Written by Vladimir Moss



     Rarely has a star ascended the literary firmament so swiftly and so brilliantly as the Anglo-Irish playwright Oscar Wilder (1854-1900), only to fall so precipitously and so disastrously. 

     Wilde belonged to that movement known as aestheticism, a reaction against the realist trend of most of mid- and late-nineteenth-century art and literature whose spiritual home was France… Now the cultural leaders of the western world in the late nineteenth century continued to be the French. But with that leadership went a reputation for decadence and triviality. At the beginning of the century the Germans had comforted themselves for their military defeats at the hands of Napoleon by asserting their cultural superiority over their “trivial” rivals. By the end of the century it was the French who had suffered military defeat at the hands of the Germans; but their culture – whether “trivial” or not – still enjoyed the reputation of being the world’s finest. Thus when we think of “la belle époque”, we think not only of the things that Bohemians like King Edward VII delighted in – good food and dancing girls – but also of Impressionist painters like Monet, sculptors like Rodin and composers like Debussy. Only in music, thanks largely to the enormous impact of Brahms and Wagner, were the Germans still the acknowledged cultural leaders. The Germans were also pre-eminent in academic subjects such as Classics, Physics and Chemistry.

     “The search for a ‘new music’ by the Wagnerians,” writes Sir Richard Evans, “expressed a growing dissatisfaction with conventional cultural forms that could be found in many branches of the arts in the later decades of the nineteenth century. In painting the camera was beginning to subvert Realism and representation and forced artists to rethink the nature of their business. Sharing many of the basic features of Realism, above all its focus on the ordinary and the everyday, a group of Parisian artists led by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Alfred Sisley (1839-99) and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), and influenced by Édouard Manet, broke free of the conventions of the Academy to paint not so much static, finished representations of reality as works recording its often fleeting impressions on the observer. They reacted the rejection of their work by the Academy’s annual Salon by forming a Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of Rejects) in 1863. Eventually known as the Impressionists, a term invented by a critic of Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872), they used free brushstrokes and paintings created en plein air rather than in the studio to record the effects of light in bold colours. Monet even painted the same subject – haystacks, for example, or Waterloo Bridge, or Rouen Cathedral – scores of times in succession to show the impression it made on the viewer in different kinds of sunlight, mist, fog, or shade, at different times of the day or the year.[1] The use of vivid and constantly changing colour offered the Impressionists a conscious alternative to photography, at a time when colour film has been invented only on an experimental scale without entering general circulation. Met initially with public ridicule, the Impressionists had gained widespread acceptance by the end of the nineteenth century.

     “Impressionism found its way into music through the compositions of Claude Debussy (1862-1918), though he himself denied that his works were what ‘imbeciles call “impressionism” a term employed with the utmost inaccuracy’. Eschewing traditional musical form, he composed piano and orchestral pieces that used unconventional harmonies and subtle timbres to evoke the moods and emotions aroused by subjects such as mists, gardens in the rain, reflections on the wate, a submerged cathedral, the hills of Anacapri or, in his most extended orchestral work, La Mer (1903-5), the play of the waves and their dialogue with the wind. His compatriot Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), who also rejected the categorization of his works as Impressionist, produced more abstract music, but several of his pieces, such as the piano suite Miroirs (1905), with its evocation of a boat on the waves or church bells in a valley, could fairly be described as belonging to the genre. A major influence on Debussy in particular was the French Symbolist movement in literature, which represented a significant move away from Realism and towards spirituality and the imagination. It was futile, argued a ‘Symbolist Manifesto’ published in 1886 by the Greek-born poet Jean Moréas (1856-1910), to attempt to represent reality in a direct way: what was required was, as in the work of the Impressionists, to depict ‘not the thing, but the effect it produces’. The three poets in the manifesto, Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), Paul Verlaine (1844-96) and Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98), used the sounds of words as much as their meaning to convey the impression of their subject. Debussy and Ravel were inspired by the Symbolist poets to write a number of compositions, notably Debussy’ poem for orchestra, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) and Ravel’s Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1914) for soprano and chamber ensemble.

     “Symbolist painters such as the German Franz von Stuck (1863-1928), whose painting Sin (1893) showed a female nude emerging seductively from the shadows, the Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863-1944), best known for The Scream (1893), and the Austrian Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), whose Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901) surrounded an erotically charged semi-nude with Byzantine-style gold, retained a figurative core to their work while placing it in a determinedly non-figurative context. The emphasis on surface decoration in Klimt’s painting paralleled the emergence of Art Nouveau or Jugenstil in the decorative arts in the 1890s, with its curves and parabolas and cursive scripts. The new style was evident, for example, in the architectural decoration of the Norwegian town of Ålesund, rebuilt in three years after its complete destruction by fire in 1904, and in many buildings of the newly constructed Hungarian city of Pest. In Russia writers such as Alexander Alexandrovich Blok (1880-1921) and Andrei Bely (pen-name of Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev, 1880-1934) incorporated sound-pictures and experimental rhythms into their poetry. The Symbolists were rebelling against not only the notion of realistic representation but also the conscription of the arts into the service of nationalism, arguing instead that the arts were entirely autonomous from social or political life. The French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) dealt in his novel Against Nature what Zola called a ‘terrible blow’ to Realism: the action, or rather inaction, of the novel takes place in a hallucinatory world in which the imagined becomes more real than the real. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) the ravages of the protagonist’s dissolute life are visited upon his portrait, while his own physical appearance remains untouched by age or the consequences of sin. Art, argued Wilde and the other proponents of Aestheticism in the 1890s, should be pursued for art’s sake, and for no other purpose.”[2]

     But what did this slogan really mean? Granted that the artist is aiming first and foremost at beauty rather than any kind of propaganda, does this meaning that the striving for beauty – real beauty – can ever be really independent of the striving for truth and goodness?

     On this point we must agree with Friedrich Nietzsche, who denied there is any such thing as art for art’s sake:When the purpose of moral preaching and of improving man has been excluded from art, it still does not follow by any means that art is altogether purposeless, aimless, senseless — in short, l'art pour l'art, a worm chewing its own tail. ‘Rather no purpose at all than a moral purpose!’ — that is the talk of mere passion. A psychologist, on the other hand, asks: what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? choose? prefer? With all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations. Is this merely a ‘moreover’? an accident? something in which the artist's instinct had no share? Or is it not the very presupposition of the artist's ability? Does his basic instinct aim at art, or rather at the sense of art, at life? at a desirability of life? Art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l'art pour l'art?”[3]

     Wilde devoted not only his whole artistic oeuvre to the doctrine of aestheticism, but also his whole life. With a ferocious energy that belied the mask of idleness and indifference that he put on, he tried to make the whole of his life into a work of art. As he said to André Gide: “J’ai mis tout mon génie dans ma vie, je n’ai mis que mon talent dans mes oeuvres.”[4] He made his art, including his greatest work, his life, into an idol in the strict sense of the word. And God destroyed him for his idolatry…


     “Art is the great stimulus to life,” said Nietzsche. Indeed, but how does it best accomplish this purpose? By the grim realism of the late-nineteenth-century novel? Or by some other means? The “art for art’s sake” movement was reacting against grim realism in art. Their slogan was not expressing a frivolous attitude to life, but rather an exalted attitude to art, as not so much “holding a mirror up to nature”, in Hamlet’s words, but revealing beauties in life that are invisible to the non-artistic eye, even if the artist has to resort to distorting the surface reality, - that is to say, “lying” – in order to do it. This is a highly ambitious, romantic, if not Platonic understanding of art, which is perhaps best expressed – albeit with characteristic hyperbole – in a dialogue by Oscar Wilde called “The Decay of Lying” (1891), in which “lying” – i.e. the artistic imagination – is exalted above a narrowly realist, positivist understanding of truth. 

     “If something cannot be done,” writes Wilde, “to check, or at least to modify, our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile and beauty will pass away from the land. 

     “Even Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, that delightful master of delicate and fanciful prose, is tainted with this modern vice, for we know positively no other name for it. There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true, and The Black Arrow is so inartistic as not to contain a single anachronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll reads dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet. As for Mr. Rider Haggard, who really has, or once had, the makings of a perfectly magnificent liar, he is now so afraid of being suspected of genius that when he does tell us anything marvellous, he feels bound to invent a personal reminiscence, and to put it into a footnote as a kind of cowardly collaboration…”[5]

     The famous French realist novelist Zola comes in for even harsher criticism. Although Wilde admits that Zola is “not without power” at some times, for example in Germinal, still “his work is entirely wrong from beginning to end, and wrong not on the ground of morals, but on the ground of Art. From any ethical standpoint it is just what it should be. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire?... [Zola’s characters] have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what happens to them? In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty and imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders…”[6]

     “Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor-law administration…

     “Believe me, my dear Cyril, modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter are entirely and absolutely wrong. We have mistaken the common livery of the age for the vesture of the Muses, and spend out days in sordid streets and hideous suburbs of our vile cities when we should be out on the hillside with Apollo. Certainly we are a degraded race and have sold our birthright for a mess of facts…

     “Art begins with abstract decoration, with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent. This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted to its charmed circle. Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment. The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and derives Art out into the wilderness. This is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering…”[7]

     “What is true about the drama and the novel is no less true about those arts that we call the decorative arts. The whole history of these arts in Europe is the record of the struggle between Orientalism, with its frank rejection of imitation, its love of artistic convention, its dislike to the actual representation of any object in Nature, and our own imitative spirit. Wherever the former has been paramount, as in Byzantium, Sicily and Spain, by actual contact or in the rest of Europe by the influence of the Crusades, we have had beautiful and imaginative work in which the visible things of life are transmuted into artistic conventions, and the things that Life has not are invented and fashioned for her delight. But wherever we have returned to Life and Nature, our work has always become vulgar, common and uninteresting…”[8]

     It is perhaps unexpected to find Wilde as a champion of Byzantine art, which contains a “spiritual realism” that escapes him. (His contemporary and fellow Anglo-Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, expresses a deeper appreciation of the iconic, non-representational, timeless but at the same time spiritually realistic quality of Byzantine art in “Sailing to Byzantium”:

 Gather my soul

Into the artifice of eternity.

      Wilde would have been right to date the beginning of Western art’s imitative, representative, materialist tendency to the time of the Crusades, when the West had just broken communion with Orthodox Byzantium. Instead, he places the beginning of this decadence somewhat later, in the Renaissance; it was already evident, he asserted, in the more boorish parts of Shakespeare’s plays. But he lays the main blame for contemporary boorish realism on America, its “crude commercialism, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetic side of things…”[9]

     “Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of herself. She is not to be judged by an external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds that no woodland possesses. She makes and unmakes many worlds, and can draw the moon from heaven with a scarlet thread. Hers are the ‘forms more real than living man’, and hers the great archetypes of which things that have existence are but unfinished copies. Nature has, in her eyes, no laws, no uniformity. She can work miracles at her will, and when she calls monsters from the deep they come…

     “Paradox though it may seem – and paradoxes are always dangerous things – it is none the less true that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life…”[10]

     “The Greeks, with their quick artistic instinct, understood this, and set in the bride’s chamber the statue of Hermes or of Apollo, that she might bear children as lovely as the works of art that she looked at in her rapture or her pain. They knew that Life gains from Art not merely spiritually, depth of thought and feeling, soul-turmoil or soul-peace, but that she can form herself on the very lines and colours of art, and can reproduce the dignity of Pheidias as well as the grace of Praxiteles. Hence came their objection to realism. They disliked it on purely social grounds. They felt that it inevitably makes people ugly, and they were perfectly right. We try to improve the conditions of the race by means of good air, free sunlight, wholesome water, and hideous bare buildings for the better housing of the lower orders. But these things merely produce health, they do not produce beauty. For this, Art is required, and the true disciples of the great artist are not his studio-imitators, but those who become like his works of art, be they plastic as in Greek days, or pictorial as in modern times; in a word, Life is Art’s best, Art’s only pupil.

    “As it is with the visible arts, so it is with literature… Schopenhauer had analysed the pessimism that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy. The Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a purely literary product. He was invented by Tourgenieff, and completed by Dostoevski. Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau… Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose…

     “Life holds up the mirror to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction… Young men… have died by their own hand because by his own hand Werther died.”[11]


     Wilde’s life held up the mirror to his art, to the whole of the “art for art’s sake” movement, and, still more generally, to the whole of western bourgeois civilization as it reached its glittering climax in the years leading up to the Great War.

     After a brilliant double First in Classics at Oxford, Wilde embarked on a literary career that soon had the literary greats of the time – and there were many – gaping in astonishment. His plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Ernest packed playhouses then as now, eliciting tumultuous praise. His fellow Irishman George Bernard Shaw – no mean playwright himself – wrote after the first performance of An Ideal Husband: “Mr Oscar Wilde’s new play at the Haymarket is a dangerous subject, because he has the property of making his critics dull… He plays with everything with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre…”[12]

     In view of Wilde’s notorious homosexuality, it is tempting to search for the beginnings of this fall in his earlier life. But if the beginnings can be discerned, they are not in his sexual life - he had a happy marriage, and two sons. Nor were the themes of his plays particularly scandalous – otherwise he would never have become so popular in that strait-laced Victorian milieu. The clue to his fall is to be found in the fact that while the predominant tone of his writing is not serious, he himself took his writing ultra seriously, to the point of self-worship. Thus he describes himself as “a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction. I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me. I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram…”[13]

     So the real disease of Wilde, as of his whole generation, was pride and blasphemy. His gifts were genuine, and his work by no means superficial (“the supreme vice,” he said, is “shallowness”[14]); in it are to be found both wit and wisdom. But if “Art is the supreme reality” and “Aesthetics are higher than ethics”[15], then there is no room for God or morality (although he was a Freemason at Oxford and exhibited a lifelong fascination with Catholicism). Indeed, “no artist had ethical sympathies,” he wrote. “An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything…”[16]

     Having made of himself a Romantic man-god-artist, Wilde’s fall was swift and steep. As his grandson Vyvyan Holland writes, by 1895 “Wilde had now reached the pinnacle of his success. Two plays of his were drawing crowded audiences in the West End, and actor-managers were falling over one another to write for them. Then the Marquess of Queensbury, with the object of attacking his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, because of his [homosexual] friendship with Wilde, launched a campaign of ungovernable fury on Wilde. The story has been told often enough; Alfred Douglas, whose only object was to see his father in the dock, persuaded Oscar Wilde to bring a prosecution for criminal libel against him. Lord Queensbury was triumphantly acquitted and his place in the dock was taken by Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to two years imprisonment.”[17]

     In De Profundis, a letterwritten from prison to his former lover, Wilde shows a moving determination not to spare himself and not to yield to hatred of the man who “in less than three years had ruined me from every point of view” (although he did not spare him a lengthy description of how he had done that): “After my terrible sentence, when the prison-dress was on me, and the prison-house closed, I sat amidst the ruins of my wonderful life, crushed by anguish, bewildered by terror dazed through pain. But I would not hate you. Every day I said to myself, ‘I must keep Love in my heart today, else how shall I live through the day.’ I reminded myself that you meant no evil, to me at any rate: I set myself to think that you had but drawn a bow at a venture, and that the arrow had pierced a King between the joints of the harness. To have weighed you against the smallest of my arrows, the meanest of my losses, would have been, I felt unfair. I determined I would regard you as one suffering too. I forced myself to believe that at last the scales had fallen from your long-blinded eyes. I used to fancy, and with pain, what your horror must have been when you contemplated your terrible handiwork. There were times, even in those dark days, the darkest of all my life, when I actually longed to console you. So sure was I that at last you have realised what you had done…”[18]

     Released from prison, Wilde fled from the opprobrium of the English Pharisees – as he wrote,

I think they love not Art

Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart

That small and sickly eyes may glare or gloat 

- to self-imposed exile in his beloved France as a penitent publican. He died soon after, penniless and miserable, in a French hotel. However, “all his life,: says his grandson, “my father had an intense leaning towards religious mysticism, and was strongly attracted to the Catholic Church, into which he was received on his death bed in 1900.”[19]

-        What did this final act in the life of the notorious roué mean? Perhaps, as in the similar case of Byron’s death-bed conversion to Orthodoxy, it was a final recognition that the supreme reality is not Art, but God, and that Ethics are higher than Aesthetics. Certainly if there was one subject on which Wilde, against his principles, expressed an “ethical sympathy”, it was in his withering condemnation of the English middle classes who so admired him, and of the Anglican Church whose hypocrisy he abominated: “The dreams of the great middle classes of this country… are the most depressing things I have ever read. They are commonplace, sordid and tedious. There is not even a fine nightmare among them. As for the Church, I cannot conceive anything better for the culture of a country than the presence in it of a body of men whose duty it is to believe in the supernatural, to perform daily miracles, and to keep alive that mythopoeic faculty which is so essential for the imagination. But in the English Church a man succeeds, not through his capacity for belief, but through his capacity for disbelief. Ours is the only Church where the sceptic stands at the altar, and where St. Thomas is regarded as the ideal apostle. Many a worthy clergyman, who passes his life in admirable works of kindly charity, lives and dies unnoticed and unknown, but it is sufficient for some shallow uneducated passman out of either University to get up in his pulpit and express his doubts about Noah’s ark, or Balaam’s ass, or Jonah and the while, for half of London to flock to hear him, and sit open-mouthed in rapt admiration at his superb intellect. The growth of common sense in the English Church is a thing very much to be regretted. It is really a degrading concession to a low form of realism…”[20] 

     So Wilde’s last act was to reject appreciative but moralistic and unbelieving England for frivolous but beautiful and forgiving France; he exchanged English undogmatic Protestantism for French dogmatic Catholicism… 

     In the twenty-first century Wilde’s countrymen, exceeding even his contemporaries’ pride and blasphemy, have made of his sin an object of “gay pride”, thereby nullifying the greatest achievement of his life, his (albeit incomplete) repentance. The greatness of his art is now firmly established, it has stood the test of time. But the greatness of the last years of his life, when, as we may hope, he redeemed himself through suffering and faith, showing in his own life the falseness of his own idolatrous theory that art and the artist are greater than life and the Creator of life, still awaits just appreciation…

July 6/19, 2018.

[1] It could be argued that the first Impressionist painter was in fact the Englishman J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) in such stunningly original compositions as Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway (1844). (V.M.)

[2] Evans, The Pursuit of Power. Europe 1815-1914, London: Penguin, 2017, pp. 530-532.

[3] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Gods,“Skirmishes of an Untimely Man,” 24.

[4] Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, London: HarperCollins, 2003, introduction to the 1994 edition, p. 3.

[5] Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”, op. cit., p. 1074.

[6] Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”, p. 1075.

[7]Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”, pp. 1077, 1078.

[8]Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”, p. 1080.

[9]Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”, p. 1081.

[10]Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”, p. 1082.

[11]Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”, p. 1080.

[12] Collins Complete Works, Introduction to 1994 edition, pp. 10-11.

[13] Holland, Collins Complete Works, Introduction to 1994 edition, pp. 1-2.

[14] Wilde, “De Profundis”, Collins Complete Works, p. 1005.

[15] Wilde, “The Critic as Artist”.

[16] Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Complete Works, p. 17.

[17] Holland, in “Introduction to the 1966 Edition”, Complete Works, p.11.

[18] Wilde, “De Profundis”, Complete Works, p. 1005.

[19]Holland, in “Introduction to the 1966 Edition”, Complete Works, p.12.

[20] Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”, Complete Works, 1089.

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