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Remembering the Fearless Wit of Oscar Wilde in the Aftermath of Orlando

Napoleon Sarony "Oscar Wilde in his favorite coat, New York" (1882) (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Napoleon Sarony, “Oscar Wilde in his favorite coat, New York” (1882) (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram
I never seek to take the credit
We all assume that Oscar said it
—Dorothy Parker

On Monday night, many New Yorkers gathered in front of the Stonewall Inn to lay flowers, connect in solidarity, and hear politicians and community activists reflect on the mass shooting in Orlando. Meanwhile down the street, others met in the Rare Book Room at the Strand bookstore to remember Oscar Wilde. We spent the evening examining his critiques of violence in the US, his unabashed gay identity, and tried to contextualize this mass shooting at the Pulse night club within the arc of gay history and his critical thinking.

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Theodor Adorno declared to the chagrin of the many poets whose words inspire healing. Rest assured this evening wasn’t about frivolity or making light of the dead by turning ourselves into wine-soaked quote machines rattling off funny witticisms as a form of denial. It was about taking a hard look at the writing of one of the most intelligent gay men that ever lived, whose more philosophical essays are being reassessed as serious cultural criticism.

The talk was lead by the frenetically engaging Geoffrey Klock, an English professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). He conceived of the event’s title before Orlando would change the night’s tone. But, in the end, “The People vs. Oscar Wilde: Aestheticism, Popular Culture, Evil,” organized by Think Olio, did justice to the cause of trying to make sense of recent events.

Klock prefaced his talk by admitting Oscar Wilde was no St. Augustine. Wilde never offered direct answers to why bad things happen to good people. And Klock didn’t claim a smoking gun connection between Wilde and Orlando.

But gay people had been attacked in Orlando, and the room felt that one way to confront the attack’s underlying homophobia was to examine gay history and channel a gay literary voice for the evening. Despite hate crimes, large and small, throughout his life, Wilde fought back with his fearless flamboyance. (The wit he brought to every conversation was so revered that Winston Churchill once admitted his first goal in the afterlife would be to converse with Wilde.) His notorious sodomy trial challenged prevailing views of homosexuality. He audaciously refused to conform with the Victorian norms of his time, and forced the public to confront whether it was fair to wreck a man’s life simply because he desired other men. Inspiring to many after his untimely death, few writers can claim to be as influential as Wilde on gay culture during the 20th century.

Geoffrey Klock lectures about Oscar Wilde (photo by author for Hyperallergic)
Geoffrey Klock lectures about Oscar Wilde (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The question naturally arose what Wilde would have thought about the massacre in Orlando. Klock drew our attention to Wilde’s observation about guns when he came to the US in 1882. He didn’t just go to New York and Boston — he went to the American West. He famously drank whiskey and smoked cigars with miners at the Silver Dollar Saloon in Leadville, Colorado, where he saw a sign above the saloon’s piano that read “Please don’t shoot the piano player, he is doing the best that he can.”

When he returned to London, he mocked the sign with macabre humor:

I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death, and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was.

Some will say it is too soon to repeat Wilde’s witticisms. Others might find this saloon anecdote a shallow offering amidst the deeper conversation. But sometimes humor reveals and punctuates what serious, stoic reflection can’t. Wilde employed satire to reveal how a dysfunctional relationship with guns in the US connects with the semiotics of the Wild West. Jokes about shooting the piano player were common then; jokes about shooting people and violence at Trump rallies are common now — in January, Trump joked in Iowa, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

Many Americans still see themselves as maverick cowboys. Klock connected Wilde’s night at the saloon to the cultural fixation in the US on violent films and TV shows like Hannibal. It may not be a trailblazing observation but today’s culture, if anything, is more acclimated to seeing images of violence than when Wilde paid his visit.

Klock also surveyed how Wilde’s many reflections on violence, crime, and war were intertwined with his championing of “beauty,” a concept he intentionally never defined. He cherished beauty in the face of his frequent oppression: As a young college student at Oxford, he decorated his dorm room with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers, blue china, and other objets d’art, which provided a welcome respite from the harsh disapproval of some of his classmates and teachers. As the fireplug of London society, he turned up at many events in decadent outfits playing up his controversial queer presence. At the end of his life, he read Dante’s The Divine Comedy and other mystical texts while in prison, taking refuge in their sublimity. A devotee of aestheticism, Wilde believed hatred and crime were the consequence of a mind that struggled to understand the beautiful. It’s a position few would claim today.

For example, Klock discussed a passage in Wilde’s only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Lord Henry argues that if people were more enthralled with art and beauty, they would be less inclined to seek out the thrill of criminality. “I should fancy that crime is to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations,” he suggests. Yes, it’s a questionable claim from a fabulous snob of a literary character. Wilde wrote more for the sake of wit than truth, and if he blogged today, the negative comments would drive his editor crazy.

But for Wilde, this open embrace of beauty was also about defending the authenticity of queer beauty and same-sex desire no matter the political consequences. He was loud and proud, to use today’s terms. He refused to be a shrew tamed by the hatred or backward politics of his time.

Wilde’s levity helped to ease the heavy feeling in the room. There was anger and sorrow that gay space had been violated. There was mourning that numerous LGBTQ people and their allies had died while trying to be beautiful on their own terms. Wilde’s legacy of shining bright with his sensibilities despite the adversity of a homophobic world is an inspiring example as we all process the bloodiest and deadliest hate crime towards queer people in US history.

Geoffrey Klock’s lecture “The People vs. Oscar Wilde: Aestheticism, Popular Culture, Evil” took place at the Strand Bookstore’s Rare Book Room on Monday, June 13. It was organized by Think Olio and the Strand Bookstore. 

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