Joseph Bristow, ed.: Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend

oscar wilde bioFrom the vantage of a century later, it’s hard for us to understand the last years of Oscar Wilde’s life and those immediately after his death. His disgrace after his conviction for committing acts of “gross indecency” with another man was such that a notice published on his death declined to mention his name, difficult to credit in a world where the sexual peccadilloes of even the more conservative of public figures (or perhaps I mean “especially the more conservative”) are shrugged off or even rewarded with a standing ovation in the chambers of the U.S. Senate.

However, this is now, that was then, and the world has changed more than we realize. Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture traces the elements of Wilde’s rehabilitation and transformation from complete outcast to iconic figure — indeed, a veritable archetype — for not only the GLBT community, but the arts in general.

Editor Joseph Bristow begins this collection of essays and papers with a detailed and exhaustive preface that gives the reader a thorough run-down on the topics and approaches included. This is followed by a chronology of Wilde’s life, death, and rehabilitation, and then the meat. Bristow’s Introduction provides a detailed biographical and historical background for the rest of the book.

There are some key concepts that thread their way through these essays, first among them being “rebellion,” probably the main theme of the studies included. Other ideas intersect, most notably the whole complex of identity, gender, and sexuality, and politics, both in the sense of governing societies and in the more personal, social sense.

Lucy McDiarmid, for example, in “Oscar Wilde, Lady Gregory, and Late-Victorian Table Talk,” approaches the study of Wilde from the standpoint of the cultural meaning of meals — specifically, dinner conversation in Victorian England. Invitations to the right dinner parties were only the first step. One of Wilde’s own epigrams provides the gist of the next: “A man who can dominate a London dinner table can dominate the world.” Needless to say, Wilde was one such, and McDiarmid provides a revealing account of the milieu in which Wilde moved and the degree to which personal politics influenced broader political and social phenomena.

Erin Williams Hyman’s “Salome as Bombshell, or How Oscar Wilde Became an Anarchist” provides an inverse view of Wilde’s emergence as a political actor: while he seems to have been about as apolitical as it’s possible to be, his stance as a proponent of aestheticism and his life as a flagrant individualist necessarily aligned him with radical/anarchist politics, at least in the mind of those who practiced such things.

Yvonne Ivory gives another perspective on the political theme in “The Trouble with Oskar: Wilde’s Legacy for the Early Homosexual Rights Movement in Germany.” Wilde enjoyed immense popularity in Germany in the years immediately after his death in 1900, and even before: in the early years of the twentieth century, Salome was the most-performed play in that country, and there were any number of editions of his other works in translation. Ivory traces Wilde’s influence — or the influence of the legend of Wilde — as it impacted anarchism and radical philosophy in general. In this instance, same-sex love is seen as an aspect of extreme individualism, a development of the self and the establishment of identity as something independent of an authoritarian and repressive society. Ivory also touches on the conflict between Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, with its emphasis on the medical/scientific depiction of homosexuality as a normal orientation, which embraced Wilde as an icon, and the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen, which emphasized a more platonic/romantic view of same-sex love and which tried very hard to ignore Wilde. It’s notable, and somewhat ironic, that in both cases, Wilde’s life was much more influential than his work.

Daniel Novak, in “Sexuality in the Age of Technological Reproducibility: Oscar Wilde, Photography, and Identity,” provides a complex and somewhat abstruse argument concerned with the boundaries and intersections between fiction, photography, reproduction and author, and the differentiation between person and personality, an issue central to the question of identity. For the reader unfamiliar with aetheticism or the practices of nineteenth-century photography, this is likely to be heavy going, but Novak does point to the ways in which Wilde transcended his own highly idiosyncratic persona to become, in effect, an archetype — or perhaps more accurately, a stereotype — of a particular brand of sexuality.

Leslie J. Moran’s “Transcripts and Truth: Writing the Trials of Oscar Wilde” brings to the fore what is a subtext for many of these essays although broached by Novak: the degree to which the “truth” of Wilde’s life is based on fiction. Moran’s focus is on the “verbatim” accounts of the trials of 1895, supposedly derived from transcripts which seem not to exist. Although rather dry (unless you’re a legal geek), Moran’s commentary is very instructive.

Richard A. Kaye explores a further variation on this idea in “Oscar Wilde and the Politics of Posthumous Sainthood,” in which he explores the idea of martyrdom as it shifted meanings from a noble sacrifice to what is almost a pathology, an expression of a Freudian “death wish.” Wilde becomes an emblem of persecution, made an equivalent to Dreyfus by Gustave Mirbeau and Marcel Proust, while Kaye notes Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s attempt to rescue him from this fate that ultimately places Wilde in an even more mythic position.

Julie Townsend’s “Staking Salome: The Literary Forefathers and Choreographic Daughters of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Hysterical and Perverted Creature'” presents another variation of Wilde as the archetypal dissident, focusing on Salome as an “emblem of aesthetic, political, and sexual insubordination.” It should be self-evident that one of Townsend’s main focuses in this essay is Wilde as a catalyst for the examination of gender as a cultural construct and its redefinition under the influence of new understandings of sexuality.

This is a theme that is also central to Lizzie Thynne’s “‘Surely You Are Not Claiming to Be More Homosexual Than I?’ Claude Cahun And Oscar Wilde.” Cahun was a photographer who worked with her partner, Suzanne Malherbe, and whose work focused on questions of gender and identity.

The remainder of the essays are concerned mainly with the re-emergence of Wilde in the theater — not as a creator, but as an influence and, ultimately, as a subject. Laurel Brake’s “Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife: A Dialogue” details a Wildean tradition of drama moving into the twentieth century. Francesca Coppa, in “Artist as Protagonist: Wilde on Stage” examines some of the depictions of Wilde in modern American and English theater, while Matt Cook, in “Wilde Lives: Derek Jarman and the Queer Eighties” takes on the task of exploring Wilde as an icon of the emerging gay culture after Stonewall as influenced by the political characterization of AIDS as a “gay disease” and the emergence of the so-called “traditional values” right as a major political force. Oliver S. Buckton’s “Oscar Goes to Hollywood: Wilde, Sexuality, and the Gaze of Contemporary Cinema” examines Wilde’s sexual attraction to men, often characterized as an “aberration” (following Wilde’s own somewhat self-serving description) through the lens of contemporary cinema, not always the most progressive of media.

While one or two of the essays are rather dense and occasionally recondite, on the whole the collection is easily digestible and highly informative, not only about Wilde himself but about the various cultural contexts in which he has existed for the last century plus. I don’t necessarily recommend it as something to be done in a single sitting, but I do recommend it.

(University of Ohio Press, 2008)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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