'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars'
Oscar Wilde was born the 10th October, 1854 to parents who also considerably distinguished themselves. His father, Sir William Wilde was known internationally as a leading eye and ear specialist. It was he who invented the operation for cataract, performing it on King Oscar of Sweden. For this he was awarded the Order of the Polar Star.
Oscar Wilde's mother, Jane Francesca Elgee (Lady Wilde) fiercely defended the National Irish cause. She wrote strong poems and articles for the Irish Nationalist newspaper, 'The Nation' under the pseudonym 'Speranza' from her motto Fidanza, Constanza, Speranza. She liked to believe she had Italian ancestral links.
The Wilde family was of Dutch origin. The first to settle in Ireland was a certain Colonel de Wilde, soldier of fortune and son of an artist whose work, apparently, can still be seen in the Art Gallery at The Hague. Some allege that such an ancestor who fought under the command of William of Orange, caused considerable embarrassment to Oscar and certainly to his mother. It's probable however, that Oscar would have been more amused by the irony of it, than embarrassed by it.
Oscar Wilde excelled at Trinity College, Dublin, winning the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek. He received a demyship to continue his studies at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was influenced by John Ruskin and Walter Pater ('Art for Art's sake'). Oscar was determined to go further with- 'Beauty for Beauty's sake'. His creed, indeed, was æstheticism. He believed that everyone should strive for the ideal of beauty. At Oxford he won the Newdigate Prize for English verse (the poem Ravenna) and a double first in Classics.
In 1879 he started to earn his living in London as a writer, also attracting much attention by his appearance and unconventional dress in what was then a very rigidly conventional, Londonian society.
This then was the backdrop for the first scene of his extraordinary life, destined to end tragically in France in 1900.
His first political influences must have been his parents. The successful, internationally reputed physician on one side, and the fierce writer defending the Irish cause, on the other.
The social injustice of the 19th century, the 'industrial tyranny' was destined to plant the seeds of Communism, first to grow as a sincere ideal to try to realise what human nature (thus nature herself) constantly seems to deny humanity: equality and social justice.
In view of the political influence, the social climate, the poverty and class system of the Victorian era, it's interesting to note some of Oscar Wilde's views on Socialism. They sometimes seem cynical, and even naive, but they reveal the depth of his perception. This first extract is taken from the introduction of his The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
'(...) The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism- are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man's intelligence; and as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.
They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.
But this is not a solution; it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life- educated men who live in the East End- coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins. (...)'
Oscar Wilde then goes on in his analysis maintaining that Socialism 'will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism'. At first he seems to be expressing another paradox. He was always very fond of paradoxes. He adds further on: 'Socialism annihilates family life, for instance'. And- 'Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain. As a natural result the State must give up all idea of government. (...) All modes of government are failures. Despotism is unjust to everyone, including the despot, who was probably made for better things. Oligarchies are unjust to the many, and ochlocracies are unjust to the few. High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. It has been found out. I must say it was high time, for all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised. When it is violently, grossly, and cruelly used, it produces a good effect, by creating, or at any rate bringing out, the spirit of revolt and Individualism that is to kill it. (...).'
Further on he refers to Burke regarding journalism as 'the fourth estate.' (...) 'That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. (...)'
(...) 'The fact is that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing'.(...)
In this article Oscar Wilde often refers to Christ, whom he maintains, encouraged Individualism, and thus 'to be oneself'. He states that private property is more a hindrance than an asset. That it is not what one has that's important, it's what one is. In truly realising and being oneself, one's most precious possessions are within oneself.
Finally he seems to believe that whether Socialism wills it or not, it would lead to Individualism. 'The new Individualism is the new Hellenism'...
But history already seems to have proved that this is just another Utopian dream (unless we now apply it to the Greeks...).
His article was written 24 years before the start of the 1st World War, well before the Russian Revolution, and the reactions that were already consequential during the 2nd World War, like those of Ayn Rand in 'The Fountain Head' (1943). The understanding that 'Individualism' can never be a product of any governmental attempt to create social justice, equality and conformity. It's determined uniquely by the individual, the defence of one's personal convictions, accomplishments or creations, even, if not especially, if this means breaking the establishment rules.
Certainly Oscar Wilde himself, is a perfect example of an Individualist who broke the rules, defended his art, his personal convictions, at the ultimate cost of his life, and, at the time of his trial, at the cost of his reputation as an exceptional intellectual, artist and writer.
Oscar Wilde. Salomé
Oscar Wilde. Salomé
Text © Mirino (PW). Portrait of Oscar Wilde by Toulouse Lautrec. Source and extracts from Collins' Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, with thanks. January, 2011