Friday, June 27, 2008

Wilde stuff

If Oscar Wilde didn't exist, we'd have to invent him. Just over a century ago, in a work almost never mentioned today, he wrote that "we have no right to quarrel with an artist for the conditions under which he chooses to present his work; and that all Art being to a certain degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realise one's own personality on some imaginative plane out of the reach of the trammelling accidents and limitations of real life, to censure an artist for a forgery was to confuse an ethical with an aesthetical problem."

Those sentences come from a piece that Wilde worked at and reworked, perhaps hoping to expand it into a book; it was originally published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine for July 1889, and was titled, "The Portrait of W.H." This portrait, which preceded by about a year the periodical publication of the "Picture of Dorian Gray," was, as you can tell, a bit of speculation about who wrote Shakespeare's sonnets. The notable thing is that it's a hybrid: part short story ("I had been dining with Erskine in his pretty little house in Birdcage Walk..."), and part literary criticism.

Well, the other day I got my copy of the wonderful new issue of Chicago Review, the Barbara Guest special issue. But it wasn't even the Guest feature that caught my eye, fascinating as it is. Nope, it was the third installment of Kent Johnson's "critical novella," Corroded by Symbolysme, the first and second of which appear here and here. And it struck me yet again that what goes around comes around. (Hence the recent nostalgia for "poetry in the 70's," a construct, actually, of the twenty-first century.) Like Kent, Wilde was, of course, a poet (though amazingly no modern critical edition of Wilde's verse exists) who pushed an envelope or two, and for whom moral justice was no laughing matter.

Now, if we could only get the ghost of Oscar Wilde to comment over on Harriet!


Bobby said...

Thanks for the note, Don. You didn't quite say it, but I'd agree that Kent's got a great nose for confusions of ethical and aesthetical problems. Best of all (like Wilde) he's a connoisseur of the absurdities those confusions produce. Someday I hope people will recognize that--perhaps when the Poetry of the 90s conference rolls around in 2036.

By the way, the link to his review should be working now.

Michael Robbins said...

Glad you like Kent's latest installment - I'm going to hold him to his use of my blurb. And I have to admit I'd never heard of Don Marquis, & am on my way to the Seminary Coop post-haste. I don't think Wilde would last long on Harriet.