Truth and the Man Who Feasted with Panthers; Oscar Wilde Died in Utter Disgrace 100 Years Ago Tomorrow. but Just as It Was Wrong of the Victorians to Demonise Him, So It Is a Mistake for Our Age to Place Him on a Pedestal

Daily Mail (London), November 29, 2000 | Go to article overview

Truth and the Man Who Feasted with Panthers; Oscar Wilde Died in Utter Disgrace 100 Years Ago Tomorrow. but Just as It Was Wrong of the Victorians to Demonise Him, So It Is a Mistake for Our Age to Place Him on a Pedestal


Byline: LEO MCKINSTRY

TOMORROW marks the centenary of the death of the brilliant and notorious writer Oscar Wilde. During the passage of these 100 years, his standing has undergone a remarkable transformation.

When, on November 30, 1900, he died agonisingly from a chronic infection in a dingy Paris hotel room, with putrid fluids exploding from every orifice, his reputation was as sullied as his diseased and bloated corpse.

Convicted of gross indecency in 1895 after a series of sensational trials, during which the full extent of his homosexual promiscuity was exposed to public view, Wilde was an outcast from British society for the last few years of his life.

Friends deserted him; publishers refused to touch his work.

And these attitudes were maintained long after his death. Writing in 1948, the great lawyer Sir Patrick Hastings declared: 'For half a century the name of Oscar Wilde has been a byword in our language. It typifies all that is degraded in human life.' All that has utterly changed in recent decades.

Where once he was regarded as a social leper, he now seems to have attained secular sainthood, a combination of literary genius and martyr for truth.

His writings are treated with a reverence that used to be granted only to Shakespeare. His lifestyle is seen as a heroic rebellion against the hypocrisies of Victorian respectability.

Such is his popularity that, in London, no fewer than three major exhibitions have been mounted to mark the centenary of his death.

He is the subject of a continuous flood of books, plays and films, while an astonishing 167,000 websites on the internet mention him.

The reason for this adulation is simple. Though born in the middle of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde is a quintessentially modern figure.

With his gift for self-publicity and contempt for morality, his obsessions with fame and fashion, he is far more in tune with the values of certain highly vocal sections of our age than of his own.

'The first duty in life is to assume a pose,' he once said, words that would be echoed by all too many of today's vain celebrities.

And in a culture where George Michael can openly boast of his antics in public toilets, Wilde's sexual laxity would be a badge of honour rather than a source of shame.

YET, just as the late 19th century urge to humiliate Wilde was too extreme, so our near-hysterical celebration of his life and work is equally misplaced.

Yes, he was a gifted playwright and a wonderful raconteur, but that hardly makes him a Titan of literature.

The fact he is regarded as such is due largely to his status as an icon of gay suffering. In our politically correct times, a writer's victimhood is seen as just as important as the quality of his work.

But, here again, there is a modern misconception. For Wilde was largely the author of his own disgrace. It was not the Victorian establishment that brought him down but his own vain recklessness.

Because of his position as a gay icon, Wilde's words almost appear to be beyond criticism today.

But it was not always so. In 1962, for instance, the late Malcolm Muggeridge perceptively wrote: 'If he had not been a pervert and punished as such, Oscar Wilde would have taken a relatively obscure place in literary history.' This condemnation is, of course, too harsh. The best of Wilde's plays, particularly The Importance Of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, have stood the test of time because of their sharpness of humour and dialogue.

Few could deny that Lady Bracknell - utterer of the immortal line 'To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness' - is one of the great comic creations of the stage.

And many of Wilde's cleverest remarks have rightly become part of our discourse.

But, for me, this is part of the problem with Wilde. …

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