New York Review of Books
March 8, 2018
The argument could be made that Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest literary artists of what we persist in calling the fin de siècle—that is, roughly, the period between 1880 and 1900—was at his greatest in two instances of aesthetic theorizing, namely the page-long preface to his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the pamphlet-length essay “The Decay of Lying.” It may seem paradoxical to lay so heavy an emphasis on a couple of snippets from an oeuvre that includes such theatrical masterpieces as The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, as well as the tormented prison testaments De Profundis and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” but then was not Wilde himself the supreme master of paradox? Indeed, turning the received wisdom of the ages upon its head, with the lightest and most elegant flick of an aphorism, was the very essence of his art.
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” the preface to Dorian Gray pronounces, with the serene authority of a papal bull—Wilde, with his love of pomp and swagger, held the papacy in fascinated and envious esteem—which raises the further question as to whether there might be such a thing as a moral or an immoral life. Late-Victorian England certainly had no doubt, after Wilde’s headlong plunge into disgrace in 1895, that he was to the highest degree an immoralist, to use his friend and admirer André Gide’s term, and for his crimes consigned him to two years’ hard labor, before stepping back with a snarl of disgust and a grim brushing of the hands.
And it was not just the haute bourgeoisie that rounded on him: numerous fellow artists deserted their former friend and colleague, not a few of them in terror of being themselves seized upon and hauled out of the closet. Henry James, who had met Wilde early on, in 1882, in America, and pronounced him “an unclean beast” whom he found “repulsive and fatuous,” was in equal measures shocked and gripped by the “very squalid tragedy, but still a tragedy” that began with Wilde’s committal for trial on charges of homosexual offenses in the spring of 1895. James wrote to a friend at the time: “[Wilde] was never in the smallest degree interesting to me—but this hideous human history has made him so—in a manner.” In a manner: in the barely breathed cadence both the terror and the wistfulness are clearly to be heard.
The burning question that was asked at the time, and it is a question that glimmers to this day, was why Wilde had not taken advantage of the chance to flee the country that was tacitly offered to him by the authorities on that fateful day—the adjective is unavoidable—April 5, 1895, when a warrant for his arrest on charges of homosexual crimes was held in abeyance for an hour and a half, time enough for him to take the steamer to Calais and immunity from prosecution. Even his mother had urged him to go, but go he would not. “I decided it was nobler and more beautiful to stay,” he told the love of his life, Lord Alfred Douglas. “I did not want to be called a coward or a deserter.” To the end he connived in and embraced his own downfall.