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.

The Political Wilde

         This semester I’ve been thinking a lot about the public perception of Wilde. I came into this class never having read any of Wilde’s works before, and what little knowledge I had about him was in the context of his homosexual relationships. We discussed the public misconception of Wilde as a “gay icon,” and especially as I write my final paper on the anticolonial Wilde, I am realizing that his queerness was the least of Wilde’s concerns in the political sphere. Obviously gay rights were not a thing in Wilde’s time, but as we read sections from the trial transcripts in Kaufman’s Gross Indecency, Wilde was less concerned with defending his homosexual acts than he was with defending his art. I was surprised when we then read Wilde’s criticisms of the prison system in De Profundis. He said:

With us prison makes a man a pariah. I, and such as I am, have hardly any right to air and sun. Our presence taints the pleasures of others. We are unwelcome when we reappear. To revisit the glimpses of the moon is not for us. Our very children are taken away. Those lovely links with humanity are broken. We are doomed to be solitary, while our sons still live. We are denied the one thing that might heal us and help us, that might bring balm to the bruised heart, and peace to the soul in pain (1016).

His criticisms of prison are in the context of his own suffering but his use of “us” and “we” suggests that he speaks on behalf of all prisoners and that he calls not only for his own reintegration into society but essentially advocates for prisoners as a whole.

         In my research for my final paper, I found that during his lecture tour of the United States, Wilde was outspoken on the issues of British imperialism and the erasure of Irish history and culture. He was heavily influenced by his mother’s work in the Young Ireland movement. In his chapter on “Anticolonial Wilde,” Deaglán Ó Donghaile says Wilde “contradicted the calls for political and cultural containment [of the Irish people]… and challenged the normalization of British violence and countered representations of the Irish as both conquerable and commodifiable” (Im 33). Therefore, the “rebellious Wilde” is not necessarily a product of his queerness but his controversial opinions on prison and British imperialism as an Irishman in Victorian England. However, it is the queer Wilde that receives the most attention. While I doubt this will change, even as the study of Wilde’s works continues, I think that in looking at Wilde’s public perception alongside his works, we see that the personal lives of celebrities and ‘scandals’ are given priority in our collective memory.

“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.

Identifying and Orientalism

I did not enjoy Salomé when I first read it. Something about it felt spare and maybe stilted compared to the other Wilde pieces we’ve been looking at this semester that come off as so quintessentially Wilde — it doesn’t tease and taunt the reader in the same way. Upon closer inspection, however, and after talking it over in class, Salomé does seem just as elusive and nuanced as other Wilde works. I especially appreciated the way our conversations about Orientalism and Wilde’s queerness intersected in this play, conflating the two ways of thinking about subversive or non-normative identities. Wilde taps into a particular, sexualized narrative of the biblically unnamed Salome, using tropes of the East to heighten her sexuality for the play, while also giving her a dark sense of agency.  A lot of this hinges on her outward expressions of her desire for Jokanaan. In response to her advances, Jokanaan calls Salomé, “‘the wanton! The harlot! Ah! The daughter of Babylon with her golden eyes and gilded eyelids’” (596). His attention to her gilded eyelids seems particularly significant here, as tied to her sexuality, as they suggest a sort of rich, outlandish otherness, resonant of other Orientalist descriptions of “heavy-lidded foreigners” and the like, a description that fits with the visual tradition and artistic representation that exists for this story, presenting similarly gilded Salomés as we looked at in class.  The Beardsley illustrations go even further to solidify the engagement with these narratives of Otherness. Though made independently of Wilde’s influence, Beardsley’s illustrations also use styles and imagery from Eastern cultures (as an extraordinarily broad and nuanced grouping) to represent hyper-sexualized, gender-ambiguous, and bizarre figures as a response to Wilde’s text and narrative. The use of the exotic and the other allows both men a space to explore and represent the other in different ways, bending gender representations and sexual expectations. 

It is interesting then to try to parse the ethics of such an engagement in Orientalism on Wilde’s part, considering his own multiple marginalized identities, being Irish and queer.  Clearly a focus on the Other, and the pronounced difference and exoticism of Eastern cultures, allows Wilde access what he feels is a useful dichotomy for presenting other sorts of differences, a relationship similar to that which Kiberd articulates in his article, about the reciprocal constructing of Irishness and Englishness, defining the self as what the other is not — the same is happening in this play and is what allows us a queer reading of the narrative. However, just because Wilde can understand being the cultural or sexual other in England, does that give him the license to so egregiously use another Other, another binary, to think around the dynamics of his own marginalized identities?  I do think there is a way to think about Wilde’s particular Orientalism, as informed by his own place amongst “others,” as different from those within an English heteronormativity doing the same, but that doesn’t mean his use of Orientalist tropes is in any way above critique (plus it happens in a lot of his other works, beyond just Salomé). Salomé still feels distinctly different from Wilde’s other plays, but it’s easier to see now how it functions in a particular way to allow him a different sort of identity exploration, one that hinges on constructions of the East.

Gross Indecency vs. Murder

One instance of intrigue in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is how judges and prosecution alike equate the crime “gross indecency” to be worse than murder. It reminded me about our conversation last Wednesday in class when we talked about how Wilde might have “created” the death ending for queer people in media with The Picture of Dorian Gray. But then we also emphasized how this narrative may have manifested because there is no other outcome for queer people but death when they end their bloodline and go against society’s heteronormative model. Placing the act of “gross indecency” above murder interested me based on our conversation.

            Narrator 4 says: “I would rather try the most shocking murder case that has ever fallen to my lot to try than be engaged in a case of this description” (125). The judge also directs to Wilde: “…the crime of which you have been convicted is so bad that one has to put a firm restraint upon oneself to prevent oneself from describing, in terms I would rather not use, the sentiments which must rise to the breast of every man of honor who has heard the details of these three terrible trials… People who can do these things are dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them” (126). In this closing statement by Justice Wills, who delivered Wilde’s sentencing, I found more said in the transcript through the link https://www.famous-trials.com/wilde/335-statement, which further aides the argument that gross indecency is elevated as a crime, viewed as worse than murder. So why exactly is “gross indecency” worse than murder? Wilde’s “influence” and “corruption” have to be a significant component of this view. Gross indecency entails a sexual deviation towards something more focused on pleasure and sensuality. Justice Wills states that Wilde “has been the center of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men,” placing Wilde in the occupation of ringleader who yields all the influence. To deviate from the sexual norm towards something which does not have a reproductive purpose and is seen solely as an activity of pleasure is equivalent to murder: the murder of duty, of normative sexuality, of reproduction, of sex’s purpose. It is a bad thing that Wilde has submitted to pleasure, according to the trial, even when pleasure elicits happiness. The trial believes that Wilde has committed several acts of murder based on the several men he has committed gross indecency with.

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.

Oscar Wilde and The Fallacy of Martyrdom

I really enjoyed the unique blend of fiction and literary criticism in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”. The reflections about the art of acting were really interesting, and I enjoyed learning a little bit about the history of British theater. The line that stood out most to me was when the narrator explains that, “Men die for what they want to be true, for what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true” (1201). This statement is situated at the end of the story when the narrator criticizes Erskine’s and Cyril’s deception by “the pathetic fallacy of martyrdom,” which refers to the fact that they believed that they were dying in the name of truth (1201). I thought that this critique of sacrificing life for belief could be ironic considering Wilde’s own history. This short story was written in 1889, which is about six years before Wilde would be unjustly imprisoned because of his sexual identity. I am no expert in this matter; however, from what we have discussed in class, Wilde had the opportunity to flee and avoid the stress of hard labor that most assuredly contributed to his death a few years after being released from prison. However, Wilde refused to escape and pleaded not guilty – even though his sexual relationship with men was widely known. In this way, one could view Wilde’s decision to stay in England and to be put on trial as an act of martyrdom for his family’s honor. There is no real way to know if Wilde wished to be heteronormative, but the phrase “what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true” is interesting in this context. Could this statement be a subtle reflection of Oscar Wilde’s struggle to accept his non-normative sexual identity? Wilde lived in a society that was obviously very anti-LGBTQ, so it would be easy to see how Wilde could be pressured to become ashamed of his identity and conceal it at all costs.  

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.

Observance and Indulgence

As I entered this class, I knew I had little knowledge of Wilde’s works, but I did carry a smidge of an idea of who he was as a person, or at least the knowledge that he certainly stood out and left his mark in life and death. Now, as I have started to explore his work within the class, I still find myself drawn to getting to know and understand Wilde the man alongside Wilde the artist. He might’ve argued that there is no difference between man (at least some of them) and artist, but I find it interesting to think about Wilde’s personality as he portrayed it, and as it might’ve truly been, if we can properly deduce such things.

One thing that has stood out to me is the conversation we have had about curiosity and wickedness. In the first “Phrase and Philosophy,” Wilde says that “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others” We discussed in class on the 26th about the ways this phrase contains a bit of a twist and turn despite its brevity. At first, the reader sees that the myth of wickedness was created by “good people,” which has positive connotations for those people. But, the second part of the phrase makes it a sort of jest towards these “good people,” basically saying that they cannot explain their blusteriness when confronted with attractiveness, so they must label it as wicked. We also talked about the use of the word “curious,” which in this phrase we took to mean unknown, mysterious, or strange. The word “others” conveys the feeling of being non-standard, or different. This can all be related to sexuality and queerness with Wilde. Though these “good people” label non-conformity, or queerness, as otherness and wickedness, there is still a sort of attraction to it. Like they can’t help but look even if they don’t condone it. This reminded me of something I read for my American Studies class about conspiracy theories, “Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan,” meaning that conspiratorial theories by Puritans against Catholics (aka the confessional as a place of seduction, or “libertine priests”) has served as a way to indulge in seductive or wicked thought or observance even though the Puritans are denouncing it. (Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”). And we discussed how Wilde had in part indulged in that observance, in the attention. He shined in his “curiousness.” But, at the same time, we have discussed how Wilde may have been using this presentation as a way to mask himself so he wouldn’t have to answer for non-conformative style, under “L’art pour l’art.” I find this duality fascinating and I look forward to learning more about it as we continue to read Wilde.