By: Sai Diwan
Readers of Oscar Wilde know better than to believe that the mirror projects the image of the self. As Dorian Gray caressed impressions of the past instead of facing the reality of his wilted self, his creator cultivated the distrust of reflections. While Shakespeare argued ‘What’s in a name’, Wilde crafted an Ernest disillusionment of two. When vision thus betrays, one must turn to darkness. It is within the gloomy walls of Reading Gaol that Oscar Wilde began his journey into the realisation of his own identity. What he churned out of the obscurity is called De Profundis. What he spent a lifetime writing are works that grope for that elusive complex, the self.
The paradox of the self lies in the congruence of its various unique connotations under a single universal term. Thus a self is, at the same time an ‘I’ and an ‘Other’. One’s own self is simultaneously the nexus of one’s identity and the product of othering by society. The account of oneself should be the most incontestable representation of the self, and yet as Reginia Gagnier highlights in her Subjectivities: A History of Self Representation on Britain, 1832-1920, subjectivity robs one of this privilege. ‘Furthermore, in writing or self-representation the I is the self-present subject of the sentence as well as the subject “subjected” to the symbolic order of the language in which one is writing.’ ( Gagnier 9)
Linguistic expression entails the inevitable otherisation of own’s self. One’s own voice is thus filtered through social impressions before being heard. This must come to Wilde’s defence in the instances where his supposed autobiography has been written off as an elaborate account of egotism. De Profundis is manoeuvred through the explorations of Wilde’s social persona before it breaks into its moment of epiphany. Glorified for his intellect, Wilde was a man of genius, and was aware of it. ‘Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation.’ (Wilde 11)
He believed himself to be the symbol of art and culture of the age. This elevated notion of the self nurtures the evil of condescension that finds expression at various instances in De Profundis. He belittles the poor man’s destitution at being in prison by drawing the reader’s attention to his pre-existent less fortunate state. He goes so far as to condescend himself. The past self is condescending towards the present self while talking of his mother’s death. ‘Her death was terrible to me; but I, once a lord of language, have no words in which to express my anguish and my shame.’ (Wilde 3)
The elegant composition and lyrical style of writing is too indulgent for a man for whom ‘there is only one season, the season of sorrow’. Being moulded by the appreciation for his passionate words and delicate constructions, Wilde feels the need to please even in his darkest hour. As grandiloquent as the words may seem, they have ‘come right out of him’ and will work against their catalyst in the exploration of his self. He may thus be said to use against society the very instruments set to adulterate his self.
Oftentimes, Wilde is cited as the Modernist clasped in Victorian constraints. This fin de siècle author went much ahead of his times in approach, subject matter and expression. Wilde chose to break away from the chains of Victorian straitjacketed identity and make his works an audacious proclamation of multiple identities. “The best way to intensify a personality was not to make it singular, but to multiply it: otherwise in being true to a single self, a person might be simultaneously false to half a dozen others.” (Kiberd)
The satirical play, The Importance of Being Earnest exploits the theme of dual identities. Bearers of a donned identity, both Jack and Algernon wish to be Ernest, but never actually are. Although the end of the play sees Jack stumbling upon the truth of him having been christened Ernest, ‘Ernest’ in himself is a persona that neither Bunburyist can hope to imbibe. At the very beginning, Jack’s impersonal unmasking of Ernest, and Algernon’s equally impertinent acceptance of Ernest as just a farce fixes ‘Ernest’ more as an appearance than a person in the mind of the reader. The ease with which this supposed character is first killed off and then unreasonably revived makes him a fleeting persona that may fit any mould, but never for too long. This is because both Jack and Algernon chase the identity without attempting to absorb the self. This is evident from the yearning that the two damsels in distress harbour for Ernest. “Mr. Worthing, there is just one question I would like to be permitted to put to you. Where is your brother Ernest? We are both engaged to be married to your brother Ernest, so it is a matter of some importance to us to know where your brother Ernest is at present.” (Wilde 109)
The two Bunburyists are thus in the eternal flux of dual identities. Algernon is to be christened Ernest in order to don the identity of the lover penned by Cecily. Jack’s moment of epiphany rushes his identity into the coveted Ernest, but in the cleverly devised country setting where he is Jack. “Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case was given to me in the country.” (Wilde 12). This merging of identities is given the societal approval via consent of marriage. The Victorian society is thus painted as a hypocritical set that preserves its righteous respectability only in appearance. It allows the indulgence in multiple identities, but denies the expression of the true self.
The setting of the prison validates itself. In De Profundis, Wilde must seek his ‘Vita Nuova’ away from the scrutinizing gaze of society. The self must have an established hold before submitting itself to social influences. Wilde discredits his capability by stating that he was no more the ‘Captain of his own soul.’ Reginia Gagnier, in her essay Wilde and the Victorians elucidates the importance of his solitude. ‘The absence of an audience affected the form of that works as significantly as the presence of audiences affected his other works.’ (Gagnier 27) An inquest of the homosexual self among Philistines who strove to protect the dehumanizing and limiting social codes of society would not have been possible. In the twilight of his cell, he could delve into the depths of his secrets without penitence or embarrassment. Revelation of his own true identity gave him the confidence to state ‘I am one of those who are made for exceptions not for laws.’ (Wilde 18)
Society does not necessarily aid the construction of the self, but may mar its true expression to graft the face of conventionality. Wilde crtiques, ‘It abandons him at the very moment when its highest duty towards him begins.’ (Wilde 26) Writers like Wilde used writing as the individual’s place for revenge against the system. His greatest feat is his achievement of humility to acknowledge his homosexuality and thus defy societal norms. Wilde’s claim to having achieved humility is none other than the submission to the self. The persona may satisfy the artifice of stability in society, but cannot hold its own against the drive of the emergent self. He had foreshadowed this victory in his The Soul of Man under Socialism. ‘What a man really has, is what is in him. What is outside him should be a matter of no importance.’ (Wilde 133)
Perhaps he had moulded the same intention into the fantastical element in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The question of the self emerges at the very title of the only novel that Wilde ever wrote. The title bears allegiance to the portrait of Dorian Gray, and not Dorian Gray himself. This is a clear indication of the preordinance of the scheme of things in the novel. As Dorian Gray becomes conscious of his incredible beauty, vanity and corruption make him hide his self behind the frozen picture of his past. Basil’s portrait of Dorian that was meant to have captured his external beauty becomes a telling tale of the wrath of a corrupt self. As for the man himself, he remains unscathed in the unchanging aura of the portrait’s charm.
There appears a scene in the novel when Dorian Gray compares his reflection in the mirror to the picture painted by Basil. The triple imposition of Gray’s presence is hollow in the lack of a self. The portrait with ‘the touch of cruelty around the mouth’ is the true reflection of Dorian Gray’s personality. Dorian Gray himself is an anachronism, a deceiving echo of his own past. As for the mirror framed with ivory cupids, it can but reflect the façade that is Dorian Gray. This unsettling removal of the self is solved only at the very end where Dorian Gray pierces a dagger through the grotesque cry of his corruption that is the portrait. The ‘withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage’ figure is Dorian’s attainment of his self. Wilde has explained in De Profundis that “What the artist is always looking is the mode of existence in which soul and body are one and indivisible: in which the outward is expressive of the inward, in which form reveals.” (Wilde 37)
The Picture of Dorian Gray is also prominent in its nuances of homosexuality. Dorian’s narcissism is born of the homoerotic appreciation of his own divine male form. His vision that lingers over the portrait doubles as the gaze of desire. “When he saw it he drew back, and his cheeks flushed for a moment with pleasure…The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation” (Wilde 23) Wilde himself submitted to his homosexual identity in De Profundis. The complex, but authentic self decisively emerges as he accepts homosexuality as his reality. He embraces his past and breaks out of the bourgeois mould. ‘To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.’ (Wilde 23). Wilde uses the faculty of imagination to liberate himself from the clutches of societal expectations. Experience gains precedence over conscience, social codes are questioned for their welfare motive, and he finally takes his stand against society.
He glorifies his heroic isolation through the audacious parallel drawn to Christ, whose power of imagination makes him the ‘palpitating centre of romance.’ He is the archetype of the first Individualist and Romantic Artist. He overlaps their personalities by way of clever methods such as paraphrasing of lines used to describe his own personality. ‘For him there were no laws: there were exceptions merely.’ (Wilde 84) Wilde humanises Christ by way of simplistic statements like ‘Christ through some divine instinct in him’ (Wilde 90) and ‘There is something so unique about Christ’ (Wilde 92) He projects his own self on to Christ and presents Him ‘like all fascinating personalities’. However, this identification is not an indicator of the sudden bloom of faith in Christianity, but what Peter Raby, in his book Oscar Wilde calls as a ‘slow and individualistic approach to him’. (Raby 137) Wilde effectively communicates his more revolutionary thoughts through the unquestionable figure of Christ. ‘Let him of you who has never sinned be the first to throw the stone at her.’(Wilde 85)
He conveniently manipulates the Gospels from the Bible, and disregards the Phlistinism as ‘simply that side of man’s nature that is not illumined by the imagination.’ Christ’s depiction as the social revolutionary rather than the religious messiah is achieved through the implied subjectivity of the other self. The self tends to establish social relations by relating to the other. The simultaneous existence of the self and the other in opposing roles orchestrates an exchange. Wilde uses this mechanism to empower himself by retelling the story of Crucifixion of Christ in his tale of martyrdom.
He emerges out of prison, not with a rage to be avenged, nor the insecurity of being trampled, but ‘to have become a deeper man’. The self is bound to neither reason, nor religion, nor morality. It is through his own works that Wilde finds himself at peace with his own identity. These works are a reiteration of the existence of his soul. These works are the mobilization of the expression of his identity. These works are Oscar Wilde.
Craft, Christopher. “Come See About Me: Enchantment of the Double in The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Representations. 91.1 (2005) 109-136. Web. 28 Sept. 2013.
Gagnier, Reginia “Wilde and the Victorians”, The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde Ed. Peter Raby, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Gagnier, Reginia Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832-1920, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Holland, Vyvyan. Oscar Wilde. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Kiberd, Declan. Introduction to Poems. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Collins Classics. By Oscar Wilde and Merlin Holland. 2003. Michigan: HarperCollins Publication. Web.
Pearce, Joseph The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
Raby, Peter Oscar Wilde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Wilde, Oscar De Profundis, New York: The Nickerbocker Press, 1905.
Wilde, Oscar The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Selected Critical Prose. London: Penguin Group, 2001.
Wilde, Oscar The Picture of Dorian Gray, Heartfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2001.
The Project Gutenberg. 2006. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/844/844-h/844-h.htm> 29 Sept. 2013
Categories: Literary criticism