Oscar Wilde: Surface as Depth

No Pride Month series would be complete without a nod to Oscar Wilde, the queen mother of the queer aesthetic. This profile by Joshua Glenn from Hermenaut , a journal of philosophy and popular culture, summarizes Wilde’s defense of artifice as a vehicle for a subversive and redemptive critique of society. Like Emily Dickinson, Wilde believed the best way to tell the truth was to tell it slant…or, if you prefer, inverted . Some excerpts from Glenn’s article:

…Contemporary theorists of “subversive laughter” argue that laughter provoked by slips, stumbles, and somersaults of the body or tongue offers the hope of political liberation by suggesting that the world is not unchangeable, that inflexible rules can suddenly be transformed into something flexible: think Charlie Chaplin or Lenny Bruce. Irony, on the other hand (they claim), is a form of humor which is not revolutionary but subversive, since it only pokes towards reform among an elite audience instead of seeking to overthrow the reigning order outright: think of Socrates’ affected ignorance or Kierkegaard’s roundabout writing. Wilde’s humorous plays, which take sly jabs at bourgeois customs and morals, are certainly ironic, but not in the detached and shallow way that every “sophisticated” playwright after him—from Noel Coward to Neil Simon—has used irony. Because it is always laden with the foreboding sense that the society he was baiting would eventually punish him for it, and because it is also always informed by a deep moral seriousness (although his morality conflicts with that of bourgeois society’s), Wilde’s flippant yet emotionally and politically engaged form of irony is camp.

When asked to describe the “philosophy” behind The Importance of Being Earnest (whose subtitle is “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”), Wilde replied, “We should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” This is perhaps the closest anyone has ever come to defining the camp attitude, which asks, “What is the importance of being earnest, anyway?” “Who are the people the world takes seriously?” asks Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s Fan, “All the dull people one can think of, from the Bishops down to the bores… I think life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.” Wilde, who published his own intellectual notions (which he took seriously) in collections of witty aphorisms with titles like “Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated” and “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” also refuses to accord intellectual seriousness the respect it demands: “Nothing is serious except passion,” says Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance, “The intellect is not a serious thing, and never has been. It is an instrument on which one plays, that is all.” The earnest mind cannot comprehend the paradoxical truths which Wilde would reveal, and, like Nietzsche’s Overman, Wilde’s aesthetes operate at a moral level which is so absurdly removed from the ordinary it seems like a put-on.

Wilde and the enlightened aesthetes of his writing are not flippant, nor are they earnest; nor are they not-flippant, nor not-earnest. Like the dancing Shiva image in Hinduism, which is indifferent yet amused, detached yet dancing the world into being, Wilde’s camp irony is more revolutionary than the laughter espoused by radical humor theorists, precisely because it is beyond good and evil, beyond funny and un-funny. Wilde’s camp philosophy, which mixes serious espousal and mockery, is absurd, and only by being so can it be truly redemptive.


“The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet found out.” —from Wilde’s “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young.”

“My ambitions do not stop with composing poems. I want to make of my life itself a work of art,” announced Wilde. Putting on new identities like he put on new outfits, Wilde wasn’t simply heeding Pater’s admonition that “Failure is to form habits”; he was putting into practice his existential belief that the self is in fact no deeper than a painter’s canvas. Having studied under the American drama coach Steele Mackaye, who taught that self-conscious gestures and poses could transform one’s very interiority, Wilde sought to transform his own self into a work of art which—like all art considered beautiful by Wilde’s theory of aestheticism—called into question conformist bourgeois values. So although the dandy pose Wilde adopted seems merely frivolous and queer, in the utilitarian bourgeois culture of Victorian England it represented something much more subversive.

Today, Wilde’s brand of dandyism signifies a frivolous, non-threatening display of homosexuality. But the “sodomite,” according to the Victorian mind, merely engaged in a peculiar sort of sexual behavior: The word “homosexual” didn’t even exist at the time. Same-sex desire, that is to say, was considered to be nothing but a degenerate pose, not a mode of being—hence Queensberry’s curious accusation of Wilde. So, although his trial may have forever associated effeminate dandyism with same-sex desire, for Wilde the dandy represented the struggle artistically to develop one’s unique individuality in a materialistic society which requires of its male citizens the utilitarian virtues of rationality, moderation, self-sacrifice, self-discipline, industry, and thrift.

How so? When the English bourgeoisie came into being, it rejected the pleasure-seeking values of the hated aristocracy in favor of new virtues related to hard work and simple pleasures. According to one recent study, the no-nonsense bourgeoisie even created a new body language, one which was open and direct as opposed to the stylized poses of the aristocrats. So the original dandies of the 17th and 18th centuries, who admired the vanishing aristocrat’s disdain for the socially acceptable pursuit of wealth (in favor of the pursuit of self-development), were in turn rejecting bourgeois values with their frivolous poses. This explains why Wilde set his plays and stories among the aristocracy: not because he worshipped power and money, but because he admired the dandy’s anti-utilitarian world-view. Wilde wasn’t against the “common man,” but he despised anything “common” or “vulgar” (by which he meant “received” or “taken for granted”). In Wilde’s first play Vera, the hero states, “In a good democracy, every man should be an aristocrat.” Wilde wanted an aristocracy of everyone.


…Art, for Wilde, is the source of truth—precisely because it never tells the truth. In a famous passage in “The Decay of Lying,” Vivian tells Cyril that “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us… Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style, while Life—poor, probable, uninteresting human life…will [always] follow meekly after…” However, although the artist performs a service by showing reality as it is not, his or her perspective is still made too narrow by the focus of their particular medium. The critic, however, who is free to explore all schools of art, and is therefore free of prejudice, is another matter.

Wilde argues that in “criticism of the highest kind” (or “right interpretive criticism”), rather than seeking to discover the “true” intention of the artist, the critic actually lends a text or canvas its myriad meanings. (Any work of art which has but one message to reveal, and is therefore incapable of inspiring reverie and imagination, is not beautiful by Wilde’s definition.) “It is Criticism that, recognizing no position as final, and refusing to bind itself by the shallow shibboleths of any sect or school, creates that serene philosophic temper which loves truth for its own sake, and loves it not the less because it knows it,” says Gilbert. “Truth,” he concludes, “is merely one’s last mood.” More importantly, according to Lord Illingworth, “Taking sides is the beginning of sincerity, and earnestness follows shortly afterwards, and the human being becomes a bore.”

But Wilde is not simply a relativist. For as one character says in Dorian Gray, “The way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test Reality we must see it on the tight-rope. When the Verities become acrobats we can judge them.” And in “The Truth of Masks,” Wilde writes that “A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.” (“The wise contradict themselves,” agrees “Phrases and Philosophies.”) That which is ultimately true can only be that which beautifully contradicts itself, thereby provoking us to wonder. This is why Wilde so often praises the liar, whose aim “is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure.” By not seeking to force his opinions on others, the liar may actually help to usher in a new, utopian world in which, as Vivian puts it, “Facts will be regarded as discreditable, Truth will be found mourning over her fetters, and Romance, with her temper of wonder, will return to the land.” The willful creation of self-contradictory, multiplicitous, “insincere”—and therefore wonder-inspiring—meaning, is camp truth.

Read the whole article here .

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