Does beauty only belong to an elect few? Oscar Wilde thought it did. For him, life and art were two things closely related. For the average person, everyday life is the realm of reality. It is where we live and experience community, relationships, and what it means for us to be human. But for Oscar Wilde, the art form itself was more real than the physical world. Wilde believed that the artist was gifted and cursed at the same time. For while the artist was able to experience the beauty that the “philistines” as he called the ignorant masses of people were unable to see, on the flip side the artist was doomed to a life of misunderstanding and eventual ruin at the hands of these very same “philistines.” In fact, questions about beauty were particularly important during his time. Oscar Wilde was an integral part of the aesthetic movement in England. The aesthetic movement was a rebellion against the realism that had become mainstream in art, inasmuch it was a rebellion against the Victorian ideals which still held influence. It was in part thanks to these Victorian ideals that Wilde was able to become known at all. After graduating from Oxford, at odds as what to do with himself (a situation many humanities students today can relate to), Wilde continued to put on the effects of a dandy for which he had become known while at Oxford. It was at Oxford that the Wilde as we know him, flamboyant, witty, came into being. He marched around London in outlandish clothes, and self-published a book of poetry that immediately gained attention, if not critical acclaim. And then when his plays took center stage in London, that was when he became a sensation.
But in order to understand Wilde one must also understand his own public posturing, along with his aesthetic beliefs. He lived a life of false pretenses, pretending one day to be this way, and another to be a different way. “I never change, except in my affections.”(1) For a while after graduation, Wilde earned an income in Mark Twain’s way, by giving orations. He was arguably just as renowned for these oratory performances as he was for his plays. And his orations, public or more private in nature, fueled his creative performances. Either way, Oscar Wilde’s public appearance became more and more elusive the longer he remained in the limelight.
While this sounds like what happens to any celebrity who is in the limelight long enough, for Wilde it was something else. For he was entirely self-aware of his affectations for which he was famous. He did not singularly revel in his paradoxical appearance, he used it to make points about life, and the society in which he lived. This was how Oscar Wilde’s life became his art. In the same way that Wilde’s plays implemented humor and wit to show the absurdities of social convention during his time, his own humor and wit created a mask. It is by this mask that we have come to know and discuss Oscar Wilde, down through history.
So what can we learn from Wilde, and why is it important to study him at all? While he was a gifted writer and an enormous mind of the kind that comes around only rarely in a generation, his story is not one of success. At one time he was the most renowned playwright in London, the seat of the greatest empire in the world. And then because of a scandal and an ensuing court trial which he could have avoided but faced head on instead, he was imprisoned. Imprisonment took everything from him, and upon leaving he would never live freely the way he had again. He died shortly after being released.
Although Wilde wanted to take nothing seriously besides beauty, as Chesterton says, in his many false personas, he admitted one side that was true. “He was so fond of being many-sided that among his sides he even admitted the right side. He loved so much to multiply his souls that he had among them one soul at least that was saved. He desired all beautiful things – even God.”(2) In Wilde we find a rare giant of an intellect. And when we brush elbows with such giants, we can’t help but be the better off from it. Wilde’s musings on beauty, and even his speculations on morality which he experiments with in his plays, are intriguing to anyone wanting to study and explore in the realm of aesthetics.
Wilde is particularly important to those of us interested in Hildebrand’s own views on the aesthetics, because of the great contradiction between the two of them. For Wilde’s belief in the spirit of art as that which animates life couldn’t contradict Hildebrand’s view of beauty as something which reveals divine truth any more fully, and yet there is a spark of truth there, even in Wilde’s strangest assertions that “beauty has as many meanings as man has moods. Beauty is the symbol of symbols. Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing. When it shows us itself, it shows us the whole fiery-coloured world.”While the greatest comparison that can be drawn between Wilde’s aesthetics and Hildebrand’s is the equal respect and loyalty to beauty, where their paths diverge most fully is in Hildebrand’s assertion that all beauty points back towards God. In this way, Hildebrand’s aesthetics reach higher, and are more jolting than any of Wilde’s beautiful witticisms. In Hildebrand’s own words: “beauty opens our hearts, inviting us to transcendence and leading us in conspectum Dei, before the face of God.”(3)
In a similar way that Wilde was in reaction against the times he lived in, we today are in reaction. We may not be trying to usher in a religion of beauty, but we are trying to find the fine line where beauty walks hand-in-hand with religion. Wilde’s
“frightful fallacy was that he would not see that there is reason in everything, even in religion and morality.”(4) And we who want to find that reason in religion, morality and everything are challenged to express it, and understand it. Dialogue with prominent thinkers like Wilde, who spent a great deal of time crafting an entire thought around the aesthetics, is imperative to understanding our own place in the history of beauty, and defining our own, independent thought.
(1)Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest.
(2)GK Chesterton, "On Oscar Wilde."
(3)Hildebrand, Aesthetics (3)
(4).GK Chesterton, "on Oscar Wilde."