Oscar Wilde

Wendy Hiller as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest

On this date in 1895 Oscar Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency with other males” and sentenced to two years hard labor.

Frye in Creation and Recreation:

A year or so ago, after agreeing to help teach an undergraduate course in Shakespeare, I settled down to reread one of my favorite pieces of Shakespeare criticism, Oscar Wilde’s essay on “The Truth of Masks.”  The essay, however, was one in a collected volume of Wilde’s critical essays, and I find it easy to get hooked on Wilde.  His style often makes him sound dated, and yet he is consistently writing from a point of view that is at least half a century later than his actual time.  He is one of our few genuinely prophetic writers, and, as with other prophets, everything he writes seems either to lead up to his tragic confrontation with society or reflect back on it.  Partly because of this, he deliberately restricts his audience.  He sets up a palisade of self-conscious and rather mechanical wit, which not only infuriates those who have no idea what he is talking about but often puts off those who do.  We may get so annoyed at his dandies waving their hands languidly at thick volumes labeled “Plato” or “Aristotle” that we may forget that Wilde could, and did, read Greek, and that his references to Classical authors are usually quite precise.  So before long I was back in the world of the essay called “The Decay of Lying,” now widely regarded to have said a great deal of what modern theories of criticism have been annotating in more garbled language ever since.

The main thesis of this essay is that man does not live directly and nakedly in nature like animals, but within an envelope that he has constructed out of nature, the envelope usually called culture or civilization.  When Wordsworth urges his reader to leave his books, go outdoors, and let nature be his teacher, his “nature” is a north temperate zone nature which in nineteenth-century England had become, even in the Lake District, largely a human artifact.  One can see the importance, for poets and others, of the remoteness and otherness of nature: the feeling that the eighteenth century expressed in the word “sublime” conveys to us that there is such a thing as creative alienation.  The principle laid down by the Italian philosopher Vico of verum factum, that we understand only what we have made ourselves, needs to be refreshed sometimes by the contemplation of something we did not make and do not understand.  The difficulty with Wordsworth’s view is in the word “teacher.”  A nature which was not primarily a human artifact could teach man nothing except that he was not it.  We are taught by our own cultural conditioning, and by that alone.  (CW 4, 36-7)

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