Wilde: More Lives Than One

Three quarter length portrait
of Oscar Wilde, c. 1882
BY Napoleon Sarony
(Photographic print on card mount: albumen)
Library of Congress
Prints & Photographs Division
LOT 12385

The currently high esteem Oscar Wilde is held in by the French and Germans may seem odd to an Englishman. But the enduring fascination Wilde exerts on the modern mind is certainly reciprocated in contemporary England — the stained glass window in Westminister Abbey (1995) — alongside luminaries like Pope, Housman, Marlowe; the monument near Trafalgar Square (1998) as well as the more recent Oliver Park film adaptations of Dorian Gray (2009), The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) and The Ideal Husband (1999). In fact, in the last decade, there have been at least seven film adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray alone; and needless to say, the effervescent plays themselves (which established Wilde’s reputation as ubiquitous wit) are never quite offstage.

In 2004, at a Sotheby’s auction of a trove of Wilde material almost everything was sold to private buyers or British dealers, with the notable exception of a vitriolic attack (Wilde Myth, an unpublished book) by his tempestuous lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, as well as a photograph of Wilde on his deathbed. Which is to say that, over a hundred years after his death, Oscar Wilde still lives in the public imagination and that love for him unabashedly dares to declare its name.

One of the less sensational accusations leveled against Oscar Wilde is that he was merely a plagiarizer of Walter Pater, English critic and advocate of the doctrine “art for art’s sake.” But Wilde’s indebtedness to Pater was of another caliber altogether; he was his apostle. If he sang freely from Pater’s aesthetic hymn book it is because Pater and his theories on art represented a cult that Wilde sought to make a religion. What’s more, Wilde “plagiarized” widely, an example of Eliot’s famous justification “great poets steal.”

In his introduction to The Portable Oscar Wilde, Richard Aldington writes “Absolute originality in art is of course a delusion. Not only are we all the sons of somebody in whatever art we attempt, but the ‘higher’ our aims the greater the number of predecessors to whom we are indebted… All writers borrow from others, consciously or unconsciously. The successful — I mean artistically — do it consciously.”

Wilde was no exception. As an impressionable young poet, he borrowed from his Masters — Milton, Tennyson and Arnold — as a critic he borrowed from his contemporaries; as a novelist he borrowed from Disraeli, Stevenson and Huysmans, and as a dramatist he is indebted to the French scandal plays. In fact, throughout his entire career, he regularly borrowed from himself.

What is significant is the synthesis, or outcome, of these influences, how Wilde’s distinctive voice transforms whatever he borrows into something uniquely his own.

“Walter Pater’s style is, to me, like the face of some old woman who has been to Madame Rachel and had herself enameled. The bloom is nothing but powder and paint and the odor is cherry blossom —” this is Samuel Butler’s assessment of Pater’s overwrought style. Certainly, Wilde borrowed openly from Pater’s Renaissance, but sharing the same credo meant occasionally sharing the same forms of expression.

However, the overall impression produced by both men is markedly different. Pater is bleak, morbid, restrained and unnatural, like Butler’s “enameled woman”; while Wilde exudes wit that is light, bright and effortless. The celebrated incident in Oxford, where the normally taciturn Professor Pater in an ecstasy of admiration, dropped to his knees and made to kiss the undergraduate Wilde’s hands, would suggest he agreed with this evaluation.

But this is all immaterial, or rather raw material. What is significant is the synthesis, or outcome, of these influences, how Wilde’s distinctive voice transforms whatever he borrows into something uniquely his own. Wedding the creative and critical faculties, he produced distinguished essays (“The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” “The Truth of Masks”); his short stories reveal a rare sensitivity and spirituality, especially The Happy Prince and Other Tales; his dialogues are notable for their wit and contrarian wisdom (“The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”) and the plays are recognized classics.

“All art is at once surface and symbol,” Wilde says in the preface of his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril.” It is precisely this richly layered text, with its multiplicity of meaning, that differentiated Wilde from his predecessors. Then, there is the paradox as serious sphere of thought, from which Wilde’s words are woven. “In matters of grave importance,” he says in an aphorism he seems to have applied both to his life and literature, “style, not sincerity is the vital thing.”

In Dorian Gray, Dorian marvels as he describes the effect of Lord Henry Wotton’s words:

Words, mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel. One could not escape from them — And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things… Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?

Real or unreal, Wilde’s words possess a life of their own, and with it the power to move us. There is a Socratic aspect to Wilde’s conversational practice, conducted in Victorian drawing rooms versus the Greek marketplace, in his rigorous questioning of unexamined beliefs or widely held assumptions. Using the Socratic method of making the reader aware of their own contradictions, no truth is a given; none that cannot be turned upside down, then inside out, and summarized in an inverted epigram. “I had put my genius into my life and only my talent into my writing,” Wilde famously pronounced to André Gide, shortly before his death. Perhaps it would have been apt had he said he had put his genius into his conversation, for conversation was his life. Wilde was an inspired talker, and the best of his writing carries the fleet wit, or scent of his conversation.

A gifted conversationalist and raconteur, he made quite an impression on his audience, with a voice described as alluring and his sentences as mellifluous. Poet William Butler Yeats writes: “My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he’d written them all overnight with labor and yet all spontaneous.” Writer and caricaturist Max Beerbohm sketches him thus: “…the vitality of twenty men, magnetism — authority. Deeper than repute or wit, hypnotic.”

Wilde could be hypnotizing in his writing as well, what Nietzsche calls “seduction by grammar,” to the extent that the enraptured readers may find themselves oblivious to the danger of the ideas put forth or the irresponsibility of the speaker. Here, again, from Dorian Gray, is Lord Henry’s personification of a Wildean “performance,” at a dinner party:

He played with the idea, and grew willful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy, and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and Philosophy herself became young — Facts fled before her like frightened forest things.

Nonetheless, this is all effect and effective style, the magic of “mere words.” What is more disturbing, to the extent that it is more real, is the relation of Wilde’s life to his art, particularly in Dorian Gray. It is no secret that Wilde’s world revolved around Wilde, that his character dominated his every work, reducing all else to shadow. What is surprising, however, are the hints and warnings to himself which equally infiltrated his œuvre, also vying for center stage.

Oscar Wilde, full-length portrait, standing
with hands behind back, facing front,
leaning against a wall, c. 1882
BY Napoleon Sarony
1 photographic print on card mount: albumen.
Library of Congress
Prints & Photographs Division
LOT 12385

Stanley Weintraub says, “It was through more than critical uniformity that Wilde’s essays, stories, and plays talked of masks and lying, and pivoted cleverly upon deception and double lives.” The Picture of Dorian Gray is exceptional in the concentration of (unconscious) honesty and prophecy that lay in its folds. Or, as Wilde put it: “…the note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray.” In a sense, this novel is Wilde’s first apologia, his first De Profundis, at once hinting to the world at what he was and warning himself of what he might become.

“It almost seems as if Wilde were warning himself throughout the book that as long as he kept his aesthetic theories (i.e. his homosexuality) to the realm of pure Platonism and idealistic art, he was safe; but that as soon as he transferred them to the sphere of action he was courting disaster… Lord Henry Wotton is Wilde as he hoped to remain, Dorian Gray as he feared he might become,” writes Aldington in his introduction to The Portable Oscar Wilde (Penguin, 1981).

Whether or not this is what Wilde thought, it is not what he said. His identification with the three central characters of Dorian Gray was much more telling, and damning: “Basil Halward is what I think I am, Lord Henry is what the world thinks me, and Dorian Gray is how I’d like to be.”

No one can disagree that Lord Henry was what the world thought of Wilde, but that he should think himself Basil and like to be Dorian is less obvious. In the novel, Basil Halward is the rooted, reserved artist with an ethical core the size of Lord Henry’s corrosive ego and of Dorian’s corruption. Elsewhere in conversation Wilde had also said: “I am certain that I have three separate souls… for in addition to the counterurges, there is a third urge to contemplate the other two.”

What is certain is that Wilde had much more substance than he cared to admit. For, just as he was a creature in opposition to the Victorian culture, he was a creature in opposition to himself. Maddened by his own music, Wilde was too clever to not know that he only told half-truths, only he no longer knew when. He ceased to be a magician when he began to believe in his magic and, lionized as he was in literary London, he forgot his own maxim: “In a temple everyone should be serious, except the thing that is worshipped.”

In his prison memoirs, De Profundis, which in addition to containing his most searing self-analysis contains his finest prose poetry, Wilde admits that he had “treated art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction.” The confusion of the two forces and their limitations are ultimately what destroys Dorian Gray; that and the accumulated price of having to return to a private viewing of his increasingly corrupted soul, the portrait in the attic.

Dorian’s initial resistance to Lord Henry’s “poisonous” views, and Basil’s convictions, marked a struggle Wilde was slowly losing with the passing of every day. A war waged within himself against what he believed to be good and evil. So that when Dorian kills Basil, he has in effect killed his own conscience, and Dorian’s suicide is simply a matter of time. “As a wicked man I am a complete failure,” Wilde wrote; but it is when he began to doubt this that he self-destructed. The artist with no ethical sympathies and the person who maintained them could no longer coexist.

And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die.

— Ballad of Reading Gaol

In the Platonic dialogue, “The Decay of Lying,” Wilde dwells on the idea that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. Whether or not it does so “far more” is questionable, but once again Wilde had illuminated the other side, showing that “a truth in art is that whose contradiction is true.” But was The Picture of Dorian simply an instance of Life imitating Art, or was it more complexly an instance of an artist so enamored with his artwork that he sought to actualize it? Whatever the case, it is uncanny how interwoven Wilde’s life and art are, and judging by his prolific output after Dorian, it is as though Wilde knew the end was near. At the time of his arrest for “gross indecency’”with young men, two of his plays were showing to packed houses.

“In London, one should never make one’s debut with a scandal. One should reserve that to give an interest to one’s old age,” Lord Henry quips in Dorian Gray. It would take Wilde less than five years to “give an interest” to his middle age. In the end, it was his lack of balance that caused him to topple: his hubris, his over-indulgence, his superficiality. Namely, the very same qualities in lesser quantities, which had permitted him to scale the stairs of success. Frank Harris offers these words of wisdom in his sympathetic and masterful biography of Wilde:[1]

…the frailties of man tend to become master-vices…. life tries all of us, tests every weak point to breaking, and sets off and exaggerates our powers… whoever yields to a weakness habitually, someday goes further than he ever intended, and comes to worse grief than he deserved.

No discussion of Wilde’s works is complete without a discussion of Wilde’s life or personality. His was a character composed of contradictions: at once worldly and naive, who idealized languor yet was consistently productive; who trivialized seriousness and yet treated the trivial with studied seriousness. Publicly, he declared style over substance and aesthetics over ethics but privately he struggled with these conflicting values, in a life full of fiction and in fiction full of fact. As a poet he sang the praises of nature, as a critic he rejected it for art, and as an artist he returned to it. He was a man who needed to enter society to satirize it, the snob who secretly wanted the acceptance of the mob. In comparison to an analysis of Wilde, then, an appraisal of his writing seems considerably less complicated.

Wilde was a lord of language, declared Max Beerbohm. W.H. Auden would write, that he had created, “a verbal universe in which the characters are determined by the kind of things they say, and the plot is nothing but a succession of opportunities to say them.” Even Shaw is uncharacteristically charitable: “In a certain sense Mr. Wilde is to me our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.” Richard Aldington’s critique of Wilde’s dialogues, at once fair and generous, may as well apply to his entire body of work:[2]

Certainly, in these dialogues there are faults of affectation, of paradox not more than half true, of exuberance — but surely we may forgive the paradoxes for their wit, the exuberances for their beauty, and even the affectations for their harmlessness.

It seems only fair, however, that the person who loved Wilde best should have the last word:

I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age… I made art a philosophy and philosophy an art… I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.

De Profundis

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  1. Harris, Frank. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2007, 85.
  1. Aldington, Richard, ed. The Portable Oscar Wilde. New York: Penguin, 1981, 25.

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