1One of the earliest critical responses to Oscar Wilde’s works in France is an article by the editor and critic Téodor de Wyzewa entitled ‘M. Oscar Wilde et les jeunes littérateurs anglais’ [Mr Oscar Wilde and the young English writers], which was published in the Revue bleue in April 1892. Wyzewa’s association with the Symbolist movement—he was co-editor of the journal La Revue wagnérienne with Edouard Dujardin—might lead one to assume that he would be an enthusiastic advocate of Wilde’s work. But this is far from the case. Wyzewa’s low opinion of Wilde’s works is apparent from the outset: he argues that the French see him as quintessentially English but the English see him as quintessentially French, resulting in an inflated esteem for his work on both sides of the Channel. Wyzewa claims that the English had previously considered Wilde to be a mediocre novelist, poet and critic, similar to many other writers, whose only outstanding feature is a heightened predilection for paradox regarding the choice of his ties and his ideas. In France however, since Wilde was introduced to them as the prince of the mysterious tribe of English aesthetes, he was embraced with open arms; Wyzewa sees this uncritical reception as part of a wider trend of recent French Anglophilia centred on the alluring terms esthète and pré-raphaélite (423). According to Wyzewa, Wilde has therefore become famous in France as an English aesthete, and famous in his own country as a ‘Parisian’ entertainer (he cites the recent success of Lady Windermere’s Fan on the London stage as an example) (424). For Wyzewa however, Wilde is no more than a banal ‘polygraphe’ [copyist]; he considers that Wilde’s poems are decent imitations of Swinburne and Rossetti, or reminiscent of translations of Baudelaire, suggesting that not even their author considered them to be of great value (425). As for the moral tales (he lists ‘The Happy Prince’, ‘The Nightingale and The Rose’, ‘The Selfish Giant’ and ‘The Devoted Friend’), they are prettily written and illustrated, but no more than agreeable trifles which conceal Wilde’s personality rather than revealing it (425). He dismisses Le Portrait de Dorian Grey [sic] simply as a ‘mauvais roman’ [bad novel], comparing it to an adventure novel which supports Wilde’s theories by suppressing emotion; the one exception is the description of the character of Sibyl Vane, which he considers to be a decent chapter in the style of Dickens (425–6). In a few cursory pages Wilde’s literary reputation is thus belittled with surprising severity.
2 However, the one work that Wyzewa deems worthy of keeping is Intentions, which he believes is able to give a clear idea of the author’s personality. He argues that Wilde’s main intention here was to surprise his reader, which is a laudable aim if it is linked to an interesting critical purpose; however, he criticizes Wilde for merely affirming and repeating the tenets of his aesthetic theory (e.g. the importance of lying, the equation of murder with art, the insistence that criticism is an art) rather than developing them (426). Wyzewa also claims that Wilde’s theories are in essence no more than the doctrine of l’art pour l’art pushed to the extreme; although these are already familiar to the French, Wilde has now become the spokesman for a new generation of writers because he was the first to affirm them so openly in England. Whilst acknowledging that both Ruskin and Swinburne had already articulated similar ideas concerning the ideal aspirations of criticism, Wyzewa accepts that Intentions is interesting because it portrays a particular contemporary English perspective on literature, centred on Oxford and characterized by the tendency to reject conventional views of art and morality (427). Wyzewa then claims that the current English interest in Mallarmé and Verlaine is based on a desire to imitate the French vogue for Symbolism, a literary movement whose principles and works are hard enough for the French to understand, let alone the English; consequently they gain their knowledge from ‘easier’ writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert and Gautier (428). He concludes his discussion of Intentions by asserting unequivocally that all of Wilde’s aesthetic theories in the collection derive from Gautier:
- 1 ‘C’est encore de Gautier que dérive tout le système des intentions de M. Wilde. Il n’y a pas une de (...)
The whole system underlying Intentions is derived again from Gautier. There’s not one of these intentions that you could not find in embryo in Gautier’s preface to Les Fleurs du Mal. M. Wilde and his compatriots have learnt here the details of Baudelaire’s paradoxes: they have translated them into English, I mean adapted them to the temperament of their nation; and now they repeat them, while sporting their cigarettes and green carnations, convinced that these paradoxes and this way of repeating them are the latest fashion in French dilettantism today.1
- 2 Arthur Symons, unsigned review, Athenaeum, 16 May 1908, 598–600; reprinted in Karl Beckson (ed.), O (...)
- 3 ‘C’est beaucoup moins une doctrine qu’une disposition de l’esprit, très intelligente à la fois et t (...)
- 4 I refer briefly to this affinity in an earlier essay on Wilde’s reception in France: ‘The Artist as (...)
3 Wyzewa’s critique of Wilde’s lack of originality anticipates Arthur Symons’s posthumous judgement in 1908: ‘His expression of what he conceived by beauty is developed from many models, and has no new ideas in it; one can trace it, almost verbally, to Pater, Flaubert, Gautier, Baudelaire, and other writers from whom he drew sustenance’.2It also finds an echo in Hermann Bahr’s dismissive appraisal of Wilde as a talentless epigone in an 1894 essay, which (ironically) seems to owe a debt to Wyzewa’s own article (Bahr 167–72). However, Wyzewa’s reference here to ‘dilettantisme’ locates Wilde in a particular sphere of contemporary French discourse which transcends mere connotations of plagiarism. Earlier in the nineteenth century both Gautier and Baudelaire had used the term positively, as a synonym for the type of aestheticism which emphasized the pleasure in artistic creation and appreciation. In the 1880s the critic and novelist Paul Bourget introduced a new meaning, conceiving ‘dilettantisme’ as a sceptical disposition that refuses to take a specific position and embraces both contradiction and paradox. In his 1882 essay on Ernest Renan, Bourget provides the following definition of dilettantism as a critical approach: ‘It is far less a doctrine than a mental disposition, both very intelligent and very sensual, which inclines us towards diverse forms of life and leads us to lend ourselves to these forms without giving ourselves to any’.3 The affinities between Wilde and Renan have been noted briefly by a number of subsequent commentators on Wilde, usually in the context of his reading of Renan’s La Vie de Jésus while in Reading Gaol, or in relation to the reference in ‘The Critic as Artist’ to Darwin and Renan as the key critics of the age (Wilde 2001c, 278). Both Stephen Arata and Julia Prewitt Brown note Renan’s influence on Wilde’s view of Christianity; Robert Merle has noted Renan’s influence on Wilde’s critical dialogues (Arata 261–62; Prewitt Brown 97; Merle 25). But the affinities between Wilde’s criticism and Bourget’s essay on Renan’s dilettantism have not been explored.4 Prewitt Brown has shown convincingly how Wilde’s philosophy of art is far more than a simple variation on the ideals of l’art pour l’art, proposing that his criticism prefigures in some ways the work of Adorno and Benjamin, who were concerned with similar questions regarding the nature of art (Prewitt Brown xv). Her suggestion that Wilde was interested in improvising his life rather than systematizing it also points to the affinity with contemporary French criticism that forms the subject of the present essay (Prewitt Brown xix).
- 5 ‘S’il rencontre des idées ennemies, il les réconcilie en les embrassant toutes ensemble. Puis il le (...)
- 6 ‘Le bon critique est celui qui raconte les aventures de son âme au milieu des chefs-d’œuvre’ (Franc (...)
- 7 Richard Le Gallienne, Review of Intentions, Academy, 4 July 1891, reprinted in Karl Beckson (ed.), (...)
4 It is my contention that by associating the discussion of aestheticism and criticism in Intentions with dilettantism, Wyzewa is unintentionally (and ironically) drawing attention to the fact that there is more to Wilde’s criticism than mere variations on Gautier’s aestheticism; in other words, he is placing Wilde’s critical approach in a lineage of French criticism which transcends both l’art pour l’art and the simple repetition of paradoxes. For Bourget, dilettantism denotes a pleasurable critical style which refuses to take a specific stance, epitomized by the later period of Renan’s work. This style of criticism became particularly popular in France during the 1880s, when it is evident in the work of Anatole France and Jules Lemaître inter alios. Lemaître’s copious critical essays, collected in the multi-volume Les Contemporains (1885–1924) and Impressions de théâtre (1888–1920), are presented as avowedly personal impressions. In an 1885 essay praising Lemaître’s critical style, Anatole France gives the following appraisal of his work: ‘If he encounters hostile ideas, he reconciles them by embracing all of them together. Then he sends them packing . . . . His intelligence is absolutely free.’5 The affinity between Bourget’s conception of dilettantism and this anti-dogmatic form of dialectic is clear. In the same essay France gives a famous definition of criticism which emphasizes its essentially personal dimension: ‘The good critic is the one who relates the adventures of his soul among masterpieces.’6 The very act of translating this dictum into English seems to evoke Wilde’s voice: if one thinks of plagiarism by anticipation, this is undoubtedly something that Wilde might have written himself. In a sympathetic review of Intentions, the poet Richard Le Gallienne—who knew and admired Wilde—points out the similarities between Wilde, Pater and Anatole France, quoting the above dictum and referring to ‘the “autobiographical” theory of criticism’ which ‘belongs to every subtly developed temperament’; unfortunately, writes Le Gallienne, it has been ‘practised in England all too much by men who are anything but subtle’.7
- 8 ‘C’est peut-être M. Anatole France, dans un article sur M. Jules Lemaître, qui a le plus énergiquem (...)
5 Neither France nor Lemaître gives a specific name to this type of criticism, probably because for them it was simply the most effective way to approach a work of art or an artist. However, the obvious connotations of subjectivity were seized upon by the influential critic, teacher and editor Ferdinand Brunetière, who challenged France’s views in an 1891 article entitled ‘La critique impressionniste’ [Impressionist criticism]: ‘It is perhaps M. Anatole France, in an article on M. Jules Lemaître, who has proclaimed most energetically the right of criticism from now on to be exclusively personal, impressionist and, as one says, subjective.’8Brunetière then uses the term ‘impressionist criticism’ to refer pejoratively to the critical style of France, Lemaître and others, arguing that criticism should be based not on subjective impressions but on what he considers to be objective principles. He dismisses these impressions as mere tastes and preferences of limited interest, whereas his concept of objective criticism aims to interest and instruct a wider audience by basing its discussion on a belief in value judgements, literary history and the hegemony of the canon. It is telling that this derogatory use of the term ‘impressionism’ echoes its first use in art criticism in 1874, which similarly rejected a different approach. However, the term ‘impressionist criticism’ did not gain widespread currency. France defended his position in an ongoing debate with Brunetière, reinforcing his view that the role of criticism is neither to judge nor to classify but to understand and to appreciate, but, as the 1890s progressed, more and more critics followed Brunetière’s example in dismissing such criticism as Decadent indulgence.
6 The affinities between this so-called ‘impressionist criticism’ and Wilde’s own view of criticism are easy to see. To what extent was Wilde actually aware of the critical work of France and Lemaître? He was to meet both of them in Paris in the early 1890s, but his knowledge of their critical works in the 1880s is hard to establish. In the review ‘A Note on Some Modern Poets’, published in The Woman’s World in December 1888, Wilde quotes an unnamed French critic on the effects of rhyme in poetry; it seems clear that he is alluding to Lemaître, whose 1886 essay on Théodore de Banville contains the quoted passage (Wilde 2004, 141). Even if Wilde had not read Lemaître’s actual essay, he may well have read Andrew Lang’s review of Lemaître’s essays in the April 1887 issue of Longman’s Magazine, which translates the quoted passage on rhyme and claims that Lemaître is the best critic since Sainte-Beuve (Lang 664–5). My concern however is not to propose a case of direct borrowing, but rather an example of intellectual affinity which refutes Wyzewa’s critique of Wilde; the affinity is evident throughout Wilde’s critical writing, particularly in the pieces written in the late 1880s which would come to constitute Intentions. In ‘The Decay of Lying’, it is discernible in Vivian’s critique of an age which places such great value on factual evidence, and in his assertion that truth is a matter of style rather than a matter of facts. Here of course the subject under discussion is fiction rather than criticism, and literary realism in particular. But when Vivian concludes that ‘Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art’, he anticipates Wilde’s subsequent reflections on criticism itself, liberating it from the restraints of empiricism and promoting its aesthetic value (Wilde 2001a, 192). The fundamental role of the personal response in the critical process is apparent in Pen, Pencil and Poison, where Wilde, paraphrasing Pater’s preface to Studies in the History of the Renaissance, writes that ‘the first step in aesthetic criticism is to realize one’s own impressions’ (Wilde 2001b, 198). Indeed, the combination of aestheticism and the personal impression can be traced back to Pater’s preface, challenging Wyzewa’s view that Wilde’s criticism is simply derived from Gautier.
7 The most developed example of this affinity between Wilde and certain contemporary French critics is of course ‘The Critic as Artist’, whose very title rejects the view that the critic’s role is one of explanation, instruction and categorization. In Part One of the essay, the dialogue between Ernest and Gilbert serves initially to establish Gilbert’s thesis that criticism should be seen as art and that the dichotomy between the critical and the creative is a false one. Gradually the significance of the critic’s personal impressions becomes more important, supported by Gilbert’s assertion that this view of criticism has its roots in Aristotle’s concern with analysing the impression produced by works of art such as tragedy. Towards the end of Part One the crucial role played by the critic’s personal impression is expounded in detail:
Nay, more, I would say that the highest Criticism, being the purest form of personal impression, is in its way more creative than creation, as it has least reference to any standard external to itself, and is, in fact, its own reason for existing, and, as the Greeks would put it, in itself and to itself, an end.
(Wilde 2001c, 237)
- 9 This ‘very serious error’ is an allusion to the view of Matthew Arnold, as Linda Dowling points out (...)
8Gilbert’s subsequent assertion that ‘[t]hat is what the highest Criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul’ is perhaps the most obvious sign of an unacknowledged debt to Anatole France (Wilde 2001c, 237), but the question of plagiarism here is largely irrelevant in the context of such a strong intellectual affinity. This particular piece of dialogue can be read as a manifesto for personal criticism, culminating in the claim that ‘[h]is [the critic’s] sole aim is to chronicle his own impressions’ (Wilde 2001c, 238). Gilbert then distinguishes between this ‘purely subjective’ form of criticism and the ‘very serious error’ that ‘the proper aim of Criticism is to see the object as in itself as it really is’ (Wilde 2001c, 238).9 He supports this thesis by arguing that the value of Ruskin’s writing on Turner, or Pater’s writing on Leonardo da Vinci, lies not in whether they are ‘sound’ or not, but in the sheer quality of the prose. We can see the future debate between France and Brunetière anticipated in the rhetorical form of the dialogue: Wilde defends the critic’s right to subjectivity as France had done, and would do so again. But Wilde takes it even further, arguing through the mouthpiece of Gilbert that criticism adds to the original work, enhancing it; the highest form of criticism transcends the individual work of art to criticize beauty itself. Here Wilde introduces the term ‘the aesthetic critic’ to denote the critic who is able to show us not the reason of beauty but the mystery of beauty, who makes all interpretations true and no interpretation final. Wilde’s term ‘aesthetic critic’ can be seen as a positive counterpart to Brunetière’s rejection of impressionist criticism: the aesthetic critic starts from the subjective viewpoint of the personal impression and ends by transcending the work of art to comment on beauty itself.
9 In Part Two of ‘The Critic as Artist’ this line of argument undergoes a nuanced development. Gilbert states that the critic can pass from impression to analysis, if he or she chooses, and crucially here the personality of the critic enhances the interpretation, as it does with any performer. Ernest counters that ‘objectivity’ and ‘impersonality’ are in fact the hallmarks of great criticism, again anticipating Brunetière’s complaint about subjectivity. This enables Gilbert to emphasize that all creation is inevitably subjective and that any attempt at objectivity is in fact itself subjective. His claim here that ‘we are never more true to ourselves than when we are inconsistent’ suggests a particular affinity with the ideas expressed not only by Bourget writing on Renan, but also by France writing on Lemaître (Wilde 2001c, 261). This affinity with contemporary French criticism is also evident when Gilbert argues that ‘[t]emperament is the primary requisite for the critic—a temperament exquisitely susceptible to beauty, and the various impressions that beauty gives us’ (Wilde 2001c, 266). These two ideas combine elements of Gautier’s preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin with Bourget’s essay on Renan’s dilettantism, namely the exclusive value attributed to beauty and an existential disposition or temperament that embraces inconsistency. They also allude again to Pater’s preface to Studies in the History of the Renaissance, where Pater argues that temperament is more important to the critic than a correct abstract definition of beauty. Wilde’s view that the artist must strive to go beyond the impression is illustrated here by an interesting example: when Gilbert suggests that he finds Symbolist painting (or Archaicist as it was known at the time) more interesting than Impressionist painting, this can be interpreted as the result of going beyond the simple recording of the impression. The affinity between Wilde and critical dilettantism is epitomized by Gilbert’s statement that ‘the artistic critic, like the mystic, is an antinomian always’ (Wilde 2001c, 277). In De Profundis Wilde would describe himself as a born antinomian, made for exceptions rather than laws, which can be seen as a variation on Bourget’s concept of dilettantism in his essay on Renan.
10 The affinities between Wilde’s writings on criticism and contemporary French views are also present in two of the epigrams that form the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray:
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
(Wilde 1985, 21)
11The first sentence here encapsulates the ideas expounded in ‘The Critic as Artist’, whereas the second sentence adds another dimension. How are we to interpret this? Does it mean that both aesthetic criticism and so-called ‘objective criticism’—the highest and the lowest forms—are both autobiographical because they tell us about the critic? Or does introduce a caveat, suggesting that subjectivity alone is insufficient to produce high criticism, and that the critic must have the right temperament? Whatever the answer may be, it reinforces the central role that the personal impression of beauty, combined with the ability to translate or convey this impression, plays in Wilde’s view of criticism.
12 Returning now to Téodor de Wyzewa’s critique of Intentions, we will recall that Wyzewa argues that Wilde’s critical theories owe everything to Gautier’s preface to Les Fleurs du Mal and to Baudelaire’s paradoxes, and that Wilde and his contemporaries simply repeat these paradoxes in the belief that they are the latest expression of French dilettantism. Wyzewa’s critique does a disservice not only to Wilde, but also to French dilettantism itself. Dilettantism is not simply the combination of second-hand aestheticism and meretricious comic paradox; it is a serious philosophical position. For Wilde, the paradox enables him to combine an idea with its opposite, to posit a truth while simultaneously subverting it and questioning its status, leaving it in a state of ambiguity. An analogy can be made with the use of the dialogic form, which enables Wilde, as Socrates, Plato, Diderot and Renan had done before him, to combine differing ideas. The late Australian critic Kelver Hartley refers to Wilde as a ‘dancing Socrates’, which neatly encapsulates this combination of pleasure and critical enquiry (Hartley 37). Wilde’s critical essays can therefore be placed in a lineage of French criticism with particular affinities with Renan, Lemaître and France. Wyzewa is wrong to dismiss Wilde as the banal copyist of French dilettantism; we should see him rather as a dilettante in Bourget’s sense, namely as the critic who refuses to take a specific position, in order to transcend the work of art. Whether we call this type of criticism impressionist, artistic, aesthetic or subjective is ultimately of limited value; the significance lies in the metaphysical qualities of good criticism, which enhances the work of art by revealing to the reader something about the human condition, be it beauty, truth, hypothesis or contradiction. In so doing, Wilde’s endows British aestheticism with his own variation on contemporary French epistemology.