The Age of Dorian
Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann (1988)
The New Aestheticism
The nineties began in 1889 and ended in 1895. At least the Wildean nineties did so, and without Wilde the decade could not have found its character. These were the years in which aestheticism was revised and perfected. During the eighties, Wilde's extremist sponsorship had helped to discredit it and provoked extravagant scorn. Now he conferred a new complexity upon the movement. Without surrendering the contempt for morality, or for nature, that had alarmed and annoyed his critics, Wilde now allowed for 'a higher ethics' in which artistic freedom and full expression of personality were possible, along with a curious brand of individualistic sympathy or narcissistic socialism. He also made it clear that nature might mirror, through art, what Shelley called 'the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.' To these he added another feature of aestheticism, the invasion of forbidden areas of thought and behavior. Decorum became merely a formal attribute of works of art, not a question of morality.
Aestheticism in its new guise modified the relationship between reader and writer. If matter once the exclusive preserve of pornography could be broached, then the reader's calm and sense of unthreatened distance were violable. Many young men and women learned of the existence of uncelebrated forms of love through the hints in The Picture of Dorian Gray. (Unofficially, Wilde took note of what he officially denied, and
told young Graham Robertson the artist, 'Graham, the book was not written for you, and I hope you will not read it.') People also learned from Wilde how to shape a sentence and live in style. In the eighties, aestheticism suffered for lack of example: Dorian Gray filled the need. With its irreverent maxims, its catch phrases, its conversational gambits, its insouciance and contrariness, it announced the age of Dorian.
In the eighties, aestheticism had been less a movement than an expostulation with the lack of one. Yet its influence, and the influence of the movement of which it was a part—that propaganda for art and artist against 'factification' and 'getting-on'—grew stronger. The claims of action over art were challenged by the
idea that artistic creation, related to that contemplative life celebrated by Plato, was the highest form of action. Wilde summed up ideas that were only implicit in England, but expressed in the poems of Mallarmé and Verlaine and in the novels of Flaubert and D'Annunzio. These writers propounded their positions more carefully than Wilde, but he vied with them in one respect: he was spectacular always.
He was the more spectacular because his views, which agitated among the roots of literature and life, were presented with nonchalance. The use of dialogue lent undogmatic informality to his expression. He said, 'I can invent an imaginary antagonist and convert him when I choose by some absurdly sophistical argument.' 1
Even when he relinquished that form, as in 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism,' he seemed to allow for debate with his position. It was as essential to disturb complacencies as to convince, or possibly more. In a diary for 21 July 1890 Katharine Bradley (of the 'Michael Field' collaboration) recorded how Wilde affirmed his role of lounge lizard:
We agreed—the whole problem of life turns on pleasure—Pater shows that the hedonist—the perfected hedonist—is the saint. 'One is not always happy when one is good; but one is always good when one is happy.' He is writing two articles at present in the Nineteenth Century on the Art of Doing Nothing. He is at his best when he is lying on a sofa thinking. He does not want to do anything; overcome by the 'maladie du style'—the effort to bring in delicate cadences to express exactly what he wants to express—he is prostrate. But to think, to contemplate … 2
Wilde was referring to his articles on 'The True Function and Value of Criticism: With Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing: A Dialogue,' published in the Nineteenth Century in July and September 1890. In Dorian Gray, first published in Lippincott's on 20 June 1890, Lord Henry Wotton speaks 'languidly' three times and 'languorously' once. He gave a new sanction to these words, as Verlaine had given it to ' langueur ' in French seven years before. Wilde was not indolent: he read voraciously, he devised and tried out conversational gambits, and touched them up in accordance with the shock, amusement, acquiescence, or delight that they aroused. He attributed the same interest in speech to the Greeks: 'Their test was always the spoken word in its musical and metrical relations. The voice was the medium, and the ear the critic.' He radiated, in Katharine Bradley's words, ' bien être ' with his 'mossy voice.' Most of his writing, Pater noted half in dispraise, had the air of 'an excellent talker.' 3 Yet in 1891, his annus mirabilis, he published four books (two volumes of stories, one of critical essays, and a novel) and a long political essay ('The Soul of Man Under Socialism') and wrote his first successful play, Lady Windermere's Fan, as well as most of Salome. Languor was the mask of industry....
....A more total convert to Wilde than Johnson or Barlas was Max Beerbohm, who met him first in 1888, while still at school at Charterhouse, and became a friend in the early 1890s when his brother, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, produced a Wilde play. Beerbohm was quick and clever: Wilde taught him to be languid and preposterous. Beerbohm referred to Wilde as 'the Divinity'; Wilde said that Beerbohm had 'the gift of perpetual old age.' If Wilde celebrated the mask, Beerbohm in his first essays would celebrate maquillage; if Wilde wrote Dorian Gray about a man and his portrait, Beerbohm would write The Happy Hypocrite about a man and his mask. To some extent the disciple went beyond the master; Wilde complained to Ada Leverson, 'He plays with words as one plays with what one loves. When you are alone with him, Sphinx, does he take off his face and reveal his mask?' 10 The exquisite triviality of Zuleika Dobson tried to match The Importance of Being Earnest. Its discussion of peacocks and presents came straight from Salome. Beerbohm admired, learned, and resisted; aware that Wilde was homosexual, and anxious not to follow him in that direction, he drew back from intimacy. He was to caricature Wilde savagely; this was ungrateful, but it was a form of ingratitude, and of intimacy, into which other followers of Wilde lapsed....
....For Wilde, aestheticism was not a creed but a problem. Exploring its ramifications provided him with his subject, and he responded to it with a mixture of serious espousal and mockery—an attitude that Beerbohm found it fruitful to copy. Gautier had preached an icy aestheticism—Wilde did not subscribe, but sometimes enjoyed pretending that he did. The slogan of 'art for art's sake' he had long since disavowed. But he saw his story of a man and his portrait as containing most of the ingredients that he wanted to exploit. 'To become a work of art is the object of living,' he wrote. 12 Dorian was one of two portraits he would write of a man in decay, the other being the professed self-portrait in De Profundis. Wilde's novel connects somewhat with other narratives. In Henry James's The Tragic Muse, published in 1890, the aesthete Gabriel Nash bears traces of Wilde, including the aesthetic cosmopolitanism which James found so annoying in 1882. When Nick Dormer asks Nash, 'Don't we both live in London, after all, and in the Nineteenth Century?,' Nash replies, 'Ah, my dear Dormer, excuse me. I don't live in the Nineteenth Century. Jamais de la vie! ' 'Nor in London either?' 'Yes—when I'm not in Samarcand.' Nash sits for a portrait, but disappears: no one knows where he has gone, and his unfinished image on the canvas fades away as impalpably as the original. James's theme was that aestheticism, being indifferent to concrete detail, could confer upon its followers only an illusory existence. But if James was hard on aestheticism, Wilde would be hard on it too, at least in his novel.
Wilde liked telling stories about portraits. Charles Ricketts remembered someone speaking to Wilde of the excellence of Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves. Her ugliness had overwhelmed Henry VIII. 'You believe she was really ugly?' said Wilde. 'No, my dear boy, she was exquisite as we see her in the Louvre. But in the escort, sent to bring her to England, travelled also a beautiful young nobleman of whom she became passionately enamoured, and on the ship they became lovers. What could be done? Discovery meant death. So she stained her face, and put uncouth clothing upon her body, till she seemed the monster Henry thought her. Now, do you know what happened? Years passed, and one day, when the king went hawking, he heard a woman singing in an orchard close, and rising in his stirrups to see who, with lovely voice, had entranced him, he beheld Anne of Cleves, young and beautiful, singing in the arms of her lover.' 13
Among the many sources that have been offered for The Picture of Dorian Gray are Balzac's La Peau de chagrin, Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Goethe's Faust, Meinhold's Sidonia. The list could be multiplied indefinitely. As Yeats says, 'Works of art beget works of art.' No specific work is exactly comparable. Wilde had hit upon a myth for aestheticism, the myth of the vindictive image, an art that turns upon its original as son against father or man against God. He began with a familiar theme: 'I first conceived the idea of a young man selling his soul in exchange for eternal youth—an idea that is old in the history of literature, but to which I have given new form,' he said in a letter to an editor about the book. The new form came from localizing this theme in the contemporary controversy of art versus life. That the story was as old as Salome's did not distress him. He wanted to make Dorian a figure to vie with Marius and Des Esseintes, not to mention Balzac's Lucien de Rubempré—and succeeded.
....No wonder he spoke often about poses and masks. 'The first duty in life is to assume a pose,' he said; 'what the second duty is no one yet has found out.' As Yeats would insist after him, the imaginative creation of oneself goes on almost from birth. He was moved by the attempt of Des Esseintes in A Rebours to construct an artistic world in which to live artistically, and he spoke approvingly in 'Pen, Pencil and Poison' of life as art. He disagreed with those who called him artificial. He thought of the self as having multiple possibilities, and of his life as manifesting each of these in turn.
Portraits, and mirrors, were therefore subjects for his dialectic. Mirrors may be naturalistic, as in 'The Birthday of the Infanta,' where the dwarf dies at the sight of his own image, or in Dorian's favorite book, in which the hero has 'a grotesque dread of mirrors and polished steel surfaces and still water' because they will disclose his fading beauty. But they may also be symbolic. In Wilde's fable, Narcissus looks at his image in the water, but does not know that the water sees only its own image in his eyes. In 'The Decay of Lying,' instead of art mirroring nature, nature mirrors art. The preface to Dorian Gray declares, 'It is the spectator, and not Life, that art really mirrors,' yet in the novel the portrait ceases to mirror Dorian's external beauty and mirrors only his internal ugliness.
He also had in mind his controversy with Whistler, when he had argued, in his 1885 review of 'Mr Whistler's Ten o'Clock,' that the supreme artist was the poet (not, as Whistler maintained, the painter), because the poet could make use of all experience rather than a part. He knew Lessing's theory that painting was spatial and literature temporal, and 'The Critic as Artist,' written at the same time as Dorian Gray, insists that the time world is superior, since it involves a psychic response to one's own history:
The statue is concentrated in one moment of perfection. The image stained upon the canvas possesses no spiritual element of growth or change. If they know nothing of death, it is because they know little of life, for the secrets of life belong to those, and those only, whom the sequence of time affects, and who possess not merely the present but the future, and can rise or fall from a past of glory or of shame. Movement, that problem of the visible arts, can be truly realised by Literature alone.
For his novel he dreamed of transcending these generic limits. It had to be written in words, but with the words he could describe a painting with the attributes Lessing had denied to pictorial art: once the portrait had transfigured its object—the sitter—by concentrating him in one moment of perfection, it would disfigure its achievement as though it would claim time rather than space. That literature and painting could not exchange their roles was the idea which Dorian Gray would alter; in the end each art would revert to its norm, but literature would show itself capable of doing what painting could not do, exist temporally rather than eternally, and yet enshrine a portrait of its beautiful and monstrous hero. Though he had removed all traces of Whistler from the book, the novel carries on their old dispute about the relative merits of their two arts. Wilde wins by bringing together, as Whistler could not, the exalted moment and its disintegration.
This concern with time reflected Wilde's sense of his own changes. Now that he was firmly homosexual, he wondered if he had always been so. Dorian moves from innocence to guilt. Wilde did not feel particularly guilty, but he could wonder if he had ever been innocent. Had his youthful love life been only a pretense? Such questions led him to the two Dorians....
....The subversiveness of Wilde's views is matched by the grace of their expression. In the dialogue, two characters talk to entertain and persuade each other, the author keeping a little apart from both sides, even that which he obviously favors. The delight in debate is greater than the desire for conviction. Wilde went further than Pater, who had dared only to hint at the overthrow of an old world by new art. Pater did not speak of art's indifference to life, since for him life was composed of feelings, and art provided the most intense of them. Wilde's infusion of irony into aesthetics was adroit; he found a way of saying that art should please and instruct without making it obsequious or didactic. Yeats spoke of 'our more profound Pre-Raphaelitism,' but it was Wilde's more profound postaestheticism which set him going. Still, he was not entirely dazzled. He thought Wilde by nature 'a man of action,' and was surprised to learn that he had turned down a safe seat in Parliament. As a writer, Wilde seemed to Yeats 'unfinished,' a man who, 'by sheer vehemence of nature, all but saw the Grail.' 28
Wilde's form of greatness was different from Yeats's. But with 'The Decay of Lying' he gave his theories a voice. His paradoxes danced, his wit gleamed. His language resounded with self-mockery, amusement, and extravagance. 'The Decay of Lying' became the locus classicus for the expression of the converging aesthetic ideas of writers everywhere. Art was not to be put down by politics, economics, ethics, or religion. Its pride and power could no longer be challenged as frivolous or futile. Degeneration was regeneration. By cunning and eloquence Wilde restored art to the power that the romantic poets had claimed for it, able once again to legislate for the world....
....Both in its magazine form and in its form as a separate novel, Dorian Gray has faults. Parts of it are wooden, padded, self-indulgent. No one could mistake it for a workmanlike job: our hacks can do that for us. But its continual fascination teaches us to judge it by new standards. Wilde made it elegantly casual, as if writing a novel were a diversion rather than 'a painful duty' (as he characterized Henry James's manner). The underlying legend, of trying to elicit more from life than life can give, arouses deep and criminal yearnings. These contrast with the polish of English civilization at its verbal peak, and create a tension beyond what the plot appears to hold. Wilde put into the book a negative version of what he had been brooding about for fourteen years and, under a veil, what he had been doing sexually for four. He could have taken a positive view of reconsidered aestheticism, as he would in 'The Critic as Artist' and 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism,' as he had already done in 'The Decay of Lying.' Instead, Dorian Gray is the aesthetic novel par excellence, not in espousing the doctrine, but in exhibiting its dangers. Pater's refurbishing of aestheticism in the late 1860s and early 1870s had been followed by a series of attacks upon it: by James in Roderick Hudson, 1876; by Mallock in The New Republic, 1877; by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, 1881; and by Punch and many others. In 1890 it would have been old hat for Wilde to offer an unequivocal defense. What he did instead was to write the tragedy of aestheticism. It was also premonitory of his own tragedy, for Dorian has, like Wilde, experimented with two forms of sexuality, love of women and of men. Through his hero Wilde was able to open a window into his own recent experience. The life of mere sensation is uncovered as anarchic and self-destructive. Dorian Gray is a test case. He fails. Life cannot be lived on such terms. Self-indulgence leads him to vandalize his own portrait, but this act is a reversal of what he intends and he discloses his better self, though only in death. Wilde's hero has pushed through to the point where extremes meet. By unintentional suicide, Dorian becomes aestheticism's first martyr. The text:
Drift beautifully on the surface, and you will die unbeautifully in the depths. In response to critical abuse, Wilde added the preface, which flaunted the aestheticism that the book would indict. Dorian Gray is reflexive in the most cunning way, like its central image.
Dorian progresses, or regresses, to art and back to life. Everything in the book has an aesthetic and a clandestine quotient, in terms of which it can eventually be measured. The portrait of Dorian is executed by Basil Hallward just at the moment when Lord Henry is fishing for Dorian's soul. Although Wilde states in the book's preface, 'To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim,' Hallward fears that the portrait is too revealing of his love for Dorian, as Dorian later fears that it is too revealing of himself. Wilde the preface-writer and Wilde the novelist deconstruct each other. Dorian offers a Faustian pact (with no visible devil) that he will exchange places with his portrait, to preserve himself as a work of art.
But he is not to achieve timelessness easily. His role of invulnerable and detached profligate is challenged by love. His attachment to Sibyl Vane is an experiment in the aesthetic laboratory. The affair ends as badly as Faust's with Gretchen, but Sibyl Vane differs from Gretchen in being an actress. She plays Shakespearean heroines, so Dorian is able to aestheticize her in his imagination. 'I have been right,' he congratulates himself, 'to take my love out of poetry and to find my wife in Shakespeare's plays.' Put to the test, however, Sibyl is no mere performer; her fatal weakness in his eyes is that she values life above art. She loses her capacity to act because, instead of preferring shadows to reality as she once did, she is drawn by love to prefer reality. She voices the heresy that 'all art is but a reflection' of that reality, and Dorian excommunicates her with the cruel words 'Without your art you are nothing.' Like Faust's Gretchen, she poisons herself in despair. And even her death is rendered aesthetic, first by Lord Henry and then by Dorian. Lord Henry finds that she has played out her part, 'a strange lurid fragment from some Jacobean tragedy,' and that 'The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died.' Dorian agrees with the same glibness, 'She passed again into the sphere of art.' Only her brother, and the reader, are left to mourn, and to judge. Sibyl is the opposite of Dorian. She gives up the pretense of art so as to live entirely artlessly in this world, only to commit suicide. Dorian tries to give up the causality of life and to live in the deathless (and lifeless) world of art, only to commit suicide too.
Dorian commits the primal sin against love, and it leads to his second crime. Basil Hallward discovers the secret of the portrait, and urges him to accept the consequences. For this insistence upon the moral causality of life, Basil too has to die. Dorian manages the murder, and the disposal of the body, as if De Quincey were right about murder's being one of the fine arts. After the murder he sleeps insouciantly; next morning he chooses his tie and rings with special care, and reads Gautier's Emaux et camées, finding in its chiseled quatrains some of the reassuring impersonality that Pound and Eliot were to derive from the same book during the First World War. The friend who helps to dispose of the body commits suicide, like Sibyl. What few twinges Dorian feels he obliterates in an opium den.
The first chapters deal with Dorian's infection by Lord Henry, the later ones with his poisoning by a book. Wilde does not name the book, but at his trial he conceded that it was, or almost was, Huysmans's A Rebours. Of course he also had in mind a book which preceded Huysmans's, Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance. In the first draft he gave the mysterious book a name, Le Secret de Raoul by Catulle Sarrazin. This author was a blend of Catulle Mendès, whom he had known for some years, and Gabriel Sarrazin, whom he met in September 1888, and the name of 'Raoul' came from Rachilde's Monsieur Vénus. To a correspondent he wrote that he had played 'a fantastic variation' upon A Rebours, and some day must write it down. The references in Dorian Gray to specific chapters of the unnamed book are deliberately inaccurate. Dorian is said to relish especially the seventh chapter, in which the hero fancies himself as Tiberius, Caligula, Domitian, and Elagabalus, and the eighth and ninth chapters, in which Renaissance crimes are described.
Huysmans's book has none of these: Des Esseintes shows no interest in imperial power, and Wilde borrowed the Renaissance scenes not from Huysmans but from his friend John Addington Symonds's Renaissance in Italy. 17 In fact, the mythical book which so affects Dorian, the pseudo— A Rebours, reads as if it had been plagiarized from Wilde. The hero is said to be alarmed 'by the sudden decay of a beauty that had once, apparently, been so remarkable.' Huysmans never describes Des Esseintes as beautiful, nor as concerned about no longer being so. Dorian says the hero has a dread of mirrors; Des Esseintes has none, though he does read a passage in Mallarmé's 'Hérodiade' where this dread is expressed by her. The more genuine points of comparison are the cultivation of artificial pleasures and the alternations of exaltation and abasement. Though Wilde borrowed the idea for artificial-sensation seeking from Huysmans, he gives Dorian a more specialized interest in jewelry, for which, it appears, no French source was required. He borrowed all the details from South Kensington Museum pamphlets on musical instruments, precious stones, embroidery and lace, and textile fabrics. 18
....If Dorian Gray presented aestheticism in an almost negative way, his essays 'The Critic as Artist' and 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' gave it affirmation. The
first was published in July and September 1890 in the Nineteenth Century, and retouched for the volume Intentions (1891); the second in The Fortnightly Review in February 1891. To a considerable extent the first essay was a resolution of the conflict with Whistler. That difficult man had raised a fuss early in 1890, on the by-now well-worn theme of Wilde's putative borrowings from him. The immediate cause was that Herbert Vivian, a young acquaintance of both men, had begun to publish a series of Reminiscences in the Sun. In the first, on 17 November 1889, he recounted how, after lecturing to the art students in 1883, Wilde was asked by Whistler what he had said, and had to suffer the bow of acknowledged ownership as each idea was enumerated. Vivian had also noticed that in 'The Decay of Lying' Wilde had thoughtlessly used Whistler's joke, which went back to his letter to The World of 17 November 1888, that 'Oscar has the courage of the opinion of … others.' He had borrowed his own scalp, Whistler chortled. Wilde was extremely annoyed at Vivian, as well as at Whistler. He curtly refused Vivian's request for his promised introduction to the Reminiscences in a book, and forbade him to use any private letters or conversation. He replied with acerbity to Whistler's charge, though not until 9 January 1890, when his letter to Truth began: 'It is a trouble for any gentleman to have to notice the lucubrations of so ill-bred and ignorant a person as Mr Whistler, but your publication of his insolent letter has left me no option in the matter.' The joke which Whistler said had been stolen was too old for even Whistler to claim it. This defense was weak. Wilde was on solider ground in declaring that Whistler was ignorant of the history of criticism. The week after, on 16 January, Whistler replied that Wilde was now 'his own "gentleman." ' 'In all humility, therefore, I admit that the outcome of my "silly vanity and incompetent mediocrity" must be the incarnation—Oscar Wilde.' Wilde's more adroit reply was reserved for 'The Critic as Artist,' where he said, such accusations proceed either from the thin colourless lips of impotence, or from the grotesque mouths of those who, possessing nothing of their own, fancy that they can gain a reputation for wealth by crying out that they have been robbed.
The whole essay was Wilde's declaration of freedom from Whistler's theories. Gautier had said in his preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, 'There was no art criticism under Julius II,' and Whistler had embraced this view without acknowledgment. Wilde has Ernest, the straight man in his dialogue, say, 'In the best days of art there were no art critics,' to have Gilbert reply, 'I seem to have heard that observation before, Ernest. It has all the vitality of error and all the tediousness of an old friend. On the contrary,' he proceeds, echoing Symonds and Pater, 'the Greeks were a nation of art critics.' He repudiates the romantic idea of art as a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and insists that it is a highly self-conscious process. 'All bad poetry comes from genuine feeling,' he says, as Auden would say after him. 'The great poet sings because he chooses to sing,' and sings not in his own person but in one he has assumed: 'Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.' Most of Yeats's speculations about the mask derive encouragement from this essay. Wilde finds that what keeps creation from being repetitive is the critical faculty, which generates fresh forms.
Just what criticism is, Wilde explained by direct and oblique references to his Oxford predecessors. Matthew Arnold as the Oxford Professor of Poetry had lectured in 1864 on 'The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,' a title which Wilde had echoed in his original title for 'The Critic as Artist,' which was 'The True Function and Value of Criticism.' Arnold memorably declared that 'the aim of criticism is to see the object in itself as it really is.' The definition went with his demand for 'disinterested curiosity' from the critic. Its effect was to put the critic on his knees before the work he was discussing. Not everyone enjoyed this position. Nine years later Pater wrote his preface to the Renaissance. Pretending to agree with Arnold's definition of the aim of criticism, he quoted it and added, 'the first step towards seeing one's object as it really is, is to know one's impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly.' Pater's corollary subtly altered the original proposition, shifting the center of attention from the rock of the object to the rivulets of the perception. It made the critic's own work more important as well as more subjective. If 'observation' is still the word, the critic looks in on himself as often as out to the object.
Wilde outdid Pater. He proposed in 'The Critic as Artist' that the aim of criticism is to see the object as it really is not. This aim might seem to justify the highly personal criticism of individual works which Arnold and Pater wrote, and Wilde uses them as examples. But his contention goes beyond their practice. He wants to free critics from subordination, to grant them a larger share in the production of literature. Although he does not forbid them to explain a book, they might prefer—he says—to deepen its mystery. (The suggestion is amusing but dated: who could deepen the mystery of Finnegans Wake? ) At any rate, the critic's context would be different from that of the artist whom he was judging. For, just as the artist claimed independence of experience (Picasso tells us that art is 'what nature is not'), so the critic claims independence of the books he is writing about. 'The highest criticism,' according to Wilde, 'is the record of one's own soul.' The critic must have all literature in his mind and not see particular works in isolation. So he, and we, 'shall be able to realise, not merely our own lives, but the collective spirit of the race, and so to make ourselves absolutely modern in the true meaning of the word modernity. To realise the nineteenth century, one must realise every century that has preceded it and that has contributed to its making.'
Wilde's essay moves smoothly from classical examples—Homer, Plato, and Aristotle—to Dante. He demonstrates the power of the modern critic to control both Greek and medieval dispensations. He also extends the innovative function of the critic by comparing it with that of the criminal. Transvaluating language in the way of Nietzsche and Genet, Wilde finds that critics grow 'less and less interested in actual life, and will seek to gain their impressions almost entirely from what art has touched.' Life is a failure, incapable of repeating the same emotion, and bringing us to action when beauty lies, rather, in These sentiments particularly impressed one reader, the influential editor of The Fortnightly Review, Frank Harris. He wrote to Wilde that 'Plato might have been proud to sign pages 128–9,' those dealing with sin and virtue. 'I've done you wrong in my thoughts these many years, of course, ignorantly, but now, at last, I'll try to atone. You're certain, I think, to be a chef-de-file (if I may use Balzac's coinage without offence) of the generation now growing to manhood in England.' 33 From now on Harris was an important friend and advocate. One day he would write his biography of Wilde, which suffered from Harris's deficiencies as a listener, and was based on improvisation rather than memory. But he published Ten, Pencil and Poison' in his review, as well as the more subversive essay, 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism.' The second of these broadens and sharpens the argument in 'The Critic as Artist,' and where that essay dwells upon past and present, 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' dwells upon the future. Wilde saw that his reconsideration of aestheticism must deal with social and political ideas in a more concerted fashion than in the earlier days, when he had discussed man to diet. To speak of the dignity of manual labor is wrong when everyone knows that manual labor is degrading.
As for the type of socialism, Wilde is opposed to authoritarianism, for that would mean the enslavement of the whole society instead of the part that is at present enslaved. He foresees with approval the annihilation of property, family life, marriage, and jealousy. His model for the artist is Christ, in the style of Blake and D. H. Lawrence, a Christ who teaches the importance of being oneself. Art is a disturbing force. Like criticism, it prevents mere repetition; people must not live one another's lives over and over again. For the artist the best government is none at all, and here Wilde seems to be advocating anarchism rather than socialism. 'I am something of an anarchist,' he told an interviewer in 1894.
'There are three kinds of despots,' he says in a passage that impressed James Joyce. 'There is the despot who tyrannises over the body. There is the despot who tyrannises over the soul. There is the despot who tyrannises over the soul and body alike. The first is called the Prince. The second is called the Pope. The third is called the People.' In Ulysses Stephen Dedalus remarks, 'I am the servant of two masters, an English and an Italian.… And a third … there is who wants me for odd jobs.' They are, he explains, 'the Imperial British State … and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church,' and his compatriots, the Irish. He too would like to be rid of the three despotisms. Christ serves as Wilde's example because he protests against them. But Christ has one limitation: he dwells upon pain. The ultimate purpose shared by life and art is joy. Such joy is to be found in the new Hellenism, in which the best of Greek culture and Christian culture can be synthesized.
Wilde is determined to find a justification for sin. Like criticism, like art, 'What is termed Sin is an essential element of progress.' Without it, the world would grow old and colorless. 'By its curiosity [Arnold's word with Wilde's meaning] Sin increases the experience of the race. Through its intensified individualism it saves us from monotony of type. In its rejection of the current notions about morality, it is one with the highest ethics.' Sin is more useful to society than martyrdom, since it is self-expressive not self-repressive. The goal is the liberation of personality. When the day of true culture comes, sin will be impossible because the soul will transform 'into elements of richer experience, or a finer susceptibility, or a newer mode of thought, acts or passions that with the common would be commonplace, or with the uneducated ignoble, or with the shameful vile. Is this dangerous? Yes; it is dangerous—all ideas, as I told you, are so.'
With these essays Wilde clarified the meaning of Dorian Gray. Dorian was right to seek escape from the repetitious daily round, wrong in expressing only parts—the ungenerous parts—of his nature. Wilde balances here two ideas from his dialogues which look contradictory: one is that art is disengaged from life, the other that it is deeply incriminated with it. That art is sterile, and that art is infectious, are attitudes not beyond reconciliation. Wilde never formulated their union, but he implied something like this: by its creation of beauty, art reproaches the world, calling attention to the world's faults by disregarding them, so the sterility of art is an affront or a parable. Art may also outrage the world by flouting its laws or by indulgently positing their violation. Or art may seduce the world by making it follow an example which seems bad but is really salutary. In these ways the artist moves the world towards self-recognition, with at least a tinge of self-redemption, as he compels himself towards the same end.
By exposing the defects of orthodox aestheticism in Dorian Gray, and the virtues of reconsidered aestheticism in 'The Critic as Artist' and 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism,' Wilde presented the case as fully as he could. However gracefully he expresses himself, there is no doubt that he attacks Victorian assumptions about society. That that society was beginning to disintegrate did not make it more amenable to what Wilde was proposing; if anything, less so. He asked it to tolerate aberrations from the norm, such as homosexuality, to give up its hypocrisy both by recognizing social facts and by acknowledging that its principles were based upon hatred rather than love, leading to privation of personality as of art. Art is the truest individualism the world has known. The threat of Bow Street that Jeyes had made in the St James's Gazette office was not idle, but Wilde meant what he said, and thought that not to take risks was not to live. Like Jean Genet after him, he proposed an analogy between the criminal and the artist, though for him the artist, not needing to act, occupies a superior place. § Rebelliousness and extravagance are needed if society's molds are to be broken, as broken they must be. Art is by nature dissident….