Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.37

Kathleen Riley, Alastair Blanshard, Iarla Manny (ed.), Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity.   Oxford, New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xviii, 382.  ISBN 9780198789260.  $100.00.  


Reviewed by Julianna K. Will, York University (juliwill@yorku.ca)

Preview
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In an 1885 Pall Mall Gazette review of James McNeil Whistler’s “Ten O’Clock” lecture, Oscar Wilde suggests that “an artist is not an isolated fact; he is part of a certain milieu and a certain entourage.” Unlike many of Wilde’s witty maxims, this particular statement should not be startling or revolutionary — it is merely true. Wilde, no matter how much we admire him as “modern,” was still an Oxford-educated Irish man living at the end of the nineteenth century. To discuss and examine properly his body of work, it is vital that we understand not only how Wilde stands apart from his peers, but also how he fits into the broader frame of the late-Victorian canvas.

In the “Introduction” to Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity, Kathleen Riley positions the book as an answer to the question Simon Goldhill poses about Iain Ross’s Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece: “why [does] Wilde’s classicism meri[t] dedicated examination” when his “knowledge of Greek and his treatment of classical subjects by and large seem remarkably ordinary and usual for the time?”1 To argue that the ubiquity of classical education in the late Victorian period should preclude examination into its influence on an amateur classicist such as Wilde is to suggest that we, in fact, treat him in isolation. The eighteen essays collected in Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity do no such thing; the book adeptly fulfills its mission statement “to demonstrate in what ways Wilde’s classicism is typical, in what ways heterodox or distinctive, and where it is situated in relation to Victorian social and intellectual frameworks” (Riley 9). Divided into five sections, the book moves from Wilde’s early classical education at Trinity College Dublin and at Oxford, to sections on Wilde as dramatist, Wilde as philosopher, Wilde as novelist, and finally Wilde and his Roman influences. The book is undoubtedly Greek heavy. Riley rightly calls the Roman section “unique” (Riley 14) in that studies in Wilde’s classicism typically focus solely on his Hellenism, but, as Iarla Manny points out in his excellent essay, most of what we, and the Victorians, understand of ancient Greece has been filtered through Roman interpretations. One hopes that this collection can serve as a starting point for a more thorough investigation into Wilde and Rome.

The first four essays highlight the usual suspects among the classicists who most profoundly influenced Wilde’s own brand of classicism — J. P. Mahaffy, Benjamin Jowett, Walter Pater, and J. A. Symonds — but introduce fresh insights and new avenues for future inquiry. Alastair J. L. Blanshard, for example, discusses the shaping of Wilde’s Hellenism primarily through its opposition to that of J. P. Mahaffy (his Trinity professor/tutor), and how these views translate into contemporary issues of nationalism, faith, sexuality, and social class. Of particular interest is Blanshard’s argument that Wilde’s lifelong preoccupation with reconciling his Catholic and pagan impulses begins with his trip to Greece with Mahaffy in 1877, and that, due to this trip, Greece becomes the mental landscape for Wilde to imagine “issues of faith and the divine” (Blanshard 31). Applications of this landscape to Wilde’s writing would no doubt prove a fruitful avenue for further study. Blanshard’s essay nicely complements one of the high points of the collection, Iain Ross’s “‘Very Fine and Semitic’: Wilde’s Herodotus,” where Ross explores the ways in which Wilde “Hebraizes” the Halicarnassian. Specifically, Ross highlights the biblical cadences of Wilde’s Herodotus translations and the Semitic annotations he makes to the text. The latter constitutes “a striking concession to Hebraism by this most committed of Hellenists” (Ross 67). Close analysis of Wilde’s work shows him already complicating Matthew Arnold’s distinction between the Hebrew and Hellene.

The second section deals with Wilde as a dramatist. John Stokes and Clare L. E. Foster foreground the various conditions in which Wilde was exposed to ancient Greek drama, and in the process, Stokes chronicles a shift in Wilde’s sympathy for Hegel’s ideal of the plasticity of Greek art and culture, which shift allowed for a theory of Greek art which accepts an inward turn towards the psychological. This movement towards the psychological elements of Attic drama transitions into several essays centred on the plays of Euripides, from Isobel Hurst’s discussion of Euripidean-inspired tragicomedy in Wilde, to Kostas Boyiopoulos’s reading of Salome as an inversion of tragedy inspired by Euripides’s Hippolytus. Boyiopoulos deftly centres his comparison through the theme of transgressive desire and egocentric himeros (unrequited eros), which he argues is a tragic plot unique to Euripides, and applies it to the often-neglected subplot of Narraboth’s himeros-inspired suicide. Boyiopoulos argues that the suicide is driven to completion by excess and exaggeration, and, like Phaedra’s suicide in Hippolytus, is rendered tragic by its uselessness. Wilde is and was well-known as a figure of excess and exaggeration, and Boyiopoulos’s association of Wilde’s combinations of “seriousness and flippancy” (Boyiopoulos 158) with an intellectual engagement in the conventions of Greek tragedy supplies not only a richer analysis of Salome, but a new lens through which to read Hippolytus. Kathleen Riley’s “‘All the Terrible Beauty of a Greek Tragedy: Wilde’s ‘Epistola’ and the Euripidean Christ,” continues to illuminate the narrative of Wilde’s special interest in Euripides, offering De Profundis as its “culmination” (Riley 13).

Two essays concerning Plato’s Republic and Wilde are particularly fascinating. Leanne Grech returns to Wilde’s Oxford education and highlights the new curriculum’s pragmatic relationship with the British Empire. Grech connects the “professionalization” (Grech 168) of the Greats curriculum with Wilde’s aesthetics and his adaption of Plato’s imagined republic into a disturbing dystopia where, ironically, Greek (and Victorian) culture can exist only with “slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work”. 2 Grech offers Wilde’s recognition of Greek slavery as a “dark counterpoint” (Grech 169) to the “sweetness and light” of Matthew Arnold’s Hellenism, which could also invite comparison to Walter Pater’s “darker stain” across which strikes the “sharp, bright edge of high Hellenic culture.” Indeed, Grech’s synthesis of Wilde’s own imagined, and ultimately socialist, Utopia invites further scholarship on Wilde in relation to other Utopian writers at the turn of the century. Marylu Hill also investigates how Wilde’s understanding of Plato’s ideal state translates into his writing, this time in relationship to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Hill draws parallels between the Republic and Dorian Gray’s emphasis on the soul, and most strikingly between Lord Henry Wotton and Plato’s “anti-philosopher,” a man of the “best human character” who in consequence becomes all the more corrupt when he falls. The similarities between the anti-philosopher and the language Wilde uses to describe Wotton are striking, and suggest a “rebuke” (Hill 235) to Wotton’s “New Hedonism” as anti-philosophical. Hill suggests that this new reading of Dorian Gray extolls “Basil’s and Sybil’s embrace of the Socratic eros,” which Hill reminds us is, according to Plato’s Symposium, the only true way to attain real wisdom.

The last five essays of the collection offer a Latin perspective on Wilde and Wilde’s diverse canon. Iarla Manny’s analysis of Dorian Gray through the lens of Ovid’s rendition of the myth of Orpheus in the Metamorphoses stands out as one of the most compelling essays in the collection. Manny connects Ovid’s Orpheus to a mythological paradigm he identifies in the essay, in which the central male figure blames his female lover for dying and so swears off women. Manny deftly identifies the misogyny connected to both Greek and Victorian justifications for homosexual love (both Plato and Symonds throw women under the bus when they argue that to love men is to love what is superior) and uses it to critique Dorian’s complicated relationships with both men and women in the novel. Although his analysis of Dorian Gray is fascinating, Manny also makes an important observation about Ovid in the late Victorian period in general, pointing out that although Ovid is “conspicuously absent” (Manny 268) from the Greats curriculum, the bulk of his work (Metamorphoses, Fasti) remains “the most important, and indeed, handiest, ancient source of information on Graeco-Roman myth and legend” (Manny 269). Although Walter Pater may have been happily reading his Homeric Hymns, and so knew that, to the archaic and classical Greeks, Narcissus was only a flower grown to snare Persephone, the common parlance of ancient myth in the nineteenth (and even twenty-first) century is shaped by the later Hellenic and Roman versions.

The assembly of Victorianists and Classicists from multiple disciplines in this volume has created a multifaceted successor to Iain Ross’s Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece (2013), and offers new contributions not only to studies in Oscar Wilde and the late Victorian period, but also reciprocally to Classics. This reciprocity in itself may be the answer to Goldhill’s question, why study the classicism of an amateur Victorian classicist. Wilde’s academic study of the classical world may have ended when he left Oxford, but his imaginative engagement with the literature and history of ancient Greece and Rome imbues everything he wrote. It is this creative element of one of the nineteenth century’s most flamboyant figures that is perhaps the most “Greek” characteristic of Wilde, for as this volume demonstrates, he did not just study the ancient world in order to contribute to a canon of knowledge, but instead, like the Greeks and Romans before him, continued to rewrite and adapt the myths and philosophies to his own purposes. Any good student of the Classics knows that there is no “canon” when it comes to the Greeks, no one true story, no one original myth. There are only endless, contradictory versions.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations, xiii
List of Contributors, xv
Introduction: Taking Parnassus to Piccadilly (Kathleen Riley), 1–15

I. Wilde’s Classical Education
1. Mahaffy and Wilde: A Study in Provocation (Alastair J. L. Blanshard), 19–35
2. How Wilde Read John Addington Symonds’s Studies of the Greek Poets (Gideon Nisbet), 37–55
3. ‘Very Fine and Semitic’: Wilde’s Herodotus (Iain Ross), 57–67
4. Wilde’s Abstractions: Notes on Literae Humaniores, 1876–1878 (Joseph Bristow), 69–88

II. Wilde as Dramatist
5. Beyond Sculpture: Wilde’s Responses to Greek Theatre in the 1880s (John Stokes), 91–106
6. Wilde and the Emergence of Literary Drama, 1880–1895 (Clare L. E. Foster), 107–126
7. ‘Tragedy in the disguise of mirth’: Robert Browning, George Eliot, and Wilde (Isobel Hurst), 127–140
8. Death by Unrequited Eros: Salome, Hippolytus, and Wilde’s Inversion of Tragedy (Kostas Boyiopoulos), 141–158

III. Wilde as Philosopher and Cultural Critic
9. Imagining Utopia: Oxford Hellenism and the Aesthetic Alternative (Leanne Grech), 161–174
10. ‘All the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy’: Wilde’s ‘Epistola’ and the Euripidean Christ (Kathleen Riley), 175–194
11. Burning with a ‘hard, gem-like flame’: Heraclitus and Hedonism in Wilde’s Writing (Kate Hext), 195–208
12. Cosmopolitan Classicism: Wilde Between Greece and France (Stefano Evangelista), 209–227

IV. Wilde as Novelist: The Picture of Dorian Gray
13. Wilde’s New Republic: Platonic Questions in Dorian Gray (Marylu Hill), 231–250
14. From Eros to Romosexuality: Love and Sex in Dorian Gray (Nikolai Endres), 251–266
15. Oscar as (Ovid as) Orpheus: Misogyny and Pederasty in Dorian Gray and the Metamorphoses (Iarla Manny), 267–285

V. Wilde and Rome
16. Wilde and Roman History (Philip E. Smith II), 289–304
17. The Criminal Emperors of Ancient Rome and Wilde’s ‘true historic sense’ (Shushma Malik), 305–320
18. ‘I knew I had a brother!’: Fraternity and Identity in Plautus’ Menaechmi and Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (Serena S. Witzke), 321–335
Bibliography, 337–358
Index, 359–382

Notes:


1.   Quoted by Riley, pg. 9: Goldhill, S. (2014), Review of Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece by I. Ross, Classical Philology 109.2: 185.
2.   Quoted by Grech, pg. 169: Wilde, O. (2001), The Soul of Man under Socialism and Selected Prose, ed. L. Dowling (London), pp. 247.

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