Oscar Wilde: The Critic as Humanist

Oscar Wilde: The Critic as Humanist

Oscar Wilde: The Critic as Humanist

Oscar Wilde: The Critic as Humanist

Synopsis

"This book is a contribution both to the widespread revival of interest in Oscar Wilde, especially in his critical writings, and to literary criticism's debate over the nature of humanism. The main question that confronts a reader is embarrassingly basic: what is Wilde finally saying? In the first part of this book, Bashford answers this question by defining precisely what theoretical tasks Wilde sets himself and then analyzing Wilde's efforts to achieve his goals. In the second half of Bashford's book, he looks at Wilde's criticism as an expression of humanism." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

My purpose in this study is to exhibit Wilde's capacity for thought. I discuss his works in two takes, as it were. The first half of my study treats the short story “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” the dialogues “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist,” and the prison letter known as De Profundis, as texts that, whatever else they do, set forth theories. By this I mean that they present developed, coherent answers to important questions: in the case of the short story, for instance, to the question, what makes an interpretation convincing? In the second half, I examine Wilde's early essay “The Rise of Historical Criticism” and the two dialogues as what I believe they are: expressions of humanism. Since there is no useful definition of “humanism” ready to hand, this section begins with a proposal for defining the term. The application I then make to Wilde's works continues my effort to bring into view his agility as a thinker. It does so by showing how he reconciles the traditional tenets of humanism with intellectual commitments not obviously compatible with those tenets.

In this study I'm clearly taking a position in the long-standing controversy over whether Wilde is a consistent thinker. It may be helpful to describe that position before I try to support it through examining his works. In my view, though Wilde's critical writings do share common concerns and nearly all have a common starting point, they explore these concerns in ways that must finally be distinguished. The common starting point I have in mind is Wilde's subjectivism, and by this I mean his assumption that meanings are always someone's, are always attached to or embodied in a person. Subjectivism usually evokes suspicion, and I'll consider further on whether Wilde's subjectivism limits what he can achieve as a theorist. For now, let me just note that given this subjectivism, it's not really surprising that Wilde's works represent distinct forays into a common set of topics.

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