vendredi 18 avril 2014

Oscar Wilde's style


Art is quite useless

This famous sentence, written in the Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray, aims to display Wilde’s artistic movement which is, namely, aestheticism. Though this theory wasn’t very famous at Wilde’s time (even in France, romanticism, realism and symbolism were more successful than Wilde’s and Huysmans’ art), the whole occidental literature was utterly altered by aestheticism: André Gide, for instance, worshiped Wilde during his youth -he almost loved him[1] because of his great admiration for the English author. That is why we should study the story of the aesthetic movement, and display the typical features of Wilde’s style, both in his plays, poems and in his only novel.
Let’s begin from the beginning. Before beginning to write, Wilde was, like all of us, a mere reader, notwithstanding the fact that he liked an author that everyone disliked at his time: this author was Huysmans, a French writer whose novels were very strange, marginal, and rather original. Indeed, Huysmans wanted the writers of his time to outweigh both realism and romanticism, by discovering a new literature –Baudelaire’s one, Rimbaud’s one: that was symbolism. It is possible to say that Huysmans’ writing was a blend of realism and romanticism. Baudelaire, for example, used to focus on the real life (even on things which weren’t poetical, like the “little old women” in The flowers of evil). Nevertheless, because of his will to lay bare symbols, Baudelaire outweighed reality; actually, he was rather fascinated by the idea of the poetic “elevation”: in order to achieve the dream of the “elevation”, Baudelaire had to struggle against the mediocrity, the banality, and the dullness of realism. To put things differently, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Huysmans, weren’t neither realism, nor romantic: in fact, their literature was quite different.
We should go back to Wilde –and, more precisely, to Wilde’s style. When this one began to write, he was inspired by these French authors. Might we give a proof? In the Picture of Dorian Gray, he often refers to Huysmans. Furthermore, at the end of his life, Wilde explained that it occurred to him to write this novel when he was reading A rebours –a Huysmans’ novel. From this standpoint, Wilde’s work aimed too to outweigh the opposition between realism and romanticism. In the preface of The Picture, Wilde focuses on these twofold movements: the nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. This comparison is meaningful: displaying the reality in literature, and concealing it, were the two paradigms of the nineteenth century art. There were only these two artistic possibilities in the story of the nineteenth century literature (realism, or romanticism, and nothing else): Wilde, as for him, dreamt of a new stylistic form.
First of all, it is possible to speak about principle which was important –perhaps it was the most important Wilde’s principle- in Wilde’s style: it is the hermetic separation between ethics and esthetics. The one embodies the moralist’s affair, whereas the second incarnates the writer’s subject-matter. We can see, immediately, that Wilde, with this idea, struggled against the ideological, moralist, and ethic literature. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. According to this sentence, books mustn’t express a message whatsoever form it may takes –and the author should be interested by nothing but the idea of beauty. Thus, literature becomes, not only “quite useless”, but also meaningless, almost shallow. However, the shallow writer, according to Wilde, is the one who wants to defend an ethic (or ideological) message. We remember a Lord Henry’s sentence (in The Picture): “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearance”.
Shallowness is a typical feature of Wilde’s style, which is full of grandiloquent aphorisms and simplistic maxims, pronounced by several characters in many books. Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead, or Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us (in The importance of being earnest) –let us give a last example: Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go. This feature can also be found in Beaumarchais’ writing, which used to create lots of aphorisms[2].
Though Wilde explained that there is no such thing as an immoral book –this sentence means that the notion of immorality doesn’t fit in literature: it is a chimeric illusion-, it seems that several of his texts were utterly immoral (disgusting?). Like Baudelaire, Sade, and many others, Wilde encountered the Justice, and was on trial for his immorality and his homosexuality. This immorality is present in his artistic work: Lord Henry, for instance, is an allegory of immorality, and Dorian Gray, who “had sold himself to the devil for a pretty face”, looks like the myth of Faust –the story of a man fascinated by the devil. When he invented the figure of Dorian Gray, Wilde was certainly inspired by Stevenson who had published Doctor Jeryll and Mister Hyde five years before the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Like Doctor Jekyll who hides his evil personality by adopting a new body when he behaves in an ugly way, Dorian Gray conceals his “soul” in a mere picture. Dorian’s masterpiece, as explained Lord Henry, wasn’t an artistic work, but his own life. This contradiction between a handsome face and a terrible soul (altered by Dorian’s cruelty) displays one of Wilde’s important ideas: appearance is a mere meaningless semblance -and nothing more (that is all, Wilde wrote).
However, after this period of immorality and shallowness, Wilde went to jail, and this experience was traumatic for him. After his liberation, his life altered, becoming a life of decay and sorrow. Wilde’s last masterpieces are quite different; they criticize shallowness, atheism, and speak about religious subject-matters. Like Verlaine who wrote Sagesses in jail where he became religious, Wilde had his period of redemption; but it was too late: nowadays, he is mainly famous for his immorality.
N.



[1] In one of his letters, Gide wrote : “I’ve almost been in his bed!” (“il s’en est fallu de peu pour que je ne sois dans la couche d’Oscar Wilde”)
[2] For instance, the first scene of Le Mariage de Figaro illustrates this idea. In this text, we find several proverbs: « Oh, quand elles (women) sont sûres de nous! », « Que les gens d’esprit sont bêtes »….