Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Reinterpreting Oscar Wilde's Concept of Utopia: 'The Soul of Man under Socialism' *

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Reinterpreting Oscar Wilde's Concept of Utopia: 'The Soul of Man under Socialism' *

Article excerpt

IT SEEMS TO BE A MATTER almost of convention, when introducing or concluding a study of utopianism, to cite a celebrated statement by Oscar Wilde, formulated in an article on 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' from 1891. Wilde proclaimed, first, that '[a] map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at'; and, second, that '[p]rogress is the realisation of Utopias'. Marie Louise Berneri started the trend in 1950, in her Journey Through Utopia, where Wilde's lapidary remarks on the importance of a utopian cartography comprise the book's epigraph (xii). More recently, in a frankly misleading paraphrase, Peter Beilharz has announced, at the start of Labour's Utopias, that 'Oscar Wilde once wrote that there was no decent map which did not somewhere have a place for utopia upon it' (1). In particular, Wilde's aphorism has featured in social-scientific, rather than literary-historical, accounts of utopia and its political function. The final paragraph of Krishan Kumar's useful introduction to Utopianism, for instance, bluntly concludes that 'Wilde was right', before quoting it (107). 'Many commentators,' Ruth Levitas observes in the opening chapter of The Concept of Utopia, 'quote Oscar Wilde' (5).

None of these scholars, all of whom are specialists in the field of utopian studies, subject Wilde's colourful comment to close critical analysis. But then students of Wilde have invariably taken its terms for granted too. Jody Price, to offer only the most striking example, fails at any point to interrogate it in 'A Map with Utopia': Oscar Wilde's Theory for Social Transformation. Why is this the case? And why has it become a critical doxa in accounts of the utopian function? The quotation is immediately attractive because it seems at least to afford a comforting sense of intellectual closure. I would contend that in addition it serves reassuringly to imply broad-minded liberal approval of the bourgeois belief that historical progress depends on those heroic aspirations that, often in the form of practical failures, are an inescapable effect of humanity's natural capacity for overreaching itself. 'At the end of the [nineteenth] century,' Vincent Geoghegan affirms on the final page of his monograph on Utopianism and Marxism, 'Oscar Wilde recognized the centrality of utopia for human progress' (139).

But is Geoghegan's claim actually consistent with Wilde's unceasing attacks, in his drama and criticism, on the ideological doctrines most tenderly cherished by the middle and upper classes in the nineteenth century? Declan Kiberd has recently reminded us that the publication of 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' in the Fortnightly Review, a comparatively upmarket periodical, is evidence that Wilde 'seemed at all times anxious to feed back his most subversive ideas to the ruling class' (19). If the ideology of progress was certainly totemic for the bourgeoisie, it was scarcely immune to critique at this time. William Morris, an important intellectual influence on Wilde, as well as a close acquaintance, had been deploring 'what the idiots of our day call progress' since the mid-1880s (Letters 236). And some half a century earlier, Morris's hero Karl Marx had in the Holy Family praised Fourier for declaring it an 'inadequate abstract phrase', not only because 'even the most favourable brilliant deeds seemed to remain without brilliant results, [and] to end in trivialities', but also because 'all progress of the spirit has so far been progress against the mass of mankind' (143). I want to question the assumption that Wilde sponsors the association of these two concepts, Utopia and Progress, in some uncomplicated manner. It should not be forgotten that Wilde's most instinctive critical reflex was, as Lawrence Danson has emphasized, to 'defamiliarize words in order to defamiliarize the world they supposedly represent' (151).

II

'The Soul of Man Under Socialism', an essay that, as Norbert Kohl is correct to point out, 'has attracted little attention among the critics' (123), represented a contribution to the spirited debate about post-capitalist society that characterized the fin de siecle. …

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