My German publisher, Elsinor, has just reissued Oscar Wilde’s essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, edited and annotated with a preface by my German translator, Jörg W. Rademacher and an afterword by Michael Szczekalla.
The new edition of the book, and the irony of its title against Wilde’s quest for Individualism and Art, is here discussed by the Irish-American writer Timothy O’Grady (pictured, above), author of several works of fiction and the oral history Curious Journey, and who most wrote the foreword to Gerry Adams’ recently published book of short stories, Black Mountain.
Oscar Wilde wrote a long essay called The Soul of Man under Socialism* at a fertile time in his truncated life. He was already famous for being himself, or a version of himself he created out of velvet, fur, elegant sentences, long locks and languid gestures. He had written poems, but his plays were still to come. Then in 1890-91 there were Dorian Gray and the essays The Critic as Artist and the above-mentioned tract on socialism, a tripartite contemplation of his often contrary attitudes to the Aesthetic.
The word ‘socialism’ enters as a surprise, or at least it did so to me when I first came upon it in a discounted Collected Works I’d bought in London. I’d also perhaps bought Wilde’s self-styled image, with which socialism seemed at least superficially an ill fit. According to the biographer Richard Ellmann, a Jewish American who devoted his substantial intellect to the celebration and analysis of Irish geniuses, Wilde attended a Fabian lecture by George Bernard Shaw and perhaps felt that his theories on Life and Art lacked a social and political context and then decided to produce one.
The Soul of Man under Socialism contains no plan for how socialism might be brought about. It contains no economics, sociology or party politics, except glancingly and disparagingly. From its first paragraph it wishes and asserts through paradox. For those who think that socialism has its roots in fellow feeling and a sense of the dignity of labour, Wilde offers a different thought.
‘The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from the sordid necessity of living for others, which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody,’ is his opening sentence. He goes on to excoriate ‘unhealthy and exaggerated altruism’, to claim crime to be superior to charity and to express horror at all forms of manual labour and even at those who do it— ‘These are the poor and amongst them there is no grace of manner, no charm of speech, no civilization, no culture, or refinement in pleasures, or joy of life.’ For those who might instinctively associate socialism with overalls, tractors, trade unions, factory gates and earnest pamphlets, Wilde violently ripostes, ‘To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.’ Under the prevailing system, machinery ‘competes against man’. The future of machinery would be to liberate man from ‘tedious or distressing’ work into a life of ‘cultivated leisure’.
Wilde at this time was coming into high definition as a wit, connoisseur, free spirit, natural genius and homosexual libertine and at least as much as he was celebrated for some or all of these things he was also castigated and threatened. The notoriety of Dorian Gray crystallized this threat. A reviewer said it should not be seen as an example of high art but rather as evidence at a trial on morals charges. In the face of this Wilde asserted his right to be himself. He felt increasingly the restrictions of family life, morbid religiosity, philistinism and anything else that restricted his orchid-like blooming. The Soul of Man under Socialism posits socialism as the best means of removing these burdens from his person, and all other persons.
Its central paradoxical conceit is that an ostensibly equalizing and cooperative socialism would be the best breeding ground for Individualism. ‘Under the new conditions Individualism will be far freer, far finer and far more intensified than it is now.’ He does not say much about the ‘new conditions’, except that they must not be authoritarian, that there can be no ‘inspector [calling] every morning at each house to see that each citizen [rises] up and [does] manual labour for eight hours’, and that private property should be abolished. Private property is a burden for all, including those who possess the most splendid examples of it, and has deluded us into believing that ‘the important thing is to have’ when in truth ‘the important thing is to be… A perfect man is one who develops under perfect conditions, one who is not wounded, or worried or maimed, or in danger. Most personalities have been obliged to be rebels. Half their strength has been wasted in friction… The note of the perfect personality is not rebellion, but peace.’
Socialism will be the fillip that will provoke the human race into a great evolutionary leap. Wilde has a radiant vision of how we will be once we have been afforded the opportunity to make it. ‘It will be a marvelous thing – the true personality of man – when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is. The personality of man will be very wonderful. It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child.’
If you think you can charge him with Utopianism, he heads you off. ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, it sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.’
Much socialist writing is a grind. It is often heavy with struggle or duty, or is overly intellectual with references to Gramsci, Lukacs, Adorno, Trotsky, Walter Benjamin, etc., rather than to life as it is lived, it smells of the pamphlet rather than the poem, lays out a programme, is angry about injustice, inequality and the denial of rights, or tries to describe the landscape of a socialist state. Often it is monochrome. It often does not say what it is for, or what it can do for the individual person. There is more guilt than laughs. Anyone can find faults with The Soul of Man under Socialism—for example, it’s eccentric and overlong at whatever length detour into home decoration—but what it wonderfully and exuberantly and refreshingly says is that socialism is beautiful. It is beautiful to do as one likes, he told a friend, and he believed that under socialism all would be free to do it without fear of reproach.
‘Socialism is enjoyment,’ he also said, which he also claimed for Aestheticism.
The two are linked in his mind and the link is made explicit in this essay. It is against authoritarianism and compulsion and for disobedience, disruption and agitation, as art must be, until it no longer need be so. It is more an advocacy for anarchism than socialism. ‘All forms of government are failures…all authority is degrading,’ he writes here. ‘I think I am an anarchist,’ he said elsewhere. It is another –ist or –ism, the boundaries leaking in his mind. What is important is that it brings about Beauty in the world, in which all can realize themselves as individuals.
Jesus Christ, he says, is one who can show the way. ‘“Know thyself,’” Wilde writes, ‘was written over the portal of the ancient world. Over the portal of the new world “Be thyself” shall be written. And the message of Christ to man was simply “Be thyself.’” (He later takes Him to task for contributing to ‘the worship of pain’.)
Anyone can do it—‘a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor…or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter who he is, as long as he realizes the perfection of the soul that is within him.’ But no one arrives so splendidly to themselves as the artist.
‘Art is the most intense form of Individualism that the world has known. I’m inclined to say it is the only real mode of Individualism that the world has known.’ Crime, which he sees as comparable, is nevertheless inferior because it involves action rather than stillness and also cognizance of others while artists fashion beautiful things solely for their own pleasure. He then goes into the verbal overdrive the world has come to know and love in order the describe the futility of trying to please the public, for to place such a complaisant and dull social entity in a position of authority over the artist ‘is as immoral as it is ridiculous, and as corrupting as it is contemptible. It is not quite their fault. The public has always, and in every age, been badly brought up. They are continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they should be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity. Now art should not try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic.’
This may sound elitist, but it is also very entertaining and I would say verifiably true.
In addition to his wit, his insouciance, his acrobatic thoughts and language and the intensity of his presence, there is also prescience in this essay. He foresees how easily socialism can metastasize into tyranny, as it did in numerous ventures over the century that followed his essay, he foresees the inspector calling at the door to order the person within to work and the panels who will decide what kind of art will be allowed to serve the society the panelists imagine. There is something highly pertinent but generally ignored in his insistence that machines that replace human labour be owned by all rather than privately. If robots, whose materials and mechanisms have been developed with public money are allowed to be owned privately, how will governments generate revenue when there will be no one to tax? How will people eat?
Can we know Oscar Wilde through this or any other of his works, or through what people remember of him or speculate about him? Can we know anyone? We can imagine, we can empathize, but we cannot feel as he did. Was he a construction, or was he authentically what he seems to be? Is there necessarily a difference? There are accounts of his big-heartedness, his dispensing of money to those in need of it, which he did not himself advertise. When Lambeth flooded he went to see who he could help. He found an elderly bedridden Irish woman he so delighted with his stories and gifts that she called out, ‘May the Lord give you a bed in glory.’ He connected rapidly, usually through being himself. When on tour in America he was lowered in a bucket into a new shaft of the Matchless silver mine in Colorado wearing a green overcoat and miner’s hat, opened it with a silver drill, had a meal with the miners afterwards consisting of three courses of whiskey and read to them passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, a silversmith. They named the new shaft ‘The Oscar’. Yeats thought he was most naturally ‘a man of action’. He entertained, he instructed, he disturbed, he delighted. And he obviously suffered greatly for insisting to the end on being himself, having to sleep on a plank in Pentonville Prison and enduring the call at his cell door of the inspector he warned against who ordered him to sew mailbags and pick oakum.
How Irish was he (if that is a valid question)? His mother, friend to the insurrectionary poets of the 1840s, one of whom, Gavan Duffy, called her ‘the new volcano of sedition’, was an anti-colonialist and poet who aspired to ‘rage through life’ and who with her son had the idea of founding a society for the suppression of virtue. She dressed in the colours of the not yet extant Irish flag when she went to the Lord Lieutenant’s St. Patrick’s Day ball in Dublin. In America Wilde presented himself everywhere as a nationalist and ‘thorough republican (it is the only system in which Art can flourish)’ and when asked about the Invincibles’ killing of Lord Henry Cavendish in the Phoenix Park in Dublin he refused to condemn it and said, ‘When liberty comes with hands daubed in blood it is hard to shake hands with her. We forget how much England is to blame. She is reaping the fruits of seven centuries of injustice.’
Sean O’Faolain wrote a short and wonderful and seemingly now forgotten book called The Irish in which he took a shot at defining them in their pre-Conquest form. He sees them possessing ‘a shrewd knowledge of the world and a strange reluctance to cope with it, and tending always to find the balance not in an intellectual synthesis but in the rhythm of a perpetual emotional oscillation….There lay in the Irish mind, atavistically indestructible, an ineradicable love of individual liberty…which tends to make all Irishmen inclined to respect no laws at all, and though that may be socially deplorable it is so humanly admirable and makes life so much more tolerable and charitable and easygoing and entertaining…. Something was missing in the Celt of whose presence we are at once aware in the Greeks, the Hebrews and the Oriental peoples. Was it that they had an inadequate ethical sense? Was it that they loved life too well, so that one may think, for example, that the concept of the Fall of Man, the greatest contribution made by the Jews to modern religious thought, could never have come from a people so imaginatively in love with Man himself.’
All of these things might have been said about Wilde. He was, or at least could have been, to the Irish what Muhammad Ali was to black people throughout the world. Racists and imperialists wish to make those they strive to subjugate feel inferior to the depths of their beings. Wilde and Ali transcended by extravagantly and fearlessly asserting their own splendor.
The Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, who wrote a play called Saint Oscar (produced by Field Day with Stephen Rea in the title part) found Wilde subversive in a particularly Irish way, citing his ‘scorn for bourgeois normality, flamboyant self-display, verbal brio and iconoclasm’ and, most interestingly, I think, his boredom with what is solid and predictable while being more at home with what is ‘fluid, diffuse, provisional’. This, I think, is the freedom he pursues in The Soul of Man under Socialism, not the freedom just to do whatever you want, to impose (as in the freedom not to wear masks or be vaccinated) but rather to find himself unendingly, to live in paradox, contradiction and ambiguity while he does so, to keep moving, as man and artist, making new, as he says Humanity does in search of Utopia, always landing, looking out, seeing somewhere new, setting sail again.
*The book can be ordered from Elsinor Verlag here