Oscar Wilde: Reading the Life after the Life

Article excerpt

The phrase "the life after the life" I have appropriated from a collection of essays on Walt Whitman edited by the scholar Robert K. Martin. In this book Martin and his contributors assess the extent to which Whitman's poetic and personal legacies have influenced subsequent generations of writers, readers, critics, and cultural impresarios. And beginning a paper on Wilde with Whitman is perhaps not such a bad idea, considering that he and Wilde are--albeit in very different ways--taken as two of the "founding fathers" of modern gay literature. Wilde actually met Whitman while on his triumphant lecture tour of North America in 1882. Gary Schmidgall, author of The Stranger Wilde: Interpreting Oscar, offers an extended account of this meeting in that book, as well as at the end of his more recent biographical rumination, Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. But I prefer the poetic portrait of the encounter rendered by the gay American poet and translator Richard Howard, whose "Wildflowers" constructs an imagined dialogue on art, identity, desire, and democracy between "the great good poet" of Camden and the aesthetic interloper from London. In Howard's reconstruction of the meeting, Wilde arrives very much the cocky aesthete, quoting Baudelaire and spouting the epigrams and paradoxes for which he would later become famous: "Not until / you permit a poet a mask does he dare / tell the truth ..."; and "... life / is so often nothing more than a quotation. / Most people are other people " (21, 24-25, first ellipsis in the original). However, by the end of the poem, Wilde has become a convert to Whitman's "last confirming word," discovering "how a desire becomes a destiny," and how he must write "an essential poem" and live "an essential life," as presumably Uncle Walt has (25, 26). "Walt ... You have scored a triumph for America," Wilde proclaims near the end of the poem:

   I came, I saw, I was conquered! Not by fame,
   though anything is better than virtuous
   obscurity--not fame conquered, but life,
   your life, your immortality! (27)

To which Whitman replies:

      Oscar, identity: call it that
   and we are one. (27)

In other words, Whitman's gay identity politics trumps Wilde's queer camp posturing, Whitman's embodied adhesiveness Wilde's performative dandyism, Whitman's barbaric American yawp Wilde's bored British yawn.

It is a model of sexual and aesthetic politics decidedly at odds with the portrait of Wilde on offer in Jonathan Dollimore's Sexual Dissidence, which opens with another reconstructed encounter between two gay literary forefathers, this time Wilde and Andre Gide. Whereas Wilde's encounter with Whitman, in my reading of Howard's retelling of it, centers on Whitman's attempts to get Wilde to reconstitute himself as an essential and autonomous and authentic self--to acknowledge not only the destiny but also the naturalness of his desire--Wilde's encounter with Gide in Algiers in 1895, according to Dollimore, is all about Wilde's attempts to "decentre" Gide's subjectivity, to encourage him to transgress, and to realize that there is nothing natural, essential, or trans-historical about desire. Rather, desire is always embedded "within, and informed by, the very culture which it also transgresses" (11).

Dollimore seeks to understand "why in our own time the negation of homosexuality has been in direct proportion to its symbolic centrality; its cultural marginality in direct proportion to its cultural significance; why, also, homosexuality is so strangely integral to the selfsame heterosexual cultures which obsessively denounce it" (28). Not so coincidentally, he turns to the figure of Wilde to explicate a model of aesthetic and sexual transgression that takes place not outside of the bourgeois social order, but that "reacts against, disrupts, and displaces" this order from within (14). For Dollimore, what he sees as Wilde's nineteenth century proto-modern rejection of the "depth model" in life and art, and his concomitant embracing of surface style, also prefigures much of our late twentieth century postmodern embracing of irony, parody, and camp as modes of a) inverting or "transvaluing" the system of binary logic that orders our culture, whereby dominant social groups can only know themselves in relation (and very "proximate" relation, at that) to what they disavow as unknowable, or not worth knowing; b) articulating a "decentred subjectivity" (sexual or otherwise) that transgresses mainstream culture while simultaneously operating within it; and c) exploding the "depth model" as a basis on which to found a model of humanism (64). …