The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s persecution and exile have been regarded by some as a “crucifixion”. There has been a crucifixion, so, it follows; there must be a resurrection. Such is the power of the narrative; of the myth-making machinery that operates in our culture in the creation of icons.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde has a remarkable capacity to touch the lives of the twenty-first century reader, to make people feel as though he is someone with whom they are so familiar that it is as if he is their personal friend.

In fact, at times, he seems so contemporary and like “one of us” that we could be forgiven for thinking he is alive and well and living in the twenty-first century. The word that always springs to mind when considering such notions is “spirit”.

Indeed, over the past century, there have been numerous reports from people, claiming that Wilde has “appeared” to them, or has been “spotted.” One sighting, by a student at Magdalen College in 1934, claimed that he was seen drifting across the College quad in his graduation gown.

John Stokes in his book, Myths Miracles and Imitations, writes of Wilde having been seen in New York in 1905 and again in 1912 by his own nephew, Arthur Cravan.  In the latter example it is a dark and rainy night … and the apparition of Wilde appeared to Craven in his flat. According to Stokes, Cravan turned upon Wilde and abused him, but, suddenly overcome by pity, ran after him, calling his name and, when he realised Wilde had gone forever, he returned a desolate man.

Such a story seems to me to provide the perfect metaphor for the history of Wilde’s cultural reputation.  It is almost a story in miniature of his fall and subsequent rise to glory.  He was abused, he fled this world and now that world is sorry and wants to call him back, so much so that wishful thinking sometimes overflows into belief that he has been “seen”, spotted somewhere.

Elvis Presley also has the capacity to generate such rumours.  Elvis has been “seen” in some fairly surreal situations: pushing a trolley full of fish fingers outside a supermarket in L.A., where his Cadillac was parked in the disabled spot; eating a meal in Burger King wearing a white robe (what else do ghosts wear?); washing his smalls in a laundrette in West London, telling the attendant “you ain’t nothing but a hound dog” when they ran out of soap flakes.

There have been various attempts to make “contact” with Wilde. Perhaps the most amusing case was the recording made of the late Leslie Flint, a famous medium back in the 1960s.

When asked to speak, he replied, “I have never been known to say nothing” and he told the medium he was still writing and having his plays performed, saying that, “more money has been made out of my reputation since my death than I was ever able to make out of my plays, which goes to show that sin is very successful.”

The point of these ramblings about sightings and so forth is that such cases are illustrative of the power of personality – the power of the spirit. Aided and abetted by the advent of the media and its rapid expansion since Wilde’s time, some of that power is accrued through the reproduction of images, the Oscar Wilde industry, as it has become known.

Although dead for over a century Oscar is very much alive to us, not simply in the sense of being immortalised through his works as indeed many authors are, but because he was – is – larger than life – because he was more than a writer – he was a celebrity. Like many celebrities, such as Elvis Presley, it is hard for many to believe that he is dead.

He is so much a part of modern life that it is hard to believe he died all those years ago.  Wilde, in the manner of a spirit, retains a “presence” – one might be tempted to say “omnipresence” – within popular culture.

Of particular note is Wilde’s appeal to the teenage demographic, an appeal which is at least in part due to the fact that he speaks to the outsider in people.

It is no wonder then, that the author Michael Bracewell had, he confessed, two posters on his bedroom wall when he was growing up: one of David Bowie and one of Oscar. “Bowie came down after awhile”, he noted. “But Oscar stayed.” Stephen Fry too, noted that teenagers “trembling on the brink of bourgeoisification” look to Oscar as an inspiration. Indeed, there is a certain fragility about his position in Victorian society, his status as a wit and an artist – that seems to provide the perfect metaphor for the struggle against conformity endured by young people, especially teenagers, for whom individuality (a.k.a. identity) is vitally important, but who are all too keenly aware of their vulnerability to the ravages of social pressure.

Wilde’s brief career is very “teen”, in the sense that it represented a brief oasis of self-expression, flourishing in a desert of conformity.  It was all too quickly quelled, he was packed off to prison where he was stripped of his individuality, had to wear a uniform and to do what he was told.  He can be regarded as a metaphor for those with artistic aspirations who maybe cultivated an interesting style for just a few brief years of their lives, before they have to forsake themselves and end up working in an environment that does not make room for individual expression.  Like the 1890s itself, his was a flame that burned too brightly and was all too soon snuffed out.

Of course, Wilde does not merely appeal to teenagers. HE appeals to people from all walks of life. He has, albeit posthumously, become a figurehead for a whole range of communities, that have gathered around him, fought over his legacy and claimed him as their own.  The main one of these is, of course, the gay community. Over the years, much has been written about Oscar’s gay identity, about whether or not he would care to be seen as a “gay” author.

On the centenary of Wilde’s death, thousands of people came from all over the world to pay their respects, leaving flowers and messages at his graveside, such as, “love you always” and “I will keep you forever in my heart”. One message, written in French, said, “For Oscar Wilde the outraged martyr, who died in the name of love”.

The notion of Wilde as a modern celebrity is a frequently discussed one. In the twentieth and twenty-first century, with artists and celebrities becoming, for many people, like Gods or Guru figures, Wilde and his reputation fit with ease into this cultural template.

Wilde himself would perhaps not be surprised, living as he did in a culture where this had already started to happen, when the spiritualist Madam Blavatsky was looking to nominate her guru to popularise spiritualism and when actresses like Sarah Bernhard were commanding the kind of adulation now given to stars like Madonna and Kylie. Indeed, Wilde himself commanded such adulation, when on his American tour with his manager and publicist, the Victorian equivalent of Max Clifford.

Wilde epitomises the spirit of our time and that is why it feels as if he is alive and well and living in Chelsea, or Paris, or wherever one might picture him to be.

As Ellmann so aptly pointed out, “he belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s”. After a decade of celebrations Wilde’s “resurrection” is finally complete and he is restored to us in all his resplendent glory.

Julia Wood is the author of The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde: A Cultural Afterlife. (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2007) £15.00 pbk 164pp ISBN 978-0-7188-3071-7

Who Wants to Live Forever? – Part 1: The Origins of Celebrity

If one had to name or describe the dominant theme of our cultural epoch, it would almost certainly be celebrity, and the public’s obsession with fame; what we have come to call the cult of the personality.

Never before has a culture been quite so fixated with fame: the quest for it; the acquiring of it, and the dealing with its pressures and demands. We are talking not simply about fame as a by-product of talent, but as a thing in itself; for its own sake. We are talking about the search for cultural icons and the making of them.

In the first part of this article I am concerned with tracing the history of celebrity because, like most contemporary themes and concerns, there is usually a history. Nothing is ever quite new, but merely an old idea cloaked in a different form.

The second part of this article will be concerned with the contemporary phenomenon of celebrity and the cult of the personality.

While it is tempting to see our cultural epoch as entirely unique, the phenomenon of celebrity and the cult of the personality can be traced back to at least the late nineteenth century, to the figure of Oscar Wilde, whose quote, ‘there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about,’ can be taken as a sort of mantra for contemporary publicists and the celebrities whom they represent.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was famous before he had published his best work, largely due to his flamboyant dress style, but also because of his razor-wit and his ability to, as he put it, ‘sum up all existence in a phrase.’ Wilde was the master of the one-liner, the sound-bite, of what was then referred to as the epigram.

Oscar Wilde made himself known by going to the right parties and impressing the right people and he was lampooned in Punch Magazine for his extravagant nature and distinctive style and for his conspicuous association with the newly popular Aesthetic Movement. Contrary to popular belief, Wilde did not ‘invent’ the Aesthetic movement. Yet he has not only come to be thought as synonymous with it: he has come to be thought as its leader.

Wilde’s big break came in 1882, when Gilbert and Sullivan produced Patience, an opera which satirised the Aesthetic Movement. The main character, Bunthorne was said to be modelled on Wilde, with his long hair, flowing cravats and velvet knee-breeches, yet it could just as easily have been modelled on the painter, James Whistler, another conspicuous ‘fan’ of the Aesthetic Movement.

The interesting point here is that the ‘aesthetic’ image was already an iconic one, which the savvy Oscar Wilde adopted for himself and inhabited, for the sole purpose of securing himself some useful publicity.

In support of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, Wilde was invited to embark on an American lecture tour, an affair which bore many similarities to the world tours of today’s stadium rock bands, both in the press attention it received, and the public hysteria surrounding his arrival in the States. Wilde’s lectures were packed to the rafters with fans and detractors and Wilde writes of being requested to send locks of his hair to adoring fans, confessing that his manager, to whom he wisely delegated this unfortunate task, was now, ‘quite bald.’

In the manner of today’s celebrities, Wilde knew how to make controversy work for him. At one lecture, Wilde was confronted with a row of undergraduate hecklers, who had decided to mock him by turning up dressed in knee breeches and cravats. Wilde was, however, tipped off in advance and arrived for the lecture attired in a conventional suit.

Wilde worked and thrived within a society where the cult of the personality was at its nadir, yet when we examine the socio-cultural conditions of his time, we find that, running parallel to the rise of celebrity culture, is the decline of religious faith, the demise of organised religion and the rise of the self-nominated guru figure.

By the 1880s, Madam Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, was spreading the popularity of Eastern religions and had made several trips to India, where she brought back many ideas involving mysticism and the occult; including the use of various forms of divination such as Tarot cards and magic. The movement quickly grew in popularity and amongst its members were the author Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance.

Integral to Theosophy was the idea that there is no single god, but many gods; that spirituality is accessible to everyone regardless of religious creed, and that, in the manner of the ancient Gnostics, true wisdom is to be found within, by tuning in to the inner self, rather than looking without, to a preacher, or to God.

In this sense, what we have here essentially, are the seeds of the modern New Age Movement. But what we also have is the foundation for a spiritually egalitarian culture, in which the role of the guru is open to anyone with something insightful or controversial to say.

The significance of this for the cult of celebrity is that the self-nominated guru may not necessarily be a religious figure but simply one who espouses a creed and accrues followers, and what is more, who does so through the machinery of the media, through publicity.

Thus we are beginning to see the rise of popular culture, replacing and usurping organised religion, or at least, offering an alternative. The transition from a monotheistic culture into a polytheistic one paves the way for the rise of the artist-as-guru, ‘preaching’ his creed to an adoring or outraged public.

According to many cultural historians, including Joseph Campbell, art is the spirituality of our time. It facilitates the exploration of our inner selves and can act as a moral compass; expressing the ‘soul’ or spirit of the age.

But it can also be the means for the artist to achieve celebrity and more importantly, immortality. With the prospect of ‘heaven’ and the hereafter looking less believable to many, celebrity may the only way to feel we can cheat death.

For us in the contemporary world, however, the phenomenon of celebrity has evolved into one in which the artist, or other person of talent, is often removed from the equation, thus making celebrity possible for anyone who knows how to manipulate the media. This will be the subject of Part Two.

Who Wants to Live Forever? – Part 2: The Evolution of Celebrity

“Where has God gone?… We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers…God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ (Nietzsche, The Gay Science)

From Oscar Wilde to Jordan

How did we get from Oscar Wilde to Jordan?  This may sound like the opening line of a cheesy joke, but in actual fact the cult of celebrity has a lineage, an evolution which, like any cultural phenomenon, can be historically mapped. When we engage with this mapping process we discern a move away from the artist, to the personality, a move away from the notion of fame as a by-product of talent and towards the phenomenon of fame for its own sake.

Even as recently as the 1980s this idea was unheard of. Those in the public eye had to have a talent, usually but not necessarily, an artistic ability, in order to ascend to the status of celebrity.

Yet the seeds of this evolution were sown by Oscar Wilde, who once said, “I have put my genius into my life, only my talent into my works.” Indeed, the public’s fascination with Wilde’s life has often overshadowed the immense talent he possessed, with filmmakers and biographers concentrating upon the tragic story of his downfall rather than his works.

But with Wilde, there still is a body of work, a legacy by which to remember him, now that all those who knew him are dead. These days, with modern celebrities there is often no such thing. So hungry are we to adopt new idols that we have removed the years of hard work devoted to developing a talent in order to facilitate the quick, easy acquisition of fame. Reality shows such as Channel Five’s Big Brother, along with internet sites like Star Now, mean that almost anyone can pursue and achieve celebrity.

Channel 5's Big Brother

It is plausible that the current obsession with ‘instant fame’ and the cult of the personality may come be regarded by future historians as symptomatic of cultural indolence; a reflection of the trashy disposable society in which we presently live.

Indeed, along with flat pack furniture, high rise tenements and ready meals for one, it would be easy to regard the celebrity craze as something that shows our culture as just that: a disposable, empty and meaningless sham.

After all, remove the concept of talent from the equation and we soon have a free-for-all, in which the only criterion necessary to achieve celebrity is desperation: the desperation to be on camera and to be immortal.

But where has it come from, this need to turn our lives into a perpetual performance, to play out our lives in front of the cameras, to film, scrutinise and record every aspect of the human experience, from the day to day goings on of the contestants in Big Brother, to the D.I.Y. projects of ordinary people?

Has this impetus to observe ourselves and be observed always been there? Is it something wired into the human psyche, or it is a superficial thing, a result of the rapid expansion of media culture?

Certainly the need for idols and heroes stretches back to Hercules and beyond and is an innate human need, but the criteria defining such figures – bravery, struggle, intelligence, strength – was narrow enough to exclude most of the population. Now, what we are seeing is an expansion of the criteria defining the hero so that to be famous is to be a hero, regardless of whether one possesses the requisite qualities of courage, vision and strength.

Hercules - the original hero?

 Mythologist Rollo May was quick to point this out, arguing in The Cry for Myth (Doubleday 1991) that one of the problems of our time is that, “we have confused celebrities with heroes.” May is undoubtedly correct in this claim. We have confused celebrities with heroes.

But why? And why the restless, almost frantic search for fame on the part of those who want to be celebrities and, I would argue, the equally frenetic search for idols on the part of the public? It is suggestive of a culture that has lost its way, one that has lost the ability to navigate through the labyrinthine paths of existence towards some kind of meaning.

As I discussed in my last article, the waning influence of religion in the late nineteenth century has contributed to the search for guru figures. The gradual erosion of monotheistic culture in favour of a polytheistic one has paved the way for the egalitarian celebrity culture in which we now live. As Andy Warhol observed, “everyone can be famous for fifteen minutes.”

In the last few decades, as the search for idols and the quest for fame has increased in momentum, the criteria defining the guru figure has expanded, making it possible for almost anyone to become famous.

Andy Warhol

To desire fame is to desire immortality. That much is obvious. But it is also to desire for one’s every thought, movement, action and response to be observed. Why? Because human beings are innately theatrical. Because human life is inherently a performance, in which we need to be noticed and acknowledged in order for our lives to have meaning and if God can no longer fulfil the function of continual audience; if the hereafter can no longer be the route to immortality, then something else must fulfil those functions, otherwise what is the point?

This is where the camera comes in. If Heaven and Hell are just concepts invented by humans and not places we go to when we die, then immortality must be rethought; the afterlife re-invented to mean being captured for posterity on camera – or at least for fifteen minutes.

In addition, the ever-burgeoning human population and the rise of technology renders us more faceless and impersonal than ever. Tired of being lost in the crowd, we want to feel valued again; we want to feel as if we matter as individuals.

In the faceless bureaucratisation of our society and the equally faceless life of the cities in which most people live, people are looking to find a way back to an essential humanity. For some, the way to achieve this is by being known to everyone. Of course this is inherently narcissistic, since it is not a two-way process. Celebrities do not care to “know” their public, simply to be known by them.

Yet what the modern cult of celebrity shows is an essential discontentment with everyday, contemporary life. It is a reflection of the need to re-inject meaning into our existence, to replace what has been lost through the slow decline of religion – meaning, certainty and value – and to replace it with something more radical, egalitarian and liberating. However, whether this is a positive thing is perhaps a question only future historians will be able to answer.

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