Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Part I -- Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde

For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it.  – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
I will break from tradition somewhat with this post, and insert an annoying autobiographical passage.
I started reading detective and gothic fiction of the Victorian era when I was a boy.  It was almost as if a world opened before me – a world of the mind and of the senses.
Armed with these twin passions, I also greatly enjoyed the pop culture transformations of them, including (or, perhaps, especially) the series of films based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe starring Vincent Price.  I became a card-carrying Vincent Price devotee.
So, imagine my delight when, in 1979, Price came to New York to star in the Broadway production of John Gay’s Diversions and Delights.  Diversions is a one-man show that takes as its conceit Oscar Wilde lecturing a Parisian audience near the end of his life.  The Broadway run did not last long, but it rapidly moved off-Broadway, where it settled at the Roundabout Theater (then on West 23rd Street) for an extended stay.
Diversions and Delights is a remarkable work.  Culled largely from Wilde’s own writings, it also incorporates bits of later-written biographies and much of Gay’s own keen dramatic sense.  I believe that only two plays about Wilde have really captured him to some extent: Diversions and Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.
I initially went first to see Price, but returned again and again for Wilde.  I asked the management of the Roundabout if I could work as an usher at the theater in exchange for seeing the show every night, and I managed see Price as Wilde some 30-odd times.  It was a revelation to me.
Once the show was over, I immediately procured a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it became my golden book – I read it countless times after first buying it, so much so that passages of it are now forever locked in my memory.  It was the beginning of a life-long love affair with Oscar Wilde.
In Dorian Gray, Wilde writes of a book that poisoned Dorian – a heavily perfumed volume that opened to him wonderful sins disguised with incomparable beauty.  I was indeed luckier than Wilde’s fantastic hero – instead of being poisoned by a book, I was saved by one.  London during the Yellow Nineties and fin de siècle Europe became for me an alternate world where I lived another, perhaps more intense, life.  Just as Renaissance Italy became for Wilde and his mentor, Walter Pater, more of a state of mind than an historical period, the world of the aesthetes became a cornerstone of my philosophical compass.
Aside from the dramatic and fantastic events of Wilde’s life, I became deeply enamored of the philosophy of aestheticism, and looked too at others who explored the same creed.  I became interested in Walter Pater, John Ruskin, James Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Théophile Gautier.
But more than aestheticism and a fascination with the Victorian era, I was deeply moved and beglamoured by Wilde himself.  And the thing that most fascinated me was that he was a figure at times fully-defined, and at others horrifyingly indistinct.  And that is because, I believe, that Wilde the man was too multiform and protean.  He embodied the Renaissance ideal of mastery of many types of mind and genius.  Even after reading Wilde for more than 30 years, I find it remarkable that the man who wrote the witty drawing-room comedy The Importance of Being Earnest is also the man who wrote the strangely musical, Symbolist Salome.  I have difficulty reconciling that the keen mind who deduced the possibility of Willie Hughes with the brain responsible for The Selfish Giant; and that the pen responsible for The Mind of Man Under Socialism is the same that wrote The Harlot’s House.  And is it possible that the bare, blunt and deeply affecting lines of The Ballad of Reading Goal could be written by the same man who wrote the perfumed and sensual Picture of Dorian Gray?
In the contemporary public mind, we have cut Wilde down to our own smaller-size.  We do not have the proper aspect ratio of the whole, multi-talented man.  We think of Wilde the Gay Martyr, or Wilde the Sensualist.  But these are only parts of the picture – if indeed they make up any significant proportion of the man at all.  To really know Wilde, we must know Wilde the gifted classics scholar and intellectual; Wilde the poet and Wilde the playwright; Wilde the novelist and Wilde the political thinker.  We have to consider Wilde’s upbringing and his deep appreciation of Irish folklore before knowing Wilde the fantasist.  We must know Hellenism and the works of Pater, Ruskin, Symonds and Mahaffy before we can fully understand Wilde the aesthete and dandy.  Aside from his success as a writer, the list of his accomplishments in so brief a life are immense, staggering: the finest talker and raconteur of his age, lecturer and arts advocate, moralist and social critic.  One of the most fascinating images in my mind’s eye is the thought of Oscar lecturing the denizens of the Old West about Cellini’s place in the history of art – it’s too delicious.  And to top it off, his was one of the most fascinating personalities of an age crammed with remarkable figures.  In his bravery and insouciance, his remarkable panache and élan, Wilde was also a swashbuckler without a sword, a courtier who became a type of personality unto himself.
Perhaps the only constant in Wilde’s life was his deep an abiding aestheticism; his passionate, deeply-ingrained and unending devotion to Art.  An appreciation of the arts (and the art of life) was encoded in Wilde’s DNA, it was impossible for him to engage in the world in any other way.  He saw his personal experience (both his joys and his tragedies) through the prism of art, and the world around him either reflected the canons of art, or fell disappointingly short.  There are many disparate facets of Wilde the man to explore, but if they are not seen through the green-tinted glasses of an aesthete, we do not see them as they really were.  It was the filter through which his protean intellect travelled, and the fundamental core of his philosophy and personal vision.
It is not impossible to believe that Wilde courted, to some degree, his own ruin and disgrace because it was the ending most dictated by satisfying dramaturgy.  That every epoch of his life, from his meteoric rise to his exile where he roamed Europe under the name Sebastian Melmoth, was in some way performance art, that he lived strictly for dramatic, aesthetic effect.
Tomorrow we finish our review of Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde


lyle said...

Hello Mr. Abbot,

I enjoyed reading today's entry. I know almost nothing about Wilde, except perhaps the commonly held view that he was, well, wild. Maybe too harsh. I got to thinking about the word aesthete and how it is applied here to Wilde. Would Wilde recognize, or have much in common with an aesthete of today? Has art changed that much, or is it just the process of questioning and creating that is important, and not the final printed, heard, seen result? Does the term even apply today?

James Abbott said...

Good questions all. Let me see – if, by “aesthete” we mean someone who loves beauty, than yes, the term is still valid today. The challenge is that so much contemporary art is not predicated on beauty. I don’t believe a true aesthete – someone dedicated to the notion and appreciation of beauty – would find much to sustain him in the contemporary art world.

That said, an aesthete can apply the canons of art to his or her own life, and make it beautiful, or, appreciate the beauty found in the art of bygone ages. There is also much to savor in the art world today, it just is not written about all that often.