Page 5, 11th December 1998

11th December 1998
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Page 5, 11th December 1998 — Chesterton versus Wilde: the
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Locations: Algiers, London, Edinburgh

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Chesterton versus Wilde: the

culture wars of the fin de siècle Wof a statue to Oscar Wilde in the heart of London, he has now been transformed, not only into an official gay icon but into an archetypal defender of human rights.

Wilde himself, of course, would have been mortified by such vulgarities. Alarthew Parris wrote afterwards, rightly, that "he would not have been a homosexual rights campaigner today". His grandson Lucian Holland went further. Wilde, he said. stood for nothing, except perhaps for "the human spirit".

But that is wrong, too. He would have utterly despised the sentimental moralism of oratorical cliches about "the human spirit". and he did indeed stand for something very definite. G.K.Chesterton (who was 21 at the time of Wilde's disgrace) clearly perceived what it was, and the perception had a profound influence on his development as a writer.

Chesterton's brother Cecil wrote later of his famous brother's "loathing for the decadent school which then dominated advanced' literature", and Chesterton. like everyone else. clearly identified Wilde as the movement's leader and figurehead.

Later, Chesterton wrote of this period in his famous dedicator) poem to his friend E.C.Bentley, at the beginning of The Man who was Thursday: ITH THE UNVEILING last week

Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung: The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.

They twisted even decent sin to shapes not to be named: Men were ashamed of honour: but we were not ashamed.

What was Chesterton talking about? Not, let us be clear (or at least, not principally). Wildean sexuality. What is involved here is an entire cultural agenda, the first item on which was the deliberate and wholesale subversion of all ethical values. As Oscar Wilde puts it. almost insolently, in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well writ

ten or badly written. That is No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy is an unpardonable mannerism of style..."

The origins of the aesthetic movement, of course, are to be found much earlier. In De Profundis Wilde refers to the influence on him of Walter Pater's book Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) , describing it as "that book which has had such a strange influence over my life".

Pater had a strange influence on many more than Wilde. We need to ask why. this was. The first explanation, perhaps. was Pater's emphasis on the experience of the moment as the overwhelming priority for the way life was to be lived: this is always dangerously seductive to the young, and actually to the middle-aged, too. It was to be a dangerous belief for our own century. and it was held passionately by Pater and his followers. Here it is in a famous passage from Pater's History of the Renaissance: "To bum always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits... While all melts under our feet, we may as well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend."

It is not hard to see, coming when it did — in the early 1870s — why writing like this was so influential on the young. And its influence, of course, was not only aesthetic but moral: for this passionate (and intrinsically egotistical) obsession with instant gratification was inevitably accompanied by a deeply held moral relativism, passionately and deliberately subversive of all moral principles or religious creeds and of any social institution — most obviously, for instance, marriage — that might stand in the way of "burning with a hard gem-like flame".

Paradoxically, it was precisely Wilde's terrible fate that enabled his comparatively swift literary rehabilitation. Within a decade of Wilde's death, Chesterton himself perceptively wrote that "the very cloud of tragedy that rested on his career makes it easier to treat him as a mere artist now". -The healthy homeof the evil", said Chesterton, had been neutralised by a "healthy horror of the punishment".

That, of course. is what has now changed. It is that "healthy horror of the evil" which has become intellectually problematic. It is essential to ask, though, what was the evil that Chesterton had in mind? It is important to repeat that what we are not discussing here is the simple question of Wilde's personal "sexual preference". What so alarmed many of Wilde's contemporaries, including the youthful Chesterton, was Wilde's symbolic position as the centre and figurehead of an artistic and literary subculture that was, certainly, pervasively hornoerotic, but which was also, more importantly, expressly subversive. And here we need to note a great irony: by the end of the century, what we observe in the aesthetic movement is not the passionate intensity that characterises Pater's writing at its best but rather a uniform tone of languor and disillusionment. Consider this informative exchange from The Picture of Dorian Gray: '"Fin de siècle' murmured Lord Henry. 'Fin du globe', answered his hostess.

`I wish it werefin du globe', said Dorian with a sigh. 'Life is a great disappointment—.

"A cloud was on the mind of men" wrote Gilbert Chesterton, looking back from a safe distance, "a sick cloud on the soul". And he goes on to say — in dramatic and almost allegorical language — that men were "cowed" by "colossal gods of shame" and filled with doubts "dreadful to withstand"; it was a time in which "huge devils hid the stars".

This is a language very different from that of the humorous argumentation with which Chesterton was to fight the culture wars of later decades. And yet it is here that we must look for the real origins of Chesterton's mature philosophy of life. Chestertonian orthodoxy begins with a vision, not simply of unorthodoxy, but of Beardsley's The Climax, from

Wilde's play Salome

positive evil, with a nightmare that fades with the light of day, but which is never finally forgotten.

And the nightmare has for Chesterton an emblem of horror: Wilde's personal symbol, the green carnation. Thirty years later he remembered that when the time came for his career as a writer to begin he was -full of a new and fiery resolution to write against the Decadents and Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age".

AsLL THIS LEAVES us with a problem. For that is not — from the perspective of our own fin de iecle — how we tend to look back on the 1890's. Was Chesterton actually right about the decadent movement: or at least about the green carnation? We go to a performance of The Importance of being Ernest and it all seems rather attractive — certainly Wilde himself seems attractive. It is necessary to insist, nevertheless, that there was about the early years of the final decade of the fast century something really rather horrible. Richard Ellman, Wilde's biographer, calls it "The Age of Dorian", after The Picture of Dorian Gray. a book that was in many ways the defining vade mecum of the Decadent movement. An atmosphere of scandal

surrounded it at the time. particularly in its first and most explicitly homoerotic edition. There can be little doubt that, as Ellman puts it: "Many young men and women learned of the existence of uncelebrated forms of love" through the hints contained in the book. One of them was Lord Alfred Douglas, then an undergradu ate at Magdalen; no wonder that when Wilde took his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, to court, Queensberry 's barrister, Sir Edward Carson, aggressively cross-examined Wilde on what the book actually meant.

Lord Alfred, by his own account. read it -fourteen

times running". At the fist opportunity he went to meet Wilde, who was greatly smitten by his good looks, and duly seduced hint They were introduced by the poet Lionel Johnson, who had written a

flowery Latin poem about Dorian Gray, which included the lines "-tic sum poma Sodomorum/ Hic stint corda vitiorune / Et peccata duIeis..." (Here are apples of Sodom, here are the very hearts of vices, and tender sins).

Here surely was everything Chesterton meant when he wrote in the Bentley dedication: "They twisted even decent sin to shapes not to be named." But we have to understand that it was the active subversion not simply of sexual morality but of all morality that was seen at the time as one of the decadent movement's most frightening ambitions. And there was, indeed, a real sense of danger abroad. The Decadents were seen as being not simply unacceptably unconventional, but as embodying a threat to social and even personal moral stability.

Nor, it has to be said, was this perception wholly misjudged; for that was indeed a substantial part of what they intended. We look on Wilde now as a victim and so he was. He was also loveable and endlessly entertaining. These are the things we remember about him now: to repeat Chesterton's own assessment, 'The healthy horror of the evil" has been neutralised by a "healthy horror of the punishment".

But we have to return, if we can, to the way Wilde was seen before his trial, at the height of his public reputation, for there was also a more shadowy reputation, conveyed through the city by anecdote and rumour. And we have to say that despite his brilliance and personal attractiveness, which are so strong that we feel them a century later, there was about Wilde's personality. nevertheless, something distinctly scary. Chesterton's healthy horror" was very far from being a mere petty bourgeois moralism. We have to remember that the decadent movement really did believe, not only in the irrelevance of morality but in the corruption of virtue. Here, the greatest transgression was self control and self-denial. Wilde's celebrated quip to the effect that "the only way of resisting temptation is to give in to it" was actually a fundamental axiom (it was also, incidentally, an excellent example of the way in which Wilde used his wit to disarm potential hostility). It was a joke, but the point is that he meant it. As Wilde expresses it in The critic as artist: "Selfdenial is simply a method by which man arrests his progress, and self-sacrifice a survival of the savage, part of that old worship of pain which is so terrible a factor in the history of the world, and which even now makes its victims day by day. and has its altars in the land."

The corruption of sexual virtue was thus almost a moral imperative. It is as though there were at play here a deliberate reversal of categories, in which virtues became sins and sins virtues.

Nor was this mere talk. The most striking example for our purpose, perhaps, was Wilde's deliberate seduction of the young writer Andre Gide. Gide had been brought up within a fairly strict French Protestant moral code. In Algeria, he had come across Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. Earlier acquaintance with Wilde had left him feeling as though he had undergone a kind of spiritual seduction: IGide's Journal for 1 Jan 1892] 'Wilde, I believe, did me nothing but harm. In his company I lost the habit of thinking. I had more varied emotions, but had forgotten how to bring order into them".

Three years later, in Algiers, Wilde went one stage further. Douglas had gone off on his own leaving Gide alone with Wilde. Gide records that he said at one point: "I have a duty to myself to amuse myself most frightfully." The use of the word duty here epitomises the deliberate subversion of language which explains why it was that in his company Gide had "lost the habit" — or even the possibility perhaps — "of thinking".

Then. Wilde specified. having spoken of the duty of amusing himself "frightfully" — "not happiness. Above all not happiness. Pleasure! You must always aim at the most tragic". Then they went to a cafe, where Gide was captivated by a young Arab boy playing the flute. Outside the cafe, Wilde asked Gide "Dear, vous voulez le petit musicien?" (do you want the little musician?). Gide said yes, as he remembered later. "in the most choked of voices". Wilde's response, as Gide described it, was to break into "Satanic laughter": at last, he had won: Gide's inherited moral code had at last been broken down.

It is as though Wilde had wanted to draw Gide into the ambit of his own instinct for self-destruction. Wilde, comments Professor Ellman, had "what Henry James calls 'the imagination of disaster'. Nothing less than total ruin would do." We might add that this is not simply true of Wilde himself but of the whole underlying psychology of aestheticism and the decadent movement.

We surely have here all the explanation we need of Chesterton's loathing for the Wildeanfin de siècle, which came to such an abrupt end with Wilde's own ruin half way through the decade. It helps us understand, too, the nightmare that lies behind The Man who was Thursday: the nightmare, as Chesterton later explained,

of "the world of doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date". Finally, it explains why it was only with the nightmare well behind him that he could write to Bentley that at last:

Between us, by the peace of God, Such truths can now be told;

Yes, there is strength in striking root, And good in growing old. We have found common things at last, And marriage and a creed, And I may safely write it now, And you tnay safely read.

TI IERE Is AN epilogue to this story. Chesterton was not the only survivor of the fin de siècle to find salvation in a rediscovery of Christian, indeed of Catholic, Orthodoxy — so, too. did many of the aesthetes. Most famously, of course, Wilde himself. Long before his death he had said that "Catholicism is the only religion to die in": he also said that "the Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people the Anglican Church will do". Three weeks before he died he said to a correspondent for the Daily Chronicle: "Much of my moral obliquity is due to the fact that my father would not allow me to become a Catholic. The artistic side of the Church and the fragrance of its teaching would have cured my degeneracies. I intend to be received before long." And so he was, on the very edge of death.

He was far from alone. Other refugees from the Age of Dorian were Wilde's lover, the poet John Gray. who provided Dorian Gray with his surname. and who became a much loved parish priest in Edinburgh. dying in the 1930s. Other Catholic converts included

Aubrey Beardsley. and the poet Lionel Johnson (who, as we have seen, introduced Wilde and Alfred Douglas). Becoming a Catholic, indeed, became almost a recognised feature of thefin de siècle.

With the end of the century. the fin de siècle really did come to an end. W.B.Ye,ats wrote a kind of epitaph: "Then, in 1900. everybody got clown off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad: nobody committed suicide: nobody joined the Catholic Church..."

He was wrong about the Catholic Church of course. but that is another story, and Chesterton had a good deal to do with that one. too.




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