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  • Oscar Wilde and the Freedom of the Will
  • Andrea Selleri

I. A LIBERTARIAN DETERMINIST?

One's regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating and delightful in him. … It will be a marvellous thing—the true personality of man—when we see it.1

—Oscar Wilde, "The Soul of Man under Socialism"

Necessity … is a magic web woven through and through us … more subtle than the subtlest nerves yet bearing in it the central forces of the World—When we combat it, [it is] with the weapons of its own forging, and the assertion of liberty is only the claim that from certain forms of conscious volition certain results will inevitably follow.2

—Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks

Over the course of his career Oscar Wilde defended both of the main positions on the issue that David Hume called "the most contentious question of metaphysics": whether or not free will exists.3 On the one hand, his central ethical/political ideal that one's personality should be allowed to develop freely, first articulated in his American lectures and later more memorably in "The Soul of Man under Socialism," presupposes that free will is possible, and that political freedom is the basis of it.4 This ideal surfaces time and again when Wilde discusses moral issues, and even when he laments the absence of this type of freedom, as when in "De Profundis" he blames himself "for the entire ethical degradation I allowed you [Douglas] to bring on me," Wilde accepts that the power to direct one's actions is available in principle, though not always accessible in practice: "The basis of character is will-power, and my will-power became absolutely subject to yours."5 If he had not let himself be shackled, he implies, then he would have been free. [End Page 167]

On the other hand, several uncompromisingly deterministic statements can be found throughout Wilde's corpus, starting from his Oxford notebooks. Such statements are couched in a variety of terms, sometimes quasi-medical (action as the result of "nerves" and "fibres," a contention that changes little from the notebooks to Lord Henry's aperçus in The Picture of Dorian Gray), sometimes vaguely Gothic (as in the passage in "De Profundis" where he calls Douglas a "puppet worked by some secret and unseen hand to bring terrible events to a terrible issue"), sometimes broodingly existentialistic (as in the letter written after visiting his wife's grave, where he claims to have been "deeply affected—with a sense, also, of the uselessness of all regrets. Nothing could have been otherwise—and Life is a very terrible thing").6 In such passages it is neither a question of making the right choices nor of getting rid of bad societal arrangements or personal entanglements: the very condition of possibility for freedom is denied.

What are we to make of the coexistence of these apparently incompatible attitudes? To date, most scholarship has tended to focus on one side of the matter (Wilde's fascination with determinism), trace it back to his interest in the sciences, and correlate it with his general disdain for conventional morality. The main source of evidence for these views is The Picture of Dorian Gray, especially the protagonist's musings on the biological basis of behavior. For example, Terri Hasseler and Michael Wainwright derive Dorian's meditations on the taints of his blood from his creator's engagement with contemporary theories of heredity, while Carolyn Lesjak reads the novel through atomic theory, and Caroline Sumpter connects Wilde's ethical thought to debates about evolutionism.7 Some interpretive consequences of this scientific genealogy are sketched by Terry Eagleton, who sees Wilde's early embrace of the unchangeable laws of biology as a prefiguration of his later aestheticism: "[T]he theory of heredity tells us that all action is pre-programmed, and thus liberates us from moral responsibility for our deeds into the freedom of pure contemplation."8 Roger Smith is on similar lines in arguing that the determinism of the theory of heredity "took some sting...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 167-197
Launched on MUSE
2021-03-09
Open Access
No
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