Searching for the Artist in the Art

I registered for this course never having read Oscar Wilde’s works, and my main association with Wilde was his queerness. My first introduction to Wilde was in the context of a critical piece on “the closet” and how “the love that dare not speak its name” is coded in literature. For the first few weeks, I could not help but look for clues to Wilde’s queer identity in all of the works we read, despite the fact that our modern understanding of homosexuality is anachronistic to Wilde’s time. However, it was only during Abby’s discussion on The Happy Prince short stories that I really recognized the complexities in looking for meaning, both personal and artistic, in Wilde’s writing. I’ve been reading Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney recently, and the same day we discussed Wilde’s short stories, I came across a passage that fit perfectly with some of the complexities of his authorship that we touched on in class. One of the four main characters of the book is an author who discusses the issues that arise with her growing notoriety. She asks:

 What is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway? … what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralizing specificity? Nothing. It makes me miserable, keeps me away from the one thing in my life that has any meaning, contributes nothing to the public interest, satisfies only the basest and most prurient curiosities on the part of the readers, and serves to arrange literary discourse entirely around the domineering figure of ‘the author’ (Rooney 60).

While I do think there is value to studying an author alongside their work, this passage made me question how to read Wilde’s works without trying to find pieces of his personal life in them. Particularly in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H,” Wilde meditates on the relationship between two friends as the ultimate form of love describing, “the Platonic conception of love as nothing if not spiritual, and of beauty as a form that finds its immortality within the lover’s soul” (325). My first instinct was to read this passage as a hint of Wilde’s queer relationships, but when separating Wilde’s identity from this passage, it can instead be read as a reflection on sociology and how this platonic ideal of friendship was lost in Wilde’s time.