive” reminds me of Wilde’s “open grave” which “gaped for living thing” and meant that “Some prisoner had to swing” (888-9). It is saddening to see how similar these two poems are, as it speaks to how little things have changed.

“Women Don’t Do Such Things”

I have been increasingly fascinated by the ways in which feminism plays a role in Wilde’s work and life. I do not think, like Kiberd, that Wilde had any sort of “lifelong commitment to feminism,” however, I find that his work includes a diversity of roles for women that I haven’t found in other classic works by male authors (40). Wilde’s women are not as confined to tropes, and while they do not actively fight against societal standards, they often work from within the system to make their own agency.

But as we continue reading, I have been thinking more and more about how the threads of feminism in Wilde’s work connect to his own identity as a decadent and as a queer man. We have talked a bit about how many decadents had the tendency to focus on the beauty of the male form and disregard the female form, but after reading “Gross Indecency,” I have been thinking more and more about how queer men and women would’ve interacted and related to each other.

This inclination was mostly stirred by Queen Victoria’s lines in the play, relating to the punishments for homosexual relations. The fact that the law only applied to male homosexuality was surprising to me, and even more so was Queen Victoria’s statement that “Women don’t do such things” (Kaufman 68). I would think that this law and the statement by Queen Victoria about it, especially considering the greater context of it being enacted by a female ruler, figurehead or otherwise, would cause a great deal of anger and strife between queer men and women. While queer women were confined in other ways, in this area, they had less pressure to conform and mask their queerness than their male counterparts.

But this type of anger is not really present in Wilde’s work. Sure, there are a lot of emotions of anger and grief at society and the double standards it contains in his writing, but he never targets these emotions onto women. And to me, this feels like a really cool aspect of Wilde’s strange feminism that I would like to explore more of.

Femme Fatale-ity

Salomé is the perfect architype of a femme fatale: a beautiful, mysterious woman with nefarious intentions for the men she attracts. She outwits all of the men in the play, brazenly defying their commands and desires, occasionally to the point of causing their demise. And yet, I cannot help rooting for her as I read the play. She is an intoxicating character. I was tempted to believe that this sympathy was coming from my own modern perspective, but I don’t think that that is the whole picture.

There is a definite feeling of sympathy for Salomé when we first see her in the play. Her very first lines are about the way in which Herod has been looking at her all night. This gaze is implied to be some form of sexual desire, which continues throughout the play. However, unlike conventional femme fatale roles, Salomé is not blamed for Herod’s sexual desires. Instead, Herodias chastises Herod directly, and not her daughter. Herod even admits to his blame late in the play when he says, “It may be that I have loved you too much” and “I have looked at you too much. But I will look at you no more” (601). This is a more open-minded take on the femme fatale, who is usually demonized for her sexuality by men and especially by other women.

However, it is not a completely open-minded take, as Salomé is still criticized by Jokanaan, and still dies in the end. But her death at the end of the play feels to me very abrupt and out of place. Surely, Herod has some desire to kill Salomé, but after the long speeches and fervent arguing that takes place between the trio earlier in the play, the simple command “Kill that woman!” feels rather out of place (605). I’m interested in hearing everyone else’s thoughts on this ending and how it affects your thoughts on the play’s characters.

The Importance of Being a Parent

One of the most quotable lines from “The Importance of Being Earnest” is spoken by Lady Bracknell: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune… to lose both seems like carelessness” (369). While this line is mostly known for being fun and ridiculous, I would argue that the play is discussing parenthood or guardianship and its role in society. The main way this comes into play, of course, is the parent’s role of giving consent for their child to enter into an engagement. We see this when Lady Bracknell refuses to give her consent for Gwendolyn to marry Jack and when Jack refuses to give his consent for Cecily to marry Algernon. This lack of consent is one of the main conflicts in the play but is also mocked by Algernon’s several attempts to revoke his consent for Jack and Gwendolyn’s marriage. Algernon is Gwendolyn’s cousin but isn’t a guardian figure in her life. His remarks then come off as very reactionary, an attempt to leverage what he wants from the situation. In this situation, Wilde makes a mockery of these traditional familial engagement practices, and to some extent, parent-child relations in general.

This is seen all over the play, from Lady Bracknell’s stand-offish relationship with the other characters to Jack’s remark that “Mothers, of course, are all right. They pay a chap’s bills and don’t bother him. But fathers bother a chap and never pay his bills. I don’t know a single chap at the club who speaks to his father.” (371). I find this theme in the play extremely interesting, especially considering Wilde’s relationship with his own parents compared to other Victorians. I know we have only briefly discussed this in class, but it sounds as if Wilde was much closer to his mother than his father, and I am interested in how these relationships might have shaped Wilde’s own views on parenthood.

Staging Wilde’s Stage Directions

One of the things that fascinated me the most about Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” wasn’t the story itself, but the stage directions that pop up throughout the narrative. The general rule I have always heard about playwriting is to keep stage directions minimal, to only use them when absolutely necessary, and even then, to be very sparse and plain with your language. As someone who has never read any of Wilde’s plays before, I was struck by the way in which Wilde throws this rule out the window. They are wordy and eloquent and contain details like “Watteau would have loved to paint them” and “He is fond of being misunderstood” (515, 521). I found these stage directions equal parts off-putting and delightful. Off-putting because they were unexpected in this format, delightful because they are so beautifully written. I feel like they are where Wilde’s prose really shines.

However, these stage directions brought up a lot of questions for me as to how this text should be read. I know that it was intended to be viewed as a stage play, meaning the audience would not have necessarily had access to them. They would have been reserved mostly for the actors, and I imagine that some of these details would be quite helpful to them, and some would be quite frustrating. For example, the direction “She is a heliotrope, with diamonds” feels very opaque as a character description, whereas “She has the fascinating tyranny of youth, and the astonishing courage of innocence” is much more specific (517, 516). But the way Wilde mixes prose into this play is extremely fascinating to me. Did he mean to or was it unintended? As modern readers, how should we interpret them? Should we study them like normal stage directions, or as something more?

What is Wilde trying to tell us?

Many of the writings of Wilde that we have read so far have all been rather straightforward in their praise of decadent ideas about morality and social life. The dialogues especially (“The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”) make it clear that they are trying to convince you of a decadent ideal; it is their sole purpose. Because of this, it is very easy to read Wilde as a staunch defender of decadence and no more. However, The Picture of Dorian Gray complicates that idea.

Although the text is awash with decadent ideas (the worship of male beauty, the simultaneous rejection and desire for education and learnedness, the carefree attitudes towards social order), it does not seem to be defending those ideas. As Dorian grows more and more decadent, the painting of him grows more and more corrupted. His relationship with Lord Henry is seen as corrupting in the novel, much like Wilde’s relationship with Bosie was seen as by the public.

But the decadent ideals are not completely slandered either. To some extent, Dorian Gray is getting what he wants. He lives a life of luxury, enjoys whatever he likes, and is hardly even touched by the public’s perception of him. And if there are similarities between the relationships of Dorian and Lord Henry and Wilde and Bosie, then it is hard to believe that Wilde would view his own relationship as pure corruption.

All of this is to say that I have been grappling with the question of whether or not The Picture of Dorian Gray has some deeper moral or social message, and what that message might be. I have not found an answer yet, and Wilde is so slippery, I’m not sure I will. The one thing I am reasonably sure about is that this text feels deeply personal in a way that his other works have not.

Dark Decadence

As I was reading the selection of poems for this week’s class, I found myself intrigued by how many darker poems were woven into the collection. With all the talk of beauty and art for art’s sake, it is interesting how many of these poems have more sinister undertones. “The Ballad of a Barber” ends with a murder and the subsequent hanging, “The Masquerade” imagines a world where people are forced to dance, and “Candlelight” contains “delicate flowers of death” (4). But the two poems that struck me the most were “The Dead Poet” and “Nihilism.”

“The Dead Poet” was written by Lord Alfred Douglas about the death of Oscar Wilde. I the thing that stood out to me about this poem is even though the language of the poem itself is describing the beauty of Wilde’s life, there is no part of the poem that doesn’t feel sad. Because of the title, and to some extent because of the last line (“And so I woke and knew that he was dead” (14)), the poems normally cheerful language takes on a somber, more desperate tone.

On the other hand, “Nihilism,” written by Lionel Johnson, does not use the same language strategies. Instead, this poem’s language is very abstract, and comes together in short lines, marked frequently by commas. This makes the lines really powerful, despite their abstractness (“of life I am afraid” or “The pausing from all thought!” (4, 10)).

Thought these two poems use different techniques, they both thematically touch upon the theme of death and our reactions to it. They are interesting to read write after the Happy Prince stories because while those stories have a certain playfulness to them that we read as the closest we had come to pure decadence, these poems do not have that same feeling. Death is a pretty strong opposite to playfulness, but it is also something all human beings, decadent or not, have to face.

Sensationalism and Satire

We have previously discussed some similarities between Wilde’s work and The Woman in White, the sensationalist novel by Wilkie Collins, and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” stood out to me exactly for that reason. The story definitely has the feel and themes of sensationalism, including several failed murder attempts with a variety of weapons and near misses with the police. But I think the reason the two feel so similar is not these plot points, but the voice of the narrator, Lord Arthur, and his quest to marry his lady love, Sybil Merton. This chase felt eerily similar to Walter Hartright’s goal to marry Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White. Both men have a certain stubbornness about their goals, and both have a wiliness to do illegal things in order to accomplish them. In Watler’s case, breaking Laura out of an asylum, and in Arthur’s, murdering Mr. Podgers.

However, in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” it appears that Wilde is satirizing sensationalism to some end. It is Arthur himself who decides he needs to murder someone else in order to marry Sybil, nothing else in the greater world of the story requires it. He believes that he must murder because he believes that the fortune that Mr. Podgers gives him is unavoidable, and he wants to protect Sybil from his murderous acts. The irony here is that in order to save his marriage’s future wellbeing, Arthur decides to start his marriage on a bed of murder and lies, not to mention that the whole scenario is based on the outcome of one palm reading! This is much different than the narrative of A Woman in White, where Walter, although he may not be perfect, is attacking a legitimate problem facing both his own goal of marrying Laura, but a problem for women at large. I find this twist in genre fascinating and am curious about how it would’ve been viewed by readers during Wilde’s time.