When a cultural figure feels as familiar as Oscar Wilde, reconsidering and repackaging their works becomes a genuine challenge. Verso’s new anthology In Praise of Disobedience: The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Writings, edited by novelist and playwright Neil Bartlett, takes an innovative approach, focusing on Wilde’s output of a single year: 1891.
This was a year when Wilde was at the height of his creative powers, confirming his growing reputation as a talented yet scandalous author by publishing the final version of his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. He built on it with two volumes of short fiction, an essay collection, and “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” — his most serious attempt at bringing his well-documented interest in aesthetics into political theory.
It’s impossible to read Wilde today — especially the barely concealed homoerotic relationships of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which feature in the extracts in this collection — without thinking about his trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency” in 1895 and his attendant public disgrace. Hoping to rehabilitate him, Wilde’s supporters tended to domesticate him and his works — a process that began far more quickly than contemporary readers might imagine. His essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” was reprinted just five days after his conviction — albeit in a private edition of fifty copies, with its text truncated and its title cut down to “The Soul of Man.” Opening with this piece, its title restored, Bartlett reminds us that during Wilde’s lifetime, his “radicalism, not his charm, was at the core of his reputation,” and that for all his aphoristic irony, Wilde’s statements should always be taken seriously.
Certainly, 1891 was an extraordinary year for Wilde. As well as meeting Lord Alfred Douglas and starting the affair that caused his downfall, he published The Picture of Dorian Gray, serialized the year before, as a longer and revised novel with a new preface. He also released a collection of fairy tales, A House of Pomegranates — one of which, a religious fable called “The Star Child,” features here, along with the title piece from Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories. Highlighting his versatility, all four essays from Intentions are included in this collection, which, along with “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” showcase his dominant concern at the time: the liberation of the creative spirit in a country he considered utterly philistine.
Indeed, it was in 1891 that Wilde traveled to Paris, where he met André Gide, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Marcel Proust, and shifted his focus to theater, writing Lady Windermere’s Fan — not included in this book, as it was first staged in February 1892 — and beginning work on Salomé. It is for these plays above all that Wilde has been canonized as the author of light, charming works. But in 1891, and especially in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Wilde’s radical sympathies and strategies — not to mention his queerness — are hidden in plain sight. Even the plays presented a profound challenge to the moral, social, and political norms of Victorian England, given Salomé’s searing, sacrilegious eroticism and the exploration of the pleasures of leaving a husband in Lady Windermere’s Fan.
What is remarkable about “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” is that it proposes no political action. It does not mention Wilde’s contemporaries, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, nor any of France’s nineteenth-century radical thinkers, from Louis Auguste Blanqui to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, despite his engagement with French writing. Wilde is purely concerned with how an artist might live after private property has been abolished and socialism has been secured, with the freedom of the individual and the collective being intrinsically linked.
Wilde argues that “no government at all” would be preferable not just to monarchy but also to representative democracy. As such, he sits within a tradition that focuses more on capitalism as a force that stifles creativity than as a driver of inequality, although these two effects are inseparable. Spanning socialist, communist, and anarchist theorists and politicians, this tradition can be traced back to the French utopian Charles Fourier — whose fantastical, proto-surrealist Theory of the Four Movements may have intrigued Wilde, although, sadly, he never wrote about it — and the Situationists. When Jeremy Corbyn used his electoral campaign to emphasize that everyone was capable of making art if only social conditions allowed it, he was drawing on this tradition as well.
By the late Victorian period in the UK, especially in London, where Wilde lived, poverty and starvation were rampant, with property ownership “still the test of complete citizenship” (and a condition for suffrage). Under “existing conditions,” Wilde argued in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” a few men of private means, such as Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Robert Browning, Charles Baudelaire, and Victor Hugo, were “able to realise their personality more or less completely,” because none of them “ever did a single day’s work for hire.” Wilde provides a strong critique of the prevailing liberal philanthropy by insisting “altruistic values” have sought (largely unsuccessfully) to maintain a slightly nicer status quo, obstructing the reconstruction of society “on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”
Such reorganization would only be the start. Wilde laments that, despite wealth granting them freedom, Byron and Shelley still had to deal with “the stupidity, and hypocrisy, and Philistinism of the English,” which they did by emigrating. Once artists took notice of the demands of the market, they turned into craftsmen or tradesmen. But these demands, Wilde argued, came from the public; the solution was therefore to make people more artistic, capable of appreciating culture as much as the most cultivated of critics. Wilde doesn’t spell it out, but implicit in his essay is the argument that universal education, motivated by utopianism rather than utilitarianism, is the path to a better society, one in which the individual artist and the enlightened public would endlessly improve each other in a virtuous cycle.
The Need for Critics
In “The Decay of Lying,” the opening essay from Intentions, Wilde confirms that his interests lie more in art than activism. For Wilde, the fact that, after publishing The Cloister and the Hearth (1861), Charles Reade used his novels to highlight issues like the state of convict prisons or privately run asylums was a tragedy; he had little time for socially engaged realists such as Charles Dickens or Émile Zola.
At first glance, Wilde’s argument that artists should “avoid modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter” seems quite reactionary. But rather than an argument to turn away from the contemporary world, Wilde deploys a strategy drawn from the Impressionists: he notes how they did not seek to represent the world as it was but change the way we see it. His is a call for literature to do the same, years before the modernist movement reached its zenith with radical experiments in structure, style, and narration. One cannot help but wonder how Wilde, who was fatally weakened by his time in prison and died in poverty in Paris in 1900, at the age of forty-four, might have reacted to the works of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and others.
Several of these essays are presented as dialogues between two characters, which has the effect of distancing Wilde, to some extent, from the opinions expressed — and accounts for one reason, perhaps, why his work has often been read “within implied quotation marks,” as Bartlett puts it. “The Critic as Artist,” the essay that provides perhaps the fullest account of Wilde’s aesthetics, does at times read like it’s written to be quoted, such as in the typically Wildean aphorism: “The public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius.” But the essay, especially its second half, is primarily a discourse on the nature of art and of criticism, including Wilde’s famous line about aesthetics being higher than ethics, elevating creative works that aim simply “to create a mood” over political action.
Having posited in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” that everyone needs to become a critic, Wilde lays out some core principles. He reiterates that accurate representations of reality are not, in themselves, desirable, as life is “terribly deficient in form” and a failure “from an artistic point of view.” With his characteristic dismissive wit, Wilde asserted that “anyone can write a three-volume novel” of the type popular in the mid-nineteenth century, but that doing so “requires . . . complete ignorance of both life and literature.”
There is a reason why novelists structure their narratives in order to omit the duller parts of life and concentrate on its dramatic tensions — the epic novel trapped critics into becoming “reporters of the police-court of literature,” getting bogged down in its numerous characters and endless detail. Rather, they should use criticism not to chatter about “second-rate work” but as “a record of own’s one soul,” giving insight into their own cultural and political concerns and experimenting with form as an artist would.
Wilde wrote in his new preface for Dorian Gray that he did not think critics should distinguish between “moral” and “immoral” books, only good and bad ones. When his libel suit against Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, for calling him a sodomite, failed in April 1895, bankrupting him, Wilde was arrested and charged with “gross indecency.” The court did not take Wilde’s advice about moral and immoral works, using his writings as evidence of his “gross indecency,” an outcome he perhaps had hoped to forestall by making this statement.
He did state, however, that effective criticism needed to understand the social conditions under which a work was made, requiring the critic to think historically and politically as well as artistically. He felt that, ultimately, criticism could bring about a better future by making everyone more cosmopolitan, making people reluctant to go to war with other countries that they knew to have produced great literature. Again, one cannot help but wonder how Wilde might have felt about the great writers and artists who enthusiastically signed up for World War I in 1914, such as Guillaume Apollinaire, whose “Désir” records the poet’s ambivalence about firing at the trenches of Goethe — incidentally named by Wilde as the first person to realize the pacifist potential of cultural exchange — and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Wilde often feels so modern, as a writer and personality, that it’s easy to forget he didn’t make it out of the Victorian period. The two short stories and the Dorian Gray extracts offered in this volume remind us of his literary talent, but that was never seriously in doubt — as the fact of his plays continuing to be staged in the years immediately after his imprisonment shows. In Praise of Disobedience is at its most interesting — and surprising — when it reveals Wilde as a radical thinker, tearing down the boundaries between art and criticism and demanding artists think about their working conditions to a far greater extent than most of those who idly quote him would ever tell you. As Wilde himself put it: “Society often forgives the criminal. It never forgives the dreamer.”