December 13th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

The Divine Oscar: The Critic as Artist

"And it is for this very reason that the criticism which I have quoted is criticism of the highest kind. It treats the work of art simply as a starting point for a new creation. ... There was never a time when Criticism was more needed than it is now. It is only by its means that Humanity can become conscious of the point at which it has arrived."
             - Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

Every time I read Oscar Wilde I sense a man who cared deeply about life and art, about the eloquence of language and taste as it should be in the old high style of a classically bred 'man of letters'. There is a sense of power and majesty in his voice, a calm sense of his own rightness and judgment, a voice that gathers around its self an amplitude of harmonies that have no match in our own time. Full of wit and charm the divine Oscar leads us through the mazes of art and culture with a delicate and refined touch, which never oversteps that boundaries of a mannered taste. Curious about everything he looked upon all things with equal aplomb, cherishing the memento moris of the past like a collector of rare jewels. If Oscar Wilde had a failing it was his blind trust in the goodness of other human beings, for this he paid a very heavy price; as we all do.

Wilde's acute observations on art and literature hound us with their pithy sublimity and highbred cantankerous. Speaking of Mr. Kipling Wilde says: "...he is a reporter who knows vulgarity better than any one has ever known it. Dickens knew its clothes and its comedy. Mr. Kipling knows its essence and its seriousness. He is our first authority on the second-rate, and has seen marvellous things through keyholes... " (The Critic as Artist: Wanted a new Background). He hoped for a time when a cosmopolitanism of the mind would annihilate race-prejudices, by insisting upon the unity of the human mind in the variety of its form. He was of the old school that still believed that great literature and prose could bind the nations together and create a just society. Where is the divine Oscar now? This is the voice of a true critic:

"Art, and art only, can make archeology beautiful; and the theatric art can use it most directly and most vividly, for it can combine in one exquisite presentation the illusion of actual life with the wonder of the unreal world."

Wilde espoused the unique blend of a "cultivated blindness" with a jester's sheer madcap banter: as in the dialogical interplay between those witty conversationalists Cyril and Vivian:

Cyril. Writing an article! That is not very consistent after what you have just said.

Vivian. Who wants to be consistent? The  dullard and the doctrinaire, the tedious people who carry out their principles to the bitter end of action, to the reductio ad absurdum of practice. Not I. Like Emerson, I write over the door of my library the word 'Whim.' Besides, my article is really a most salutary and valuable warning. If it is attended to, there may be a new Renaissance of Art.

Cyril. What is the subject?

Vivian. I intend to call it 'The Decay of Lying: A Protest.'

Cyril. Lying I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.

Vivian. I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once...

It's this off-the-cuff, flighty and playful, pugnacious and aphoristic wit that is the mark of Oscar Wilde. The light touch of his mind playing across the patterns of art and culture still reverberate within our discourse even now. May we never fall into those careless 'habits of accuracy' of which he tells us will produce an art that "will become sterile, and beauty will pass away from the land."