The Oscar Wilde Fad


 

There he is, all around us, looming larger than ever: Oscar
Wilde–wit, critic, martyr, homosexual, and media darling. The year 2000 marks the
centenary of Wilde’s death and, as if to make up for his horrid treatment at the hands of
respectable society 100 years ago, the construction of a hagiography is well underway.
Last year Moises Kaufman’s documentary play Gross Indecencies opened off-Broadway
and won an Obie Award. Last month Liam Neeson opened as Wilde in David Hare’s Broadway
hit, The Judas Kiss. Julian Mitchell’s film Wilde, starring Stephen Fry, is
now is wide release. In addition there are at least ten new books about Wilde being
published including The Wilde Album, a photo collection put together by his
grandson, Merlin Holland; Jonathan Fryer’s Andre and Oscar an examination of
Wilde’s friendship with Gide; Philip Hoar’s Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence,
Conspiracy and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century,
a look at Wilde’s political
legacy; Jerusha McCormack’s Wilde the Irishman" and Joel H. Kaplan’s Theater
and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes,
detailing the playwrights relationship
to dress reform, social change, and feminism.

There has also been a explosion of Oscar Lite–a plethora of new
"wit and wisdom" books that recycle every epigram, aphorism, and clever turn of
phase Wilde ever penned, uttered, or was overheard muttering to himself. He was one of the
first public figures to cultivate a cult of personality. Adam Gropnick noted recently in
the New Yorker that Wilde "invented the talk show guest before there was a
talk show to welcome him."

The contemporary reconstruction of Oscar Wilde (or any historical
figure) occurs to meet a current public need. The Bloomsbury mania of the late
1970s–detailing the pan-sexual shenanigans of Edwardian bohemians–was as much a response
to the impact that feminism and the gay movement had on people’s lives as it did with a
new appreciation of the writings of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey. The repeated
revivals of Jack Kerouc and the beats speak to the needs of readers to find (again) a
sense of freedom in an increasingly repressive society.

The two central images–myths, really–of Wilde, promoted in this
barrage of popular and academic culture are: Oscar, the gay martyr and/or Oscar the
cocktail party wit. Both these Wilde persona carry substantial social meaning and
basically ring true but they also miss the essence of Oscar Wilde. More importantly, the
entrenched popularity of each may bespeak a desire to avoid–even eliminate–the real
political and social threat that Oscar Wilde presented, and continues to present, to
society.

First myth: Saint Oscar, patron of oppressed homosexuals. There is
no doubt that Oscar Wilde was treated abominably by the society in which he lived. The
scorn heaped on him for being too openly gay was enormous, and the Labouchere Amendment,
under which he was sentenced to two years hard labor, criminalized the act of sodomy
"in private." (A situation not all that different in the U.S. today; in 1986 the
Supreme Court ruled that there was no "constitutional" right to privacy.)
Wilde’s drastic and dramatic fall from lauded artist and VIP to social pariah and criminal
is a cautionary tale of how homophobia can level even the most famous. One could not wish
for a more compelling symbol of how much mainstream culture can hate homosexuality. In a
culture that still refuses to admit the harm its homophobia causes, Wilde-as-icon-of-
oppression is not a bad idea. (Although it is interesting to note that several of the boys
with whom Wilde had affairs with were under 17-years-old: if Wilde lived today, he would
be on top of the Sexual Offenders Registry, and a dismissed monster to many in the gay and
lesbian community.) This process of popular canonization–vox media, vox populi–began in
1960 with The Trials of Oscar Wilde" and Oscar Wilde, two landmark
British films that transformed Wilde from a predatory and pathetic sexual invert to an
innocent victim of anti-sexual prejudice. This "sainthood" continues today in
both Hare and Kaufman’s plays as well as Mitchell’s film. While the truth here is
self-evident, as Wilde was persecuted by narrow-minded, hypocritical, anti-sexual society,
it is an easy truth, and essentially an uninteresting one, that barters sympathy for
autonomy, victim-hood for independence. It is also a truth with which the majority of the
media (gay and mainstream)–and most people–are quite comfortable. We are now in a time
when sentimentalized suffering is seen as better currency for social change than getting
angry and fighting back.

Second myth: Oscar Wilde, the ultimate sophisticate and wit. No
doubt about it, Wilde’s plays, essays, and conversation are riddled with some of the
pithiest, succinct bon-mots ever quipped in the Queen’s English. While other British
writers of the period (and later) conveyed humor and insight through irony, reversals, and
paradox–Jerome K. Jerome, Saki, and Ronald Firbank being the most noted–Wilde can take
credit for its popularization, if not invention, as an art form. But the reduction of
Wilde to a humor machine, a classy gag-writer, misses two, and somewhat related, important
points. Wilde’s ironic, perfectly-formed quips were insightful, often profound,
observations on society, the world, and human nature. They were "wit" in the
original sense of the word: knowledge, keenness, perception. If they did not reveal deeper
"truth" most of Wilde’s "jokes" would have receded into the blur of
forgotten literature. The many collections of Wilde’s "wit and wisdom" make the
serious, almost unforgivable, error of separating the "one-liners" from their
context thus rendering them insignificant, if still amusing. The result is to domesticate
Wilde, to remove the edge and the insight, to make him the innocuous Dandy who is
"nice," not threatening; mischievous, not menacing.

The myths of Saint Oscar and Oscar the Dandy largely exist to
sentimentalize Wilde’s power as a social critic and thinker. Queer theorist Jonathan
Dollimore, in his book Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault
hints at Wilde’s radical social program when he explores the writer’s understanding of the
importance of artifice in human relationships and in social structures. Dollimore claims
Wilde as a post-modernist who is so ahead of his time that "modernism" is barely
yet invented. It is true that Wilde repeatedly "exposes" how the construction of
social entities–from public personas to institutions such as marriage and law–are
literally made up to suit the needs of those in power. And, by implication, such
institutions can be, should be, de-constructed and re-constructed for the greater public
good. Even now, this is a startling view of how the world works, or might work.

But even this does not get to the root of Wilde’s social
radicalism, which is found in his embrace of both the theories of "art for art’s
sake" movement and his demand that the needs of the individual take precedent over
the needs of the established social structure. The idea that art could – should – exist
without a utilitarian function was an outright rejection of Victorian social ideology. In
most of Western culture pleasure is viewed with suspicion and alarm. That the pleasure art
might produce was justification enough for its existence was a startling idea, and remains
so for some even now. This view is closely linked with the idea – so prevalent in
Victorian social theory – that the individual is simply a cog in larger machinery of
social organization. In The Soul of Man Under Socialism Wilde argues that
"individualism" is the motivating force behind politics and culture; that
without the mandate to explore the self society will never grow and change. Wilde’s use of
the word "individualism" hardly translates today as its meaning has taken on Ayn
Randian notions of libertarianism.

Wilde’s usage suggests that only after personal needs can be
understood and expressed can a broader scale of social change happen.

In anticipation of the theories of such 1960 thinkers, such as
Marcuse, R.D. Laing, and Norman O. Brown, Wilde also insists that "politics,"
"culture," and "the self" are inextricably intertwined. This
articulation of the concept that "the personal is political" came a full century
before it was nearly universally accepted. Now when we have begun to waver in the other
direction is it any wonder that Wilde’s "wit and wisdom"–dismembered from its
context–is extraordinarily popular while hardly anyone reads The Soul of Man Under
Socialism.
While Wilde’s discourse here seems a bit naive for our times he is usually
on the mark. He writes on private property: "With the abolition of private property,
then we shall have true, beautiful, individualism. Nobody will waste his life in
accumulating things and the symbols of things. One will live. To live in the rarest thing
in the world. Most people exist. That is all." On Wilde on liberal reformism:
"They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive;
or in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution:
it is an aggravation of the difficulty. "The proper aim is to try and re-construct
society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible." No wonder The Soul of
Man Under Socialism
doesn’t get quoted much these days.

The sexual implications of Wilde’s artistic and socialistic
theories are also clear. If "pleasure" must be justified, only heterosexuality
and reproduction can be allowed. But if pleasure can exist without justification (art, so
to speak, for its own sake), homosexuality is not only not a vice, but a virtue. Sexual
freedom then would in part exist when heterosexual activity is not linked to reproduction.
By extension, women would only be free when reproduction was not demanded (or even
expected) of them. Again and again in his plays and critical writings Wilde extolls the
value of pleasure over simple usefulness and the importance of the individual action and
impulse over the needs of society. Wilde’s message is still radical and frightening now.
In this age of "just say no," the constant eroding of the constitutional right
to abortion and other reproductive rights, the attacks on gay sexuality and gay rights,
the cutbacks in AIDS and safe education (and the insistence on promoting abstinence as the
only "sure" way to prevent AIDS), Oscar Wilde’s message of pleasure and
individual freedom are as necessary as they were 100 years ago. But will they be heard?
Victorian society responded to Wilde’s threat by imprisoning him; we respond with
victim-status sentimentalizing and pretending he is just another clever queen with a quip
and an attitude.