I’ve had an interest in the life and works of Oscar Wilde for a while, but I had never read any of his works until taking this class. I found the essays of the Decadent writers to be challenging, yet interesting, and I appreciate the wit and humor of the works of Wilde we’ve read so far. However, there’s a common feature in the Decadent writers’ and Wilde’s works that bothers me immensely: the blatant classism.
I didn’t think that classism and elitism would be such a common occurrence in these writings, but it is such a glaring feature in some of these writings that it sours my opinion on the work as a whole, even if the work manages to make some good points in other places. For instance, in Arthur Symons’ “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” he speaks highly of the French poet Mallarmé and his style of writing. Symons also speaks of how Mallarmé “always looked with intense disdain on the indiscriminate accident of universal suffrage. He has wished neither to be read nor to be understood by the bourgeois intelligence, and it is with some deliberateness of intention that he has made both issues impossible.” In this statement, Symons makes it seem as if only the aristocracy are worthy of comprehending Mallarmé’s works, and that the intelligence of the middle class will always be lacking. This is such an annoying sentiment to me. It just seems ridiculous to deliberately make your writing more complicated so that people you arbitrarily deem unworthy can’t understand it. It also seems like a way to shield yourself from criticism because if someone were to critique your writing for being difficult and overwrought, you can just say that they’re just too pedestrian to truly get it.
This classism is also glaring in “The Critic as Artist.” In the dialogue, Gilbert states, “Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the lower and middle classes of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more to the eye, and less and less to the ear.” The use of the words “fatal development” in regards to literacy becoming more widespread is particularly egregious to me. The entirety of this work centers around the importance of the impression of art on the viewer. However, since middle and lower class people reading is apparently a “fatal development,” this work makes it seem like only people whose opinion on art matters are members of the aristocracy.
“The Critic as Artist” posits that art will stagnate if it’s created without criticism, however, I would also like to add that art will stagnate if only the elite are allowed to create and critique art. Letting a variety of different people with different opinions create and critique art is beneficial for its development.