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OSCAR WILDE AND POSTSTRUCTURALISM by Guy Willoughby Towards the beginning ofthe hugely entertaining and provocative manifesto called "The Critic as Artist" (1890),1 Oscar Wilde causes the well-named discipulus Ernest to inquire of the suave magister, Gilbert: "But what are the two supreme and highest arts?" The prompt answer takes us to the heart ofWilde's aesthetic priorities: "Life and Literature," says Gilbert: "Life and the perfect expression of life" (p. 1016). The aim of this discussion is, first, to consider the terms of Oscar Wilde's aesthetics; second, to relate them to tendencies in contemporary theory. I will be arguing, in sum, that the ideas entertained in his essays, and demonstrated in his fictions, have suggestive implications for our practices today—particularly in die light of a gathering rapprochement across the range of cultural study. The abiding theme ofOscar Wilde's writings is his insistence throughout not merely on art's primacy, but on the vital importance ofaesthetic criteria to life itself. In de Profundü (1897), that extraordinary attempt at self-definition, the author claims that it is only by conceiving of one's existence as an art-statement, as a dynamic convergence of forces extending in time and place, that trial, humiliation, and reversal—the shocks the flesh is heir to—can be imaginatively subsumed into a composite whole. He summed up the argument of the apologia thus to André Gide: "My life is like a work of art; an artist never starts the 316 Guy Willoughby317 same thing twice ... or if he does, it's that he hasn't succeeded. My life before prison was as successful as possible. Now it's something that's over."2 Accordingly, he ascribes in de Profundis the greatest value to the frank acceptance of all one's deeds and susceptibilities, no matter how vicious or unlovely: "to reject one's experiences is to arrest one's development ," he writes. "Whatever is realised is right" (p. 916). It is noteworthy, furthermore, that Wilde oudines this same argument under varying conditions throughout his work as essayist, story-teller, and playwright. In his wry but delicately tuned fairy tales, the most successful heroes and heroines are those who—like the litde Nightingale, the young King, or the Star-Child—manage to transform their lives into images of complex, artistic unity, suggestive of the radical power of the imagination. As the author ofde Profundis was to remark: "every work of art is the conversion of an idea into an image. Every single human being should be the fulfilment of a prophecy" (p. 928). Likewise, the elegant rhetorical strategies of Wilde's two critical dialogues announce art's power to starde and provoke its spectators into new attitudes, and—in particular—to suggest a transference ofaesthetic criteria to life itself. Artistic appreciation develops "that sense of form which is the basis of creative no less than of critical achievement," which may then be profitably applied to one's disparate experience: "it is form that creates not merely the critical temperament, but also the aesthetic instinct, that unerring instinct that reveals to one all things under their conditions of beauty" ("The Critic as Artist," p. 1052). It is only by cultivating a flexible, formalist oudook that a cramping and static Weltanschauung may be avoided; ethical distinctions too must be recast, if a successful life-as-artwork is to be sustained. Thus, writes Wilde, "Ethics, like natural selection, makes existence possible. Aesthetics, like sexual selection, makes life lovely and wonderful, fills it with new forms, and gives it progress, variety and change" (p. 1058). Moreover, the critical or aesthetic impulse—and the point of Wilde's essay is that the terms are interchangeable—has overall a vital cosmopolitan function; it will heal all human divisions, "by insisting on the unity of the human mind in the variety of its forms" (p. 1057). If we transfer aesthetic criteria from art to life, therefore, we will discover a new raison d'être in a skeptical age; we will understand that our apprehension of symmetry in art offers a motive for restoring a novel order to our own lives, singly and together. So it will be that "form [will...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 316-324
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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