Wilde's World: Bringing Order to Chaos, one critic at a time

Apollo and Tityos, Lower tier, side A of an Attic red-figure calyx-krater. Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC BY 2.5] via Wikimedia.

The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing NothingThe Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing by Oscar Wilde

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oscar Wilde's aesthetic philosophy is set out as a dialogue between Ernest (isn't it always?) and Gilbert (didn't Gilbert and Sullivan fund his lecture tour of the United States?). Of course, Plato used this method to convey his philosophical teachings. Here, Wilde uses the dialogue format to convey his aesthetic philosophy but touches on ethics, virtues, pedagogy, and spirituality. However, with Plato, I expect a dialogue. With Wilde, I couldn't help but think of the poor actors who had to remember all of lines! But of course, this was not meant to be a play. Wilde's interlocutors encompass many of the great thinkers, poets, and critics of the late 1800s, including Darwin, Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Browning, and many other of his contemporaries, almost all of whom I had to look up. Dante, "Lionardo", numerous great French and Italian Renaissance and Ancient Greek and Roman all feature in the work. I was pleased to find that my reading is holding me in good stead, but there is still so much to catch up on. Wilde's own reading must have been vast, yet why wouldn't it? He studied the classics at Trinity College, and later won a scholarship to Magdalen College at Oxford. Regrettable me, poor sod, with a large chip on my shoulder, have to wait until death is in my region before I get my act together! Would I be so bold as to recall that "the dullness of tutors and professors matter very little when one can loiter in the grey cloisters of Magdalen, and listen to some flute-like voice singing in Waynfleete's chapel"? Oh, poor Oscar! That he was a genius is obvious, and there are many lessons to draw from this work. For instance, I am learning to "draw" at the moment, and it is a truism that "in every sphere of life Form is the beginning of things... Start with the worship of form, and there is no secret in art that will not be revealed to you". Based on my own reading, and avoiding the myriad things written by others, there is an element of tongue-in-cheek-edness about the role of the critic. For instance, "without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all, worthy of the name" and "criticism demands infinitely more cultivation than creation does", culminating in:
Each new school, as it appears, cries out against criticism, but it is the critical faculty in man that owes its origin. The mere creative instinct does not innovate, but reproduces.
In effect, criticism leads to change. And critics do not need to read or view everything to criticise, for:
To know the vintage and quality of a wine it is not necessary to drink the whole cask.
In the other extreme, the artist's finished work then takes on:
...an independent life of its own, and may deliver a message far other than that which was put into its lips to say.
That is not to say that "the critic" is anybody who opens their mouth to pour scorn on the creative spirit. Indeed, the critic is not:
...the nuisance of the intellectual sphere... the man who is so occupied in trying to educate others , that he has never had any time to educate himself... [Indeed,] self-culture is the true ideal man.
There is likely much packed into Wilde's philosophy that is not explicitly stated, and I can hear echoes of Nietzsche in Wilde's statement that all art is "immoral". Most of Nietzsche's work pre-dates Wilde's Critic as Artist, so it is not improbable that there was some influence there. And finally, criticism will allow (drawing on Goethe) a cosmopolitan society, free of racial prejudice. From what I have read of others' interpretations of Wilde, he seems to propose the very opposite of Nietzsche (with God in absentia): That Apollo (order/criticism) must triumph over Dionysus (chaos/creating).

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