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  • The Critic as Artist
  • Christine Ferguson (bio)
Oscar Wilde , "The Critic as Artist" (1891)

In current Victorian studies scholarship, the popularity of biodeterminist thought as an object of study seems to exist in inverse proportion to its status as a hermeneutic tool. Aware of and perhaps defensive about the Victorian period's role in germinating the hard hereditarian thought whose consequences would become so notorious in the twentieth century, much of our work in the last few decades has set out to expose nineteenth-century evolutionary determinism as far more indeterminate than it might initially appear, to expose the uncertainty, liminality, and destabilizing anxiety that lurks in the work of, for example, Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Cesare Lombroso, or Max Nordau. This tendency, a product of our discipline's extremely productive interactions with post-structuralism, feminism, post-colonialism, and critical race theory, has repeatedly raised the ire of contemporary sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists who indict it with undermining the so-called basic truth that all human behaviour is the product of evolutionary adaptation and hence rooted in our genetically based human nature.

Without wishing to endorse this well-worn sociobiological critique or the reactionary social ideology on which it frequently (if not always) rests, I do think that we as Victorianists are sometimes guilty of a limited imagination [End Page 64] in continuing to insist on, and accordingly locate, the presence of biological anti-essentialism in those Victorian texts we wish to recuperate or deem progressive—and these last two moves have become increasingly synonymous. If we wish to challenge, as indeed I believe we must, some of the more specious political arguments issuing from the sociobiological camp—for example, Stephen Pinker's recent contention that Western cultural hegemony is the product not of capitalism but of superior evolutionary adaptation1—we need to do more than just jettison the concept of biological determinism out of hand. Instead, it might be useful to recover the more creative, eccentric, or understudied discourses of determinism produced in the nineteenth century, ones that worked not to legitimize the status quo or naturalize socially produced racial inequalities but rather to protect identities and behaviours that might in other, later, contexts be viewed as dysgenic. There are few better examples of this kind of radical determinist thinking than Oscar Wilde's classic aestheticist treatise "The Critic as Artist" (1891).2 Long heralded as a paean to aesthetic individualism and an epitome of its author's trademark paradoxical style, the essay deserves to be reread for its fascinating and counterintuitive insistence that hereditary determinism will automatically lead to aestheticist liberation.

Wilde's engagement with Darwinism has been well documented, with particular attention paid to the presence of evolutionary ideas in his Oxford notebooks and in The Picture of Dorian Gray.3 Yet despite our increasing willingness to acknowledge Wilde as an important evolutionary thinker, the intensely hereditarian aspects of "The Critic as Artist" remain neglected, perhaps as a result of its cult status as the ultimate manifesto on critical autonomy and the priority of individualism. This is not the place for a complete explication of the essay's significance in Wilde's oeuvre or its dynamic staging in the form of a digressive Platonic dialogue, but I can suggest some initial reasons why it would make an excellent starting point for a re-evaluation of Wilde's aesthetic Darwinism and of the intellectual, political, and artistic uses of determinism at the fin de siècle.

The essay's most significant and sustained references to the nascent sciences of human heredity come in its second part, when Gilbert and Ernest's conversation has shifted from a discussion of the symbiosis of art and criticism in ancient Greece to criticism's role in perfecting not just the individual but the species itself. In a much cited passage, Gilbert states, "It seems to me that with the development of the critical spirit we shall be able to realize, not merely our own lives, but the collective life of the race, and so to make ourselves absolutely modern, in the true meaning of the word modernity" (382). Much ink has been spilled on the historical paradigm presented here...


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pp. 64-68
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