The curious philosophy of Wilde

When I consider Oscar Wilde's writings I am forced to admit the existence of very deep seated contradictions within myself, which is weird because by his own admission he was an aesthete - a person mainly concerned with the superficialities of life. He extolled youth above experience and flamboyance above seriousness. He placed life as being secondary to art and traditional morality as mainly the preoccupation of the fogey whose best years were behind him/her. His prose is resplendent with clever paradoxes and his philosophy, at least on the surface, is the philosophy of the jaded super-intellectual who, despite being bored with the world around him, doesn't want it to change lest it might take away the pleasure that he derives by sneering at its incompetence. And this curious dichotomy of an extremely intelligent person both repulsed and morbidly dependent on his environment is not clearer anywhere than it is in his great novel 'The Picture of Dorian Gray.'

Dorian Gray is a young man who has it all. Wealth, social position, beauty and most importantly youth. What he doesn't have is much intelligence. In fact he has just the wrong amount of intelligence. Just enough to be swept away by the deviously clever logic of Lord Henry. Henry is an extreme cynic and is the mouthpiece of Wilde's philosophy in the novel. He likes Dorian for what he represents - the easy success of flamboyance and beauty and youth. He speaks eloquently and leads Dorian astray and convinces him that the only things worth having in this world are those which he already has. Dorian is eventually seduced by Henry's arguments and really believes in the idea that a life based only on pleasure and self-interest is a life worth having. Given his material success and his beauty Dorian can afford such a life too. In the middle of the novel Dorian even figures out how he can sustain his youth for eternity. The novel thus centers around a person who can have all the pleasures that he wants and for as long as he wants - a perfect Wilde ideal - and then asks the question whether all this really makes him happy.

And this brings me to my final point. I think the novel Dorian Gray is special in the Wilde canon because it is the only one which gives both sides of the story. It presents most of Wilde's philosophy through Henry and it also presents its ramifications through Dorian. Therefore, the gravitational center of the story is neither Dorian nor Henry but Wilde himself. This is the clearest that Wilde ever spoke of what he thought of his own curious take on life. Henry is Wilde and Dorian is what Wilde always hoped for but could never be. In fact if you really consider Wilde's writings in their totality you would find a curious undercurrent. His main characters are sharp gentlemen with biting wits and they all display little patience with the banalities of society but they are all fairly conventional people with conventional marriages. Dorian Gray is his only character who lives what Wilde philosophizes and he is the only central character to not have the intelligence to come up with that philosophy himself. Henry who comes up with Wilde's philosophy is intelligent enough not to follow it and thus has a very safe and conventional life.

So we finally come to this contradiction which I mentioned earlier. To some his (or Henry's) take on life is shallow but it is not to me. I think his seemingly ridiculous and shallow generalizations always have a deeper hidden truth, a concise acerbic little social comment by one who is much more intelligent than most. In fact, he is sufficiently intelligent to also understand that acting upon his philosophies would end up in disaster. This is a tacit approval of the very society that he mocks and therein lies the apparent contradiction. Now one may feel betrayed by Wilde's implicit volte-face but this backdoor compromise is the mark of someone who thought deeply. After all, both conformists and rebels in this world are a dime a dozen!

4 observations on “The curious philosophy of Wilde
  1. Anurup

    But conformists far outnumber the rebels. The path against the majority is usually lonely; one needs tremendous self-belief and strength of character to actually walk that solitary path. So the tactic approval is more a means of survival or a compromise.
    But then, true rebels are often remembered, the conformists are easily forgotten.

  2. Ankit

    @Anurup: I agree with you that conformist outnumber the rebels (the true rebels as you say) but they probably don't outnumber those who think they are rebels. I have had a change in my thought process. I feel that rebellion is often just a matter of convenience. It's like the verse-libre concept in poetry. Yes you can write lines which do not have to rhyme and do not have to conform to a metrical pattern but far too many people with too little talent try to pass off their free-verses as a rebellion against the established poetical order, when they never had the capability to do anything else. Similarly in life I am skeptical of the rebellious lot. I feel that while it's the others who deceive the conformists, most of the rebels just deceive themselves :).

    @Nikhil: That's an insightful connection and it is pretty spot on. Steppenwolf's concept of humor as the only respite for the true intellectual applies easily to Wilde.

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