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:
- The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888)
- The Decay of Lying: A Dialogue (1889)
- Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891)
- A House of Pomegranates (1891)
- The Critic As Artist (1891)
– 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.
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.
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.
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.