Many know Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) by name, but few have actually read him. When we think of him, it’s generally to associate him as a Victorian-era queer writer who achieved notoriety in a still repressive and homophobic era.
He was all that, of course. A wildly successful and prolific playwright, he also wrote short stories, poetry and a novel and was a dashing if sometimes controversial member of creative avant-garde society in Victorian London. His plays were immensely popular, if sometimes controversial for depicting sordid situations that gave the Victorian-era establishment heart palpitations.
Ultimately, he was a victim of the period’s violent homophobia, one of those who rightly saw no reason for the period’s backward repressiveness and didn’t realize just how violent it could turn. The Marquess of Queensbury, father of one of Wilde’s lovers (Lord Arthur Douglas) denounced him for his homosexuality, and rather than brush it off Wilde went on the attack and sued him for slander. The one defense against slander is the truth, so the Marquess proceeded to hire a team of detectives and witnesses who presented incontrovertible evidence of Wilde’s homosexual activities. Wilde soon found the tables turned and himself the one facing charges, yet despite the urging of his friends he refused to flee London for the more enlightened European continent, where he might have escaped consequences. Instead he was found guilty of what was then still a crime, and given a prison sentence of two years’ hard labour. For Wilde, a sensitive artist with a weak constitution, the judgement was virtually a death sentence and the imprisonment destroyed his health and spirit. Within three years of his release he was dead.
Reading his work, one can almost understand why the flamboyant, defiant Wilde failed to either remain discreet or flee the country. One can full well imagine his total and utter disbelief that a supposedly modern and civilized nation would persecute its brilliant writers and thinkers for something as silly as their sexual preference for other men. Wilde was right to view the situation with astonishment and disbelief; unfortunately this did not change the violence of the repressive backlash that targeted him.
Wilde is widely recognized today as one of those brave martyrs of Europe’s shameful and repressive homophobic era; a brilliant writer whose career was cut tragically short. But while many people have some familiarity with Wilde and the broad outlines of this sorry tale, few today have actually read his work. Those who have, may have read his plays or his one novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in English literature courses.
Yet Wilde also wrote political articles, and these are now collected in one place in an outstanding new volume from Verso Books. In Praise of Disobedience: The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Works collects Wilde’s more political-themed works, ranging from political essays to short fiction and even a children’s story.
Wilde the Socialist
The first titular essay in the collection contains Wilde’s sympathetic, Utopian reflections on how socialism would improve the world. Wilde isn’t only interested in how socialism would improve the material conditions of society. He also argues that it will improve “the soul of man” – it will create a nobler iteration of humanity. He’s interested, too, in how it will improve society’s creative impulses, and its effect on art and philosophy.
Wilde’s attraction to socialism had nothing to do with its collectivist aspects. Quite the opposite – he held that socialism was the system most likely to produce a flourishing individualism, which is one of the things that attracted him to it. It is through socialism, he says, that we will achieve true individualism.
His vision of socialism is simple and straightforward: “converting private property into public wealth, and substituting cooperation for competition.” He opposes any form of authoritarian socialism; a prescient warning, as it turns out. In positioning himself against the use of totalitarian force in any future socialist state, he asserts that the goal of socialism must not be to enforce a communitarian tyranny, but rather to ensure the development and fruition of individuality.
Wilde and the Poor
In this essay, Wilde decries charity, which he feels merely perpetuates inequality and injustice, and instead argues for a socialist welfare state that would ensure no one has to waste their time at the sordid and ultimately non-productive task of making money.
“[I]t is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought,” he famously wrote, observing that people are quick to give money to the poor yet fail to think through and bring about the simple changes that would eliminate poverty entirely. These misdirected philanthropists, he writes, “do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it…The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”
Wilde points out a contradiction – many of the wealthy folks most responsible for income inequality and therefore responsible for poverty are also among the biggest philanthropists giving to charity. He lashes out at them: “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.” Charity, writes Wilde, is “a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution” that is accompanied by efforts on the part of the givers “to tyrannise over [the poor’s] private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.”
People praise the poor for being thrifty, he notes, and it disgusts him. “It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less… Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly fed animal.”
It is here that Wilde gets to the point of his essay’s subtitle: “In Praise of Disobedience”. There’s no nobility in suffering, he argues. When people talk about “the noble poor”, that’s nonsense. He disdains poor people who accept their lot; the truly noble poor, he says, ought to rebel against their situation. Being humble and peaceable are not virtues, according to Wilde: disobedience and rebelliousness against inequality and tyranny are much higher virtues. Anyone who would accept poverty and misery, he says, is a useless brute. “Disobedience… is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”
It is better to steal than to beg, says Wilde, deploying one of those clever aphorisms for which he was so well known: “it is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg.”
Wilde rages against the obedient poor, arguing that “one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy… They must also be extraordinarily stupid.” He says he can understand why someone would accept capitalism and private poverty if they benefit from it and grow rich, but he cannot understand why those who suffer from it and remain poor accept the state of affairs without rebelling: “it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiesce in their continuance.”
Wilde goes on to reflect on why and how this impulse toward disobedience and rebellion gets smothered. “Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading,” he writes, “that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering.” He holds very much to the notion that it takes outsiders and external agitators to reveal to a group the extent of its own oppression and suffering (this has become an unfashionable perspective today, for better or for worse).
Although Wilde is talking about disobedience and rebellion against social norms in the context of income inequality and poverty, one cannot help but reflect on the fact he applied the same principles in his sexual life, refusing to acquiesce to society’s homophobic morals of the time and reacting with a combination of rage and bewilderment when he fell victim to them. Unfortunately, while he was prepared to embrace and advocate for socialism as a counter to the inequalities of capitalism, there was no similarly ready-made sexuality liberation movement for him to embrace and turn to for support when he was targeted for his homosexuality.
Socialism and the Creative Arts
His was a socialism very much fashioned from an arts and humanities perspective. Humanity’s greatest fulfilment, he felt, lay in thinking and creating – and the sordid task of making money just took time and resources away from these far more important pursuits. Wealth generation even debased the wealthy, he felt, since it deprived them of the ability to pursue more noble and fulfilling goals in their lives: “in the interest of the rich we must get rid of [property].”
Private property “has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses,” he writes. “It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is. Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false.”
He goes on for pages in such a vein, however his words are so simple, clear and beautifully put that he’s far more of a joy to read than most socialist writers. Socialism needs, perhaps, more poetic souls like Wilde, writing from an accessible and philosophical grounding, rather than a dense and theoretical one focused on economics. It is only when we abolish private property, he writes, that “we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
Wilde’s take on socialism would appeal to contemporary advocates of Universal Basic Income. His call for socialism is grounded in the notion that society ought by now to be able to provide for everyone’s basic needs, so that individuals can get on with the process of doing the much more interesting things they want to do, from writing plays and poetry to being inventors, mathematicians or philosophers. Having to earn income and worry about one’s material security is a distraction which has deprived us of much of our true potential, he says.
There’s also an element of left-accelerationism in Wilde’s thinking; although he was writing in the late Victorian era he’s clearly of the mind that by now technology ought to be able to meet humanity’s most basic needs, and thereby allow us all to lead dignified lives and not have to engage in menial tasks when we could be engaging in far more enlightened pursuits. “[T]here is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve,” he writes, attributing this to “our property system and our system of competition… At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man.” If this was Wilde’s thinking in the late 19th century, he would doubtless be horrified to learn that a century’s worth of technological innovation later we are still no closer to improving the basic division of labour in society and the need to perform work we do not find fulfilling or desirable.
Wilde’s words were written for an era in which poverty and suffering was much more pronounced in democratic-leaning societies than it was for much of the subsequent 20th century. As we once again slip back toward levels of inequality and poverty more reminiscent of Wilde’s era, his call to revolt surely resonates more profoundly as well. Rebelliousness and disobedience are prime virtues, he argues, especially when harnessed in the pursuit of human improvement. We should not despise or fear those who rebel, he says, but consider why they are disobedient and rebellious and judge them based on that. Simple adherence to the law is not a sign of virtue, he warns. “A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. He may keep the law, and yet be worthless. He may break the law, and yet be fine. He may be bad, without ever doing anything bad. He may commit a sin against society, and yet realize through that sin his true perfection.” (Again, one cannot help but reflect on Wilde’s private rebellion against society’s sexual mores of the time, and the extent to which this also probably influenced his thinking on disobedience and rebellion.)
He considers various forms of political organization, including democracy. Democracy, he says, was a political system that held promise and potential, but its greatest strength lies in the degree to which it encourages the spirit of revolt against tyranny. When democracies smother that spirit of rebelliousness and individualism, they become just as dangerous as any other despotic regime, he warns, offering a sort of theory of hegemony decades before Antonio Gramsci ever coined the term. “People [in demoralized, tame democracies] are less conscious of the horrible pressure that is being put on them, and so go through their lives in a sort of coarse comfort, like petted animals, without ever realizing that they are probably thinking other people’s thoughts, living by other people’s standards, wearing practically what one may call other people’s second-hand clothes, and never being themselves for a single moment. ‘He who would be free,’ says a fine thinker, ‘must not conform.’ And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of over-fed barbarism among us.”
He also reflects on crime, arguing that punishment is counter-productive and that “starvation, and not sin, is the parent of modern crime.” He means this quite literally: poverty renders crime necessary, he says, and only when we eliminate poverty will we eliminate crime. Even crimes that appear unrelated to poverty, he argues, stem from “the misery and rage and depression produced by our wrong system of property-holding.” When we have eliminated property and inequality, he says, such crimes as remain will be recognized as mental health issues instead, “to be cured by care and kindness.”
Wilde and Journalism
Wilde is, interestingly, averse toward journalists. One cannot help but reflect once more, however, the role journalists played—especially during his lifetime—in reinforcing the repressive mores of a homophobic society. Indeed, it is the role journalism plays in retrenching public opinion that Wilde despises. He reflects on the damage it has caused Art: he was a sort of artistic purist, who despised subjective standards of decency and argues very much in favour of provocative experimentalism. But his arguments, again, are phrased with such a beautiful flow and at times light-hearted grace that they are thought-provoking, compelling, and a pure joy to read, even when it sounds like he’s toying with deliberately extreme statements. “In centuries before ours the public nailed the ears of journalists to the pump,” he writes. “That was quite hideous. In this century journalists have nailed their own ears to the keyhole. That is much worse.” Remember, again, that it is largely the role journalists of his era played in giving force to mainstream public opinion, and exposing the private lives of individuals, that Wilde objected to. Given that the activities he was involved in in his private life were quite illegal (by the era’s backward standards) one can’t blame him. Perhaps a more rebellious, disobedient journalism would have been more to his liking.
As for public opinion, Wilde has some interesting perspectives. Although his work was (prior to his arrest) very popular in many regards, he also went against the grain of public opinion in both his art (his writing was frequently censored by publishers) and his private life (the homosexuality that would eventually send him to jail). So his strident critique of public opinion is unsurprising. But as so often, rather than mincing his words, he goes on the attack:
“[T]here is much more to be said in favour of the physical force of the public than there is in favour of the public’s opinion. The former may be fine. The latter must be foolish. It is often said that force is no argument. That, however, entirely depends on what one wants to prove. Many of the most important problems of the last few centuries, such as the continuance of [the monarchy] in England, or of feudalism in France, have been solved entirely by means of physical force… It was a fatal day when the public discovered that the pen is mightier than the paving-stone, and can be made as offensive as the brick-bat.”
Wilde the Utopian
Wilde anticipated that one of the principal arguments against socialism was the notion that it doesn’t work in practice, that it’s not practical, that it goes against human nature.
“This is perfectly true,” he admits simply. “It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change. The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes.”
Wilde was forward-looking; optimistic about the ability of humankind to grow and change. Governments and political systems fail, he warns, when they assume human nature is static and unchanging, and when they fail to provide room for humanity and its social structures to grow and to change.
Was Wilde a Utopian, with his socialism and his appeal to rebellion and disobedience? He was, and proudly so.
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing,” he writes. “And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”
The Virtues of Lying
The second essay in the collection – “The Decay of Lying” – is presented in the form of a dialogue and takes aim at our society’s growing obsession with “truth”. Does it really make things better? Not so much, suggests Wilde in his typically whimsical style. Whimsical it may be, but it harbours an important point. Representing truth in art – visual art, poetry, fiction – is only one way of producing art, and Wilde argues it’s the inferior way. The true value of art lies in its ability to embellish, to render prosaic realities with fanciful, romantic or even sordid characteristics. We live the truth every day; the purpose of art is offer us something better and more interesting.
Of course, some might argue that the truth is interesting. “Dullard,” Wilde would reply, with a pout of disdain at those who are crushing humanity’s spirit and inventiveness with their obsessive clinging to reality.
Our age suffers from an excessive obsession with truth, or with deep-seated subjectivities which are presented as truths. In an age when identity politics has increasingly come to suffuse artistic production, Wilde would find himself diametrically opposed to those who argue that only certain identities should write about, or depict, those same identities; or that the representation of identities and histories ought to be in any way factual or authentic. He would disagree that historical fiction ought to be factual, or that a film about a place, period or people ought to authentically represent that place, period or people. It is more important for art to produce beautiful fakery, he would argue; representing the truth kills the imagination and creative artistic spirit.
Wilde’s argument is that fiction is more interesting than fact, and it is the responsibility of artists to create a more ennobling fiction out of the mundane facts of the world. He decries the modern attraction to truth and accuracy: what matters is how a story, a fable, a beautiful creation can inspire us, change us, make us think differently, feel differently, and perhaps make us act differently too. What matters is not what happened, but how we can imagine and re-imagine what happened in what ways that change us for the better.
“Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms,” Wilde writes. True art, he says, “is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment.”
Wilde fears a world that falls prey to an obsession with facts and truth, a world where “Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness.” “[I]f something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify, our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile and Beauty will pass away from the land,” he writes.
(Wilde also later comes out fully in favour of plagiarism, considering it also an important form of creativity. He disdains artists who object to their work being copied and plagiarised, unless the result is of poor quality. Accusations of plagiarism, he writes, “proceed either from the thin colourless lips of impotence, or from the grotesque mouths of those who, possessing nothing of their own, fancy that they can gain a reputation for wealth by crying out that they have been robbed.”)
Deep down, humanity recognizes the virtues of lying, he says. This is evident in the fact that we consider it okay for parents to lie to children, for the sake of either their comfort and security, or their social education. Yet as we become adults, we then shed this acknowledgement that there is a place for creative untruths, and it is to our detriment. “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art,” he asserts.
These two opening essays are the most powerful and thought-provoking of the collection, but the remainder of the book contains fascinating material as well. Director, author and performer Neil Bartlett provides an excellent introduction to the pieces, placing them in their respective historical contexts, while Mark Martin (who selected the works) provides thorough annotation and sourcing for the various (now obscure) references that Wilde includes in these pieces. There’s a piece of Wilde’s own journalism, in the form of a magazine article he wrote exploring the life and work of Thomas Griffiths Wainwright, a 19th century writer, art critic and poisoner who was eventually caught and jailed in a dramatic saga. There’s a children’s faery tale, “The Star Child”, with a fairly obvious moral to it. There’s an essay on the role and importance of costuming in theatre (which dips again into his philosophizing on truth and representation), and there are some key excerpts from The Picture of Dorian Gray, including Wilde’s manifesto-like Preface, which he wrote in part as a defense of the book following criticism of its themes when it initially appeared in magazine form. And there’s the brilliant, hilarious short story “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”, which is also a bit of satirical social commentary.
The Critic as Artist
Finally, there’s a lengthy and fascinating reflection – again in the form of a literary dialogue – on the importance of art criticism. Here too Wilde waxes iconoclastic, but in such a way as to warm the heart of any critic or reviewer. Criticizing art, he muses, can be a more creative process than creating art in the first place.
“As a rule the critics… are far more cultured than the people whose work they are called upon to review,” he writes. The mere creative instinct by itself, he suggests, often simply consists of reproducing things. It is the critical instinct which goes one step further, to create something really worthwhile from a creation. “I would call criticism a creation within a creation,” he explains, elaborating on the point in fascinating detail.
This two-part essay on “The Critic as Artist” is powerful and moving. In addition to reflecting on the virtues of art criticism, it engages in a spirited defense of the importance of art, which, Wilde explains, enables us to fully develop our emotions without being harmed by them. “We weep, but we are not wounded. We grieve, but our grief is not bitter… It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” Art and intellectual criticism also allow us to rise above backward and violent impulses like nationalism and patriotism, he argues—we cannot truly hate people or cultures whose art and creative works we also admire.
Here again he dips into his disobedient, rebellious streak, combining it with his appreciation for artful, creative untruths and his Utopianism. “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it,” he says. “What is termed Sin is an essential element of progress. Without it the world would stagnate, or grow old, or become colourless.”
Wilde was the master of the aphorism – clever statements, which cause the reader to think. “What is the difference between literature and journalism?” asks a character in his dialogue “The Critic as Artist”. “Journalism is unreadable, and literature is not read,” replies the other. Or “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” Or “We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.” Or “There is only one thing worse than Injustice, and that is Justice without her sword in her hand. When Right is not Might, it is Evil.”
He also turns accepted sayings on their head. “It is always more difficult to destroy than it is to create,” he writes, especially when what one is trying to destroy is “vulgarity and stupidity”.
In some of his political writing, Wilde sounds like he’s writing for contemporary readers. Writing in 1891, Wilde laments the very things that burden so many of us today.
“With us, Thought is degraded by its constant association with practice… Each of the professions means a prejudice. The necessity for a career forces every one to take sides. We live in the age of the overworked, and the undereducated; the age in which people are so industrious that they become absolutely stupid. And, harsh though it may sound, I cannot help saying that such people deserve their doom. The sure way of knowing nothing about life is to try to make oneself useful.”
Reading Wilde’s political essays is a refreshing exercise. The 21st century has brought us full circle, it seems, with the 19th, in so many ways: the resurgence of tyranny and efforts to limit democracy; the resurgence of dramatic income inequality and poverty on a national as well as global scale.
At such a time, Wilde offers us an important reminder of virtues we as a society may have for a time lost: the need to strive for Utopias; the inevitability of socialism if our world is to survive; the need to reinvigorate humanity’s spirit of rebelliousness and disobedience, and to challenge, not accept, the injustices and inequalities we see all around us.
The world needs Oscar Wilde and his daring, beautiful ideas today more than ever.