Irish walk on the Wilde side

Decolonisation and Criticism - Wilde
November 20, 1998

Over the centuries, the Irish not only supplied Britain with its cattle and grain; they were also called upon to write much of its great literature for it.

From time to time, the English need reminding that Oscar Wilde was an Irishman, just as Wilde did himself. Declan Kiberd, in a lively essay in Wilde: The Irishman, shrewdly relates this to the fact that English was not the native tongue of the Irish. Because, as Wilde remarked, they were "condemned to express themselves in a language not their own", they could reinvent it with a brio and boldness less marked in the metropolitan nation. Like J. M. Synge, they could stamp it with their native speech patterns to create an alluring new idiom. Wilde's son recalls his father singing him a lullaby in Irish, as befits a writer whose mother was an Irish nationalist rebel and folklorist, and whose father was a great Irish antiquarian.

Wilde was caught between languages as he was caught between sexual identities, a doubleness that was ethnically reflected in his Anglo-Irishness. To cap it all, as Owen Dudley Edwards reminds us in an erudite, elegant essay, Wilde was probably baptised a Roman Catholic, given his mother's political allegiances. If he was, socially speaking, an upper middle-class Protestant, he was also the producer of a series of revolutionary tracts thinly disguised as fairy stories for children. In a fascinating piece, Angela Bourke sketches a parallel between those Irishwomen who were persecuted as possessed by evil spirits and those like Wilde enthralled by another type of fairy.

Wilde was an upper-class parasite whose political sympathies were Catholic, anarchist and republican, a socialite who was also a socialist, a Victorian patriarch who disported himself with rent boys in cheap hotels. If he hobnobbed with the Lady Bracknells, he also moved freely in radical circles, befriending William Morris and Prince Kropotkin. It is not altogether surprising that he sprang from the city that his compatriot James Joyce, conscious of the oxymoronic status of a colonial metropolis, spelt as "Doublin". His drama is all about secret selves, ghostly doubles, tainted origins, split identities.

Jerusha McCormack's brilliantly suggestive contribution to the volume she has edited sees him as parodying both the stereotypical Irishman (wild, anarchic, imaginative, witty, passionate and self-destructive) and the stage Englishman (cool, elegant, contemptuous, manipulative). What is laziness in the former becomes leisureliness in the latter. McCormack also sees how Wilde "performed" his role as Englishman with such scrupulous fidelity that he succeeded only in ironising it, laying bare the constructed nature of all social identity and so implicitly challenging imperial images of the Irish.

Much the same can be said of his celebrated shafts of wit, those exquisitely studied Irish bulls that, as McCormack claims, can best be seen as the colonial's revenge on the imperial father-tongue. (By the time of Finnegans Wake, the English language would be lying in ruins, pummelled into pieces by another disaffected Irishman.) Deirdre Toomey reminds us in an powerful essay of how Wilde's aphorisms belong, like so much else in his writing, to an Irish oral tradition that prefers the voice to the printed sign, rather as he himself preferred an ephemeral identity to a fixed one. Wilde's epigrams are subversive deconstructions of English cliches, taking some stale piece of conventional wisdom and, by altering a word or two, standing it on its head or pressing it to an absurd extreme.

Wilde was a devotee of inversion in much more than a sexual sense, and his Irish vein of humour is typically perverse and debunking, a subaltern's strike at the bland heartiness of his English betters. If antithesis is characteristic of orthodox habits of thought, the Irish colonial's customary tropes are those of paradox, irony, oxymoron, "two thinks at a time" Joyce called it.

As a proto-post-structuralist, Wilde knew that nothing - not least sexual identity - is ever entirely itself, and that the point where it becomes so is known as death. He inherited much of his mother's militant feminism: as Kiberd points out, it is the women in The Importance of Being Earnest who read heavy works of philosophy while the men lounge around eating dainty cucumber sandwiches. A colonial invertedness is evident here too. But Wilde's feminism was laced with more than a dash of misogyny, as Victoria White argues in a splendidly written piece that indulges in that most unvoguish of activities, voicing criticisms of Wilde. Indeed, one of the few criticisms one can voice of this intricately intelligent collection is that it is too uncritical of its revered subject.

Wilde's fellow Protestant Dubliner Bernard Shaw, another licensed Irish jester to the English, observed that nothing in the world is quite as exquisitely comic to the Irish as the Englishman's seriousness. Wilde's dandyism, his disdain for high-toned moralism and metaphysical depth, his love affair with style, mask, surface, appearance, is a politics in itself, deflating the ideological portentousness of late Victorian England in the name of a very Irish compact with failure, marginality, dispossession. It is true that his obsession with scapegoating and martyrdom - another distinctively Irish motif - has some dubious implications, as Bernard O'Donoghue points out in a strikingly thoughtful essay. Like the Anglo-Irish ascendancy of which he was so doggedly disloyal a son, Wilde finally brought the roof down on his own head, and the extended act of self-immolation that goes by the name of his life corresponds with intriguing exactness to the final downfall of that class in Ireland. W. J. McCormack writes perceptively on the affinities between Wilde and Charles Stewart Parnell, that other celebrated Irish transgressor of English sexual mores, whose fall from grace seems to have touched Wilde so deeply that, as McCormack argues, his writing is eloquently, stridently silent about it. But both men fell only to rise again. Today, a flamboyant statue of Wilde sits composedly on a rock in Dublin's Merrion Square, known to the locals (as the Irish art historian Paula Murphy remarks in her essay) as the Quare on the Square, or alternatively as the Fag on the Crag.

Since post-colonialism is the fastest growing corner of literary criticism, and since Ireland is now one of the most fashionable nations, the two were bound to converge. Gerry Smyth's Decolonisation and Criticism begins with a judicious, well-informed survey of what various post-colonial theories have to say about nationalism and decolonisation, before examining how Irish literary criticism has coped with the business of national autonomy.

The book, written in the usual flat-footed style of the cultural left, seems reluctant to acknowledge the fact that culture and politics, however intimately interwoven, are different sorts of activities. It also agonises a little too much over the question of how anti-colonial revolutions are to escape the governing logic of the regimes they oppose - a conundrum that rests on the false assumption that everything in those governing regimes is unequivocally hostile to emancipation.

But there are some genuinely illuminating chapters on the politics of Irish anthologies and periodicals, along with a useful, well-researched account of some key critical encounters in Irish history. Unlike much in contemporary Irish studies, Smyth's study looks at institutions rather than isolated texts, and is all the more informative for it. If it had borrowed a touch of Wilde's elegance along with his engagement, it would be truer to the spirit of a culture for which form has generally been more than a mere container of content.

Terry Eagleton is professor of English literature, University of Oxford.

Decolonisation and Criticism: The Construction of Irish Literature

Author - Gerry Smyth
ISBN - 0 7453 1232 2 and 12 6
Publisher - Pluto Press
Price - £40.00, £14.99
Pages - 262

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