Jessica Sun : Chapter II § i

Wilde the Aesthete and Decadent


“The visible personification of absolute perfection”[1]

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon woos Cecily with the famous declaration: “I hope, Cecily, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection.”[2] The pursuit of absolute, aesthetic perfection is an appropriate credo for the Aesthetes of English fin de siècle, and prioritizing the pleasure of the senses above all else also evokes the closely associated Decadent movement. Their ideologies were not merely about the pursuit of beauty, but a collection of sentiments regarding culture, art, and the nature of representation. The Aesthetes proposed deliberately subversive arguments which challenged Victorian conventions of thinking:

Western culture, the decadent argument goes, has habitualised a view of birth and growth as positive, and decay and death as negative, when in fact they are all part of one indivisible, non-progressive package. … Aestheticism is similarly anti-conformist, supporting an aesthetic doctrine that suggests that one’s private utopia is at hand, if one would only learn to ignore the domineering bourgeoisie. […] It may be true that aestheticism cannot result in a society of aesthetic idealists, but even to imagine perfect beauty is better than acquiescing in the mundane reality of an industrial society. [3]

Influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and in reaction to Victorian moralism, the Aesthetes aimed to “[emphasize] the artificiality inherent in any effort at representation.” [4]  All art was mimetic and unreal, and so Aesthetic representation was really the “true fake”[5], which is more honest than other artistic movements for proudly declaring its artificiality and its nature as a copy of the real. The idea takes Plato’s theory of Forms to the extreme: while it resonates with the Platonic idea that everything we consider “real” is only a mimesis of their divine Forms, making art a triple-mimesis and the least true of all things[6], Aestheticism elevates the position of art to being the highest form because of this celebrated artificiality. Wilde’s individual vision of aestheticism was intended for “the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.”[7] As Basil Hallward laments, art is too often associated with the artist’s intents and purposes, and so “we have lost the abstract sense of beauty” (p14).

The ethos of Wilde’s aestheticism was much influenced by Walter Pater’s The Renaissance, in which the famous paradoxical creed, to make life “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame” first appears. Pater’s philosophy was not nearly as seductively amoral as Wilde makes it appear: Wilde’s manipulation of Pater’ words on Wilde led to critics regarding Henry Wotton as a “Mephistophelian Pater”[8] in his first seduction of Dorian. Wotton rephrases Pater’s words of advice, when he tells Dorian to “live out his life fully and completely”, and “to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream” in pursuit of the “fresh impulse of joy” of a shameless hedonism (p21). As a fellow Hellenist, Wilde interprets Pater’s philosophy as advocating a “glamorously decadent, elegantly selfish way of life”.[9] The shameless pursuit of pleasure and beauty was an attitude expressed in its most extreme form by his most notorious character.  The superiority of art is manifest in Dorian Gray, when the living, breathing Dorian envies his own unchanging portrait. But the Aesthetic and Decadent sentiments expressed in Dorian Gray are “the full, rich flowering of a long, slow growth”[10] and Wotton is somewhat an exaggeration of these ideas.

In his poetry, we see that Wilde variously dallies with and rejects the idea of artistic amorality. While the elevation of art and the complex nature of representation may have appealed to him, morality and his genuinely Romantic appreciation for nature he could never quite leave behind. Although we see the flowering of influences and ideas on Wilde’s own brand of “secular aestheticism”[11], he also uses Aesthetic and Decadent concepts to express thoughts and emotions which would clash with their ideologies.

[1] The Importance of Being Earnest, from Plays, p392.

[2] Ibid

[3] Dennis Denisoff, “Decadence and Aestheticism” in The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siécle (ed. Gary Marshall, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) p32.

[4] Denisoff, p33.

[5] Denisoff, p33.

[6] Republic, Book X, in Classical Literary Criticism ed. Penelope Murray (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000 ).

[7] Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

[8] Evangelista, p155.

[9] Jenkyns, p294.

[10] Jenkyns, p295.

[11] Evangelista, p134.


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