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124 T The Critic in Spite of Himself:     Oscar Wilde Art is the only serious thing in the world. —Oscar Wilde W hen Wilde played Oscar in the columns of a dozen journals in the eighties and nineties, as well as in his essays and stories and poems and plays, he was also being an instinctual critic. Nevertheless , that aspect of his work is usually dismissed. “Scholars and readers are generally agreed,” such commentary goes, “thatWilde’s criticism merits study only as a patchwork affair or as a polished form of public entertainment .”1 Scholarship has now taken a more generous view.2 To his public he seemed to be playing with paradoxes, yet the way in which Wilde stood the platitudes of his time on their heads was more than clever entertainment. Without at first knowing it, he was evolving a critical position that would remain consistent and consistently provocative, unaltered by prison and disgrace, or by the reduction of his audience to a handful of loyal friends. Wilde, like many critics, began his career in the medium because he needed the money (journalistic criticism paid regularly if not well) and because he always had something to say.The first duty of a critic of the arts, he suggested , ignoring that duty in the process, “is to hold his tongue at all times, and upon all subjects.” Long before he had begun writing literary criticism regularly,Wilde busied himself with his flamboyant and notorious lectures on the arts, all the while reserving his scorn for the journeyman critic, trapped in a morass of mediocrity. “The poor reviewers,” he deplored, “are apparently reduced to being the reporters of the police-court of literature, the chroniclers of the doings of the habitual criminals of art.” Later, in The Importance of Being Earnest,Wilde’s Algernon advises John Worthing about the low state of literary criticism: “You should leave that to the people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.” But­ Wilde not only had been to one university, he had been through two, having earned a degree atTrinity College, Dublin, before he went up to Oxford; and his comparative over-education reinforced his contempt for contemporary The Critic in Spite of Himself 125 critics as well as his condescension toward the work upon which they wasted their industry. Afterwards—while inferentially praising himself as a critic— he confessed in “The Critic as Artist” dialogue that he was “a little unfair” in describing English artistic and critical activity as “mediocrity weighing mediocrity in the balance, and incompetence applauding its brother.” He, of course, wrote for the smaller-circulation and higher-priced journals, for “as a rule, the critics—I speak … of the higher class, of those in fact who write for the sixpenny papers—are far more cultured than the people whose work they are called on to review.This is, indeed, only what one would expect, for criticism demands infinitely more cultivation than creation does.” Loftily,Wilde observed that he was always amused “by the silly vanity of those writers and artists of our day who seem to imagine that the primary function of the critic is to chatter about their second-rate work.” For more than five years,however,he chattered about it himself—often at length,while insisting nonetheless that criticism ultimately had to be emancipated from its police-court function. His own best criticism would bend in that direction ; yet visible in it would be more than merely a seriocomic police-court magistrate dispensing fines, for Oscar could not resist—epigrammatically— putting on the black cap of the hanging judge. Even the music-hall turns, he knew, would never win him the general reader.The average ­ Englishman, he felt, would rather be flattered by being told that his own emotions were “the ultimate test of literature.”“Very nice of you to like my article,” he wrote one well-wisher after “The Decay of Lying” first appeared in 1889. “It is meant to bewilder the masses by its fantastic form; au fond it is of course serious.”3 Even in his most ambitious critical efforts he could not escape his persona: the public was always more baffled and amused by the flippant Oscarisms than it was enlightened or persuaded. Wilde’s activities as critic began, almost inadvertently, in 1884. His brother Willie, then drama critic for the London journal Vanity Fair, had taken a midsummer holiday, leaving Oscar to fill...


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