Catastrophes in art
Catastrophes in life bring about catastrophes in art.” (Oscar Wilde)
To what extent might the autobiographical and sometimes polemical approach adopted by Wilde in his prison writings (De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol) be seen as a “catastrophic” betrayal of his own aesthetic principles?
The Romantic period and Pre-Raphaelites are periods in history when aestheticism was common especially in America and in Western Europe. Aestheticism involves the process by which an artist is devoted to art while signifies the importance of beauty when compared with other values such as material utility and morality. It does not entail one phenomenon rather a group of phenomena which are related while reflecting certainty that beauty can provide meaning and value to life (Matsuoka 82). Aestheticism has been used to differentiate between arts from life to minimize the moral implications. It means that the artists do not allow the life attitudes to influence their work of art instead, the value of the art comes from the aesthetic pleasure that comprises of it. However, one thing that was evident from aestheticism was the fact that it threatened the Victorian morality and respectability because it emphasizes on sensuous pleasures while of focusing on beauty.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is among the famous figures strongly linked to the aestheticism which made him to be viewed by many as controversial figure especially his physical appearance. Wilde acquired the aesthetic principles from his college teachers, John Ruskin and Walter Peter. He maintained their philosophy of aestheticism carrying it with him wherever he went. However, Wilde is recognized for not only his artistic work and aesthetic principles, but also the ways in which his life came to an end in misery. He tragically ended up in prison where he spent most of his life. During his life in prison, Wilde mentioned that “catastrophes in life bring about catastrophes in art.” Through his autobiography and the polemical approaches that he adopted while in prison, it is evident that Wilde had a change of mind regarding the ways in which he viewed things and life. He began to have a new way of writing while in prison which can be considered as catastrophic betrayal of his aesthetic principles.
Wild’s aesthetic philosophies
One thing that differentiated majority of the aesthetic founders is their focus on lust which contradicted the Victorian ideology. Wilde saw that sin was beautiful and believed that it was necessary to improve life. He never believed in conscience because of the belief that it showed imperfection in life. On the other hand, he never accepted the idea regarding religion nor believed in it claiming that it was something of the past, a chapter that is long gone. According to him, people did not need to go back to the life of sainthood since there is much that people can learn from the sinners (Belford 251). He therefore encouraged people to consider sinners as their role models instead of trying to look for sainthood in them, something which was long gone.
In regards to the woman, Wilde’s aesthetic principles were that women were more like actress because there was no way in which they could appeal to a person’s imagination. An actress is a person who is not real but an imagination of something. Just like religion, Wilde believed that women were limited to century such that there is no glamour that could transform them. He believed that it was easy to read and learn more about the mind of a woman thus one can find them easily. There was form of mystery in a woman that could make them unique. For instance, according to Wilde, women did the same things such as ride through the Park in the early morning while in the afternoon hours they would be out in a tea party. On the other hand, he viewed women as stereotypes with fake smile and fashion which is quite obvious like that of an actress based on the role that they were playing (Wilde 137). It means that Wilde used his aesthetic principles as an art to devalue and demean women. He went further to make several negative statements regarding women claiming that they were not genius instead are decorative sex because anything that they said was done charmingly. However, some studies have found that the reason that Wilde devalued women was because he was not attracted to them. He himself was a homosexual and only attracted to men. He therefore used art as a way to clearly depict how he felt about women.
In regards to work, Wilde like any other aesthetic artists believed that there was not dignity in people conducting manual work. He believed that the machines should be the ones to conduct all the filthy and dull work in the society instead of humans. It was the role of the government to ensure that people had the right machines to do the work by manufacturing them and distributing them in various areas (Belford 252). According to Wilde, human beings were created with a higher mission than just moving around dirt. The machines should be slaves to people instead of them being their competitors. On the other hand, he believed that the government should not possess any authority over people instead should be the people’s servants. His principles were that man should not perform any duty.
A good example of Wilde’s artwork that shows his aesthetic values before he was arrested and jailed is Dorian Gray which clearly depicts the worthiness of a person living according to the aesthetic values which he was preaching. The picture is more disillusion because it does not dignify beauty concepts. Dorian is represented as a hedonist who values social standing and image which depicts the aspects of Victorian society (Wilde 112). However, Wilde decided to highlight Dorian by showing how she lived a terrible double life of pleasure similar to his aesthetic principles of aesthetic. She is shown to be attending high social parties to show that women are pleasure objects without any morality. The image too also conflates the upper-class and lower-class images of gentlemen who are slumming entertainment in town. However, what different the two classes also is that the lower class are known to be criminals which Wilde fancied because of his principles regarding sin making the world a better place. Dorian is represented also a refined aesthete and at the same time a criminal which links her to living a double life (Matsuoka 94).
In this artwork, Wilde has ignored all the morality in human and focused only on the beauty of it as an art to speak to people. He believed that what is important is the written parts and not the story which the image was trying to tell. It clearly showed that he separated aesthetic values from the beauty of an artistic value and its originality. This is based on his principles and beliefs in lack of morality in an art or a book.
Wilde was sentenced to prison on May 25th, 1985 for gross indecency especially for living a double life. He was a homosexual and did not in any way hide it something which was not accepted in the Victorian society where men were expected to play their role of being married to a woman and providing for them. However, his aesthetic values and principles made him to not care much about what the society said because even his mode of dressing was indecent. He was convicted for a period of two years, a period when his career, name and relationships suffered great shame and revelation. He was arrested at a period when his career was at the peak and he had just achieved great success in the art work titled The Importance of Being Earnest. Every success that he had achieved in life was cut short due to imprisonment and it is here that the world also identified a different Wilde whom they had not known. He came to the realization that morality does matter a lot in life especially after experiencing the ways in which people were being treated in prison.
Prison therefore changed not only his mind about life, but also Wilde’s linguistic and poetic style which was totally converted and renowned from the immoral and valueless aesthetic thoughts and principles. While in prison, he developed a political voice whereby he campaigned for the prisoners to be treated well, a principle which he never possessed initially while still living a free lifestyle. In a letter he wrote titled De Profundis, the transformation in his writing style was evident. At the beginning of the letter, he talks about suffering which he claims that cannot be divided by seasons instead it appears to revolve and go in circle with each passing time. The most catching part of the letter is where Wilde mentions prayer. According to him, the paralysis of prison has made them prisoners immobile such that they end up doing the same things in a similar pattern; eat, drink, lie down and pray (Holland and Rupert 134). It is important to remember that according to his initial aesthetic principles, Wilde did not belief in religion or prayers. He used to view religion as something of the past which people should not rely on instead people should learn more about the aspects of sinners because they make the world logical. However, by him mentioning that they go on their knees on a daily basis to pray is considered as catastrophic betrayal of his aesthetic principles.
On the other hand, in the same letter, it is evident that he longs to know the life of the reapers who bends over the grapes and corn to gather them instead of just sitting down and doing nothing like they were in prison. He claims that these farmers are better than them because they know something while them they know nothing and perhaps will never know anything. This statement regarding farming shows that Wilde had a different view and thoughts regarding work. Initially, his aesthetic principles did not value work rather claimed that the machines should be the ones to do things for human beings.
However, after being confined in a place where there is no work at all, Wilde comes to change his principles and thoughts regarding work and even longs to get a chance to work since it will make him learn more about things. This is another clear catastrophic betrayal of his aesthetic principles. Based on his aesthetic principles, human beings were not created to work or move around dirt instead were formed with a higher mission. By admiring the workers, it means that he is admiring work and contradicts his beliefs about them and also regarding the role of human on earth.
At the same time, it appears that Wilde language and thoughts regarding women have suddenly changed because of the catastrophic experience in prison. He laments how his mother has dies without him being there to bury her. According to him, she honoured and loved the mother even though he had disgraced him eternally. At the same time, he mentions the ways in which his wife was a kind person and gentle towards him. All these statements about women clearly betray his aesthetic principles which he possessed before coming to prison. Initially, Wilde considered women as actors, people who are pretenders with fake lifestyle, smile and fashion. He believed that since women were actress, they could not in any way appeal to a person’s imagination. However, in this case, the readers see him imagining about the wife and mother, considering them as kind and loving people something which contradicts his principles and values.
At the same time, in the letter he talks well about the poor admiring the ways in which the saints could knell down to clean the poor people’s feet or at one point kiss the cheeks of the leper. He mentions that he stores these acts into the treasure of his heart’s house. All these words are catastrophic betrayal of his aesthetic principles regarding sainthood and the poor. According to Wilde’s aesthetic principles, people should not admire or think about sainthood instead should admire sinners (Duggan 661). However, in this case, he is seen admiring the saints and even considers to place their deeds at heart which means that he had a change of mind and heart regarding morality and life.
However, from this letter, one thing that remains is that Wilde despite being in a catastrophic situation still exhibits poetic style which is seen in his poem titled The Ballad of Reading Gaol. From this poem, it is also evident that he has a different attitude towards Douglas which shows a drastic change in the way he is writing. According to Wilde his feelings and pleasure for Douglas could be present but it appears that they are all dead; all the emotions that he had towards him are gone and all that is remaining in him is despair and anguish (Wilde 113). It is clear that the pleasure and the love he had for him has diminished but due to the draining prison effects, there still appears that he has a darker tone in his voice.
At the same time, it appears through the writing that life in prison has made him see the injustice within people showing that he had assumed a new persona. He is protesting against all the conditions that the Reading Prison had placed them which the public could not notice or identify. It means that his thoughts regarding humanity has been awaken by the prison experience, a principle that he never possessed. For the first time in his life, he is speaking for the less fortunate by focusing on the personal conflicts that they were facing. He condemns not only the ill treatment but also the fact that the prisoners were denied writing materials which to some may led to psychological problems.
At the same time, Wilde mentions that it may be hard to forget about the memories they shared with Douglas, but one fact remains that he ruined and disgraced him which contradicts the ways in which he first wrote to him (Duggan 662). At this point, he not only resents the relationship they had but also believes that he contributed to the life he is living right now. Wilde mentions that Douglas is nowhere to experience the life they wake to everyday which is more dreadful. It seems that his thoughts regarding homosexuality has suddenly been reformed and believes now in living a moral life even mentioning the name “Christ.” He is transforming into sainthood, a man who had previously objected and claimed that made the world a less place for existence. It is also evident that Wilde had abandoned his satirical flourishing characteristics which he used to cherish before and writes in a way that shows concern towards humanity and life itself.
On the other hand, in his letter, De Profundis, he points out the association that the young, the male prostitutes and the working-class had with him initially, a lifestyle that he considers as immoral. He believes that by relating with these kinds of people, he was left distracted in such as way that he could not practice free art. Wilde mentions that he was lured into the senseless and sensual life with his surroundings (Wilde 102). He considers the group which he used to associate with to have meaner and smaller minds. This is contrary to the man whose principles towards the working class, the prostitutes and the young in the society were different. He considered these groups of individuals to make the society better.
However, after the catastrophic experience in prison, it is evident that Wilde’s writings and mind regarding life has changed which depicts a catastrophic disgrace to his aesthetic principles. His political voice shows that he is now concerned about other people especially those who cannot defend themselves because of life circumstance. This a different Wilde from the one who used to criticize everyone’s ability and look down upon those were below him such as women and those from the poor class.
In another section, he mentions that authority is an act which is destructive to the people it is exercised on in life. This is a statement which a person may think was written by a different person apart from Wilde because he is the kind of man who devalued and demeaned women in the society. He considered them more like trash because the society placed men above women during the Victorian times. During this period, women were not to be heard, instead they were expected to remain loyal, faithful and not question their husbands. This could have been the reason that drove Wilde into a homosexual life where he could be with a person in his class. However, it is evident in this statement that he now hates authority especially those which demeans and mistreats other people. This is a catastrophic disgrace to his aesthetic principles about life.
Initially, Wilde considered the male escorts who belonged to the working class such as the Parkers as people who are very noble to the community. At the same time, his closest friends and companions were fellow intellectuals and artists meaning that he barely associated with people from low classes. However, upon release from prison, he maintained his political thoughts of fighting for the rights of the people. He continued to be the centre of gravity for various figures but now different congregation from the previous ones that he had before going to prison. The love that he ones saw as noble and good now he resents whenever he reflects how it caused him not only his two year free lifestyle, but also his mother and wife. It is in the prison that he found the hypocrisy which is different from what he was used to especially because of the fact that they destroyed the bodies plus the souls of the people whom they claimed to be reforming.
Based on Wilde’s experience in prison, it is evident that castrophes can be humbling on people. There is some sort of modesty that Wilde possessed in his works while in prison and also after prison. This depicts the Romantics nature of awe, apprehension and fear whereby most artists managed to see beauty in the midst of danger, terror and disaster (Pearce 312). The reason why this happened to Wilde is because of the ways in which prison connected deeply to his strong emotions revealing a side of him which not even the readers could see including himself as an artist. He might not have sublimed to the subject of the disaster of being in prison, Wilde though tapped into the tradition which most prisoners face while serving their term. He was more responsive to the disaster he was facing in his life thus used it to create an art which revealed his true self.
Nevertheless, like any other human, Wilde too bowed to disaster supremacy because of the pressure that existed in prison. The catastrophe might have broken him, but instead compelled him to appeaseable points. A person may argue that because Wilde allowed the catastrophe to come to him by leading a life contrary to the expectations of the society, he was looking for a way to correct his wrongs. This is the reason he was lamenting how he let his parents and wife down. The only way he could repay back the society for the damage that he did for living an immoral life without any religious principles was to change who he was and how he thought about things. He ascribed to guilt and the catastrophe in his life helped in escalating the situation and the way he already felt. It is the reason he decided to fight for the rights of the prisoners regardless of the fact that his status in the society had been hampered by imprisonment. In the end, he made recommendations regarding prison reforms which had been incorporated in the Prison Act of 1898. Despite his catastrophe contributing to him betraying his previous aesthetic principles, in one way or another, it helped change his life and that of other people. It is due to him that prison laws regarding hard labour and separation from people were changed. It means that he made life in prison better for many prisoners.
Belford, Barbara. Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius. New York: Random House, 2002.
Duggan, Patrick. “The Conflict Between Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wilde’s The Pictore of Dorian Gray.” Arts and Sciences 20 (2002): 658–665.
Matsuoka, Mitsuharu. “Aestheticism and Social Anxiety in “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 29 (2003): 77–100.
Pearce, Joseph. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Andrew Elfenbein. London: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Wilde, Oscar. The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wooldridge, 1898.
Wilde, Oscar. De Profundis. London: Methuen & Co. 1897.