After I finished reading Salomé, I wondered why we read it at this point in the semester. While we are focusing on Wilde’s plays right now, on first glance, it is very different from An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. For one, it is very light on the aphorisms, which I appreciated. More seriously though, the play explores the consequences of desire and the question of why there is evil in a world where there is a God. There are threads of Catholicism in many of Wilde’s works, but thus far, we have mainly seen Wilde using the more aesthetic elements of the religion and the ideas of mystery and predestination. In Salomé, Wilde’s characters discuss profound questions in theology. The instance that struck me the most was when the Jewish characters discuss who has seen God. A Third Jew says, “God is at no time hidden. He showeth Himself at all times and in everything. God is in what is evil, even as He is in what is good” (594). The other characters disagree with this, especially regarding God’s role in what is evil. In Wilde’s poems, An Ideal Husband, and even his “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” he deconstructs moral binaries, describing wickedness as “a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others” (1244). However, in Salomé, Wilde calls attention to the wickedness of his characters and their evil deeds.
A case can be made for a queer reading of Salomé, especially building off our discussions in class this past week. We talked about the psychological and emotional consequences of constantly being told your desires and identity are immoral or “grossly indecent.” In Wilde’s case this is his relationships with men, specifically Bosie. However, Salomé and Herod experience this too. They are constantly told by Herodias and The Voice of Jokanaan that terrible things will happen to them, specifically that God will smite them, but they cannot stop themselves. This reminded me of how Wilde could not stop living his double life, even as he faced public scrutiny and was treated terribly by Bosie. We discussed in class how Wilde essentially prophesied his own death and destruction in his works, and this play is a prime example of that. The saddest part of reading Salomé from this perspective is that there is no resolution for Wilde. Parts of Wilde are in both Herod and Salomé, and as a result, Wilde accepts his own suffering and recognizes that much of it is self-inflicted.
In addition to the allusions to Wilde’s repressed homosexual desires in the dialogue of the play itself, the play was translated from French to English by Bosie. I am interested as to what other people make of this. Is the play addressing Bosie? Along these lines, this play is symbolic of how Wilde and Bosie’s secret lives and time abroad is mediated by Bosie to an English audience. Is it possible that Bosie’s translation changes the tone of Wilde’s original writing?
I never read Dorian Gray before this class, and while I anticipated Dorian would psychologically deteriorate after Lord Henry’s remarks, I did not expect him to kill Basil. I think the fact that Basil was murdered by his greatest source of artistic inspiration is an interesting way for Wilde to explore the relationship between an artist and his muse, and more deeply, the dangers of putting one’s “soul” into a work of art. While Basil refused to exhibit the portrait because it exposed too much of his soul, it is really the portrait’s representation of Dorian’s soul that is the downfall of the two men. Wilde warns us in the preface about searching for meaning in art; he says, “to reveal art and conceal the artist is the art’s aim” (17). In considering Dorian not only a source of inspiration but a form of art itself, Basil reveals both himself and Dorian in the portrait. Given the fact that the portrait contains pieces of both men, it is significant that Dorian describes the portrait as motivating his violence: “Dorian Gray glanced at the picture, and suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him, as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas, whispered into his ear by those grinning lips” (117). As I re-read this passage, perhaps this suggestion by the canvas is another layer of commentary on looking for meaning in art because clearly the portrait did not actually whisper in Dorian’s ear. The portrait simply reflects, and as a result, intensifies, what Dorian already thinks and feels, more specifically, the growing wickedness of his character.
I finished this chapter with a few questions in mind. The first and more superficial is what will Dorian do with the body, but also how did the portrait change if Basil did not paint the grin in the first place? Is it possible that so much of the identities of Basil and Dorian are in the painting that they are hallucinating the same thing, and the picture is actually unchanged? I am suspicious of Lord Henry even though he is not a painter. Logistics of the painting aside, when I read the first few chapters, I thought this book could be read as a psychological study of the relationship between artist and muse and the toll that being one’s source of inspiration can take on a person. I think that element is still important, but in these last 50 pages, I’ve begun to think the novel could be read as a cautionary tale as well.
I thought “The Canterville Ghost” was hilarious. Or if hilarious is too strong, at least extremely amusing. The interactions between the twins and the ghost, that it’s this big, brash American family that can’t be flapped by the spirit — there’s something so charming about the subtle reversals of expectation Wilde is working with. That humor however, is distracting from the more sinister aspects of the tale, which is something Wilde seems to have a talent for — trivializing or distracting from the sinister when it suits the story, a misdirection from the actual end of the tale. Focusing on the trivialized darker details, the crime of the ghost itself is quite interesting. When confronting Virginia near the end, the ghost explains his reasons for killing his wife and remarks that “it was purely a family matter, and concerned no one else,” (196) an interesting framing considering he’s most directly haunting another family. His wife couldn’t starch his ruffs properly and couldn’t cook so naturally he took family matters into his own hands. Though the ghost killed his wife, for seemingly very little, Wilde doesn’t seem to wholly condemn him for that action. His little domestic reasons for killing his wife, that make his crime seem particularly petty, distract from the ghost’s preceding point, “Oh, I hate the cheap severity of abstract ethics” (196). In light of some of the reversals of the text, this then seems to be the most crucial and serious criticism Wilde is leveraging in this piece, a questioning of the rigidity of moral assumptions, and perhaps just assumptions in general.
Thinking further about the relationship of the ghost to his crime and the more sinister elements of the tale, I am also particularly intrigued by the end and some of the story’s final questions. The Duke says to Virginia, “you have never told me what happened to you when you were locked up with the ghost” to which Virginia replies that she has never told anyone and that the ghost “made me see what Life is and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both” (204). Nothing about that is singularly intriguing, until the Duke suggests that she’ll at least tell her children one day and Virginia just blushes. I can’t put my finger on exactly what about that ending is so uncomfortable, maybe that her name is Virginia and something happened with the ghost that she’d blush to tell her children, but in some ways this unknown is the most sinister of all, the irresolution, particularly in regards to Virginia. Because of some of those outstanding questions this story is a good place to interrogate a lot of the questions that plague readers of Wilde’s work — what are we supposed to take seriously, can we take the story at its word, is it a reflection of our moral ethics or Wilde’s design that we sort of sympathize or at least lightly pity this murderous ghost, (amongst other questions)? It’s difficult to know where to stand at the end, what the story was trying to tell you (if anything at all), and some of that discomfiture is from Wilde’s clever uses of reversal, humor, and the cheap severity of your own ethics.
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.
While reading “The Harlot’s House,” I was struck by the line “Like strange mechanical grotesques” (7). We discussed the significance of “strange” in Symons’ “The Decadent Movement in Literature” and how the word suggests queerness. It is interesting that Wilde uses strange to describe grotesques because it suggests a fascination with them. While the grotesque is horrifying, it demands a viewer’s attention, like a car crash people cannot look away from. The grotesque brings Frankenstein to mind and Milton’s Paradise Lost as a result. Professor McCrea mentioned Milton’s Satan in our discussion last week and how the most wicked character in the poem is by far the most appealing. This connects to “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” where Wilde proposes “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others” (1244). With that phrase in mind, “The Harlot’s House” is both an examination of prostitution and a deconstruction of the binaries of good and bad. We have talked about how the decadents emphasize style and form over significance, and I think that the word “mechanical” in this line highlights the lack of intentionality of the people dancing in the harlot’s house. They dance like “wire-pulled automatons / slim silhouetted skeletons” (13-14). The dancers are not considering the wickedness of their actions. While they are described as grotesques and skeletons in a poem laden with gothic elements and shadows, the puppeteering element dissolves any sense of agency they may have. There are no moral assignments in the poem, only transient figures and interactions. As the music stops and the figures return into the normal world, there is a sense that anyone could wander into the harlot’s house and back out. It is as if the mechanical grotesques and ghosts walk among us, and returning to Wilde’s philosophy, “good people” are no exception.