OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
LITERATURE AND VICE
WITH much more wisdom than appears on the surface of the remark, Mr. Ransome tells us in the ''Critical Study" that it is ''scarcely twenty years since Wilde wrote his books, and in poetry as well as in prose their influence is already becoming so common as not to be recognised."
This is true, and true in the worst sense. Every objectionable book that is published at a reasonable price increases the trend—considered impossible at one time in this country, but now obviously marked—towards a want of decency in our national literature. By a singular irony, the criticism of the day is largely in the hands of Radicals and Nonconformists, many of whom, by an irony still more singular, are engaged in the propagation of loose and pernicious doctrine. I would like to wager that the present book will be attacked with the greatest fury in precisely the quarters where, twenty years ago, it would have been applauded. If I wish to see Wilde and his work spoken of with the greatest respect and the greatest admiration, I have nothing to do but turn to certain Radical or Nonconformist sheets, and I shall be at once obliged.
I am of opinion that certain novels, and even certain magazines and reviews, now published in England would never have existed at all but for Oscar Wilde. One of the monthly reviews is a particular offender; and the infection is not limited to one paper only. Nobody seems to be shocked or distressed by the fact and nobody lifts a voice or a pen by way of complaint. The journals I have in my mind are, in the main, respectable and reasonably cultivated publications. They are above purchase or corruption in regard to their general conduct, being owned by rich men or syndicates and run in some instances at a loss or, at any rate, no particular profit, and for the good of the political interests they represent. They take a high tone with regard to political and social morality. They contain general articles, stories, sketches and so forth which are beyond reproach both as regards their tone and literary qualities. Yet when it comes to dealing with literature itself they may be found only too frequently on the side of the palpably dubious and undesirable.
I have had several years of editorial experience of my own, and out of that experience I think I can explain the phenomenon. It simply amounts to this:
Editors are too busy—or too careless—to select their reviewers judiciously and, when a book has been reviewed, they are too busy or too careless to examine the reviewer's work with a view to making sure that it is free from the current taints. It is a fact that the younger school of critics, and many of the old ones, now base themselves on Wilde's dictum that a work of art cannot be criticised from a moral standpoint, and that the sphere of art and the sphere of ethics are absolutely distinct and separate. If the result were that the reviewer contented himself with the consideration of literary work qua art, and in no other relation, there would perhaps be no great harm done; but in point of fact this is seldom or never done, and it is next door to impossible that it should be done.
Opinions and moral reflections insist on finding their way even into works of art, and literary works of art are, by their very nature, almost entirely made up of them. In spite of his own denial of the inter-relation between art and morals, Wilde always asserted that "Dorian Gray'' had a moral—that is to say, when it suited him to make the assertion.
It is obvious that any four lines of serious verse must have some sort of a moral bearing, and so every poem has a moral and every story has a moral and every piece of writing has a moral—implied, even if it be not specifically stated. Now the new reviewer and all of the old ones know this as well as I do. They cannot divide art from morality, and when they pretend to do so it will usually be found that they are really condoning, defending, upholding or propagating obvious immorality. I do not wish it to be supposed that the review columns of English journals bristle with this sort of thing; but there can be no doubt that it crops up from time to time and with a sufficient frequency to make it quite plain that the press is far more easy and tolerant on the matter than it has any right to be.
Obviously, letters is a vehicle which is handier than any other vehicle for the spread of evil thinking. An improper picture is improper on the face of it, and calls immediate attention to itself and immediate reproof from decent people. Such pictures cannot really exist publicly. An improper play has to get past the censor, and it has also to overcome the repugnance of persons who do not like openly to be assisting in wickedness. Both picture and play, too, have to be, in the nature of things, either decent, or frankly and palpably indecent. But in a book you can have dubiety, and you can have patches of impropriety and indecency tucked away amid a mass of inoffensive and, it may be, even excellent writing.
This is particularly the case with regard to novels and poetry, and nobody with any care for either literature or the public wellbeing can help but regret it. The only censorship which can do anything to stem the increasing tide of looseness and license in these regards is, obviously, criticism. I maintain that the criticism of the day is—in a preponderating measure, consciously or unconsciously—in agreement with Wilde on these subjects, and the result is plain for all of us to see. I used to believe that art is more important than conduct. This is a mistake which most of us are prone to make when we are young and dazzled with the beauty and colour of life. The vast mass of mankind, however, are not concerned with art as art at all, but merely with art in its relation to its personal effect upon themselves.
The average reader, whether of prose or verse, has little or no conscious interest in the art of either. If he had, many of the moderns with enormous circulations would feel a very considerable draught, inasmuch as they are not artists and do not pretend to be. In view of the general ability to read and the extraordinary cheapness of books, it has become more than ever important that literature should be kept free from viciousness, prurience and improper suggestion. If criticism fails in its duty in this respect, the national intellect and the national morals will inevitably be debased, and the proper purposes of art utterly destroyed.
It is the fashion to say that great authors do not write merely for youth and young misses at school, but it is nevertheless a fact that it is upon the adolescent of both sexes that these authors have to depend, in the main, for a hearing and for reputation and income. In the case of Wilde, it is to youth particularly that he very largely appeals. Most persons of middle life know a great deal more about the facts of existence than would admit them to take Wilde for anything but a flippant and unbalanced writer. The wise perceive that there is no gingerbread beneath his gilt, and they know that even the gilt is not honest metal. His influence upon youth is undoubted and obvious, but it is equally undoubted and obvious that his influence is a bad one, and the sooner we acknowledge the fact the better it will be for Art and Letters.
0. Book profile
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17. Wilde's Poetry
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