Our last class made me think about the idea of the courtroom as the theater and Wilde’s demeanor while on trial.
The courtroom has many times been referred to as a theatrical setting, with the aspects of storytelling and drama playing into the workings of a trial. This particularly applies to highly publicized trials, such as Wilde’s. His was the “trial of the century,” and a condemnation of Wilde in the sense of his sexuality and his work. It was a serious matter for his reputation, and more importantly his life. But, as we saw from Gross Indecency by Moises Kaufman, Wilde was not so serious while testifying. He still used his wit to poke fun or when giving answers to the judge/prosecutor. We knew Wilde had an affinity for using this wit based on the characters he wrote in his stories, but why would Wilde not take a more somber tone for his own trial for gross indecency?
And added to this question, as we have discussed before, in some ways Wilde has written his own demise into existence through his stories, particularly with The Importance of Being Earnest. He seems to predict his fate, which prompts interesting ideas about predestination, but also makes me think that Wilde knew that, because his feelings were criminalized, that his sexual actions were unignorable and could lead to his downfall. But, even if he knows this, and then it comes to semi-fruition with the trial, what made him choose to go to the trial rather than leave the country?
I think that Wilde stayed in England based on a series of unfortunate events but had a witty demeanor during the trial because he had a lot to prove to Bosie’s dad and to the people of high society. His status as an outsider, whether through his Irishness or his sexuality, made it so he had to work to fit in. And, I think he was determined to stand up for himself against Bosie’s father, who tried to shame him into exile. Wilde worked hard to build a successful career and good reputation for himself, and given his status as an outsider, it was important to keep that. Part of that reputation was his wit and cleverness, two things that were maintained during the trials. If Wilde were serious in demeanor, I think the people who were trying to criminalize him for his actions would have won in a different sense.
After finishing The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of the questions I am thinking about is the question of what makes a good book, which relates to some ideas we’ve been exploring in “Victorian Literature” as we read Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browning. In this narrative poem, the narrator is an avid reader and talks about how books and poetry have influenced her life and her own work. She says she read books “Without considering whether they were fit / To do me good,” believing that it is when “We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth” that we get the good from a book (Browning 701-2, 706-8). In these lines, it seems as though her ideas align with the notion that it is the reader’s disposition and commitment to literature that contributes to what they get out of reading, not necessarily the content of the book itself. The way the reader approaches the book has an impact on their reading experience and the lessons they take away from it. With these ideas in mind, we can consider Dorian’s approach to the poisonous book he receives from Lord Henry. He approaches it with a mindset already leaning towards corruption. Dorian “never sought to free himself” from the influence of the book, believing that it contained “the story of his own life, written before he had lived it” (Wilde 102). The sins he sees lived out in the book are sins he chooses to enact. He actively chooses his way of life, and though he blames the book for his actions, he actively chooses to take what he does from the book and connect it so closely to his life. If we question the power of the book as a corrupting force in Dorian’s life, we may also consider the power of Lord Henry over Dorian, and question whether it was Lord Henry’s influence that changed Dorian, or whether Dorian, perhaps inspired by Lord Henry, chose to follow a path of corruption farther than Lord Henry had ever followed it.
With our discussions from previous classes and today, a ton of questions started to overwhelm me, with none that I had the answers to. While reading selections from Aesthetes and Decadents as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as an Artist, I began to wonder whether anybody could be an artist. The aesthetes, Symons specifically, constantly mention people such as littérateurs who “are impressionists because it is the Fashion, Symbolists because it is vogue, Decadents because Decadence is in the very air of the cafés” (144). In the modern-day, I feel like this description is synonymous with “pseudo-intellectuals.”
Before this class, I held a view that anybody can be an artist, as long as they consistently practice their craft. Some can be more gifted than others, but art is something that can be open to anyone, accessible and unbarring. The way the aesthetes speak about art almost contrasted this view, and it reminds me a lot of what we were talking about today regarding predestination in “The Harlot’s House.” The Calvinist view of poor people being poor because they were destined to be that way, making them more susceptible to “wicked things,” almost resembles the same argument of the littérateurs that Symons puts forth: art is for art’s sake, but somehow when saying that phrase, the artist and whether they were predestined to be an artist matters.
This line of logic lead me to our conversation in today’s class, where we talked about how Oscar Wilde’s poems in prose flowed better than his poems, as he adhered to the strict parameters and conventions of poetry with the rhyme scheme. He is better suited for the prose format to express himself and impress the reader at a deeper meaning—but what is the reason that we all agree his poems are not his strong suit? What is it about them? Was he, as an artist, simply predestined to be only skillful with prose and plays? I hope this semester that I can keep thinking about style and the aesthetes, and why exactly everyone praises him for his prose and plays rather than his poetry.
This week I was interested in our discussion of the connections between sin and wickedness with art, criticism, and attractiveness. I think art is a way to work through what it is that makes wickedness attractive, because curiosity is a compulsion to learn more, a sense of mystery and the unknown, and art is a way to represent things which seem mysterious to us. I think poetry in particular is capable of helping us understand elements of things we don’t understand and that we might be slightly afraid of. I remember back in my Intro to Literary Studies class, it was mentioned that poems are only about three things: love, death, and God, because people struggle to represent these notions linearly. The unique structure and figurative language utilized by poets can often paint a clearer picture of obscure or convoluted ideas.
I am looking forward to thinking about Wilde’s poetry and other work with this idea in mind, particularly thinking about the ways art touches the critic rather than being an expression of the artist. How will Wilde’s work challenge us to think of big picture concepts like love, death, and God? He already is using religious vocabulary to discuss art and criticism, so I am interested to see how religion plays out in his work. I am expecting a continued emphasis on curiosity, in particular the “indignant curiosity” that we discussed last week and the connections between what is suspicious and what is attractive. In what ways is art capable of making wickedness seem attractive? I am looking forward to reading more of Wilde’s work to see how the arguments in “The Critic as Artist” play out in his actual art.