The Soul of Wilde Under Anti-Humanism

by Richard Seymour

Oscar Wilde's socialism was premised on a profoundly problematic humanism.

First published: 31 January, 2014 | Category: History, Philosophy and Theory

Wilde was as fond of English literalism as he was of bourgeois morality. His primary weapon against such philistinism, usually posing as 'common sense,' was the cutting paradox. He confounded what were assumed to be facts, and even evinced a scandalously low regard for them. He was cryptic and contradictory. He coded his desire for social and sexual freedom in euphemisms and allegories, yet in doing so placed it right under society’s nose. But it would be a mistake to assume that this approach was merely ludic, merely the prerogative of an artist of considerable rhetorical power, provoking and bewildering fuckwitted aristocrats. There was a real stringency to Wilde’s method, which bears on his approach in 'The Soul of Man under Socialism.'

A distinction must be made between Wilde's approach to historical truth, and his approach to artistic truth. As he insisted in his early essay, 'The Rise of Historical Criticism,' the truth should not be sacrificed 'for the sake of a paradox or an epigram.' But 'the facts' were not the primary concern of the historical critic. Rather, it was the general laws of history, the 'higher truths' of which facts were at best samples. The truth sought in history was the relationship between general laws and their local instantiation. Artistic truth was different, its relationship to 'facts' more facile. As Wilde put it in 'The Truth of Masks,' 'Truth is independent of facts always, inventing or selecting them at pleasure.' The object here was subjective knowledge, which might require the subversion, obliteration or invention of facts. 'Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,' Wilde asserted. In other words, a distortion of the truth could facilitate the emergence of a more profound truth. 

So, then, which is 'The Soul of Man'—this essay which opens with paradox and proceeds with relentless ironic subversion? Is it history, or art? In a sense it is both. It is an attempt to provide an historical basis for his aesthetic credo, and simultaneously an artistic reconstruction of his historical purview. As the critic Terry Eagleton points out, there is a surprising collusion between the high Victorian scientism of 'The Rise of Historical Criticism' and the anarchic individualism of Wilde in 'his full immaturity,' particularly in 'The Soul of Man.' The former, a synthesis of idealism (Hegelian historicism) and materialism (evolutionary theory), deliquesced the laws of history into the laws of nature. In so doing, it corroborated Wilde’s later assertion that evolution supplied the necessary guidance for the ethical and political organisation of human societies. 

For Wilde, all evolution tended toward individualism. 'To ask whether Individualism is practical,' 'The Soul of Man' asserts, 'is like asking whether Evolution is practical. Evolution is the law of life, and there is no evolution except towards Individualism. Where this tendency is not expressed, it is a case of artificially-arrested growth, or of disease, or of death.' So it is that 'Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.' Like other progressive Darwinists, such as Mikhail Bakunin, Wilde took the view that human nature was fundamentally good, unselfish and cooperative. Left alone, humanity would get along fine; even in its individualism it would associate freely and generously.  The trouble was that it was not left alone.

It followed from this that no authoritarian socialism was possible. There could be no compulsion, and everyone was to choose their own work—and by work Wilde meant 'activity of any kind,' be it manufacture, sex, mode of dress, association, sumptuary indulgence, speech, and so on. It should be noted right away that such a broad definition of work calls to mind the earlier nineteenth century view of the human as fundamentally a labouring being. Compulsion in this sense, be it political or the dull compulsion of economic life, is rebuked for separating the human from her true nature, from what she really is. Or, to again recall an earlier nineteenth century idiom, it is condemned for producing alienation.



The basis for Wildean individualism then, was a Promethean humanism. Humanity assumed, in Wilde’s vision, the characteristics of God—but of God crucified, wounded, and thus not whole. As his poem, 'Humanitad,' concluded: 'Nay, nay, we are but crucified … Loosen the nails—we shall come down I know/Stanch the red wounds—we shall be whole again … That which is purely human, that is Godlike, that is God.' The example of Christ naturally absorbed Wilde’s attention, and occupies a central position in 'The Soul of Man.'

'What a man really has,' says 'The Soul of Man,' 'is what is in him.'  What is 'in him' is a personality that can be realised creatively. The self-realisation is impeded by possessions, as much as by need and squalor. This is why the figure of Christ as charismatic, as a fully realised personality, is so important to Wilde. His messianic rejection of worldly riches was not intended to be a commendation of life in miserable poverty, claims Wilde. 'What Jesus meant, was this. He said to man, 'You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. ... And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.' Not for the last time, Wilde re-fashioned Christ in his own image.

If this appears to rely on an essentialist conception of the ‘self,’ at other times Wilde highlights the performative, constructive element in subjectivity. Here it is protean, decentred in a way that would seem to be scandalous to the authentic humanist. In ‘The Portrait of Mr W.H.,’ a fictionalised essay about the obscure figure to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets are directed, Wilde’s hermeneutic focuses on the myriad personalities displayed by the boy actor, Willie Hughes, the object of Shakespeare’s fascination. The actor, like any artist, gives form to every passing fancy, realising each whim in imaginative creation. In his later writings, Wilde jealously guarded the autonomy of language and symbol. While action was 'a blind thing dependent on external forces' ('The Critic as Artist'), only language separated humanity from the animals. Only conscious creation provided humanity with the chance to transcend the brute laws of nature.

This adverts to the necessary role of art in ushering forth the progress of civilization. If life imitated art, it was the indispensable duty of artists, who had the advantage of enjoying a partial 'Individualism' under private property, to cultivate the personality of humanity. This was not to be achieved through ethical or political protest—'an unpardonable mannerism of style' as the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray had it—but through fidelity to the abstract forms of art. The past, Wilde averred, 'is what man should not have been. The present is what man ought not to be. The future is what artists are.'

Yet even here, the construction of the self through imaginative performance was conceived as the realisation of what was already immanent – be it called personality, consciousness, or the soul.



There is a symptomatic aporia in the heart of Wilde’s doctrine. According to 'The Soul of Man,' art was not only to foreswear ethical sympathies, but should also have no reference to the prospective audience's expectations. 'The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist.' Here is a credo that, like many of Wilde’s epigrams, should be read laterally. It is by no means straightforward. Wilde, as an artist, could hardly claim to take no notice of what his audiences wanted. He worked for money, to pay bills, to buy gifts, to procure sex, to live hedonistically. He was an honest tradesman who supplied a demand. His seditious literature and plays, moreover, bore all the hallmarks of possessing the ethical sympathies he derided. If the model for Wilde’s new individualism was the artist engaged in self-realisation, the ideal was far from reality.

The solution to this impasse is Wilde’s half-open, half-secret rebellion, about which we know much more thanks to Neil McKenna’s biography. The artist, striving to realise what was in him, contributed as much to an underground gay subculture as to the bourgeois literary canon. He brought references from one into the other. If The Importance of Being Earnest was a witty, socialist attack on the rich, it was also laced with sexual innuendo. It is in this context that Wilde’s rhetorical sleights of hand are comprehensible. He would offer bold, libertarian doctrines, certain to provoke, before apparently withdrawing them and declaring that it had all been an artistic illusion, a ruse, or fancy on the part of the audience. Similarly, Wilde’s rigorous evolutionism was an alibi against the censors and moralists. As Gilbert argued in 'The Critic as Artist,' 'What is termed Sin is an essential element of progress.  Without it the world would stagnate, or grow old, or become colourless. By its curiosity Sin increases the experience of the race. Through its intensified assertion of individualism, it saves us from monotony of type.' Repression, then, was just a futile protest against the future. 

Above all, the doctrine of human self-realisation was at the heart of Wilde's semi-covert plea for sexual freedom. What was in him, what bourgeois society called 'sin,' was affection and joy. If left alone, it would entail nothing but generosity and creativity. It was wicked and stupid to repress it. And it would be just as wicked and stupid for a socialist society to be conceived in such a way as to permit this repression to go on. People had to be allowed to choose their own forms of association, because only freely chosen associations were truly fine. 

Yet it must be admitted that the buttressing of this moral creed with humanism on the one hand, and a scientistic philosophy of history on the other, led to some quite improbable conclusions. It was one thing to assert, in 'The Soul of Man,' that pain and self-abnegation could be a means to the more perfect realisation of one’s personality. It was quite another when Wilde, borne aloft on a wave of hubris, ventured: 'After all, even in prison, a man can be quite free. His soul can be free. His personality can be untroubled. He can be at peace.' This was a folly that returned to mock him.

The individualism of Wildean socialism was premised on a profoundly problematic humanism. What was good for a person, Wilde claimed, did not reside outside herself; she had in the 'treasury-house' of her 'soul' all that was really worth having. As Wilde might have discovered, this is a consolatory doctrine: souls aren’t worth as much as all that. If there is no difference between the soul and the body, as he once said, then the soul is born prematurely and always lacking. Everything that is worth having, everything that one needs, is by definition outside oneself—in the complex social relations that even artists, with their relative autonomy, are inescapably enmeshed in. In this sense, the chief advantage that would result from socialism is that it would relieve us of the need for an image of the soul.

This article concludes NLP’s series, The Soul of Man under Socialism.

Richard Seymour is a political activist who writes at Lenin's Tomb and the Guardian. He is the author of Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made (Pluto, forthcoming).

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