“A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.”

“Wilde balanced two ideas which look contradictory.  One is that art is disengaged from actual life, sterile, the other that it is deeply incriminated with it, infectious.  …By its creation of beauty art reproaches the world, calling attention to the world’s faults through their very omission.  Art may outrage the world, but it also may seduce the world making it follow an example which seems bad but is discovered to be better than it seems: self-recognition, but also self-redemption.”

As expressed in the short story “The Nightingale and the Rose,” —as the thorn went deeper and deeper into her breast creating the red rose of love— to live, you must sing, but to sing you must die.  In Dorian Gray, Sibyl Vane loses her powers as an actress by falling in love, reversing La Faustin’s behavior.  La Faustin feels the need to be in love in order to play Phaédre, but warns her lover that, if she should leave the stage, he would cease to love her in six months.  A contrary impulse makes her renounce her career for his sake, only to find out that, without it, life is drab.  In the prose poem “The Teacher of Wisdom” Wilde describes a Hermit that beheld a young man of an evil and beautiful face… but he knew that he who speaks a word loses his faith.

The world spirit… loves those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that men still call sin.…  the possibility of uniting two movements… Apollonian gentleman and Dionysian subverter…  It summoned Wilde towards an underground life totally at variance with his aboveboard role as Constance’s husband.… two impulses, one associative and the other deviant.  He was constitutionally incapable of being single-minded for long.…  hiding a masculine power beneath a feminine face (Queen Victoria, Sarah Bernhardt, Lady Bracknell, Gwendoline), as well as a feminine sensitivity behind a masculine mask (Algy, Jack, George Sand, Marie d’Agoult , Prism, Lane).  ‘Perhaps, by finding perfect expression for a passion, I had exhausted passion itself.’

In The Importance of Being Earnest sins which are presented as accursed in Salomeand unnameable in Dorian Gray are translated into a different key, and appear as Algernon’s inordinate and selfish craving for —cucumber sandwiches.  The substitution of mild gluttony for fearsome lechery renders all vice harmless.  There is a wicked brother, but he is just our old friend Algernon.  The double life which is so serious a matter for Dorian or for The Ideal Husband, becomes a harmless Bunburying.  Wilde even parodied punishment, by having a bailiff come to take Jack to Holloway Prison (as Wilde himself was soon to be taken) not for homosexuality, but for running up food bills at the Savoy.

Look for the dichotomies of your character, the pursuit of opposites.  Look for possible ASIDES: the exposure of the private thoughts to the public.  Queen Victoria was an avid diarist.  Treat the audience as your diarist.

the Criminal Artist

Perhaps influenced by Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 poem “Flowers of Evil” (and also hissubsequent trial), Wilde related to everything which was morbid, decadent, and immoral — poisonous and beautiful.  Like Baudelaire, Wilde found the aridity of the pursuit of pleasure and material comfort did not constitute happiness and progress.

As a habitual criminal of art, Wilde has the courage of looking into the heart of things and finding there not brotherly love so much as murder, not self-love, so much as suicide.  In recognizing the universality of guilt he is like Christ; in revealing his own culpability he plays the role of his own Judas.  Art is the record of one’s own soul  — to make ourselves absolutely modern.  “I myself would sacrifice everything for a new experience,…  I think I would more readily die for what I do not believe in than for what I hold to be true.  I would go to the stake for a sensation and be a sceptic to the last!”

Instead of challenging Victorian society only by words, he acted in such a way as to create scandal.…  The artist criminal.  “The Decay of Lying” and “The Truth of Masks” celebrate art for rejecting truths, faces, and all that paraphernalia in favor of lies and masks.  Art is an illicit creation by man.  “All art is entirely useless.…  Art never expresses anything but itself.…  Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance..”  Form determines content, not content form.  The age does not determine what its art should be, rather it is art which gives the age its character.  Life, straggling after art, seizes upon forms in art to express itself, so that life imitates art rather than art life.  What is termed Sin is an essential element of progress.  “By its curiosity Sin increases the experience of the race.  Through its intensified assertion of individualism it saves us from monotony of type.  In its rejection of current notions about morality, it is one with the highest ethics.…  Even socially sin is far more useful than martyrdom, since it is self-expressive rather than self-repressive.  The goal of man is the liberation of personality…  Is it dangerous?  Yes; it is dangerous — all ideas, as I told you, are so.”

Look for the decay, perversion of ideals as objects of pursuit in your character.  Sometimes your character is caught in a compromising position, ethically or physically.  Acknowledge that the audience, society is watching/judging you.

the Fear of Self-Recognition
the Pleasure of Redemption

In an age of Ideals (or mundane realism) everyone is seeking the ideal mate, but always disappointed: “John, not Ernest,” resulting in jaded Cynicism.

Through the pursuit of opposites, the Criminal Artist is STARTLED when the “earnestness” of discovering true feelings intrudes upon cynicism, resulting in hitherto impossibly immoral situations, and perfectly poisonous postures (threshold-tripping upon entry, tea cup bobble, double take, muffin massacre, dueling diaries, synchronous confessions and choreography, the asides that expose your character to the audience, but also expose the society to whom they are addressed).

THRUST into the audience/society’s spotlight,  a snapshot of rule-breaking, everyone is willing to REFORM, repent, reach their turning point in order to create Absolute Perfection, but finds double-dipping baptisms unnecessary, dropping the sham face of hypocrisy, revealing the virtuous MASK of reality: who we really are, our True Name.

Look for the moments of exposure, snapshots of rule-breaking in your character.  From your extremity, use Wilde’s “Decay of Lying” to make the sin into a virtue.  The biggest liar wins!  Reality is sure to follow fiction; function follows form.

the Nexus of Ambiguity


the Evolution of Dichotomy

Rob Storrs