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Narrative 12.1 (2004) 74-92

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Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the (Un)Death of the Author

Elana Gomel

Writing Spirits

Oscar Wilde wrote his last book twenty-four years after his death. The book, entitled Oscar Wilde from Purgatory: Psychic Messages, was edited by Hester Travers Smith, the medium who received the messages while in a trance and inscribed them through the process known as "automatic writing." The book's publication occasioned a lively exchange of letters in the spiritualist journal Occult Review, in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his opponent, C. W. Soal, debated the connection between the identity of the writer and the textual persona of the author. Doyle considered the messages to be genuine on the basis of his stylistic analysis of the text: "It is difficult to note these close analogies of style and to doubt that an Oscar Wilde brain is at the back of it" (305). Soal, on the other hand, pointed out that such analogies are easily counterfeited and suggested that the author of the text was the medium herself, even though she may not have been aware of her forgery.

This forgotten anecdote resonates with the contemporary narratological debates over the issue of authorship. The dead man writing from beyond the grave gives an uncannily literal meaning to the catchphrase "the death of the author." But if the death of the author means, as it usually does, that the actual identity of the writer is unimportant compared to his textual persona, the story of Wilde's psychic messages suggests that this is not the case. The question hotly debated in spiritualist circles was precisely whether the "Wilde" of the messages was the same person as the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray. No less an issue than the immortality of the soul hinged on the answer to this question. [End Page 74]

While spiritualism is no longer the pressing cultural problematic it was in the 1920s, authorship still is. As Susan S. Lanser writes in a recent article, "the author keeps getting 'implied' even in essays that question it" (153). The sides in the authorship debate parallel the positions taken by Doyle and Soal: while some critics believe that there must be a direct connection between the writer and the work, with style (or content) reflecting personality, others argue that the author is a textual phantom, a discursive construct whose relation to a specific person is loose and perhaps even irrelevant. The second position owes its popularity to Michel Foucault's and Roland Barthes's celebrated essays "What Is An Author?" and "The Death of the Author," which have largely set the parameters for subsequent discussions of authorship. For Foucault, the author is a projection of the text, independent of the actual, physical writer: "It would be just as wrong to equate the author with the real writer as to equate him with the fictitious speaker; the author-function is carried out and operates in the scission itself, in this division and this distance" (205). But as I argue in detail below, Foucault's own language suggests that the "author-function," like the ghostly author of Wilde's messages, also operates in a complex and fraught relation with the corporeal person responsible for the text's production. Like a ghost, it seeks embodiment; and like a ghost, it may inflict damage on the body it possesses.

Oscar Wilde was not the only writer to be kept busy after death; in the heyday of spiritualism, many (including, eventually, Doyle himself) suffered a similar fate. But Wilde's posthumous Gothic romance was special because it so eerily resembled his own Gothic parables of authorship. The relationship between art and artist, between textuality and subjectivity, constitutes a central concern of Wilde's oeuvre, just as it shaped his individual fate. This concern is clear in Wilde's essays, but it is his masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, that represents his most complex, nuanced, and surprisingly contemporary meditation on the paradox of artistic creativity, particularly on...


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