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NOVEMBER 1, 2005 12:39 PM

Christine (who was over on a visit from faraway Stuttgart!), and I went to see a play about Oscar Wilde at Maxim Gorki theatre. I dressed up fin de si├Ęcle and all the actors and stage props where 60s retro and glam. Oscar Wilde was played by a woman with Madonna looks and the mannerism of a puberescant boy, but it sort of worked. In the photo below Wilde is interrogated by the male establishment about his affairs with young men. While he takes his time explaining why morals for him have no place in art, and he as an artist has no concern for morals, the two interrogators start winding about in their seats and get really cramped up and fall to the ground. Then the stage is taken by a choir of adolescent boys in sport suits and everyone starts drinking champagne. It was very comical, but I'm confused about whether dandyism translates to the disco age, why a gay man has to be played by a woman, and if you do Wilde justice by portraying him as a ruthless egomaniac who only finds an excuse for his behavior in his art. Not questioning that what he does is immoral but instead finding an excuse for it in his art.
or if decadence is rather a legitimate way of subverting a repressive culture with fucked up morals.
I mean, while the play clearly put the established men with hats in a bad corner and had plenty of sympathy for disco and frivolity, it still was only that, frivolous, and it didn't do anything to reconcile Wilde as someone whose only fault was that he didn't live up to the skewed moral standards of his time.
I have to give a presentation about Wilde next week for a course titled Ethics and Aesthetics. I would like to dress up as Wilde and get my classmates to fall from their chairs, but I somehow can't see that happen. If anyone has anything to say on this topic, please let me be inspired.

i think you should absolutely insist that people fall from their chairs... and dress up as wilde. but i haven't read/seen anything of wilde... so i don't know what ot tell you. but having a women play a gay man is confusing... and kind of strange. i am a huge fan of women playing men... but playing gay men? it seems like a statement.. one that i don't quite understand. how about a gay woman playing a gay man? that would be even more confusing.

james | November 1, 2005 6:43 PM

It seems like subversion for its own sake. All I know about Wilde is that he was witty writer, a homosexual, and a hedonist. And I saw the movie 'Wilde'. And Joyce thought he was brilliant. I think. Or maybe that was Stephen Daedalus. It strikes me as extremely disingenuous to say that morals have no place in art. Can morality really be extracted? Martin Amis says: "Style is not neutral, it gives moral directions." Wilde is fun to quote - but for me anyway, a pain to take seriously. (I'm sympathetic to the unfortunate stringencies of his time though).

bnjmn | November 2, 2005 4:11 AM

yes, in my opinion he made these statements just to be provocative. He says for example: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written." It's like Andy Warhol completely denying any straight-forward ethical agency or obvious moral program. But at the same time I think that Wilde's work (it's harder to argue this for Warhol) is moral on a much deeper level, by rejecting the hypocritical morals of his time. Morality is really the subject matter of most of his writing but he always takes this provocative stance. I believe that what his character Basil Hallward says about Lord Henry can be said about Wilde and Warhol too: "I believe that you are really ... very good... but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose." He doesn't want to make it too easy for people to subscribe to a moral program under his dictate, which forces them to think for themselves. What really is immoral about hedonism? Isn't it just a assertion of life and human happines, as opposed to a life-denying system of rules and social conformity?

nina | November 2, 2005 6:12 AM

by the way, that is a really nice quote by Martin Amis (I don't know him), I think it gets to what I'm trying to find out.

And I'm not a big fan of Oscar Wilde quotes, they are always witty little paradoxes that sort of give you the idea that you understand something deeper, but don't say very much at all.

nina | November 2, 2005 6:18 AM

Jane Austen wrote what some people call 'comedy of manners' stories, but the novels definately target the hypocrisies of society and the connection between convention and morality. Martin Amis is a contemporary British writer somewhat influenced by her. (But moreso by Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov).

I think Wilde (in saying a novel is not immoral or moral) is drawing attention to the fact that we can't call an object moral or immoral - it's people (or their actions (calling a book immoral for example?)) we have to look at. Why would he feel the need to make this point - and why make it in that way? Is he being too obvious on purpose? I don't know. Maybe it has to do with the kind of subversion he was good at. Putting people in the position of having to make distinctions?

I think that hedonism, by definition is having pleasure as your 'greatest good' (instead of, say, happiness per Aristotle). Equating pleasure with goodness definately raises ethical problems - what I find pleasurable might be really bad for someone else. An 'assertion of life and human happiness, opppsed to a life-denying system of rules and social conformity' doesn't necessitate hedonism though.

bnjmn | November 2, 2005 8:08 PM

i would maybe agree with you about the thing that can't be moral, but wilde echoes one of his characters, henry wotton in this, and he definately puts aesthetics over morals.
and i think that wilde, below the surface of his characters' misguided hedonism, looks for a kind of hedonism in the platonic sense, that if you are very refined you will only want things that don't hurt others, and then you can do whatever you want and be moral at the same time.

nina | November 6, 2005 7:04 PM

huh. Interesting. I feel compelled to do some refresh-research in ethics as a result of this conversation. Sometimes I wonder if i'm not a 'moral realist' (categorically speaking) - I'm not sure why exactly 'cognitive relativism' and that sort of thing scares me so much. Ok, I'm rambling

It's interesting the 'kind of hedonism' Wilde is looking for. I wonder if it's possible to do whatever one wants and be moral at the same time. Maybe it's getting down to the essence of 'wants' and finding some sort of pure thing - 'purity of the heart is to will one thing' - maybe this is all Kierkegaardian... huh.

bnjmn | November 19, 2005 5:16 PM


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