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Norms and Transgressions in Victorian and Edwardian Times

Autonomy in the Dock: Oscar Wilde’s First Trial

L'autonomie en procès ? Le premier procès d'Oscar Wilde
Bénédicte Coste

Résumés

Les procès d’Oscar Wilde de 1895 ont donné lieu à de multiples interprétations qui soulignent en particulier comment ils ont permis la cristallisation d’une identité gaie. Ils méritent également d’être mis en relation avec le texte de Wilde « The Soul of Man under Socialism » (1891) qui propose une subjectivité fondée sur l’individualisme et l’autonomie personnelle. Ce projet qui a fort inquiété les juges et l’Establishment anglais n’est pas sans rapport avec les thèses de Cornélius Castoriadis sur l’autonomie dans la Grèce antique, référence que les deux auteurs partagent.

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  • 1 Unless stated otherwise, all references are to Merlin Holland’s The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde (2003 (...)

1On 4 April 1895, the trial of the Marquess of Queensberry for libel began. Queensberry had left a card for Oscar Wilde at the Albermarle Club accusing him of ‘posing somdomite’ [sic]. For 2 days, Wilde had to defend himself against that accusation with the help of his counsel Sir Edmund Clarke. Edward Carson, Lord Queensberry’s counsel, argued that Wilde wrote immoral and ‘sodomitical’ texts (Holland 97)1 and corrupted young men. Before the grave accusations and the announcement that some of the said young men were due to appear before the court, Wilde and his counsel withdrew the case on 5 April. The Marquess was declared ‘not guilty’. On the same day, Wilde was arrested and jailed. He was tried three weeks after but the result was a hung jury. On 25 May Wilde was tried again and sentenced to two years’ hard labour for ‘gross indecency’. He was immediately jailed until 19 May 1897. On his release he left England.

2Wilde’s trials have given rise to numerous legal studies. The will of the court to prosecute and sentence him has been demonstrated; his trial is often seen as a turning point in the history of homosexuality in Great Britain. The legal discourse used against him framed the ‘homosexual’ for decades to come, thus validating Foucault’s theses of a late-nineteenth-century medico-legal discourse differentiating normal from dissident sexualities and forcing individuals to enunciate their sexuality. Carson’s plea on 5 April portrayed a homosexual character whose crime expressed itself through writings and behaviour while the two following trials resulted in the sentencing of the criminal. Also notable is the silence—almost never interrupted—on Wilde and what he came to represent during most of the 20th century. One may wonder why such a repression accompanied a sentence which did not exceed, but was not inferior to the terms of section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act.

  • 2 For transcripts of the three trials see http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/wilde/wilde.h (...)
  • 3 From the beginning Carson perfectly understood what ‘Greek’ meant to Wilde.
  • 4 ‘the same language and the same idea’ (Holland 257).
  • 5 In De Profundis he wrote: ‘my Art was to me, the great primal note by which I had revealed first my (...)

3The recent publication of a more complete transcript of the first trial2 allows scholars to read the more or less faithful words said before the Old Bailey by Wilde, his counsel and Lord Queensberry’s. Previous publications of excerpts of the trial proceedings (Hyde) have however enabled lawyers, historians of sexualities and Wilde scholars to extensively analyse Carson’s discourse (Foldy). All showed how the figure of the ‘homosexual’ solidified as a criminal in 1895 in spite of Wilde’s passionate plea for ‘Greek love’3 during his second trial—the trial of homosexuality—which was heavily applauded. Less attended to has been Wilde’s discourse, which Carson identified as such,4 except to underline its irrelevance and Wilde’s lack of judgment in taking the Marquess of Queensberry to court. In De Profundis Wilde himself acknowledged his mistake. However, he did not disavow the words he had uttered5 when he first appeared before the court to clear his good name, and they are important to understand the ensuing silence. His position may have been deemed sufficiently dangerous on a social and political level to cause the sentence and the following repression. Wilde’s position needs thus to be discussed and correlated to the views he had developed in ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ (1891) to show that his 1895 words are the logical and coherent sequel of what he had published.

4The legal discourse condemned that position through the construction of the ‘homosexual’; however Wilde’s lifestyle and identity cannot be reduced to sexuality or sexual choice. To reduce Wilde’s trial to the trial of sexual deviance is in fact to accept that discourse’s constructions and to negate the values Wilde advocated and practised. Those values are linked to Aestheticism that Wilde promoted in the 1880s–1890s, whether the term is understood as the promotion of the beautiful and the emphasis on artistic form, or as including works, practices and persons with a different (dissident?) relationship to mercantile society.

  • 6 The Daily Chronicle wrote that ‘there has been a purge, and we hope London is the better for it’ (C(...)
  • 7 Significantly Wilde did not understand Carson’s first questions.

5As Matt Cook writes, ‘In the courtroom the relationship between hegemonic values and sexual dissidence was cast in simplistic binary terms’ (Cook 69). Wilde’s first trial was the trial of such a relationship, as the press noted when it termed Wilde’s jailing a ‘purge’,6 rejoiced at his imprisonment before producing ‘a version of the “homosexual”’ (Cook 71). Wilde’s case ‘provided a figurative pillory through which a set of “norms” could be forcefully rearticulated and dissident behaviour symbolically expunged’ (Cook 70). As their proponents were perfectly aware, two discourses were pitted against each other.7 If the heteronormative discourse was established in 1895 and discussed and analysed afterwards, Wilde’s discourse has not received the same degree of attention. During the trial Wilde appeared as the proponent of what may be called radical individual autonomy.

  • 8 Lord Henry Wotton, the butt of Carson’s attacks, resembled Wilde by the same ‘great power of speaki (...)
  • 9 ‘the same idea running all through’ those writings and relating to ‘the same kind of mind that wrot (...)
  • 10 ‘the extraordinary den that [Taylor] kept in Little College Street with its curtains always drawn, (...)
  • 11 ‘his standard was a very high one’ (253)
  • 12 ‘[Wilde] has such a magnanimous, such a noble, such a democratic soul (laughter) that he draws no s (...)
  • 13 Carson concluded: ‘I ask you, now, to put yourselves in the position of a parent’ (268).
  • 14 ‘What would be the horror you would feel as regards what might be the result of your own son being (...)

6Carson used Wilde’s public and private writings and acts to define the figure of the homosexual. A letter to Alfred Douglas showed for instance that he had ‘conceived this vile, abominable passion towards this young man, which is just in keeping with the tone and character of the persons of whom he wrote in his book Dorian Gray’ (270). Wilde’s novel came under severe attack,8 and was described as ‘the story of a man corrupted by another man and who by such corruption is brought to commit, or the book suggests he has committed, this sodomitic vice’ (261). John Bloxam’s ‘The Priest and the Acolyte’ published in The Chameleon showed ‘the same idea’ as Wilde’s ‘conduct with Lord Alfred Douglas’.9 The same idea could not be mentioned except as ‘a filthy abominable love’ (270). It materialized in Wilde’s writings and in ‘the kind of life which even he ha[d] confessed’: ‘going about with men . . . associating with men’ (251). The logical conclusion was that Wilde ‘was either in sympathy with, or addicted to, immoral and sodomitic habits’ (255). Moreover, as the example of Alfred Taylor leading a mysterious life behind closed shutters and artificial light10 showed, society was corrupted by a whole set of homosexuals—what Carson called ‘the Little College lot’ (263). That lot obeyed a ‘democratic’ logic which, strangely enough, Wilde contradicted by highly regarding literature,11 while denying social distinctions.12 Wilde’s positions as regards literature and ‘these lads’ (253) were said to be ‘irreconcilable’ (254). The jury was consequently asked to identify with the Marquess13 defending his son from Wilde’s corrupting influence.14 Queensberry had simply and rightfully tried to ‘free his son from the influence of this man’, and ‘the domination of Mr Wilde over this unfortunate Lord Alfred Douglas’ had to be exposed (262).

  • 15 ‘in not one of these cases were the parties upon an equality in any way with Mr Wilde; they were no (...)
  • 16 There was an ‘extraordinary similarity in the history of all these cases. All these young men of so (...)
  • 17 ‘one thing is plain in this case: that Wilde’s conduct was not regulated by any very generous insti (...)
  • 18 According to Carson, Wilde should have said “‘Here is a smart boy at Worthing whom I have met at th (...)

7Wilde ‘had been carrying on his filthy and abominable practices’ (268), but what was more outrageous was his denial of social inequalities to pursue his malevolent course.15 Expressing his views in religious terms, Carson pointed out the abnormality of Wilde’s conduct towards some young men.16 It was inconceivable that he could have been moved by generosity,17 which came to appear as ‘that ridiculous excuse’ (276). By dressing up young Conway for instance, Wilde had attempted ‘to take [him] out of his proper sphere’ (278) instead of acting properly towards a less wealthy, socially gifted lad.18 Homosexuals do not behave (hetero)logically and as a consequence, they also should expect, like Wilde, not to ‘be tolerated in society in London for the length of time that he has, bringing boys into the Savoy Hotel’ (277). One should teach ‘a lesson’ to such illogical individuals. Carson’s discourse is indeed emblematic of the construction of the ‘homosexual’ at the turn of the century. More interesting is what Wilde answered.

  • 19 A simple instance of their antagonistic discourses is what Carson calls ‘a proper letter’, somethin (...)

8As Matt Cook noticed, Wilde showed a ‘flagrant disregard’ of controls (Cook 72) and defended his writings and life against what he perceived as a continual ‘insult’ (Cook 208). Wilde was in fact quite aware that his own discourse19 clashed with Carson’s legal discourse when he asked him to ‘[k]eep your own words to yourself. Leave me mine. Don’t put words to me I haven’t said’ (91). This discourse relies on Wilde’s views of literature and on his views of life, and Carson was right to define them as ‘the same idea running all through’ those writings and relating to ‘the same kind of mind that wrote . . . these letters to Lord Alfred Douglas’ (257). However, Wilde’s views and words can neither be reduced to an apology of Greek love, nor to awkwardness in front of such decided opposition, but are far more subversive. If his views on literature have been extensively discussed, his views on life also deserve a discussion.

  • 20 The short story was ‘wrong, utterly’, ‘disgusting’ though not ‘blasphemous’ (70). Wilde disapproved (...)
  • 21 Wilde declared himself unable to know what a ‘sodomitical book’ was (97). Likewise A Rebours is not (...)

9Asked about Bloxam’s ‘The Priest and the Acolyte’, Wilde ‘highly disapprove[d] of it as “bad, indecent literature” (62) that ‘violated every artistic canon of beauty’ (70).20 Wilde situated himself on a strict literary level from which it was ‘impossible . . . to judge of a piece of writing otherwise than from its fault in literature’ (68). Appearing in the same publication as Bloxam’s short story was not posing as sodomite,21 it was simply ‘bad literary taste’ (72). Literature was different from life as Wilde had written in all of his essays and as he repeated before the jury: ‘By literature, of course, one includes treatment of subject, selection of subject, everything. I mean I couldn’t criticize a book as if it was a piece of actual life’ (68).

  • 22 ‘I am concerned entirely with literature, that is with Art. The aim is not to do good or to do evil (...)
  • 23 ‘my philosophical definition of truth—something so personal that when another person holds the same (...)
  • 24 ‘What concerns me in my art is my view and my feeling and why I made it; I don't care twopence what (...)

10The same stance was also expressed in ‘Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young’ published in the same issue of The Chameleon. Wilde contended he had intended to produce the effect of literature as distinct from moral aims.22 Here and there Wilde asserted one of Aestheticism’s main tenets if not the most important: works of art should be made with a view of the beautiful and should not aim at preaching any moral. Aesthetics is different from morals and ethics. This implied a re-articulation of the relation of literature and language to truth, which Wilde engaged in when he was asked to justify some ‘Phrases’. He defined truth from a philosophical standpoint as something radically individual,23 and departed from its common definition as ‘correspondence to fact’. Truth is not the correspondence between things and words but partially appears through language as Wilde’s ‘half-truths’ which are proper to represent ‘wilful moods of paradox, of fun, nonsense, of anything at all’ (74). Still, Wilde did not reject the ethical function of art or literature and insisted he had ‘a great passion to civilise the community’ (94), i.e. to stimulate his readers into thinking. One means of stimulation was epigrams and paradoxes conveying those half-truths. Those literary devices were meant to ‘stimulat[e] thought in people’ which is the sole ‘good’ that can be expected from literature. Wilde rearticulated the relation between aesthetics and ethics, contrary to Carson’s conflation of them. Carefully differentiating emotions from thought, Wilde pointed out that the second cannot be immoral or moral since it is ‘an intellectual thing, at least in the way I use the word’ (75). His ‘Phrases’ were thus to be taken as ‘beautiful nonsense’, or ‘amusing paradox’, they pertained to language which ought not to be conflated with life or morals. Those views had also been expressed in the ‘Preface of Dorian Gray’ (1891), which stated that a ‘well-written book’ produces ‘a sense of beauty’ and that ‘[n]o work of art puts forward views of any kind’ (80). A work of art is thus highly individual, distinct from life, and should be the sole object of its maker, almost to the exclusion of the judgement of others.24 Wilde did not make clear whether the judgment was moral or aesthetic.

11As for the public’s taste, Wilde repeated what he had written in ‘The Soul of Man’ about the public: ‘The views of the Philistine on art could not be counted: they are incalculably stupid’, before declaring that he had ‘no knowledge of the ordinary individual’ (81). Was that flippant elitism that was bound to backfire before the court? Wilde however carefully distinguished ‘individuals’, ‘persons’ and ‘personalities’. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward expresses what an artist would feel ‘on meeting a beautiful personality’ as distinguished from a ‘beautiful person’ (85). Wilde has described ‘the feeling of an artist towards a beautiful personality’, not ‘a moral feeling for one man . . . towards another much younger than himself’. ‘[P]ersonality’ describes the peculiar effect ‘this spectre, this appearance of Dorian Gray produced’ on the artist (86) and in that respect, Dorian is ‘a most remarkable personality’ (89).

12Life does not mirror literature and Wilde simply ‘love[s] a person or do[es] not love them’ instead of ‘ador[ing]’ individuals as Carson would have it from the example of Basil Hallward’s adoration of Dorian (92). Such ‘adoration’ is simply a citation from Shakespeare’s Sonnets showing that literature does not simply derive from real feelings or from personal experience but is mediated through language. Wilde had not extracted a sensation from his own experience but a citation from a poetical work. As for the vexing issue of influence, from a mere philosophical point of view it did not exist: ‘influence is not a power that can be exercised at will by one person over person: I think it is quite impossible psychologically’ (103). Human relationships were more complex than common sense embodied by Carson thought.

  • 25 “I cannot answer any question apart from art” (110).
  • 26 ‘That is your account of them not mine’ (167).

13Wilde wanted to be taken and understood as an artist25 and moreover as a unique individual: ‘I don’t pose as being ordinary’ (110). To Carson’s ‘persons of disreputable lives’ (241) who can be judged from a moral point of view and whose depravity appears in their writings, Wilde opposed his ‘personality’, i.e. the effect he produced on others from a unique position. He also consistently rejected Carson’s appellations and maintained his own discourse and his own words, carefully rephrasing his opponent’s discourse.26 What Carson called an ‘intimate’ relation, Wilde called a ‘friendly’ relation presumably with all the homosocial and political connotations that J. A. Symonds for one had given the word (Holland 163).

  • 27 ‘I don't care about different social position’; ‘If anybody interests me or is in trouble and I hav (...)
  • 28 ‘I consider an assistant in a bookshop occupied the position of a gentleman’ (134).

14All through his first trial Wilde appeared as a proponent of what may be called personal autonomy. As was noted by Carson pointing out Wilde’s ‘democratic’ mind, this autonomy entails a refusal of class divisions and social positions.27 Individuals, which are Wilde’s basic social unit, are esteemed according to their stance as regards art, not according to their wealth or occupation: bookshop assistant and book lover Edward Shelley ranks as high as Quaritch the distinguished book-seller.28 Wilde repeatedly expressed his dislike of social positions for the sake of personal taste: ‘I recognise no social distinctions at all of any kind and to me youth—the mere fact of youth—is so wonderful that I would sooner talk to a young man half an hour than even be, well, cross-examined in court’ (175). The laughter of the audience testified that he may not have been the only one.

  • 29 Wilde added: ‘You can call him what you like’ (143).

15Wilde also redefined occupation: young Conway whom some called ‘a loafer’ was ‘a very happy idle nature’ (143).29 Idleness was a virtue which he ranked quite high as conducive to contemplation, another ethical virtue: ‘the life of contemplation is the highest life, and I think so recognised by the philosopher and the saint—the life of contemplation—’ (76). That idleness contradicted the Victorian work ethic need not be repeated but that Wilde gave it a philosophical basis should be highlighted.

  • 30 ‘I would become friendly with any human being that I liked and chose to become friendly with’. (164 (...)

16More than aesthetic autonomy Wilde defended the autonomy of aesthesis—of perception and sensation—by putting personal taste as the sole agency of his relations with others.30 Befriending young men Wilde had sought ‘the pleasure of being with those who are young, bright, happy, careless and amusing’; he also sought to avoid what was distasteful to him: the ‘sensible’ and the ‘old’ (166).

  • 31 ‘Respectability, really—I don’t know what you mean’ (196).
  • 32 Young Scarfe may have no ‘occupation’ or may have been ‘a valet’; for Wilde, he is a ‘very nice, pl (...)
  • 33 ‘It is my custom to present cigarettes cases’ (199), ‘if I like [people], I like giving them presen (...)
  • 34 ‘I like to have people staying with me, I like it’ (204).
  • 35 ‘it was an amusement, a pleasure to [Mavor] to stay with me at an hotel’ (204).
  • 36 ‘because it is one of the best ways perhaps of pleasing anybody, particularly anyone not in one’s s (...)
  • 37 ‘It is a different thing—if it is people’s duty to serve, it is their duty to serve; if it is their (...)

17More generally, Wilde contested Victorian norms such as respectability,31 education,32 and capitalism embodied in financial transactions: ‘I do not lend money. I give it’ (234). Instead he advocated gifts33 as the means to please the giver34 and the recipient35 and of establishing other ways of pleasure and civility. Portraying himself as a ‘very good-natured’36 host, Wilde redefined sociability on an altruistic basis. His taste defined him as a unique being but the reciprocity that he sought through gifts enabled him to constitute a dissident group: ‘my society’ (197) ‘which I consider more important’ (198). Still, this personal and social autonomy had limits such as those imposed by a class-bound society which Wilde quite soundly did not negate,37 or those of ugliness (i.e. aesthetic displeasure) as was shown by Grainger whom Wilde did not kiss since he ‘was a peculiarly plain boy’ (207).

18Beauty, taste, pleasure, reciprocity, gift-giving appear as the main elements of Wilde’s lifestyle, aesthetics and ethics: it is quite logical that he saw the trial as ‘an intentional insult’ (208) and Carson’s antagonistic discourse as destabilizing: ‘you sting me, insult me and try to unnerve me in every way. At times one says things flippantly when one should speak more seriously, I admit that’ (209). This was the only moment when he conceded some ground to his opponent.

  • 38 Oscar Wilde, ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1986). The text ha (...)
  • 39 ‘What is needed is Individualism’ (‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ 21).
  • 40 ‘no government at all’ (46).

19Wilde’s personal and radical autonomy echoes the views of society and government he had expressed in ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’.38 There, Wilde promoted ‘Individualism’ partly in response to Shaw’s socialist views and anarchist writings.39 He rejected all forms of authority and government40 without, however, detailing how society should be organised. With his words before the Old Bailey, this text should be read as Wilde’s political statement. Wilde’s consistency in ‘The Soul of Man’ with his discourse before the court should be highlighted.

20Wilde appeared quite conscious of the difficulties of his position within a society predicated on private property when he noted that ‘Individualism generated under conditions of private property is not always, or even as a rule, of a fine or wonderful type’ (‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’, 21). Acknowledging the existence and dominance of private property, he contends however that ‘Every man must be left free to choose his own work. . . . And by work I simply mean activity of any kind’ (24). Likewise, he denied any distinction predicated on the kind of occupation in 1895. As opposed to productive economy ruled by acquisitiveness, Individualism has ‘growth’ not gain for its aim (25).

21On an ethical level, one should live and not exist, an assertion that leads to the question of personality that was afterwards discussed in Dorian Gray and before the court. Interestingly, in 1891, Wilde wondered whether one had ever seen ‘the full expression of a personality’ in reality. A perfect man would be ‘one who develops under perfect conditions’ (i.e. both physically and pychologically) and Wilde noted that most personalities ‘have been obliged to be rebels’. However, the best perfection rests upon ‘peace’ and one should thus wish for ‘the true personality of man’ (26) which ‘will grow naturally and simply as a tree grows’ (26–7).

  • 41 Wilde notes that Christ did not revolt against authority and had no scheme for the reconstruction o (...)

22The aim of man is not ‘labour’ as capitalists and socialists alike think, but ‘cultivated leisure’, ‘making beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight’ (33). Such a type of activity may be called ‘idle’ by the majority, but in this respect, ‘Art is the most intense mode of Individualism that the world has known. . . . it is the only real mode of Individualism that the world has known’ (34). Striving after this perfection, the artist only wants to ‘intensif[y] his own personality’ (45), which can lead to social dissidence from a social point of view although with a good purpose: ‘Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine’ (36). Contesting norms, as Wilde said he was doing in 1895, was the first manifestation of Individualism. Jesus Christ was the only example—the only one so far41—of a true individualist.

  • 42 ‘[Individualism] comes naturally and inevitably out of man. . . . It is the perfection that is inhe (...)
  • 43 Wilde defines individualistic sympathy as the capacity to be able to sympathise with a friend’s suc (...)
  • 44 Pleasure is ‘Nature’s test, her sign of approval’ (53).

23Individualism constitutes man’s inner essence, and only awaits full self-expression in lifestyles, manners and forms of civility.42 Ethically speaking, it is ‘unselfish and unaffected’ (49). It is the realization and exercise of total sympathy43 and it develops through ‘Joy’ (51). Wilde refutes that man should live by the alternation of pain and pleasure; on the contrary man should seek ‘to live intensely, fully, perfectly’ (53), without restraining himself or exercising authority over others. With Individualism, pleasure becomes paramount44 and happiness is defined as harmony with oneself and with one’s environment.

24Also interesting in respect to his first trial is Wilde’s acknowledgment of the existence of ‘that monstrous and ignorant thing that is called the Public Opinion’ (40) whose channel, ‘The Press’, had become ‘the only estate’ so that the community was ‘dominated by Journalism’ (40). Wilde loathed the public’s ardent wish to exercise authority, since it entailed ‘brib[ing] and brutaliz[ing]’ on the part of the people instead of realizing their true aim which was ‘to live, to listen and to love’ (47). A possible although perilous option for an individualist was to be like the ‘true artist [who] takes no notice whatever of the public’ (45). What Wilde may not have calculated was the public still taking notice of him and insisting on doing so in 1895. But the consistency of his thought needs to be emphasized and his assertion of autonomy from 1891 to 1895 is undeniable.

25Locating some historical manifestations of Individualism, Wilde noted that the Renaissance was a time where the individual developed ‘freely, beautifully, and naturally, and so had great and individual artists, and great and individual men’ (48). Ancient Greece had also attempted to promote Individualism, quite unsuccessfully because of the system of slavery. What the Renaissance only achieved in art was however coming and would ‘be complete, and through it each man will attain to his perfection’. The future only heralded the sublation of the Hellenic and Renaissance past: ‘The new Individualism is the new Hellenism’ (53).

26In ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ Wilde advocates a radical autonomy—which may be questioned from a political, ethical, aesthetic or philosophical standpoint—which he maintained before Carson and pitted against prevalent Victorian norms. Wilde was of course conscious that he promoted such views and lifestyle within a partly heteronomous class-bound and mercantile society as he has noted in 1891. It is within those limits that he attempted to escape paid employment, met people on a pleasurable basis, praised idleness, and made gifts. Whatever element of conceit there may have been in his answers before the court, there were also the truth of Wilde’s lifestyle.

  • 45 Castoriadis (1922-1997) was born in Greece. He opposed orthodox Marxism and was active in the polit (...)

27If Wilde’s Individualism failed somehow to materialize in the ways he had envisioned, a parallel may be drawn between the radical autonomy he promoted and the 20th–century French philosopher Castoriadis’s views on autonomy. Interestingly both writers were schooled in classical philosophy and history45—something easily forgotten in discussing Wilde and especially his trials—and both opposed prevalent political systems.

  • 46 See especially Cornelius Castoriadis, Ce qui fait la Grèce. 1. D’Homère à Héraclite. Séminaires 198 (...)
  • 47 Castoriadis makes clear that such autonomy is not to be mistaken with Kantian autonomy: ‘Cette auto (...)
  • 48 Properly understood, autonomy ‘implies the refusal of any other origin of meaning than the living a (...)
  • 49 For Castoriadias, religion masks Abysm by the imposing an idea of the sacred.

28Castoriadis devoted most of his later writings to define autonomy and to study its historical manifestations, especially in 5th–century BC Athenian democracy.46 He defines autonomy as the power to collectively give laws to a given political community through an unfinished process and being able to set limits to that power.47 From a historical standpoint, Castoriadis contends that the idea and process of autonomy were born in Greece with the Athenian democracy and partly ended with it. They reappeared during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe. The second wave of autonomy was concomitant with antagonistic forces including the emergence and domination of capitalism from the 17th century onwards. In a 1990 essay, ‘L’époque du conformisme généralisé’, he adds another period of autonomy: modernity. For Castoriadis, those epochs saw attempts at establishing autonomy, attempts which resurfaced over the last three centuries through different revolts or revolutions, including the American and the French Revolutions. More importantly, from an ontological perspective, Castoriadian autonomy is a possibility of mankind that remains to be fully achieved. Autonomy is defined as the breaking of social closure opening on ‘Abysm, Chaos, Bottomlessness’. Defining society as an overall institution including smaller institutions such as languages, parenthood systems, sets of beliefs, collective practices, housing arrangements, techniques, forms of power, and ethical differences (fair/unfair; desirable/undesirable), Castoriadis sees its natural tendency as to become self-enclosed. Such closure produces individuals bound to reproduce their own self-institution. Autonomy consists in destroying the vicious circle shutting individuals or groups within the social world they produce and reproduce. Such a striving for autonomy is an attempt to put an end to the natural intelligibility of the world and appears under three modalities: an original urge in all human societies through the birth and development of religion; a historical one which has been effective in Athenian and modern democracies through political and philosophical activities;48 and lastly, a potential one, still unrealized when a given society becomes fully autonomous, free from all form of heteronomy, confronting Abysm without masking it behind ‘instituted simulacrums’ (1999, 237, 383) such as religion.49

  • 50 Castoriadis has opposing views if not on Jesus Christ, at least on Christianity.

29Wilde’s Individualism expressed in a single text lacks Castoriadis’s sophistication but it echoes some of the philosopher’s theses. Individualism as a human potentiality has already partially appeared in Greece and during the Renaissance; it has been embodied by Jesus Christ inviting his followers to live rather than to exist;50 most of the times it has been socially dissident. What Wilde describes, partly in jest but assuredly to counter G. B. Shaw’s authoritarian socialism, and which was deemed suitable for publication in the respectable Fortnightly Review, is akin to Castoriadis’s ‘upsurges’ of autonomy. It also has the same aim of providing the individual and collective means to change the order of things.

30‘The Soul of Man’ can be considered as Wilde’s most elaborate statement about politics, ethics and aesthetics which he partially reiterated during his first cross-examination, thus turning it into something more than a trial about his sexual proclivities and the morality of literature. It can also be read as Wilde’s political vision of Aestheticism, of the politics he thought Aestheticism could embrace and sustain and which he defended before the court. In that perspective, it appears that by living and performing political Aestheticism, by living that version of the Aesthetic life and by defending it before a court, Wilde was coherent with himself. For Carson and what Carson represented, he appeared as a political dissident that needed to be silenced while his views had to be discredited. Wilde’s trial was the means through which such a rejection was carried out, indeed for ‘gross indecency’. Not only was Wilde a sexual dissident that needed a ‘lesson’, he was also a political dissident, the proponent of a set of practices, which came to be known as Aestheticism, at odds with late-Victorian values. Wilde pitted the individual against the public, gift-giving against financial transactions, reciprocal pleasures against egoistic duty, liberty against authority, joy against respectability, idleness against labour. He embodied a way of life that was at odds with prevalent Victorian notions of life and art, and this social and political dissident dimension should be taken into account if we want to understand why his name and what he stood for became unmentionable for the next sixty years.

31Several friends tried to convince Wilde to flee Great Britain before his trial and scholars have long wondered why Wilde did not choose to leave the country that did pass so harsh a sentence on him. By leaving Great Britain Wilde would have been inconsistent with the values he advocated and embodied. That his sentence was executed by the opponents to all kinds of autonomy invites us to revalue its aesthetic, ethical and political potential.

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Bibliographie

Bloxam, John, ed. The Chameleon. London: Gay and Bud, 1894.

Castoriadis, Cornelius. ‘l’Abîme, le Chaos, le Sans-fond’, Domaines de l’Homme. 1986. Paris: Seuil, 1999.

——— . ‘L’époque du conformisme généralisé,’ Le Monde morcelé. 1990. Paris: Seuil, 2000.

——— . ‘Pouvoir, politique, autonomie’. Les carrefours du labyrinthe III. Paris: Seuil, 2000.

Cook, Matt. London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Foldy, Michael S. The Trials of Oscar Wilde. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.

Holland, Merlin. The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. The First Uncensored Transcript of the Trial of Oscar Wilde vs. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry), 1895. London: Fourth Estate, 2003.

Hyde, Montgomery. The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1962). New York: Dover, 1973.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism.’ Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1986.

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Notes

1 Unless stated otherwise, all references are to Merlin Holland’s The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde (2003), an edition based on a longhand ms of the complete Queensberry trial brought to the British Library. Holland notes that official records of the trial are almost non-existent. The Central Criminal Court Sessions Papers noted the case and declared ‘The Details of the case are unfit for publication’. All other documents have disappeared. Records for the two trials in which the Crown prosecuted Wilde are also missing. During his plea, Carson indicted literature as evidence of Wilde’s conduct as well as ‘other evidence’ and announced he would ‘bring before you these young men one after the other to tell their tale’ (273). The said tale was ‘these men . . . allowing themselves to be dominated, misled, corrupted by Mr Oscar Wilde’ (273).

2 For transcripts of the three trials see http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/wilde/wilde.htm.

3 From the beginning Carson perfectly understood what ‘Greek’ meant to Wilde.

4 ‘the same language and the same idea’ (Holland 257).

5 In De Profundis he wrote: ‘my Art was to me, the great primal note by which I had revealed first myself to myself, and then myself to the world; the real passion of my life; the love to which all other loves were as marsh-water to red wine’ (Holland, xxxvi).

6 The Daily Chronicle wrote that ‘there has been a purge, and we hope London is the better for it’ (Cook 70).

7 Significantly Wilde did not understand Carson’s first questions.

8 Lord Henry Wotton, the butt of Carson’s attacks, resembled Wilde by the same ‘great power of speaking in epigram, just as Mr Wilde has’ (259). Both versions of Dorian Gray were extensively discussed.

9 ‘the same idea running all through’ those writings and relating to ‘the same kind of mind that wrote this Chameleon, . . . these letters to Lord Alfred Douglas’ (257).

10 ‘the extraordinary den that [Taylor] kept in Little College Street with its curtains always drawn, the luxurious hangings of his windows, his rooms gorgeously and luxuriously furnished with the perpetual change of varied perfumes and the altogether extraordinary life that he was leading there; the daylight never admitted; always the shaded light of candles or of lamps or of gas’ (253).

11 ‘his standard was a very high one’ (253)

12 ‘[Wilde] has such a magnanimous, such a noble, such a democratic soul (laughter) that he draws no social distinctions’ (254).

13 Carson concluded: ‘I ask you, now, to put yourselves in the position of a parent’ (268).

14 ‘What would be the horror you would feel as regards what might be the result of your own son being associated in that way with persons who are making such contributions to public literature?’ (258)

15 ‘in not one of these cases were the parties upon an equality in any way with Mr Wilde; they were none of them really educated parties with whom he would naturally associate; they were none of them his equals in years’ (274).

16 There was an ‘extraordinary similarity in the history of all these cases. All these young men of some eighteen to twenty years of age, perhaps one or two of them a year or two more, the manner of the introduction to Wilde, the way in which Wilde treated them subsequently, the giving to them of money, and the giving to them of presents one and all are in the same category, all leading up to the same conclusion: that there was something unnatural, something unexpected—what you would not expect in the relations between Wilde and these gentlemen’. (274)

17 ‘one thing is plain in this case: that Wilde’s conduct was not regulated by any very generous instincts towards these young men’. (275)

18 According to Carson, Wilde should have said “‘Here is a smart boy at Worthing whom I have met at the pier. I will try and get him employment; I will educate him; I will give him some money; I will try and assist him in any way I can’” (279).

19 A simple instance of their antagonistic discourses is what Carson calls ‘a proper letter’, something that Wilde’s letter to Douglas was not, and Wilde’s ‘beautiful letter’ (107) that ‘nobody but an artist could write’ (105).

20 The short story was ‘wrong, utterly’, ‘disgusting’ though not ‘blasphemous’ (70). Wilde disapproved of ‘the tone, treatment, subject, everything; the whole thing from beginning to end’ (71).

21 Wilde declared himself unable to know what a ‘sodomitical book’ was (97). Likewise A Rebours is not well-written, although it is not an immoral book. Carson wanted to prove that Wilde knew about the sodomitical bent of A Rebours and used it in Dorian Gray to promote sodomitical practices.

22 ‘I am concerned entirely with literature, that is with Art. The aim is not to do good or to do evil, but to try and make a thing that will have some quality of beauty that is to be attained or in the form of beauty and of wit and emotion’ (74).

23 ‘my philosophical definition of truth—something so personal that when another person holds the same—that in fact the same truth can never be apprehended by two minds, that is what it means; that to each mind there is its own truth; it is an important physical condition entirely’ (76).

24 ‘What concerns me in my art is my view and my feeling and why I made it; I don't care twopence what other people think about it.’ (81)

25 “I cannot answer any question apart from art” (110).

26 ‘That is your account of them not mine’ (167).

27 ‘I don't care about different social position’; ‘If anybody interests me or is in trouble and I have been asked to help him in any way, what is the use of putting on airs about one’s own social position? It’s childish’ (119).

28 ‘I consider an assistant in a bookshop occupied the position of a gentleman’ (134).

29 Wilde added: ‘You can call him what you like’ (143).

30 ‘I would become friendly with any human being that I liked and chose to become friendly with’. (164); ‘I liked him [Parker]. What better reason is there for giving a person money than that?’ (165)

31 ‘Respectability, really—I don’t know what you mean’ (196).

32 Young Scarfe may have no ‘occupation’ or may have been ‘a valet’; for Wilde, he is a ‘very nice, pleasant young man. Education depends on what one’s standard is. He spoke well; he wrote well’ (234).

33 ‘It is my custom to present cigarettes cases’ (199), ‘if I like [people], I like giving them presents. I like doing it’ (203).

34 ‘I like to have people staying with me, I like it’ (204).

35 ‘it was an amusement, a pleasure to [Mavor] to stay with me at an hotel’ (204).

36 ‘because it is one of the best ways perhaps of pleasing anybody, particularly anyone not in one’s social position, to ask him to dine’ (197).

37 ‘It is a different thing—if it is people’s duty to serve, it is their duty to serve; if it is their pleasure to dine, it is their pleasure to dine and their privilege.” (207)

38 Oscar Wilde, ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1986). The text had been first published in the Fortnightly Review in February 1891.

39 ‘What is needed is Individualism’ (‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ 21).

40 ‘no government at all’ (46).

41 Wilde notes that Christ did not revolt against authority and had no scheme for the reconstruction of society contrary to modern societies with their schemes of doing away with poverty, pain and suffering which they will carry out through Socialism and Science to establish Individualism.

42 ‘[Individualism] comes naturally and inevitably out of man. . . . It is the perfection that is inherent in every mode of life and towards which every mode of life quickens’ (49).

43 Wilde defines individualistic sympathy as the capacity to be able to sympathise with a friend’s success.

44 Pleasure is ‘Nature’s test, her sign of approval’ (53).

45 Castoriadis (1922-1997) was born in Greece. He opposed orthodox Marxism and was active in the political group Socialisme ou barbarie (1949-65) and co-edited the eponymous review. A psychoanalyst, he also taught at the EHESS.

46 See especially Cornelius Castoriadis, Ce qui fait la Grèce. 1. D’Homère à Héraclite. Séminaires 1982-1983. La création humaine II (Paris: Seuil, 2004) and La Cité et les Lois. Ce qui fait la Grèce, 2. Séminaires 1983-1984. La création humaine III (Paris: Seuil, 2008)  and Thucydide, la force et le droit. Ce qui fait la Grèce, 3. Séminaires 1984-1985, La création humaine IV (Paris: Seuil, 2011).

47 Castoriadis makes clear that such autonomy is not to be mistaken with Kantian autonomy: ‘Cette autonomie n’a rien de commun avec l’“autonomie” kantienne… il ne s’agit pas, pour elle, de découvrir dans une Raison immuable une loi qu’elle se donnerait une fois pour toutes’ (‘Pouvoir, politique, autonomie’, 161. ‘Autonomie: auto-nomos (se donner) soi-même ses lois […] L’autonomie est l’agir réflexif d’une raison qui se crée dans un mouvement sans fin, comme à la fois individuelle et sociale’ (‘Pouvoir, politique, autonomie’, 160-161).

48 Properly understood, autonomy ‘implies the refusal of any other origin of meaning than the living activity of humankind’ (Castoriadis 1999, 225).

49 For Castoriadias, religion masks Abysm by the imposing an idea of the sacred.

50 Castoriadis has opposing views if not on Jesus Christ, at least on Christianity.

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Bénédicte Coste, « Autonomy in the Dock: Oscar Wilde’s First Trial », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 79 Printemps | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2014, consulté le 27 mai 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/1114 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.1114

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Auteur

Bénédicte Coste

Bénédicte Coste is Professor of Victorian literature at the University of Burgundy, France. She mainly works on Walter Pater and late-nineteenth–century writers. She has recently edited a special issue of Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens on nineteenth–century beliefs (2013). A former fellow of the William Andrew Clark Library (Los Angeles), she is currently writing a book-length study on Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

Bénédicte Coste est professeur de littérature victorienne à l’Université de Bourgogne. Ses travaux portent principalement sur l’œuvre de Walter Pater et les écrivains de la fin du xixe siècle. Elle a dirigé un numéro récent des Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens sur la croyance au xixe siècle. Ancienne fellow de la William Andrew Clark Library (Los Angeles), elle rédige actuellement une monographie sur Walter Pater et Oscar Wilde.

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