South Sea Tales by Robert Louis Stevenson

An Oxford University Press volume which contains the works in Stevenson’s volume, Island Nights Entertainment and a few others, being:

1. The Bottle Imp (1891)

Stevenson planned to write a volume of ghost and supernatural stories which, alas, like so many of his projects, he never got near to completing. This was to be one of the main stories. The Bottle Imp is a short story, loosely based on an 1828 play by Richard Brinsley Peake, but relocated to the South Seas.

A Hawaiian man, Keawe, buys a magic bottle from a friend. The bottle contains an imp or genie which grants wishes. Keawe wishes for – and promptly receives – a big house and lots of money. There is just one catch – if you die in possession of the bottle you spend eternity burning in hell.

Keawe falls in love with a beautiful woman, Kokua, and the genie makes his wishes come true i.e. she returns his love and they get married. All goes well except that, when he is away from her, Keawe slumps and weeps and bewails his fiery fate.

Kokua initially thinks he is having an affair then, observing him weeping, thinks she is a bad wife. But when she finally worms the truth out of Keawe, she arranges for an old man to buy the bottle off him, and then immediately buys it from the old man: thus nobly sacrificing herself for her husband.

But when Keawe learns about her self-sacrifice, he is plunged into a whole new set of misery and despair. He himself commissions a drunken bosun to buy the bottle off his wife, planning to buy it off him – but the bosun, the first white man in the story, selfishly refuses to hand it over – it obeys his drunken wish to put a few more whisky bottles in his pockets and he’s not selling it to anyone!! and staggers off into the night – thus condemning himself – and thus setting Keawe and Kokua free of the curse!

Possibly this fable might amuse children but it contained nothing uncanny or scary for me; there are scores of more intense, atmospheric and eerie scenes in his ‘straight’ novels.

The one ‘issue’ or thought arising is the way the hero and heroine are South Sea islanders but, contrary to the racial stereotypes of the day, behave with tremendous chivalry and love – while the drunken fool who goes off to hell is just one among Stevenson’s larger collection of useless white trash who throng the South Pacific islands.

2. The Beach of Falesá (1892)

A working-class white trader named Wiltshire is dropped on a South Sea island to take up the trading post there which has been left vacant. He is befriended by one Case, a denizen of the island, who gives him dinner the first evening, then arranges a ‘native’ marriage to a local girl, Uma.

But almost immediately the natives start to give Wiltshire and Uma a wide berth, apparently frightened of them. Is he taboo? Has he done something wrong?

Case is all sympathy and takes Wiltshire to a meeting with local chieftains where Case speaks and interprets – Wiltshire not understanding a word. Case tells him there is some unknown reason for the natives’ fear and resentment of him. But Wiltshire has by now spoken to other whites and begun to suspect that it is in fact Case who is putting the bad word around about him.

These include the itinerant missionary Tarleton – indeed, Case is on the beach when Tarleton’s boat puts in and tries to prevent the two meeting but Wiltshire, a big man, knocks him to the ground and carries on. Tarleton confirms what the skipper of the ship which brought Wiltshire to the island hinted, which is that Case is widely suspected of having persecuted, poisoned and possibly murdered all three of Wiltshire’s predecessors (old Adams, Vigours).

His native wife, Uma, tells Wiltshire that Case has cowed the natives because they believe that he communes with a ‘devil’ in the forest. When Wiltshire explores into the tropical forest, he finds gimcrack gadgets designed to scare the credulous natives – including an Aeolian harp which moans in the wind, a building whose wall is topped with weird dolls, and a cave in which Case has painted a monster face in luminous paint, so that when he swings his lantern at it in the night, the vision terrifies the natives he’s brought there.

In the story’s bloody climax, Wiltshire takes dynamite and fuses and returns to Case’s cave-base – himself a little daunted by the noises of the dark forest – with the plan to blow it up and with it, Case’s authority with the natives.

He’s set the charges and barely lit the fuse before Uma turns up, with the news that Case has heard Wiltshire has visited his den and is on his way into the forest after them. He arrives just as the dynamite goes up, destroying the base and littering the forest with burning fragments. By the light of these, Case is able to shoot Wiltshire when he gets up to move away, and then plugs Uma in the shoulder as she runs over to her wounded husband.

The triumphant Case then makes the classic mistake of sauntering over to the injured man, gun at rest, at which point Wiltshire unexpectedly grabs him, twists him to the ground, pulls himself up over his struggling torso and stabs him again and again and again in the chest, feeling his blood spurt over his hand like hot tea.

Realism Stevenson was very aware that this story marked a departure in his fiction from the starry-eyed romance of his adventure yarns towards a new, more brutal, realism. It’s not just the violent ending, but the emphasis all the way through on real islands, people, customs, practices and stories Stevenson had heard, which all combine to give this story an unprecedented sense of reality.

Working class hero In a novel like The Master of Ballantrae, there is a huge amount of psychological tension (and then dread) but very little violence – only the carefully staged and gentlemanly affair of the duel – for the most part it is psychological intimidation. This story reverses that formula, with violent expressions flowing freely in Wiltshire’s mind, and giving rise to a lot of violence in the real world.

Wiltshire’s rough personality comes over in the ease with which he resorts to physical violence, his readiness to knock Case down on the beach, and then his complete lack of scruples about setting off to blow up Case’s den and then – admittedly after Case has shot him and Uma – to relentlessly stab him to death.

But what hasn’t been commented on in any of the criticism I’ve read, is the characterisation of the first-person narrator, Wiltshire, through his language. Wiltshire’s uneducated character is expressed in a steady stream of odd, distinctive and – one assumes – characteristic Victorian working-class phrases and idioms. I found myself entranced and fascinated by the virile, rough locutions of this angry man.

Devil a wink they had in them. [The natives camping round his house don’t move or alter their stares]

… she [Uma] said something in the native with a gasping voice. [This use of ‘the native’ indicates Wiltshire’s uneducated lack of interest in the exact name of the language Uma uses.]

The boys had not yet made their offing, they were still on the full stretch going the one way, when I had already gone about ship and was sheering off the other. [Wiltshire walked out into the crowd surrounding his house and scared off some boys – the other phrases are naval, it was the phrase ‘they were still on the full stretch’ which I found typical of Wiltshire’s expressive use of slang, here, presumably, naval slang.]

‘I’ll make it square with the old lady…’  ‘O no, don’t you misunderstand me Uma’s on the square’ … Case never set up to be soft, only to be square and hearty, and a man all round… ‘… you’re to fire away, and they’ll do the square thing…’ ‘Now, Mr. Wiltshire,’ said he, ‘I’ve put you all square with everybody here.’ [From which we can see that for something or someone to be square, on the square, to be put all square, means to be put to rights, to be honest, open, true-dealing.]

‘O, the rest was sawder and bonjour and that,’ said Case… ‘Well, they don’t get much bonjour out of me,’ said I. [So bonjour (French for ‘good morning’) is apparently used as a generic term for meaningless politenesses and pleasantries.]

The mere idea has always put my monkey up, and I rapped my speech out pretty big. [Meaning rubbed up the wrong way?]

It’s a cruel shame I knew no native, for (as I now believe) they were asking Case about my marriage, and he must have had a tough job of it to clear his feet. [To make a plausible explanation, to get away?]

‘They have a down on you,’ says Case. [Meaning they’ve something against you, this phrase is till sometimes used today?]

‘… she cottoned to the cut of your jib.’ … ‘That’s what I don’t cotton to,’ he said. [Nowadays people would say ‘cotton onto‘, if they say it at all. Apparently because cotton seeds clung easily to clothes. The jib sail on a sailing ship was a different shape depending on the nationality of the ship. Watchers could immediately see which country a ship was from by the cut of its jib, and like or dislike it accordingly.]

I cannot justly say that I ever saw a woman look like that before or after, and it struck me mum. [We use the related phrase, ‘mum’s the word’]

… and pretty soon he began to table his cards and make up to Uma. [We still use ‘put your cards on the table’]

I so wanted, and so feared, to make a clean breast of the sweep that I had been…  I’m what you
call a sinner what I call a sweep… [Referring to the blackness of chimney sweeps, a reference which has completely disappeared.]

I gave him first the one and then the other, so that I could hear his head rattle and crack, and he went down straight. [Wiltshire’s business-like description of punching Case first with one hand, then the other.]

As he came nearer, queering me pretty curious (because of the fight, I suppose), I saw he looked mortal sick… [The missionary has witnessed Wiltshire beating Case to the ground and looks at him pretty peculiarly.]

Since then I’ve found that there’s a kind of cry in the place against this wife of mine, and so long as I keep her I cannot trade. [The way Uma is ignored or scorned by other natives for consorting with Wiltshire, who Case has been briefing all the natives against.]

He stood back with the natives and laughed and did the big don and the funny dog, till I began to get riled. [‘Riled’ we still have as an Americanism: ‘the big don’ means swanking like a VIP and since ‘dog’ just means ‘fellow’ or ‘bloke’ (we still have ‘you lucky dog’) doing the funny dog simply means joking around, playing the fool.]

And then it came in my mind how the master had once flogged that boy, and the surprise we were all in to see the sorcerer catch it and bum like anybody else. [‘Bum’ meaning cry.]

‘I’m not on the shoot to−day,’ said I. [‘On the…’ gives the English user a number of expressive phrases: ‘on the wagon’, ‘on the piss’, ‘on the make’ – ‘on the…’ gives a phrase a kind of rolling energy.]

‘I’ll tell you what’s better still,’ says I, taking a header, ‘ask him if he’s afraid to go up there himself by day.’ [From diving head first into water.]

He had knocked over my girl, I had got to fix him for it; and I lay there and gritted my teeth, and footed up the chances.

… every time I looked over to Case I could have sung and whistled. Talk about meat and drink! To see that man lying there dead as a herring filled me full.

I can see why Henry James genuinely admired Stevenson as a writer because, although his books are mostly written for children, and although lots of them are scrappy, rambling and episodic in structure, Stevenson nonetheless has this key interest in creating a consistent voice for his narrators.

Thus the reader is impressed by the sheer effort it must have taken to write The Black Arrow in a cod-medieval style throughout; or the creation of the personality of Mackellar, the sober, measured family retainer and main narrator of The Master of Ballantrae, through the chasteness of his Scots accent and style.

And, here, in his breakthrough ‘realist’ work, I have given so many examples in order to show the consistency of the voice Stevenson gives to his tough, violent working class trader. A complete departure from the over-educated, self-deprecating irony which dominates The Wrecker, and all the more powerful and convincing because of it.

3. The Isle of Voices (1893)

Bewilderingly different from the rough style of The Beach, this story announces itself as a fable or fairy tale from the start.

Keola was married with Lehua, daughter of Kalamake, the wise man of Molokai, and he kept his dwelling with the father of his wife. There was no man more cunning than that prophet; he read the stars, he could divine by the bodies of the dead, and by the means of evil creatures: he could go alone into the highest parts of the mountain, into the region of the hobgoblins, and there he would lay snares to entrap the spirits of the ancient.

Briefly, Keola is lazy and notices that his father-in-law Kalamake always has money. The latter invites him to learn how. Kalamake gets out a mat and some herbs, burns them, and he and Keola are magically transported to an unknown island.

Here Kalamake tells Keola to gather leaves of a particular tree from the trees at the treeline, then goes scampering along the beach collecting shells. Keola duly collects the leaves, builds a fire and fans it until, as it start to burn low, Kalamake comes running back along the sand and leaps onto the mat just in time for both of them to be transported back to Kalamake’s house – and the pile of shells has turned into a pile of shiny dollars! Why didn’t anyone interfere with their activities, he asks Kalamake? Because on the island they are invisible, just disembodied voices to the scared natives.

Keola, amazed, takes his share and spends it quickly and foolishly and then grumpily starts complaining about his stingy father-in-law. He shares his moaning with his wife, who warns him not to challenge the old warlock – remember: various members of the tribe who crossed him and then disappeared without warning!

But Keola approaches Kalamake and says he needs more money because he wants an accordion to while away the time. (Note, although the most unrestrained fairy tale in content, the text contains unashamed references to the contemporary world and its bric-a-brac: Kalamake’s house has armchairs, a Western-style bookshelf and a family Bible, in among the native possessions.)

Irked at his son-in-law’s laziness, Kalamake invites Keola to come out fishing in Pili’s boat. But once they are out to sea Kalamake does magic and turns into a giant, then into an enormous leviathan, big enough to step into the ocean and only come up to his middle. He rages at Keola’s greed and crushes Pili’s boat like a matchbox just as Keola leaps free and swims for it.

Keola manages to escape his monster father-in-law in the wild and stormy seas and is nearly run down by a white man’s schooner. The sailors grab him aboard and, since they are a crewman short, press gang him to join them. The food is good but the first mate is a sadist who beats the native crew incessantly.

But Keola knew white men are like children and only believe their own stories… The captain also was a good man, and the crew no worse than other whites…

A month later, as the white men’s ship approach a remote island, Keola, at the wheel, takes a chance and steers close to the shore then jumps overboard. The white men shout after him but turn the ship and steer away and back out to sea.

At first Keola is alone on the island and, being a self-sufficient native, builds a hut, catches fish and makes lanterns from coconuts. Venturing to the other side of the island he is surprised (though the reader not so surprised, maybe) to discover it is the very beach where Kalamake’s magic transported them that first time. And sure enough he hears voices – just as Kalamake says the natives do – and sees little fires like the one he built for Kalamake dotted all over the beach. In fact, he hears lots of voices, voices from all around the world, English and French and German and Tamil and Russian and Chinese.

One day six boatloads of natives arrive from another island. To Keola’s surprise they are very gracious to him, build him a proper hut and give him a wife and don’t insist that he works with them. Unusual. When he hears some of the elders describing the place as ‘the isle of voices’, Keola is prompted to explain to them that it is where magicians and warlocks from all round the world come to collect magic shells. The way to stop them and possess the island in peace would be to cut down the tree whose magic leaves Kalamake showed him how to burn to create the fire which magically transports all the warlocks home again. Aha.

One night his new wife tells him the tribe are cannibals; they are fattening him up and plan to kill and eat him. Keola flees to the other side of the island, to the beach of voices, and there finds a great confusion and hustle of invisible spirits. They all seem to be rushing past him and inland. When he follows them he comes across a grove of the magic trees and finds that the tribe are following his advice and chopping down the magic trees – and that is why the spirits are hastening to that spot.

In a hallucinatory scene, Keola watches the tribe coming under attack from invisible spirits, backed up against each other and swinging blindly at invisible enemies with their axes, while he also sees disembodied axes, floating in mid-air, making sudden shrewd strikes at the islanders, who are falling in a welter of screams and blood.

Terrified, Keola runs back to the beach, determined to swim for it when he hears the voice of his first wife, Lehua. She is making a fire from the magic leaves. ‘Come quickly’, she says and he leaps into the circle of the fire and in a flash, they are both back safe in Kalamake’s house.

And the warlock never reappeared, though whether because he was slain in the battle of the spirits, or was marooned by the lack of magic leaves – who can say?

Anti-white Stevenson’s anti-white attitude runs through the story like a thread – whites are stupid, lazy, refuse to believe anything a native tells them (generally to their own loss) and are cruel and sadistic. Any reader of Stevenson’s South Sea stories, let alone the quotes from letters which litter the various introductions and Wikipedia articles, quickly learns that Stevenson took a very dim view of white man in the tropics and the hollowness of their so-called civilisation.

Magical realism It isn’t the correct term but some reference should be made to the way that, although it concerns Arabian Nights-style magic mats and instant travel, the story is nonetheless studded with contemporary references – to the Bible and western books, as mentioned, but also to the trading schooner and its very contemporary manners. And in the final pages Keola ends up telling his story to a local missionary who (typically) dismisses it all as hogwash and then goes and tips off the colonial authorities that Kalamake and his son-in-law are forging money.

This detail a) clinches white men’s stupidity and obtuseness b) but confirms the story’s setting in the bang up-to-date contemporary world.

It creates an odd, anomalous effect.

4. The Ebb-Tide

This OUP volume also very usefully contains the short novel, The Ebb-Tide, but it deserves a separate review.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Decay of Lying: An Observation by Oscar Wilde (1891)

The aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilized society.

Originally published as a magazine article in 1889, Wilde substantially rewrote this essay for inclusion in his volume of four essays, Intentions (1891).

Dialogue form

It is in dialogue form, harking back to the Platonic dialogues Wilde would have studied for his Classics degree, signaling Wilde’s embryonic interest in drama – and his realisation that his ‘ideas’ were maybe less amusing than his taste for paradox, for surprising reversals of expectations, for sudden bon mots and witty phrases – all of which are easier to engineer in dialogue form. Dialogue allows:

  • quick fire interchange
  • one person to develop an idea at length until it is in danger of becoming boring, at which point – the other person interrupts with a deflating remark or a witty summary of the story so far, so
  • treatment of individual notions can be pages long or made in a throwaway one-liner, and
  • the case of the proponent can itself subjected to irony and satire by the interlocutor – Wilde can parody or ironise his own argument

In The Soul of Man Under Socialism Wilde has to go a long distance in his own voice and strains a bit to make a consistent ‘argument’. In Lying, as soon as the dramatic lead (Vivian) tires of one line of witty sophistry, his foil (Cyril) can interrupt, not understanding, or pooh-poohing the idea or asking for clarification: whatever new direction Wilde requires at that moment.

The Argument

All Art is lying, wonderful imaginative lying.

Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.

However, in Wilde’s time more and more artists were determined to drag the ‘real world’ into their art, making it ‘relevant’, addressing ‘issues’ and thus showing a tragic misunderstanding of what Art is and is for, and – the great crime in Wilde’s eyes – destroying their individuality – so that all the writers end up sounding like Parliamentary reports and all the artists end up creating works which are grim and depressing.

Now, everything is changed. Facts are not merely finding a footing place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind.

Art is a form of lying, of rejecting the banality of ‘reality’ and creating something marvellous from our imaginations. Wilde must have had notebooks packed with sentences starting ‘Art is…’:

The object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty.

Art itself is really a form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of overemphasis.

The proper school to learn art in is not Life but Art.

Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new a aesthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr. Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts.

Taking this as his point of departure, the entire essay enjoys contradicting the popular view of the day (Wordsworth, Ruskin, Morris), that we must somehow get ‘back to Nature’, that Nature is a cure for modern industrial society. Quite the opposite:

What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition… Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her.

If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity’ is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One’s individuality absolutely leaves one. And then Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch. Nothing is more evident than that Nature hates Mind.

Provocation 1 – The incongruous

Wilde enjoys provoking his reader, which takes at least two forms: one is the unexpected and witty application of homely phraseology in an unexpected way, to create a humorously incongruous effect.

Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out…  Art is … our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place.

A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.

Thus, as he endeavours to show his friend Cyril how far lying has decayed, the protagonist Vivian makes a humorous survey of the professions, all on the witty assumption that they are and have been professed liars, so that he is in the witty position of lamenting the decay of lying in professions which most Victorians would assume to have been the bedrock of British honesty and probity:

CYRIL. Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.

VIVIAN. I assure you that they do not.  They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue [!]…  Something may, perhaps, be urged on behalf of the Bar. The mantle of the Sophist has fallen on its members. Their feigned ardours and unreal rhetoric are delightful…  They …  have been known to wrest from reluctant juries triumphant verdicts of acquittal for their clients, even when those clients, as often happens, were clearly and unmistakeably innocent [!]. But they are briefed by the prosaic, and are not ashamed to appeal to precedent. In spite of their endeavours, the truth will out. Newspapers, even, have degenerated. They may now be absolutely relied upon [!] One feels it as one wades through their columns…

Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy… or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination! and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so like life that no one can possibly believe in their probability.

Later, he manages to include journalists in his list of the lying professions. The same journalists who would hound him into prison and cackle around his fallen corpse.

Lying for the sake of a monthly salary is of course well known in Fleet Street, and the profession of a political leaderwriter is not without its advantages. But it is said to be a somewhat dull occupation, and it certainly does not lead to much beyond a kind of ostentatious obscurity.

Provocation 2 – Anti-England

Like any man of feeling or imagination, Wilde is depressed by the small-minded, xenophobic, philistine culture of England (something which has always driven our best writers abroad, to escape our stifling conformity and seek out a wider world). An attitude given bite by the fact that he was, of course, Irish and saw himself, as so many literary men of the Modern period (1890s onwards), as an outsider.(1)

Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity.

Nonetheless, one trembles when one reads his casual insults of England and the English. For, as we know, the English were going to have their total and humiliating revenge on Wilde and to drag all his witty paradoxes down into the lowest mud.

A thoughtful young friend of ours once told us that it reminded him of the sort of conversation that goes on at a meat tea in the house of a serious Noncomformist family, and we can quite believe it. Indeed it is only in England that such a book could be produced. England is the home of lost ideas.

But in the English Church a man succeeds, not through his capacity for belief but through his capacity for disbelief. Ours is the only Church where the sceptic stands at the altar, and where St. Thomas is regarded as the ideal apostle.

The solid stolid British intellect lies in the desert sands like the Sphinx in Flaubert’s marvellous tale, and fantasy La Chimere, dances round it, and calls to it with her false, flutetoned voice.

The contemporary scene

Wilde gives a fascinating summary of the contemporary literary scene, of which he laments: ‘the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.’

He is to be found at the Librairie Nationale, or at the British Museum, shamelessly reading up his subject. He has not even the courage of other people’s ideas, but insists on going directly to life for everything’ and ultimately, between encyclopaedias and personal experience, he comes to the ground, having drawn his types from the family circle or from the weekly washerwoman, and having acquired an amount of useful information from which never, even in his most meditative moments, can he thoroughly free himself. The loss that results to literature in general from this false ideal of our time can hardly be overestimated.

In his way Wilde is echoing Stevenson’s essay on Romance – a conscious revolt against the gradgrindish obsession with facts, a wish to escape, to soar on the wings of free imagination. Although Stevenson is first in line to be criticised:

  • Mr Robert Louis Stevenson… is tainted with this modern vice [of realism]… There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true, and The Black Arrow is so inartistic as not to contain a single anachronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll reads dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet.
  • Mr. Rider Haggard, who really has, or had once, the makings of a perfectly magnificent liar, he is now so afraid of being suspected of genius that when he does tell us anything marvellous, he feels bound to invent a personal reminiscence, and to put it into a footnote as a kind of cowardly corroboration.
  • Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible ‘points of view’ his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.
  • Mr George Meredith! Who can define him ? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything, except articulate.
  • Mr. Hall Caine, it is true, aims at the grandiose, but then he writes at the top of his voice. He is so loud that one cannot hear what he says.
  • Mr. James Payn is an adept in the art of concealing what is not worth finding. He hunts down the obvious with the enthusiasm of a shortsighted detective.
  • The horses of Mr. William Black’s phaeton do not soar towards the sun. They merely frighten the sky at evening into violent chromolithographic effects.
  • Mrs. Oliphant prattles pleasantly about curates, lawntennis parties, domesticity, and other wearisome things.
  • Mr. Marion Crawford has immolated himself upon the altar of local colour. He is like the lady in the French comedy who keeps talking about ‘le beau ciel d’Italie.’ Besides, he has fallen into a bad habit of uttering moral platitudes. He is always telling us that to be good is to be good, and that to be bad is to be wicked. At times he is almost edifying.
  • Robert Elsmere is of course a masterpiece–a masterpiece of the ‘genre ennuyeux,’ the one form of literature that the English people seem to thoroughly enjoy. It is only in England that such a book could be produced.
  • As for that great and daily increasing school of novelists for whom the sun always rises in the East End, the only thing that can be said about them is that they find life crude, and leave it raw.

Wilde prided himself of his knowledge of French culture – their poetry and painting vastly more advanced than their English counterparts. But he dwells on the realist school and is equally as damning:

  • M. Guy de Maupassant, with his keen mordant irony and his hard vivid style, strips life of the few poor rags that still cover her, and shows us foul sore and festering wound. He writes lurid little tragedies in which everybody is ridiculous; bitter comedies at which one cannot laugh for very tears.
  • M. Zola is determined to show that, if he has not got genius, he can at least be dull. And how well he succeeds!.. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire? We have no sympathy at all with the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola. It is simply the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed. M. Zola’s characters have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what happens to them? In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty, and imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders.
  • M. Daudet is better. He has wit, a light touch, and an amusing style. But he has lately committed literary suicide… The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies. The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is. Otherwise the novel is not a work of art.
  • What is interesting about people in good society – and M. Bourget rarely moves out of the Faubourg St. Germain, except to come to London – is the mask that each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask. It is a humiliating confession, but we are all of us made out of the same stuff. In Falstaff there is something of Hamlet, in Hamlet there is not a little of Falstaff. The fat knight has his moods of melancholy, and the young prince his moments of coarse humour. Where we differ from each other is purely in accidentals: in dress, manner, tone of voice, religious opinions, personal appearance, tricks of habit, and the like. The more one analyses people, the more all reasons for analysis disappear. Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature. Indeed, as any one who has ever worked among the poor knows only too well, the brotherhood of man is no mere poet’s dream, it is a most depressing and humiliating reality!

But he likes Balzac:

  • Balzac was a most wonderful combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit. The latter he bequeathed to his disciples: the former was entirely his own. The difference between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality… A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind of fervent fierycoloured existence. They dominate us, and defy scepticism… But Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was. He created life, he did not copy it.

Art does not express the world. Yuk. It expresses the individuality, the genius, of the artist.

Art should be quite detached, quite useless

Where Morris the Marxist argued that Art in an ideal world would be the results of happy men expressing their creativity, especially in decorating the everyday objects of our lives, so that everything a happy fulfilled worker makes is Art – Wilde the hyper aesthete argues that all Art should be quite useless, quite irrelevant to our everyday lives and concerns: that is its point.

The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art. To art’s subject matter we should be more or less indifferent. We should, at any rate, have no preferences, no prejudices, no partisan feeling of any kind…

I do not know anything in the whole history of literature sadder than the artistic career of Charles Reade. He wrote one beautiful book, The Cloister and the Hearth, a book as much above Romola as Romola is above Daniel Deronda, and wasted the rest of his life in a foolish attempt to be modern, to draw public attention to the state of our convict prisons, and the management of our private lunatic asylums. Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor law administration; but Charles Reade, an artist, a scholar, a man with a true sense of beauty, raging and roaring over the abuses of contemporary life like a common pamphleteer or a sensational journalist, is really a sight for the angels to weep over.

Life imitates Art

So far, so plausible. Wilde has moved beyond outraging the bourgeoisie to establish his main point: Art is a wonderful kind of lying which, in his age, was everywhere in danger of being hobbled by the mania for Realism. But the essay goes to another level when Wilde pushes the conceit further to say that, not only is vulgar, dull Life bad for Art, but that Life itself actually copies Art.

Paradox though it may seem, it is none the less true that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life. We have all seen in our own day in England how a certain curious and fascinating type of beauty, invented and emphasised by two imaginative painters [the pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Burne-Jones], has so influenced Life that whenever one goes to a private view or to an artistic salon one sees, here the mystic eyes of Rossetti’s dream, the long ivory throat, the strange squarecut jaw, the loosened shadowy hair that he so ardently loved, there the sweet maidenhood of The Golden Stair, the blossom-like mouth and weary loveliness of the Laus Amoris, the passion-pale face of Andromeda, the thin hands and lithe beauty of the Vivien in Merlin’s Dream. [See illustration below]

And it has always been so. A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher. Neither Holbein nor Vandyck found in England what they have given us. They brought their types with them, and Life, with her keen imitative faculty, set herself to supply the master with models.

As it is with the visible arts, so it is with literature. The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate applewomen, break into sweet shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers… The boy burglar is simply the inevitable result of life’s imitative instinct. He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is with trying to reproduce Fiction.

  • Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy.
  • The Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a purely literary product. He was invented by Tourgenieff, and completed by Dostoieffski.
  • Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau as surely as the People’s Palace rose out debris of a novel. Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose.
  • The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac. Our Luciens de Rubempre, our Rastignacs, and De Marsays made their first appearance on the stage of the Comedie Humaine. We are merely carrying out, with footnotes and unnecessary additions, the whim or fancy or creative vision of a great novelist.

At some point this argument begins to overlap with very modern concerns about people imitating violent films or video games. Wilde doesn’t say there is a tendency to copy art: he think sit is an absolute rule:

Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is true. Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realizes in fact what has been dreamed in fiction. Scientifically speaking, the basis of life – the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it – is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt. Young men have committed suicide because Rolla did so, have died by their own hand because by his own hand Werther died. Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation of Caesar.

This anticipates Raymond Chandler’s 1930s comments about his hoodlums and gangsters modeling themselves on the movies, a sentiment echoed by Alistair MacLean in his thrillers of the 1960s, and of what I know of Auden and his circle modeling their posing, the way they lit and held cigarettes, on the movie stars of the 1930s. It seems to me a very persuasive argument indeed that Art gives us the models and then people enthusiastically set about copying them – except that Wilde probably wouldn’t call movies, TV and pop videos Art: but they are what provide contemporary humanity with our models for behaving and talking.

Nature imitates Art

And Wilde’s comic style, his essential humour, combines wonderfully when Vivian is goaded by Cyril to go one step further and prove that Nature imitates Art – the precise opposite of what most of the nineteenth century has been telling itself:

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gaslamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows ? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge ? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.

To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.

Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold.

And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already, indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pisaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon.

The fact is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an incomparable and unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it. Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Nature… That she imitates Art, I don’t think even her worst enemy would deny now. It is the one thing that keeps her in touch with civilized man.

Art doesn’t reflect its society & times – it creates them

In the same spirit, Wilde rejects another cliche, that Art reflects the society and times it was created in. Wrong, says Wilde; the precise opposite: Art doesn’t reflect: Art creates the style and look of its times.

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence ? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate selfconscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.

The Japanese people are, in fact, simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art. And so, if you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home, and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and sit in the Park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere.

The fact is that we look back on the ages entirely through the medium of Art, and Art, very fortunately, has never once told us the truth.

A new world

The essay ends, with a witty call for a revival of lying at all levels of society, beginning in the nursery and extending through school and into the higher professions. In a kind of satire on the millenial, revolutionary rhetoric of this decade of revolutionaries and nihilists and anarchists, Wilde looks forward to the overthrow of the present dull world of facts and the rebirth of a wonderful world of lying and imagination:

The solid stolid British intellect may not hear the voice of fantasy now, but surely some day, when we are all bored to death with the commonplace character of modern fiction, it will hearken to her and try to borrow her wings. And when that day dawns, or sunset reddens how joyous we shall all be! Facts will be regarded as discreditable, Truth will be found mourning over her fetters, and Romance, with her temper of wonder, will return to the land.

The very aspect of the world will change to our startled eyes. Out of the sea will rise Behemoth and Leviathan and sail round the high-pooped galleys, as they do on the delightful maps of those ages when books on geography were actually readable. Dragons will wander about the waste places, and the phoenix will soar from her nest of fire into the air. We shall lay our hands upon the basilisk, and see the jewel in the toad’s head. Champing his gilded oats, the Hippogriff will stand in our stalls, and over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happened, of things that are not and that should be. But before this comes to pass we must cultivate the lost art of Lying.

Three principles

And the essay winds up with some more generalisations from Wilde’s books of sentences about Art.

  1. Art never expresses anything but itself.  It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress.
  2. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art’s rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything… It is only the modern that ever becomes oldfashioned. M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.
  3. The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.

1. It is a revealing moment when Wilde jokingly says that society must return to its ‘lost leader’, the skilled liar. Mostly this is paradoxical wit – but the phrase ‘lost leader’, by 1891, already referred to Charles Stewart Parnell, whose affair with a married woman split the Home Rule party of which he was leader, and, arguably, set back the cause of Irish independence by a generation. And of course, Wilde’s oblique reference to a man hounded to his death by the British establishment because of his private life has a terrible reverberation for us who know Wilde’s fate.

Related links

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1874)

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1874)

The Soul of Man under Socialism by Oscar Wilde (1891)

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

 A brief recap

Wilde debuted with a volume of slender and derivative poems in 1881 and was promptly invited to undertake a lecture tour of America in 1882 which proved fabulously successful. Throughout the 1880s he established himself via essays, reviews and articles (not least for The Woman’s World magazine which he edited for a spell) as a flamboyant journalist, leading representative of the Aesthetic movement, as well as fashioning himself into one of the London’s most notorious and newsworthy personalities.

Tiring of makepiece journalism, towards the end of the decade he made the transition to becoming a full-time writer of prose with a series of short stories and essays:

– as well as his one and fabulous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) – before embarking on the series of comic dramas which clinched his reputation:

  • Lady Windermere’s Fan  (1892)
  • A Woman of No Importance (1893)
  • An Ideal Husband (1894)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

The Soul of Man Under Socialism, published in 1891, was therefore written at the height of Wilde’s powers as a prose artist.


The Soul of Man under Socialism

Believe it or not, this essay was written under the influence of the contemporary anarchist philosopher, Kropotkin, whose works Wilde had been reading. Dangerous thing, reading.

It is foolish to try and extract too sensible, coherent or linear an argument from a Wilde text. His whole purpose is to entertain and delight, and witty paradox or bon mots will always take precedence over logic. And sure enough the second half of this long essay does wander a long way from the ostensible topic, so much so that it ceases to be a consideration of Socialism, the political platform espoused by (in their very different ways) George Bernard Shaw or William Morris, and becomes a long defence of Wilde’s theory of Individualism.

In the first part, insofar as their is an ‘argument’ in this, Wilde’s only statement on politics, it can be summed up quickly: Capitalism forces men to waste their energy and genius trying to help each other in vain and silly ‘politics’ or pointless ‘charity’. In a world set free by technology, everyone would be free to express themselves creatively. Wilde the artist and art critic, rather inevitably sees Art as the highest form of being, and involvement in creating or appreciating art the highest fulfilment of human nature.

His vision of socialism is one where everyone devotes all their energies to developing and moulding themselves into the most exquisite art works possible. It is everyone’s duty to cultivate their individuality. Anything which prevents this ie the entire set-up of Victorian society, is bad.

For individualism

Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.

Under the new conditions Individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now. I am not talking of the great imaginatively-realised Individualism of such poets as I have mentioned, but of the great actual Individualism latent and potential in mankind generally.

With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

In the central part of the essay, at its hinge or transition, Wilde makes a prolonged case for Jesus as the first prophet of Individualism, a radical reinterpretation, spangled with Wildean paradox, but eventually quite convincing (or as convincing as many of the other dogmas and sects whch have been spun out of the Big One’s words). He presents a Jesus who is continually emphasising that the kingdom of God is within you, nothing to do with external possessions or even actions:

He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you. And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.’

At moments a strightforward rehash of Jesus’s teachings, at others it suddenly sheds new light, making Jesus appear an 1890s Aestheste. This section can’t have made him many friends with late-Victorians, and it would be remembered at his trial. Everything beautiful and inspiring which he wrote would be used against him.

And so he who would lead a Christlike life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realises the perfection of the soul that is within him.

It is to be noted also that Individualism does not come to man with any sickly cant about duty, which merely means doing what other people want because they want it; or any hideous cant about self-sacrifice, which is merely a survival of savage mutilation. In fact, it does not come to man with any claims upon him at all. It comes naturally and inevitably out of man. It is the point to which all development tends. It is the differentiation to which all organisms grow. It is the perfection that is inherent in every mode of life, and towards which every mode of life quickens. And so Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself.

‘Sickly cant about duty.’ This is a deliberate insult to the Kipling worldview and the entire administration of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. For them, for the public school ethos which provided the administrators of the Empire, Duty is paramount, and Duty is about suppressing the self, crushing the self, denying the self in order to do your duty by God and Her Majesty the Queen-Empress. Knowing what lay ahead, it is impossible to read this bating of the Establishment without anxiety.

Against coercion

Wilde repeatedly warns that the whole point of socialism or communism (in his view) is to free people to do as they want and to be themselves. It follows that any sign of compulsion in the movement will risk instituting a new tyranny worse than the current one. How horribly prophetic.

I confess that many of the socialistic views that I have come across seem to me to be tainted with ideas of authority, if not of actual compulsion. Of course, authority and compulsion are out of the question. All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.

[For] all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised.

No Authoritarian Socialism will do. For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all.

What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.

People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all. Authority over him and his art is ridiculous. .. all authority is equally bad.

Morris and Wilde

Both men are more radical than their modern watered-down reputations suggest. Morris genuinely called for a violent revolution. Wilde supported Irish nationalism and signed petitions supporting arrested anarchists. They attacked the Establishment. They both thought the British Empire was ridiculous and immoral. (When Kipling returned to London for the first time as an adult in 1889, this is the kind of literary culture and writing he found offensively short-sighted, ignorant and unpatriotic. Which side would you have been on?)

Superficially their utopias sound very different: Morris’s utopia, in News from Nowhere, is rural and simple and arts and crafts-y. It in effect calls for a radical simplification of human nature, until everyone is reduced to the level of a pipe-smoking rustic. Wilde’s utopia sounds, at first, as if it lies at the other extreme, overwhelmingly urban, upper-class, cosmopolitan and super-sophisticated. And yet Wilde – after the Jesus section mentioned above – disconcerts with his vision of the character of the future, liberated, humanity – in its way even more wilfully infantile than Morris’s:

It will be a marvellous thing – the true personality of man – when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is. The personality of man will be very wonderful. It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child.

More art, more individualism

The second half of the essay wanders away from politics to become an extended disquisition on the nature of Individualism, on the necessary individualism of the artist, and consequently how all genuine artists must prompt the enmity of the stupid, suburban, philistine English and their lackeys in the popular pres, the critics who always want more of the same and never understand the New or the Beautiful. Socialism is left quite a way behind. The essay should really be called something like The Necessity of Individualism.

And on reflection I realise this is the weakness in the argument (if it is an argument rather than a collection of beautifully written witticisms and generalisations about Art): No matter how many times he writes that he is thinking about everyone in society when he urges a philosophy if Individualism, in practice figure of the Individual is always set against the hectoring of vile journalists, ignorant art critics, bombastic politicians and, behind them all, the vast stupid public, brought up to have the lowest, most degraded taste, and to be the great squid against which the true Individual must struggle to assert himself.

This, as Morris, Shaw et al realised, was not the language of the joiner, the supporter, the member of any political movement they recognised. How to get from a society where a few scattered individuals (like Wilde and his clique) were fortunate enough to be able to truly express themselves to one where everyone, absolutely everyone, either wants to or can, is the vast leap Wilde takes for granted. Just as Morris struggles to imagine how society can possibly make the transition from Victorian repression to the utopia of News from Nowhere, in which it takes the form of a kind of great spiritual awakening.

Now we know that it is brought about by social breakdown, anarchy, the seizure of power by a well-organised vanguard who seize the mechanism of the state and institute a reign of terror. England 1647. Paris 1792. Petersburg 1917. Tehran 1979.

Summary

This essay is often spoilt, wilful, showy, overly paradoxical. And yet in his disgust at the poverty and misery of so many of his fellow human beings in Victorian England’s grotesquely unfair society, and in his warning against the coercive element in Socialism which risked imposing a tyranny worse than the ills it set out to cure, Wilde was bang on the nail.

And in his combination of good humour, clever sophistry, flowing clear style and witty paradoxes, he is a master of this form, to be enjoyed and relished for his skill no matter what he’s saying.

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Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Life’s Handicap by Rudyard Kipling (1891)

After Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), Kipling’s next volume of short stories was Life’s Handicap (1891). There doesn’t seem to be a decent edition in print or in the London Library System; a few of the stories are gathered into some of the cheap ‘Best of…’ selections, but to read the whole book you have to go online.

The volume carries on where the Plain Tales left off by collecting together 27 short (sometimes very short) stories, many published in the newspaper young Rudyard worked for, the Civil and Military Gazette, from as far back as 1885 when the prodigy was only 20.

  1. The Lang Men O’ Larut
  2. Reingelder And The German Flag
  3. The Wandering Jew
  4. Through The Fire
  5. The Finances Of The Gods
  6. The Amir’s Homily
  7. Jews In Shushan
  8. The Limitations Of Pambe Serang
  9. Little Tobrah
  10. Bubbling Well Road
  11. ‘The City Of Dreadful Night’
  12. Georgie Porgie
  13. Naboth
  14. The Dream Of Duncan Parrenness
  15. The Incarnation Of Krishna Mulvaney
  16. The Courting Of Dinah Shadd
  17. On Greenhow Hill
  18. The Man Who Was
  19. The Head Of The District
  20. Without Benefit Of Clergy

21. ‘At The End of The Passage’ (1890) Four men in the service of the British Empire in India – a doctor, a civil servant, a surveyor, and an engineer, Hummil. Each week they meet up at Hummil’s station to play cards and eat the horrible food which is all that’s available. It is the summer and blisteringly hot on the plains of northern India, like living in an oven, with nothing to do, no ice, horrible food, barely any drinks. Although there’s a plot of sorts, really this is an evocation of the terrible isolation and mental strain suffered by men given huge responsibilities in an alien and inhospitable land.

They were lonely folk who understood the dread meaning of loneliness. They were all under thirty years of age — which is too soon for any man to possess that knowledge.

Their conversation is about colleagues who’ve died of disease, for example as a result of the continual cholera epidemics, have become lonely alcoholics, or have simply killed themselves – a fairly common occurrence. The doctor, Spurstow, realises their host, Hummil, is at the end of his tether. He is tetchy with his guests and when the other two leave, Spurstow volunteers to stay and Hummil breaks down completely and confesses that he hasn’t slept for days and days, and begs for sleeping pills. Spurstow realises that Hummil has put a spur in his bed to stop himself drifting into the shallow sleep of nightmares. Spurstow disables Hummil’s guns and gives him sleeping draughts.

When the three rendezvous at Hummil’s a week later none of them are surprised to find him dead in his bed. But he didn’t kill himself. In a strange technical twist, Spurstow uses a Kodak camera to take a photograph of the dead man’s eyes and then, minutes after he’s gone into a darkened room to develop the images, the others hear the sound of smashing and breaking. ‘It was impossible,’ he repeats to the others, ‘impossible’. Spurstow obviously saw images of unspeakable horror imprinted on the dead man’s retinas.

The thrust of all these early India stories is the immense sacrifice made by the white men who ran the Empire, in the teeth of resentful ungrateful natives and despite concerted opposition from ignorant Liberals and politicians back home. Their strength is the powerful evocations of India in all its moods: 

There was no further speech for a long time. The hot wind whistled without, and the dry trees sobbed. Presently the daily train, winking brass, burnished steel, and spouting steam, pulled up panting in the intense glare.

And the sense of men at the very limits of endurance is powerfully present and, on a human level, is persuasive. But their weakness is their crudity and the bitter sarcasm and contempt for anyone who opposes his Imperial views which run through them like cheap fabric. And, almost needless to say, the obvious fact that it depicts this vast country overwhelmingly from the point of view of the colonial masters, whose interactions with the native inhabitants all too often are limited to kicking and cursing.

22. The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891) A satirical and comic story about nameless conspirators in America (highly reminiscent of the American scenes in the early Sherlock Holmes novels) who fund an Irish conspirator to join ‘the Mavericks’, nickname of a (fictional) Irish regiment in the British Army in India. This conspirator, Mulcahey, tries to spread sedition and is quickly recognised for what he is by the men, led by Dan Grady and Horse Egan, who come up with the simple idea of playing along, and telling Mulcahey everything he wants to hear, in exchange for an endless supply of beer.

One fine day Mulcahey sees the barracks in uproar, the men chanting and shouting, officers running in fear, the men consorting with native Indians – at last! The mutiny has broken out! But Kipling is taking the mickey. The men have been told they’re going to the Frontier to see some fighting and are excited about it. Moreover, Dan and Horse now make it crystal clear to Mulcahey that he’s not wriggling out of it, he’s coming along too. And when the battle starts they’re digging a bayonet into Mulcahey’s calf, so the only way is forwards. In fact Mulcahey goes wild with panic-fear, storms a compound, leads others to capture enemy artillery and then runs on, bereft of gun, hat or belt after the fleeing Afghans, one of whom turns and runs him right through the chest with a large knife. Dead.

All this time Mulcahey had been drawing funds from his ‘mother’ in New York, a front for the anti-British conspirators. The story ends on a comic note as the ‘mother’ receives a letter of condolence saying Mulcahey died bravely in battle and would have been recommended for a Victoria Cross, had he survived – which happens to arrive at the same time as a crudely forged letter from Dan and Horse promising to keep up the subversive work, if only they can be sent some more funds, on behalf of Mulcahey, who’s a bit under the weather, like.

Kipling is astonishing assured and confident of his subject i.e. the structure, organisation and morale of Irish regiments within the British Army. The American secret society comes over as melodramatic, but events in Ireland during this period involved conspiracies and atrocities. Although he is optimistic about the attitude of the average Irish soldier, it’s the detail and thoroughness of the portrayal, combined with schoolboy high humour, which impresses. Who else was trying anything like this kind of depiction of the reality of the British Empire?

23. The Mark of the Beast (1890) In India, some chaps get drunk on New Year’s Eve and one of them, Fleete, blind drunk, rushes into a temple they’re passing and stubs out his cigar on the forehead of a statue of Hanuman the Monkey God. A leprous priest of the god appears from nowhere and grapples with the drunk, biting him on the breast. Almost immediately Fleete falls ill with a fever. The following day he asks for raw chops as the mark on his chest grows. The narrator and his friend, the policeman Strickland, become concerned. They keep Fleete at Strickland’s house and within days he is howling like a wolf and grovelling in the dirt. At this stage I was speculating that they’d either find a cure for the way Fleete appears to be becoming a werewolf, or that Fleete turns completely wolf and has to be hunted down and shot with a silver bullet!

Neither. Instead, Strickland and the narrator hear the leper priest (in a horrible detail, the leper is incapable of speaking – he has only a ‘slab’ for a face – and can only make a horrible mewing noise) prowling round outside the house. So they nip out and grab him, bring him inside and then – in a sequence that is actually far worse than the werewolf/possession description – they torture the leper priest by tying him to a bedstead and applying red-hot gun barrels heated in a fire.

Eventually, unable to bear the torture any longer, the priest is released, staggers over the feverish Fleete and simply touches him on the chest and the curse is lifted – simple as that. Strickland and the narrator release the priest, who goes off without a sound, not even mewing. Within a few hours Fleete has had a bath and is restored to jolly good humour, imagining he’s been on a long drunk. Only Strickland and the narrator know – not only what was happening to Fleete but, what they both know is worse, that they have behaved immorally enough to be dismissed from the Service.

This is a harsh initiation into the sadism and cruelty which lurks beneath the surface and sometimes is just on the surface, of so much of Kipling’s early writing.

24. The Return of Imray (1891) Another story collected in Plain Tales From the Hills, told by the same narrator and also featuring Strickland from the Police, as above. A man called Imray goes missing and, after a while, Strickland rents his bungalow. The narrator comes to stay. It rains and Kipling describes India in the casually knowledgeable way he did in scores of stories and poems, making the place his imaginative fiefdom for generations of readers.

The heat of the summer had broken up and turned to the warm damp of the rains. There was no motion in the heated air, but the rain fell like ramrods on the earth, and flung up a blue mist when it splashed back. The bamboos, and the custard-apples, the poinsettias, and the mango-trees in the garden stood still while the warm water lashed through them, and the frogs began to sing among the aloe hedges.

But Strickland’s dog, Tietjens, refuses to enter the bedroom, preferring to be outside in the rain. Our chaps ponder this odd behaviour. Then they notice some snakes’ tails dangling through the gap between the fabric ceiling and the rafters in the bedroom. Strickland pulls that part of the ceiling away to reach the snakes and discovers – the mummified of Imray carefully hidden among the rafters! It emerges that Imray’s servant, who Strickland has inherited – Bahadur Khan – murdered and hid his master because Imray patted his son on the head and soon after his son sickened and died.

There is a harshness in the story itself – but even in details it is repellent. Here, as in so many other places, Kipling goes out of his way to be offensive to women.

If a mere wife had wished to sleep out of doors in that pelting rain it would not have mattered; but Tietjens was a dog, and therefore the better animal.

Maybe he thought this was funny, maybe he was trying to fit in with the boys, maybe he thought this was ‘manly’ talk. But this kind of throwaway insult damages his stories not because it’s offensive (though it is offensive) as that it’s just crude, and it tends to bring out the crudeness of the rest of the narrative with it.

25. Namgay Doola
26. Bertran And Bimi
27. Moti Guj–Mutineer

Commentary

I had so expected Kipling to be a blustering Imperialist that I am continually surprised that his main vein is the uncanny and the grotesque. The Wandering Jew (1889) is about a white man who goes mad and travels continuously round the world in order to add days to his life. Through the Fire (1888) is about an Indian pair of lovers who immolate themselves on a pyre. The Finances of the Gods about the elephant god Ganesh tricking a wicked moneylender. Bubbling Well Road (1888) about a white man who goes hunting for pig in the man-high grass only to stumble over a deep well in which seem to be trapped human or semi-human creatures. The Limitations of Pambe Serang about a feud between two sailors, a drunk African and a Malay who dedicates his life to taking revenge for his insulted honour.

Although the stories have throwaway racist comments these don’t spoil my enjoyment for three reasons.

  1. They’re obviously part of the broader ready-made categorisations or stereotyping of peoples which were common and maybe necessary in the world’s largest, polyglot Empire, the kind of sweeping generalisations Sherlock Holmes gets away with in the stories published at exactly this time.
  2. Kipling flings his stereotypes and insults widely; no-one escapes; and the stereotyping is as likely to be favourable as critical i.e. no one single race or group is singled out for consistent denigration.
  3. Far from being a white supremacist, Kipling’s universal cynicism scathes the white characters just as much as the others. In Pambe Serang the loser is the foolish clergyman who imagines he has converted Pambe to Christianity. He is depicted as pitifully ignorant of the Oriental mind. Same in Through the Fire where the white policeman, again, is the outsider figure, unable to fathom the shocking suicides of the lovers. Jews in Shushan concludes with a soldier whistling a ‘racist’ ditty at the station as the last survivors of the Jewish community of Shushan board the train back to Calcutta. But, although the story includes indisputably racist remarks (the Jews’ ‘dread breed’) the overall thrust of the story is a kind of tough-minded sympathy for the tragic events which overtake the tiny Jewish community, and is more about the tragic insignificance of all of us in the vast swirl of India. The whistling soldier plays the same role as the ploughman blithely unaware of the calamity occurring under his nose in Auden’s great poem, Musee des Beaux Arts; both work to emphasise the modern Tragedy of Indifference.

There is no doubt Kipling’s attitude to his characters is consistently harsh and heartless, but it’s not (at least not in these early stories) in the name of Imperial Triumphalism – it’s more a young man’s braggadochio, each story a medal displaying Rudyard’s toughness and his ability to see into the dark heart of things.

I’m getting to really like the quick, hot weirdness of these tales.

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The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling (1891)

The Light That Failed is Kipling’s first novel, completed in 1890 and published early the next year when he was just 26.

It’s a mess, easier to pick apart than to take seriously as a whole. It concerns a cocky young artist, Dick Heldar (self portrait), who suffers a brutal childhood (self portrait), falls in love with his childhood sweetheart, Maisie, who’s also grown up to be an artist (which is what happened to Kipling), and then starts to go blind (Kipling’s own sight was permanently damaged in his childhood).

But before you start to get interested, the artist in question is not a greenery-yallery aesthete, neither one of Oscar Wilde’s decadent set or one of the late Victorian ‘Olympians’, but the bluffest of jingoistic public school cheps, who despises foreign ‘impressionism’, paints hyper-realistic portraits of fine, upstanding British soldiers, and is only really happy when he’s on a steamer heading East or in the deserts of Sudan along with the soldiers he adores.

The long middle section of the book, a chap’s spiffing views on art and ‘gells’ and chaps together, along with pen portraits of frightful working class types, is just bad. The boisterous cameraderie of him and his foreign correspondent friend, Torpenhow and the other two ‘legendary’ journalists is every bit as self-regarding and self-mythologising as such sets so often are. (The drunken banter of the oh-so-jaded, smugly superior public school foreign correspondents reminded me of the exact same milieu in which John Le Carre sets The Honourable Schoolboy in the 1970s. Thus does the drunk arrogant English white upper-class perpetuate itself for ever.)

The so-called love affair with Maisie never acquires any depth, revealing only a desperately immature mind. Kipling shows no insight into the male mind in love, or the female mind at all. The steady stream of fifth-form boys’ school ‘wisdom’ about women this and women that makes your toes curl with embarrassment. About P&O steamers and Martini rifles Kipling may know a thing or two. About women – nothing.

Kipling is very given to falling into Biblical cadences or even direct Bible quotes to try and lift his style above the dull and mundane. To see his style naked and unadorned is to realise how flat it is. He doesn’t really work the English language. This is hidden in the Plain Tales From The Hills by the liberal use of Indian, Urdu, Pathan or technically specialist jargons which fool you into thinking he’s doing something clever with the language.

Revealingly, the ‘foreign-words-hide-dull-style’ technique is central to his only successful full-length narrative, Kim, written ten years later. When he’s not using Biblical phraseology or quoting from hymns, he resorts to extensive use of spiffing public school banter – that hermetically-sealed escape from grown-up reality, that retreat into the cant of a privileged adolescence. This interweaving of Bible phrases, public school japes, along with a would-be military briskness (‘Step lively, sergeant-major!’) is just dire.

Only the opening chapter when he and Maisie are naughty children together, stealing an old gun and going down to the dunes to practice firing – and the two chapters set in the heat and dust of the Sudan – come alive. These chapters read like his better short stories, concentrated vignettes which obviously so engaged his imagination that his style comes to life, and you can really see and smell what he’s describing.

All that said, the central narrative of the artist as a jolly decent chap, struck down by Fate and tormented by unrequited Love, clearly pushed lots of buttons, then and for some generations afterwards. It was made into not one but three films. I’d dearly like to see the 1940 one starring the dashing Hollywood leading man, Ronald Colman. I can’t find it on Amazon or ebay, though you can buy the posters.

And finally: The long ending where Dick decides to escape from London and pack off abroad, to be back with the ‘boys’ as another ‘row’ (i.e. war) kicks off in the Sudan, leads to the climax of the book where he is killed by a shot to the head from the Fuzzy Wuzzies attacking the British army outpost, just as he arrives.

This abrupt ending makes a kind of impact on the reader – if only as a stereotype, a cliche, exemplifying a particular type of debased Romantic gesture; the hero, spurned in love, running off to meet a romantic end in the faraway struggles of the Glorious Empire etc.

But how terrible for Kipling, and what an indictment of his shallow, immature, jingoistic ideology, when his own son, Jack, was shot and killed on his first day at the Western Front to which his father had proudly sent him, early in the Great War, 20 years later. Dashing romantic gestures turned out not to be so glorious as the young Rudyard had imagined them to be, and as he had painted them in numerous stories and poems. War turned out not to be glorious, but cruel and desolating and that knowledge sheds a grim light on this bright, confident and appallingly shallow book.

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