In the present year it may be very difficult to think about Wilde, who still innocently imagined civilized experience as prolonged conversation, and who had no interest in violence as a means of improvement. He was a genuine innovator, but his inventions, as dramatist and essayist, have been exploited and familiarly used for so long that they no longer excite much attention. He may now seem a remote figure in colored film and legend, because his original achievement has been buried by countless imitations, in style of behavior as in art. Shaw, Firbank, Saki (in “The Unbearable Bassington” and the Clovis stories), and sometimes Evelyn Waugh, drew upon him directly, and many lesser men have lived off the style of social dandyism that he introduced into the language and into higher journalism. Professor Ellmann’s short Introduction to this useful collection of his criticism does not claim too much for him; he was very far from being a weighty or responsible critic. Rather his critical thought is a kind of play.
It was Wilde’s purpose to apply, in his experiments with the English language, the guiding principle of his life: “it is only the superficial qualities that last.” He was entirely successful. The Importance of Being Earnest is arguably the best English comedy since Shakespeare, and the superficial features of Wilde’s personality have never been forgotten. Writing comedies that were to be compared with Congreve and Sheridan, he invented a weightless English, an art of controlled nonsense, which had not previously been seen as a possibility on the modern stage. It was an apparently casual achievement that required long practice and an apprenticeship; and most of his criticism, like his conversation, was only part of the practice. He knew what he was doing and how difficult it would be to do it, and his critical essays play the role of Shaw’s prefaces: they are an advertisement for himself, preparing and irritating a public which had no natural sense of the lyrical gaiety that he looked for, and that he occasionally found.
He had first to free English speech from its weight of serious meaning. He had to win for prose, for measured sentence and paragraph, the license that his contemporaries would concede only to verse: the freedom to delight instantly, in virtue of form alone, and the right to forestall reflection by an explosion of felicity in phrasing. He used the epigram, as a literary form, very much as a ballet-master uses exercises at the bar. In ballet the movements of the body have to be separated from their obvious intentions. Similarly the language of comedy had to be formalized, and, as it were, put on points. He had to have the right to veer into dottiness, to exaggerate extravagantly, and to bend the expected movement of a phrase into absurdity. Ruskin and Pater, his putative masters, still wrote a kind of sermon. Their prose was always heavy with meaning and moral purpose, and they expected a careful, inwardly troubled reader, relentlessly improved. As Wilde interpreted his aesthetic precursors, their manner was at odds with their matter. They were still clinging to Arnold’s compromise with an anxious, ethical culture that distinguished deeper meanings from surface qualities. The philistines must be more directly attacked in England, as they had been in France. In England a snobbery of uselessness and an absurd stylization of social values would be the appropriate weapons of subversion.
Wilde’s sustained campaign, as a person and as a writer, was directed against carefulness of all kinds and against the ethical culture that demanded it, and that still swaddled and suffocated English speech. He would follow the pleasure principle, wherever it might lead, in his writing, as in his life, with no constraining respect for reality. He would be a gross adventurer in literature, who lived by his wits, with no solid substance of invested meaning or message to back him. His pronouncements in these essays upon the nature of art and of fiction are blatantly mere flourishes, gestures of moral defiance, rather than parts of an argument. His aestheticism becomes a protest against the painful anxieties of literal minds and calculating consciences. He demanded irresponsibility in art on moral grounds, and for the sake of a new freedom; it is evident in these essays that he cared much more for irresponsibility than for art. He invokes Greek and French models quite vaguely, and with little attention to their real substance, and only as imaginary antidotes to the prevailing kind of protestant feeling that repelled him. Moral assertiveness was for him the sour revenge of dull minds, and must never be engaged, or confronted, on its own terms. It must be taken by surprise, by fantasy, inversion, and nonsense. He would invent a dialogue, and an essayist’s manner, that would be entirely transparent, or two-dimensional, so that no topic could be presented in depth, and heavily handled.
Vyvyan Holland described the magic of Wilde’s fairy stories as he told them to children, sitting on the stairs in Tite Street, Chelsea. This was his true vein, and telling such stories was his kind of happiness. The famous essay on Art and Socialism, included here, is just such a story, a child-like picture of what might be, which depends upon intellectual surprise, and the inversion of the usual expectations. This inversion, and the play of paradox, were not in him just a trick of style, or a mannerism. Rather they expressed his sense that to be taken by surprise, and to be liberated from the constraints of literalness and of an accepted picture of reality is the supreme pleasure that a writer can provide.
In these essays, as in all his writing, he has to imagine an audience captivated and amazed, surrendering, against its better judgment, to the cadence of his sentences and to the charm of his voice, as children naturally do. Every sentence in these essays has to please, and nowhere is an argument carried through at the risk of tiring the reader. Literary values are an extension of social values, and the first duty of a writer is to be good company. Partly for this reason none of Wilde’s critical opinions was a threat to real institutions in the real world, as conscientious aestheticism might be. He is absolutely benign, assuming an audience that wants to be pleased and relieved of its cares, and, if anyone is to be harmed by his extravagances, he will be.
I feel that I am writing an obituary, and defensively, because I doubt whether this harmlessness in criticism can now engage readers. He strolls negligently past his authors—Balzac, Dickens, Morris, Whitman, Swinburne, Ouida, Froude, Pater among others—making conversation about them in the lightest possible tone of voice, teaching a manner of speech, and suggesting a moral, or anti-moral, that wholly resides in this manner. The moral is that of simple individualism, directly stated in “Art and Socialism”: the secret temperament, the private pleasure, the peculiar fantasy or dream are more powerful than anything else, whether men will admit this or not; and literature must sacrifice everything else to the full expression of a secret temperament, and society must sacrifice everything else to its protection. He wrote accordingly and lived accordingly. The utter simplicity of attitude in these essays may now be found either absurd or delightful. They are best read, I think, in conjunction with the Hart-Davis edition of the Letters, which supplies a continuing context for them, as parts of a larger enterprise which succeeded.