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WILDE'S ICONOCLASTIC CLASSICISM: "THE CRITIC AS ARTIST" By Edward A. Watson (University of Windsor) Many of Uscar Wilde's critics, detractors and sympathizers alike, have unwittingly regarded "The Critic as Artist" as an attempt to irritate serious people through the flippancy of the two speakers, Ernest and Gilbert. Indeed, some critics, in their dismissal of the Dialogue as mere iconoclasm and aesthetic buffoonery, have gone so far as to pay serious attention to the trappings, the setting and atmosphere, in which the discussion itself takes place. Others, like Philippe Julian, are impressed with the flowery prose and the highly wrought style of the Dialogue, while still others marvel at the audacity of Wilde's vague ideas and engaging wit.l Despite the obvious "truth" of some of these observations, however, there are critics, like Bruce Bashford, Wendell Harris, and Herbert Sussman,2 who see in "The Critic as Artist" a highly developed sense of form and paradox in the scintillating conversation which ranges from Plato's moral critical criteria and Arnold's Paterian influence upon Wilde, to Arnold's contention in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" that true c r i t i c i s m is the force which could create a European confederation of ideas, or, in Wilde's words, an activity that "will bind Europe together in bonds far closer than those that can be forged by shopman or sent i ment al i st." 3 It is my position that "The Critic as Artist" is an interpretive-impressionistic critical exercise which attempts, through knowledge, scholarship, and personality, to analyze some aspects of the theoretical foundations of literary criticism in Plato's "Ion" and The Republic, Aristotle's Poeti cs, Pope's An^ Essay on Criticism, and Arnold's "The Function of Criticism at the Preseïït Ti me." Quite simply, Wilde's colloquy reintroduces the problems of the long-standing dichotomy between the evaluation of literature from ethical or aesthetic grounds and places his arguments squarely in the topics and categories which formed the starting point of such discussions in classical antiquity. Hence, in "The Critic as Artist" we are not amazed to find discussions of the poetic forms, the manner and means of imitation, the nature of language, words, style, the music of prose and of metrical composition, as well as the effect of art upon its audience, the utility of art, the differences between knowledge and opinion, knowing and doing, reason versus irrationality, and the character of the critic. The result of this far-reaching discussion is an impressionistic criticism of some aspects of Plato's moral ism and Aristotle's aesthetic with digressions on Plotinus, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Ruskin, Pater, Arnold, and Baudelaire thrown in for good measure.4 In a carefully studied afterthought, Part Two (pub. Sept. 1980), Wilde provides us with a convincing rationalization for the form of "The Critic as Artist." Gilbert, in arguing that 225 226 the critic is not limited to "the subjective form of expression" and may use the method of drama or of the epos, of the narrative or of fiction, concludes that "the creative critics of the world" have always employed the form of the Dialogue as a particularly impressive means of illuminating ideas : "By its [the Dialogue's] means he [the critic] can both reveal and conceal himself, and give form to every fancy and reality to every mood. By its means he can exhibit the object from every point of view, and show it to us in the round, as a sculptor shows us things, gaining in this manner all the richness and reality of effect that comes from those side issues that are suddenly suggested by the central idea in its progress, and really illuminate the idea more completely, or from those felicitous after-thoughts that give a fuller completeness to the central scheme, and yet convert something of the delicate charm of chance. Ernest: By its means, too, he can invent an imaginary antagonist, and convert him when he chooses by some absurdly sophistical argument." (p. 114) Precisely. In Wilde's hands, the dialogue itself becomes part and parcel of the structural unity of the piece...


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pp. 225-235
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