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.

A “Careful Carelessness”

The discussion we have had about how Wilde has related to each character in A Picture of Dorian Gray has fascinated me. And, I am still particularly curious about the idea of the way Wilde presented himself versus his true self. As we have discussed in class, a way we can view Wilde is through the many parallels between him and the characters of Lord Henry, Basil, and Dorian. 

My train of thought first begins with Dorian’s character, after the point of his “poisoning.” To the outside eye, Dorian is beautiful, but troublesome. He seems to negatively impact everyone he has a close relationship. He has become the poisoner, and though it is not reflected physically, it is reflected in the portrait. And that display of his soul deteriorating is ruining his life. Because he cannot reveal who he truly is, because his real self is locked away in a closet, he is breaking down, and taking those around him down with him. But, this was partly learned behavior, taken from Lord Henry. But then why is Lord Henry not facing the same consequences? Perhaps it is because Lord Henry does not take anything seriously, including his own words or feelings. He is capable of contradicting himself and changing his mind constantly. Dorian is not. 

This makes me think about the idea of aestheticism and the preface of the book. Are we meant to not take ourselves seriously, lest it destroys our soul? Are we meant to not look beyond the surface? Oscar Wilde certainly made others think that is how he thought. But, we learned that in university Wilde curated a feeling of nonchalance, in witty humor and knowledge, despite locking himself away to read for a good portion of the day. We referred to this in class as a sort of “careful carelessness.” Was this what Lord Henry was doing as well? Putting in so much effort to appear uncaring? To never reveal what is truly underneath? But then how is it that in the book Basil’s greatest work was the result of baring his soul in his art? Was this book Wilde baring his soul, or just another contradiction? 

A Picture of Dorian Gray certainly presents many contradictions about aestheticism, to the point where I find it sort of comical. And maybe that is Wilde’s point, to in part confuse the reader for his own amusement. But, perhaps that is what he wants us to think, when in reality this is, like Basil did, a way that Wilde showed his soul through art. Wilde has built this image of “careful carelessness” to the point where it makes it hard for us to really know the truth, even now. In my opinion, I think Wilde truly is revealing himself in this work, but I am curious to see how his tone changes, if it does, in the next works we read, particularly De Profundis.