Friday, 6 September 2013

Oscar Wilde: Socialism, Jesus, Art

Roses for stalin

Even before reading his work, I was a fan of Oscar Wilde on the basis of his witticisms, with my favorite being the following (from The Picture of Dorian Gray): “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” While it could be dismissed as just a throwaway flourish, I have always felt a sense of depth behind it and proceeded to read his writings with great joy.

The other day I then came across a reference to his essay, “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” in the context of theories of art and I was immediately keen to read it. Even though the essay’s focus is socialism - a topic of limited interest to me, since I have experienced a failed attempt of implementing it first hand - I would like to acknowledge Wilde’s prophetic anticipation of the flaws of its authoritarian flavor, as practiced in the Soviet bloc, when he says: “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.” +1!

What I found more interesting than the call to anarchic socialism, were Wilde’s thoughts on Jesus, whom he introduces thus:
“‘Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written. And the message of Christ to man was simply ‘Be thyself.’ That is the secret of Christ.”
This is a great synthesis of the Gospel and it seems to me that it derives from what is already there in Genesis, which says that “God created mankind in his image” (1:27). Being created in God’s image and being myself put me on a path towards God, closeness to whom is my fulfillment, and I see why Wilde presents it as Jesus’ “secret” and then proceeds to elaborate on what this “Be thyself” implies:
“What Jesus meant, was this. 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.’”
This very closely tracks Jesus’ saying: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Matthew 6:19-21). Such an attitude has direct consequences, which Wild puts in a particularly clear and again Gospel-mirroring way:
“If a man takes their cloak, they are to give him their coat, just to show that material things are of no importance. If people abuse them, they are not to answer back. What does it signify? The things people say of a man do not alter a man. He is what he is. Public opinion is of no value whatsoever. Even if people employ actual violence, they are not to be violent in turn. That would be to fall to the same low level. After all, even in prison, a man can be quite free. His soul can be free. His personality can be untroubled. He can be at peace. And, above all things, they are not to interfere with other people or judge them in any way.”
Reading the above, in particular the point about freedom in prison (which Wilde too knew about from first hand experience), made me think of all those who have been and to this day are imprisoned not for criminal reasons but as a form of persecution for their beliefs and convictions, whether political, personal or religious. The Vietnamese Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận then sprung to mind, who insisted that the focus needs to be maintained on living in every present moment even as he was in solitary confinement while imprisoned by the Communist regime:
“While in prison, everyone waits for freedom, every day, every minute. We must live each day, each minute of our life as though it is the last.”
His was not only a tolerance of the desolate conditions he had to endure but a being himself as a follower of Jesus:
“I am happy here, in this cell, where white mushrooms are growing on my sleeping mat, because You are here with me, because You want me to live here with You. I have spoken much in my lifetime: now I speak no more. It’s Your turn to speak to me, Jesus; I am listening to You.”
Returning to Wilde’s essay, there is a clear sense of him having understood something profound about Jesus’ message, while at the same time I have to say that I am far from agreeing with his views on the family (where he claims that Jesus advocated its abolition) or on the poor (although he certainly makes important observations there also, especially as far as dignity is concerned). Only after these topics does Wilde turn to art, which was the initial motive for my reading his essay, and kicks off by warning against the exercise of control over art:
“[W]henever a community or a powerful section of a community, or a government of any kind, attempts to dictate to the artist what he is to do, Art either entirely vanishes, or becomes stereotyped, or degenerates into a low and ignoble form of craft. A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.”
The key idea here is very much consonant with Kandinsky’s concept of the inner necessity and the dire consequences that Wild foretells in the case of dictatorship bearing on art are very much what I believe can be seen in that repugnant “art” called Socialist Realism or the soulless classicism of the Third Reich.

Wilde then makes a great point about the absurdity of public expectation and tastes attempting to influence art, by drawing parallels with science and philosophy:
“Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic. There is a very wide difference. If a man of science were told that the results of his experiments, and the conclusions that he arrived at, should be of such a character that they would not upset the received popular notions on the subject, or disturb popular prejudice, or hurt the sensibilities of people who knew nothing about science; if a philosopher were told that he had a perfect right to speculate in the highest spheres of thought, provided that he arrived at the same conclusions as were held by those who had never thought in any sphere at all--well, nowadays the man of science and the philosopher would be considerably amused.”
Finally, Wilde underlines again the absurdity of measuring art against past criteria and precedents:
“[A]n educated person’s ideas of Art are drawn naturally from what Art has been, whereas the new work of art is beautiful by being what Art has never been; and to measure it by the standard of the past is to measure it by a standard on the rejection of which its real perfection depends.”
The above very much reminds me of Le Corbusier exclaiming: “Every day, every hour, the Earth sees splendors surging up which are truths and present-day beauty,” and I have to say that I feel great affinity with what the last three artists - Le Corbusier, Kandinsky and Wilde - whose thoughts on art I have read recently are saying. True art springs from the innermost being of an artist - necessarily in the now - and cares only about its own honesty and purity. Yet, it is not detached from the world, since - in Wilde’s words - it rises up from “the perfection of the soul that is within him,” a perfection rooted in God and thereby connected to the souls of all.