So this was the plan: I’d read somewhere (okay, actually it was a clue in the NY Times crossword puzzle) that Oscar Wilde had written “There is no sin except stupidity.” Remembering Emerson’s dictum “The only sin is limitation,” I said to myself, “Aha! Here is a good opportunity to contrast the universality of Emerson with the snarky phrase-making of Wilde, who evidently regards anyone with whom he does not agree as stupid.” So opening up my trusty search engine, I found that the Wilde quote is from The Critic as Artist, with Some Remarks upon the Importance of Doing Nothing, which I then downloaded onto my Kindle and started scanning through to find the quote. Which, as it turned out, was very near the end. So I did actually start to read the work, and I must say that while it did not lessen my regard for Waldo, it did increase it for Oscar. It is a serious manifesto arguing the need for beauty and the veneration of the creative act wherever it is found–even, perhaps especially, in criticism. Another lesson for me against reading with an ulterior motive in mind.
Wilde was very popular in his own time (1854-1900), but of course his life had a tragic arc. Born into a well-to-do family in Dublin, he was very well educated and became a darling of London society before being prosecuted for “gross indecency” (read “homosexuality”) and sent to prison at hard labor–itself a crime from which he never recovered. When released he moved to France and died in poverty at 46. Today he is often seen as a caricature of a homosexual, and his penchant for long hair and languid poses did nothing to counteract that. Perhaps because of lingering homophobia, he is not read much these days as far as I can tell, and the contemporaries whom he quotes–Cardinal Newman, Robert Browning, Walter Pater, Ernest Renan and others–are not much either. But he also shows a familiarity with writers in the Ideal tradition: Homer, Plato of course, and Plotinus. There is even a quote by Emerson, from The Over-Soul, “that great artists work unconsciously, that they are ‘wiser than they knew,’ as, I think, Emerson remarks somewhere.”¹ But the quote is put into the mouth of Ernest (pun no doubt intended) who serves as a rather feckless foil for the real views of Wilde who speaks in the voice of Gilbert.
It is, yes, presented as a Platonic dialogue between these two, with Ernest’s Phaedrus playing straight man (pun not intended) to Gilbert’s Socrates. The dialogue is a literary device which Wilde uses self-consciously², and it makes his points rather more palatable than a conventional essay might. The main points are conveniently summarized by Ernest near the end of it:
You have told me many strange things to-night, Gilbert. You have told me that it is more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it, and that to do nothing at all the most difficult thing in the world; you have told me that all Art is immoral, and all thought dangerous; that criticism is more creative than creation, and that the highest criticism is that which reveals in the work of Art what the artist had not put there; that it is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it; and that the true critic is unfair, insincere, and not rational. My friend, you are a dreamer.
I won’t go through all of these arguments–read the work yourself–but it did get me thinking about the nature and role of the critic and the artist, between which, in Wilde’s view, there is no distinction. All artists, he says, begin with some raw material and transform it into something new; the critic just starts with another work of art as his or her raw material. The word “critic” come from the Greek word kritikos, related to “crisis,” and denotes judging or choosing between two paths. For me it brings to mind the “resourceful” Odysseus, as he makes his way home and constantly has to discriminate the right action at any given moment to achieve his nostos.
For Wilde, our nostos is a return to the world of beauty, the love of which he reminds us is what Plato called the true aim of education. “Good” art is what brings us closer to that timeless world, expands our view, stirs our better feelings, and brings us to a state (from stasis) of “doing nothing.” It will bring us to a condition of stillness:
Like the Persephone of whom Landor tells us, the sweet pensive Persephone around whose white feet the asphodel and amaranth are blooming, he will sit contented “in that deep, motionless quiet which mortals pity, and which the gods enjoy.” He will look out upon the world and know its secret. By contact with divine things he will become divine. His will be the perfect life, and his only.
“Bad” art does the opposite; essentially it diminishes us. It is the sin Emerson speaks of as “limitation.” In contrast, Wilde at one point says, “The world is made by the singer for the dreamer,” a phrase that evokes Alkinoos in the Odyssey, “The gods arranged all this, and they wove the fate of doom for mortals, so that future generations might have something to sing about.” Life is the raw material of art.
How much his views were changed by his legal ordeal and imprisonment, I can’t say. I’m planning to read De Profundis and/or The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which describe that experience, and I’ll write about that sometime in future. But for now, we can hear Wilde speaking through Gilbert as he answers Ernest:
Gilbert: Yes, I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
Ernest: His punishment?
Gilbert: And his reward.
¹The quote in context is actually about our own ability to separate the true from the untrue in the literature we read: “In the book I read, the good thought returns to me, as every truth will, the image of the whole soul. To the bad thought which I find in it, the same soul becomes a discerning, separating sword, and lops it away. We are wiser than we know. If we will not interfere with our thought, but will act entirely, or see how the thing stands in God, we know the particular thing, and every thing, and every man. For the Maker of all things and all persons stands behind us, and casts his dread omniscience through us over things.” (The Over-Soul) Wilde expressed admiration for Emerson (“I think Walt Whitman and [Ralph Waldo] Emerson have given the world more than anyone else”), and toured America in 1882, the year Emerson died, but they never met. Wilde did, however, meet Whitman.
²”Dialogue, certainly, that wonderful literary form from which, from Plato to Lucian, and from Lucian to Giordano Bruno to that grand old pagan in whom Carlyle took such delight, the creative critics of the world have always employed, can never lose for the thinker its attraction as a mode of expression.”