It may seem wilful to lead a selection of Oscar Wilde's major critical prose with an essay on left-wing politics, but 'The Soul of Man under Socialism' is more concerned with aesthetics than ethics: Wilde found socialism 'beautiful' because it encouraged freedom and individualism, freeing man to develop his emotional and imaginative lives. Wilde's Utopian scheme, as he admits, is gloriously impractical and contrary to human nature, but that's the point - it's because reforms are based on what is considered practical, rather than what might be possible or even unthinkable, that inequality and suffering persist. His vision of a future in which men dream and absorb Art as vaguely-imagined machines do all the menial work, reads like a delightful lampoon of HG Wells. Favourite Quotation: 'the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist and becomes a dull or amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman').
The selection begins with examples of Wilde the professional reviewer at work, attending art lectures by Whistler, reading books by Pater and Swinburne, drawing attention to poetry anthologies by labouring socialists, praising an actress's memoirs. Some of the pieces are more theoretical, arguing, for instance, the importance and legacy of actors as critics of great theatre. Each article presents difficult and often radical ideas in an accessible and witty manner. FQ: 'where there is no exagerration there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding'.
'The Portrait of Mr. W.H.' (printed here in its extended 1889 revision) is quite simply one of the greatest achievements in the world literature of short fiction. 'Short story' doesn't begin to describe this work about a young scholar who commits suicide after being caught forging evidence to 'prove' a theory claiming that Shakespeare dedicated his Sonnets to a young actor-lover. 'Portrait' is mostly a dazzling exercise in critical play, but it is also a touching gay fantasy, a Nabokovian study of mad academics, a defence of 'forgery' as an aesthetic mode, a literary detective story, a history of the Elizabethan stage, an anthology of Elizabethan gossip, a Borgesian metaphysical puzzle and so much more. FQ: 'he always set an absurdly high value on personal appearance, and once read a paper before our Debating Society to prove that it was better to be good-looking than to be good'.
'In Defence of Dorian Gray' collects letters written by Wilde to hostile newspapers that branded his only novel immoral, decadent and demanded its interdiction. While it's depressing to see our hero stoop to these tedious non-entities, we must remember the dangerous influence of the reactionary press, and at least the letters make galvanising reading, helping Wilde formulate ideas that would shape the novel's famous 'All art is quite useless' preface. FQ: 'Good people exasperate one's reason; bad people stir one's imagination'.
But the major achievement here is the four-part collection 'Intentions', a still explosive series of critical dialogues, memoirs and essays which are only 'safe' today because they are labelled 'classic' - if anyone actually absorbed these radical, liberating pieces, with their provocative, teasing, shifting, playful, ironic, contradictory, unsystematic, aphoristic, hilarious assertions on Art, Beauty, Life, Philosophy, Morality, Ethics, Crime etc., the whole world would implode, or at least irrevocably change. 'The Decay of Lying' demolishes the depressing modes of realism and naturalism and the tyranny of facts; 'Pen, Pencil and Poison' is a portrait of Wainewright the Poisoner, Wilde discussing his crimes with the same aesthetic detachment as he does his art and writing; ''The Critic as Artist' is his masterpiece, a credo and a gauntlet; 'The Truth of Masks' is an essay on the importance of costume and historical accuracy when staging Shakespeare, and seems to contradict eveything else in the volume, with Wilde winningly admitting, 'Not that I agree with everything I have said in this essay'. FQ: 'The truth of metaphysics are the truth of masks'.
There are (at least) two Wildes in this volume; one whose address is utterly contemporary and congenial, intellectually curious, blasting all that is deadening, hypocritical and humbug, an alien in his own time. The other is startlingly Victorian, passionately engaged with elitist subjects that have little importance or (ugh) 'relevance' today (Classical literature, Aesthetics, the importance of form etc.), couching his theories in language that is often ornate, oritund, exotic, even verbose, a lush challenge to his fusty, pedantic peers.
Linda Dowling's introduction rescues Wilde from his earnest post-modern apologists and returns him fruitfully to his original context, the Oxford debates about 'Art for Art's sake' and the function of poetry and criticism,. Her copious notes are a blessing and necessity, as well as recreating a strange, wonderful, intellectually audacious cultural world, one that shames our depleted, dead-end, theory-strangulated, accept-anything age. I know you've heard this before, but this time it's true: BUY THIS BOOK AND LET IT CHANGE YOUR LIFE.