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OSCAR WILDE: SEXUALITY AND CREATIVITY IN THE SOCIAL ORGANISM KATHLEEN McDOUGALL Ottawa, Ontario Oscar Wilde, like many of his contemporaries, grappled with the authority of scientific naturalism, the scientific movement that dominated the second half of the nineteenth century and that led to the widespread view that society, ruled by the laws of nature, was geared to collective survival rather than individual fulfillment. In a world dominated, from an evolutionary point of view, by procreation and other forms of dutiful production, Wilde endeavored to defend a nonprocreative eros allied with artistic creativity. This involved drawing upon various discourses, in particular scientific discourse, to fashion a range of credible versions of self, each featuring a sexual/creative mode. In this essay, I will focus on the version of self that Wilde put forward most consistently and that he featured in a narrative, threaded through various texts, of "the artistic life [as] ... a long and lovely suicide" (Letters 185). The increasing authority of science, in the nineteenth century, must be placed in the context of a general trend towards secularization, itself to be placed in the context of industrialization and the rise of the bourgeoisie (see Barnes and Shapin 93). Despite its contingent nature, however, Victorian science often figures as a cause producing effects in other discursive fields, as though it were a kind of primary discourse, one with a high "truth value," lending shape to supposedly more fictional discourses such as Wilde's formulations of self. This is because many Victorians felt that it was science that had invalidated the traditional defense against life's absurdity, namely Christianity. Since most thinkers embraced the principle whereby all manifestations of life can be accounted for by natural law — the principle of continuity or uniformity — a frequent reaction was to turn to science for the most credible arguments against the fears that it had created. Precisely because Darwin's arguments against anthropocenirism were so Victorian Review 23.2 (Winter 1997) KATHLEEN McDOUGALL2 1 3 convincing, for example, it was felt that the relevance of human aspirations had to be re-established in Darwinian terms — hence the idea of certain human beings as evolution's product and pilot, summing up the best that has gone before and pointing the way towards the fullest realization of humanity's potential. Wilde was very well-informed in scientific matters, as attested by his Oxford notebooks, and various aspects of scientific theory are featured in Wilde's construction of an erotic/aesthetic mode of being. For the purposes of this essay, I will be singling out those theories that contributed to the idea of society as an organism composed of interdependent parts. This old analogy was rejuvenated thanks, largely, to cell theory. In 1858, for example, Rudolf Virchow's Die Cellularpathologie compared the body to "a state in which every cell is a citizen," and defined disease as "civil war" (qtd. in Singer 413). This metaphor is the converse of Paul Bourget's description, now a mustquote in discussions of late-nineteenth-century fears of degeneration, of the individual as a "social cell," one that must subordinate its energy to that of the larger organism, lest social decadence set in.1 In the same vein, Wilde wrote in one of his Oxford notebooks: The history of every nation ... is ... the passage from cantonal individuality to national unity: the growth of an organism in fact. . . . The division of Labour, the differentiation of function, the evolution of organisms can be illustrated from History as clearly as from the microscope. (117) This quotation demonstrates how the social organism was a "dead metaphor" in the late nineteenth century (Pick 180); the literalness with which it was employed reinforced the notion of a powerless self permeated by biological processes. Bourget's description of social health in terms of energy use illustrates how "degeneration is the cultural counterpart of the second law of thermodynamics" (Brush 14). This law, also called the law of energy dissipation, "asserts that although the total quantity of energy remains constant, its quality or 'usefulness' is continually being degraded" (10). Thus nature is running down, as all matter tends towards a state of uniform inertness. In the very long term this...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 212-226
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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