The Spectacle of Criticism

by Sandra F. Siegel

Wilde's power to arouse fantasies in others - and to fulfill them - is seemingly inexhaustible. Everyone has an opinion about Oscar Wilde. It is also true that opinions about no other author have been so ill-informed. From the beginning, there appeared to be about Wilde something slightly slant. Earlier in the century the fantasies perhaps might have been dispelled. Now, as the century draws to a close, the same fantasies continue to circulate.

It is impossible to say exactly when Wilde became a public figure. In 1878 he won the prestigious Newdigate prize at Oxford for the "best poem in English verse" and he gave the winner's ceremonial reading at the Sheldonian Theatre. Relatives, friends, and his former teacher in classics, J. P. Mahaffy, came across from Dublin to attend. Shortly thereafter, Wilde went to London to pursue an as yet undecided career. About a dozen of his poems had been published in Dublin magazines. In London he added additional poems to those already in print and in 1881 he published them. Critics who reviewed the volume were divided in their opinions, as they generally are. His poetry was associated with a movement that had been identified at least a decade earlier as "Aestheticism," by which was meant, according to one of its most popular critics, Robert Buchanan, art that was degenerate in making public its explicit attentiveness to private emotions, barbaric in its preoccupation with ritual, and Jacobin-inclined to violent excess-in its politics. The latter allusion evoked recurrent English fears of Anglo-Irish and Anglo-French collusion in real or imagined "papist plots." When Wilde's poems were published his name was linked to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne and Charles Baudelaire. Accusations of "plagiarism," a subject which was then, as it is now, complex and controversial, were probably more damaging.

Despite the mixed response to Wilde's poems, in 1881 he was invited by the Librarian of the Oxford Union, Oxford's undergraduate debating society, to present a copy of the volume as a gift, which he inscribed: "To the Oxford Union, My first volume of poems." There can be no doubt that Wilde's career - as a social critic and as a dramatist - pivoted downward after the scandalous trials that convicted him in 1895 of "gross indecency" and sent hi m to prison for two years. What is nearly always forgotten is that although he was not yet a public figure in 1881, the scandal that arose from the Union's rejection of his Poems and the accusation of plagiarism ensured that he was on his way to becoming one. Never before had a book been presented that had not been accepted: in this case the Oxford Union established the more indecorous precedent of rejecting a gift that an author had been invited to present. The Union sent a letter of apology to Wilde to which he replied that he regretted its decision, his "chief regret indeed being that there should still be at Oxford such a large number of young men who are ready to accept their own ignorance as an index, and their own conceit a criterion of any imaginative and beautiful work" and he expressed the hope that "no other poet or writer of English will ever be subjected to what I feel sure you as well as myself are conscious of, the coarse impertinence of having a work officially rejected which has been no less officially sought for."

Oscal WildePunch, which devoted itself to verbal and visual caricature, attended with pleasure to the fray at Oxford and contributed to drawing attention to the young "aesthete" from Dublin even as it continued to draw attention to vexed political issues: Home Rule for Ireland; Gladstone's Land Reform Bills; and Irish nationalist agitation. Wilde had opinions about Irish nationalism, about Home Rule, and about the history of Anglo-Irish relations which he would soon convey to audiences in North America that numbered in the thousands, of whom many belonged to the emigrant millions who fled earlier in the century during the Famine years. In one review of James Anthony Froude's writings on England, he wrote: "Blue-Books are generally dull reading, but Blue-Books on Ireland have always been interesting. They form the record of one of the great tragedies of modern Europe. In them England has written her own indictment against herself and has given the world this history of her shame." This voice, as audible in Wilde's early as in his later writings, is less familiar. Legend has prevailed in favoring the flamboyant, self-absorbed "dandy" - for "dandy" read homosexual - in pursuit of notoriety.

Oscar Wilde in Punch We have always known that the early studies of Wilde are unreliable. Often, readings of his work have depended on questionable texts. More often, readings of his life have depended on apocryphal anecdotes. Although the need for a complete and authoritative edition of Wilde's work has been apparent for nearly a century, scholars have been slow to respond. Wilde has inspired, nevertheless, a flourishing bibliography of critical studies, biographies, novels, plays, poems, and films. In his recent bibliographical study of Wilde, Ian Small concurs with two other Englishmen, Ian Fletcher and John Stokes, who, in the mid- 1970s, in an extensive review of Anglo-Irish writing, declared that "in all their dealings with Wilde, the English have been wrong about practically everything." Small points optimistically to the promise of scholarship during the 1980s. In the mid-nineties there is reason for greater optimism. Yet, in studies of Wilde, even the most scholarly critics have proceeded without their habitual caution.

Richard Ellmann, in his Oscar Wilde (1987), might have revised this view in his magisterial biography. Instead, his detailed narrative discloses Wilde's secret: Wilde had a secret life. In this view, Wilde enacted his secret before he was aware of the forces that impelled him to behave one way rather than another way, forces that drove him to self-destruction.

Wilde in costume as Salome
Ellmann brings to his reading of Wilde a particular notion of "the homosexual" as a "self" at once stable, opaque, and obsessive (rather than, for example, volatile, porous, and fluctuating, as the "self" might be regarded). Invariably, Ellmann finds in nearly every episode of Wilde's life traces of the insuppressible "homosexual impulse" or, as he sometimes refers to it, Wilde's "homosexual drive." According to Ellmann's reading, that is the same impulse that accounts for Wilde's public displays and his simultaneous private liaisons. One particular photograph  with the caption, "Wilde in costume as Salome," is falsely identified as Wilde. It was not until 1992, five years after Ellmann's biography was published, that John Stokes and, subsequently in 1994, Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde's grandson, acknowledging the scholarly pursuit of Horst Schroeder, corrected and explained the error. In The Times Literary Supplement Merlin Holland alerted readers that this photograph is not of Wilde but of Alice Guszalewicz, a Hungarian actress who, in 1906, played Salome in Richard Strauss's opera. It should be noted, as Merlin Holland points out, it is likely that Ellmann, so near to the end of his own life, did not personally verify the source of the photograph. Ellmann might have prevented the error had circumstances been different. Nevertheless, the elision of Oscar Wilde with Alice Guszalewicz is telling. Perhaps there is something to be gained from the error: it alerts us to the force of our fantasies.

Photographs seldom coincide with the mental images we carry of ourselves or of others. This photograph is an exception. How perfectly it coincides with a certain image of Wilde. Here we are meant to see the "homosexual impulse" - Ellmann's myth - actualized in the fullness of its remarkable simplicity.

Wilde is presented to us cross-dressed, bedecked with jewelry in the costume of Salome. He has cast himself in the leading role for a private performance of his own censored play - the Lord Chamberlain denied a license, which in 1893 prevented the performance of Salome in London. Here Wilde displays his public self and, at the same time, reveals to us his lurid secret self, the "self" that Ellmann's narrative discloses sympathetically. That is the myth. In the biography, this photograph is ringed round with the various episodes that constitute Ellmann's life of Wilde. In this poised moment the camera - and the biographer - has captured the profoundly narcissistic gesture, the single gesture, that is meant to evoke the entire life. According to this reading that considers homoeroticism to be a variety of "narcissism," the figure kneeling, his hands outstretched, is about to embrace the severed head of John the Baptist. Once the head is raised Wilde will press his lips against John's lips as Herod will look on in horror.

There is more to be observed about this scene, but not now. What remains to be said here is this: as in the play Herod views the behavior of Salome, so in this photograph we see, or imagine we see, the behavior of Wilde. Like so many anecdotes that constitute the legend, this photographic anecdote turns Wilde into a lurid spectacle. How was it possible for this photograph of Alice Guszalewicz to pass as Wilde? When we bring to bear on the legend of Wilde a more supple conception of our own affective lives than the prevailing view of our late nineteenth-century forebears, we are likely to see Wilde as well as ourselves somewhat differently. Then it may well turn out that we will learn more about our own fantasies than about Wilde. Then we will look upon the spectacle of Wilde criticism with wonder.


Sandra F. Siegel, Fellow at the Society for the Humanities and professor of English, holds a degree from the Committee on Social Thought from the University of Chicago. She has published on Yeats, Wilde, and the late nineteenth century. The Politics of Perception: Oscar Wilde and Modern England is forthcoming. Her current work, on Tudor and Stuart Jest-Books, is a study of the place of laughter in social relations. She is a recipient of the Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching.