We remember Oscar Wilde today mainly through his epigrams. Wilde was a master of this medium, and his writing is dotted with one- and two-liners that have been lifted and circulated outside of their original context. These quotations often contradict each other, and it’s easy to conclude from this that Wilde’s thinking and writing, while entertaining, was not very serious. But a full consideration of Wilde puts his work in the category of “profound truth” described by Neils Bohr, in a phrase Wilde would have envied and probably claimed for himself, as a statement whose “opposite is also a profound truth.”
Wilde first entered public life as an aesthete - one who values, praises, creates, and otherwise involves himself with beauty. He attracted attention for his unusual appearance - he as a large man, with flowing hair, often wearing strange garments of velvet and silk in green and violet - and florid language. He was able to cash in this celebrity on speaking tours throughout America in the early 1880s, traveling from town to town to expound upon beauty. His first talks were on the English Renaissance and “The House Beautiful” - his treatise on interior design - but eventually, in need of new material, he wrote a lecture on dress. This lecture itself does not survive. But Oscar Wilde on Dress includes “The Philosophy of Dress,” an essay Wilde published in The New York Tribune around the same time, a few exchanges Wilde had in the letters section of local newspapers, and an essay by John Cooper on Wilde’s views on dress.
Wilde realized that he could not satisfy his audience by simply describing the costume that he favored. He had to go further, to justify. He did this by aligning his aesthetic views with the then-modern push for practicality and comfort. Beauty was then not arbitrary, but “to be got only from the perfection of principles.” Ugliness is “want of fitness,” “uselessness,” while beauty is “the purgation of all superfluities.” On these grounds Wilde memorably condemns the corset: “Catharine de Medicis, High-Priestess of poison and petticoats, invented a corset which may be regarded as the climax of a career of crime.”
But Wilde cannot be restrained by such an orderly search for beauty. In one of his letters, he says that “Beauty is justified of all her children, and cares nothing for explanations.” And also has no moral value:
“Of the moral value and influence of a charming costume I think I had better say nothing. The fact is that when Mr. Wyndham and Mr. Arthur Bourchier appear in their delightful dresses they have been behaving very badly….But if one is to behave badly, it is better to be bad in a becoming dress than in one that is unbecoming, and it is only fair to add that at the end of the play Mr. Wyndham accepts his lecture with a dignity and courtesy of manner that can only result from the habit of wearing delightful clothes.”
Beauty is at once self-supported and grounded in solid principles, derived from but also generating its own practicality: “when a thing is useless it should be made beautiful, otherwise it has no reason for existing at all.” Wilde holds all these truths to be self-evident, even as they are self-contradictory.
Wilde moved gradually away from aestheticism later in life. The Picture of Dorian Grayrepresents his philosophy in full maturity. The title character is a beautiful and innocent young man who has won the admiration of the artist Basil Hallward. Basil paints an astonishingly lifelike portrait of him. Dorian is then corrupted into a life of immorality by Lord Henry Wotton. As Dorian sinks further and further into his life of iniquity, the portrait of him becomes ugly and distorted, but Dorian himself retains the fresh-faced glory of youth. People refuse to believe the rumors that swirl around him, because he has not lost his beauty, and surely indecent behavior would lead to the loss of his looks. The book culminates (spoiler alert) with Dorian driving a knife into the protean portrait, which instead of ruining the portrait, kills Dorian himself, leaving behind an ugly an aged corpse, but restores the portrait to its original splendor.
The novel offers a complicated view of beauty. It is not pure or derived from any moral principle. If anything, it is a ruse, since it bears false character witness in favor of the depraved Dorian. But at the same time the portrait - the reflection of Dorian’s original beauty, perfected as a representation rather than a reality - has the only happy ending in the whole story, showing Dorian “in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty.” Beauty is at once the last thing and the only thing worth having.
Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This article first appeared on the No Man blog in February 2016.